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Opinion If we ease pressure on the Islamic State, we could be attacked again

A helicopter flies over the compound where al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. (Faisal Mahmood/Reuters)

Michael Morell, a Post contributing columnist, was deputy director of the CIA from 2010 to 2013 and twice its acting director during that time. Mike Vickers is a former special forces officer and CIA operations officer. He served in both the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, including as the undersecretary of defense for intelligence from 2011 to 2015.

We were both deeply involved in our nation’s fight against al-Qaeda and its early fight against the Islamic State, and we both believe it is imperative that President Trump remember what we consider to be the most important lesson of counterterrorism — the ability of a terrorist group to quickly regenerate if the pressure on it is reduced. The pattern is clear: If we do not keep the pressure on the Islamic State and other groups, we believe we will again face a threat to our homeland.

We saw this pattern repeatedly during our careers — always with potentially devastating consequences. When the United States drove al-Qaeda out of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001, the group went to prearranged safe houses in the urban areas of Pakistan, where it continued to conduct aggressive attack planning. Over the next year, the CIA, with the assistance of Pakistani intelligence, systematically captured many al-Qaeda members, including a number of the group’s senior leaders, and significantly reduced the group’s capabilities to attack us.

The remnants of al-Qaeda then moved again, this time in 2003 to tribal areas of Pakistan — in a remote region along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border where the Pakistani government has limited control, and where the group was no longer under pressure from the U.S. or Pakistani governments.

Without that pressure, the group’s capabilities to attack us rebounded. By the summer of 2005, al-Qaeda directed and organized the July 2005 London bombings. And by the summer of 2006, al-Qaeda was able again to catastrophically attack the United States. Only excellent work by the U.S., British and Pakistani intelligence services prevented a plan to detonate explosives on 10 to 15 airliners traveling to the United States from London’s Heathrow Airport. In response, the George W. Bush administration began, and the Obama administration continued, an aggressive, five-year counterterrorism operation along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border that significantly weakened al-Qaeda.

A similar dynamic took place in Yemen. In the aftermath of 9/11, an al-Qaeda-associated group there grew in size and threat — the outgrowth of a senior al-Qaeda leader fleeing South Asia for the Arabian Peninsula. It conducted several attacks. The United States, working with the Yemeni government, was able to bring the group under control by arresting and imprisoning most of its leadership. But then a massive prison break in February 2006 allowed the group to reestablish itself.

Within 24 months of the prison break, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula — or AQAP, as it is known — was again a threat to the West: conducting two attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa in 2008; nearly bringing down a U.S. airliner flying to Detroit on Christmas Day in 2009; coming close to detonating sophisticated explosives packed in printer cartridges on two U.S. cargo flights in 2010; and nearly putting an individual wearing a nonmetallic suicide vest on a U.S. aircraft in 2011. The Obama administration acted quickly, weakening the group with a military campaign, an operation that continues today.

The Islamic State was, in part, an outgrowth of the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq at the end of 2011. When the U.S. military departed the country, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), the predecessor organization to the Islamic State, was largely — although not completely — defeated, the work of both the Bush and Obama administrations, along with the support of the Iraqi government. When we left, there were only a few thousand AQI members remaining, most of them in hiding.

Without U.S. military support, AQI began to bounce back almost immediately. It grew because the Iraqi military was much less effective without U.S. support; because the Iraqi prime minister at the time, Nouri al-Maliki, was reluctant to accept U.S. intelligence support; and because al-Maliki, freed of U.S. oversight, became more sectarian and authoritarian, alienating Iraqi Sunnis and driving them toward AQI. By the time of the Syrian civil war and AQI’s journey across the border to join the fight, the group, now calling itself the Islamic State, was so capable that it dominated the Syrian battlefield, where it gained even more strength.

What does this key lesson mean for today? It means the United States and its coalition must keep the pressure on the tens of thousands of Islamic State members who remain in Iraq and Syria. It means we need to do the same in Afghanistan, where the remnants of al-Qaeda work closely with the resurgent Taliban. And it means we must keep the pressure on al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen.

If we do not do these things, the United States would face, in a short period of time, a dangerous threat from these groups, to include a threat to the homeland. As he makes decisions regarding the Middle East and South Asia, the president needs to take account of the regenerative capability of these groups if he is to fulfill his No. 1 responsibility: protecting the American people.

Read more:

Marc A. Thiessen: Send Islamic State fighters held in Syria to Guantanamo Bay

Jennifer Cafarella: The Islamic State is not defeated. Trump must reverse his decision to withdraw from Syria.

Michael Morell and David Kris: It’s not a trade war with China. It’s a tech war.

Michael G. Vickers: The Trump administration should not give up on removing Assad in Syria

Letters: The al-Qaeda hydra