If nothing else, Alliance for a Strong America, the project of former vice president Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz Cheney, has performed a public service in calling attention to a report that received practically no mainstream news coverage. The Rand Corporation’s National Defense Research Institute put out a lengthy report in June that documents the extent to which terrorist groups have grown in numbers, strength and controlled territory at their disposal for operations. It is a damning indictment of the failure of the Obama administration to stem the tide of al-Qaeda and related groups and makes clear that the notion that al-Qaeda was damaged or on its heels was utterly untrue.
The report looked at thousands of unclassified and declassified documents and compiled a database of jihadist (referred to as Salafi-jihadist) attacks. The report’s summary explains: “Beginning in 2010, there was a rise in the number of Salafi jihadist groups and fighters, particularly in Syria and North Africa. There was also an increase in the number of attacks perpetrated by al Qa’ida and its affiliates . . . There was a 58-percent increase in the number of Salafi-jihadist groups in North Africa, and Syria. The number of Salafi jihadists more than doubled from 2010 to 2013, according to both our low and high estimates. The war in Syria was the single most important attraction for Salafi-jihadist fighters.” There have also been a substantial increase in the number of terrorist attacks between 2007 and 2013, with “most of the violence in 2013 perpetrated by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (43 percent), which eventually left al Qa’ida; al Shabaab (25 percent); Jabhat al-Nusrah (21 percent); and al Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (10 percent).”
The report explains that there are core al-Qaeda groups, formal affiliates, “a panoply of Salafi-jihadist groups that have not sworn allegiance to al Qa’ida but are committed to establishing an extremist Islamic emirate” and “inspired individuals and networks.” Some represent a localized threat, others an immediate and direct threat to the United States. It’s hard to look at the data and conclude that we should shackle our National Security Agency surveillance programs that may pick up communications among these groups or that we should eschew drones to target American jihadists who fall into one of these camps. One must be seeped in years of conspiratorial crackpottery to think that our own government poses a bigger danger than the conglomeration of these forces.
In light of this information, it also is folly — dangerous folly — to support a strategy of shrinking the defense budget, drawing down or abandoning forces altogether or claiming to be preoccupied with domestic issues. The data make clear that the Benghazi, Libya, attack was a symptom of a much wider phenomenon that the Obama administration ignored or missed, a security failure akin to missing the fall of the Soviet empire or the development of nuclear weapons by Pakistan. Those who claim our absence from foreign locales makes us and our allies safer are misinformed or intentionally misinforming the public. The idea that a group like the Islamic State is of no concern to the United States is an infinitely more egregious misreading of international events than was the failure to recognize the rise of core al-Qaeda before the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, in part because we have the example of those attacks and the ability (one presumes) to view developments up close given our intelligence capacities and forward positioning of troops in Afghanistan. Worst of all, the idea of “ending wars” propagated by this president reveals a commander in chief deeply disconnected from reality.
The report specifically recommends “the need for a long-term engagement strategy—including direct U.S. involvement—in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and possibly Syria, where there are significant terrorism threats to the United States and limited government capacity. It also highlights the importance of developing a long-term forward partnering relationship with a small set of countries in Africa (Nigeria, Algeria, Somalia, Libya, and Egypt) and the Middle East (Lebanon and Iraq), with the involvement of regional allies like Israel and Jordan. Finally, this framework identifies a subset of countries—such as Morocco and Mali—where the United States may want to encourage others (like NATO allies) to work with local governments, since the terrorist threat to the United States is limited.” This doesn’t mean, as the president and neo-isolationists on the right claim, a constant state of war with “boots on the ground.”
It does, however, mean that “complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Afghanistan by 2016 could seriously jeopardize U.S. security interests because of the continuing presence of Salafi-jihadist and other terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan” and the urgency of a “more aggressive strategy to target Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria, either clandestinely or with regional and local allies.” These both, not incidentally, are equally useful in checking the rise of Iran.
In sum, “the United States should prioritize its U.S. counterterrorism resources—such as military, intelligence, diplomatic, financial, and law enforcement assistance—more systematically than it has done. It highlights the need for a long-term engagement strategy in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Yemen, and possibly Syria, where there are significant terrorism threats to the United States. Over the long run, the United States needs to devote sufficient resources—from signals collection capabilities to human intelligence collectors—to understand and counter Salafi-jihadist threats in these areas.” That the extent of the jihadists’ expansion comes as a surprise and that we have no discernible strategy along these lines speaks volumes about the incompetency and irresponsibility of the Obama/Hillary Clinton/John Kerry foreign policy. And this data should serve as a test for 2016 candidates: Do they comprehend the threats we face? Are they willing to do what is necessary to prevent a far more potent strike than 9/11?