National Security

Report: Terrorist Groups Could Launch U.S. Attacks, Obtain WMDs Under Obama’s Current Strategy

Think tank says al Qaeda, Islamic State could control twice as much territory and have twice as many fighters in two years’ time

Mideast Yemen
Yemenis inspect the scene of a car bomb attack that killed a Yemeni senior official in the southern port city of Aden, Yemen / AP

Al Qaeda or the Islamic State could launch a mass-casualty attack on U.S. soil if the Obama administration does not alter its current strategy to defeat the terrorist groups, according to a new report that lays out recommendations for a revised U.S. counterterrorism policy.

The report from the American Enterprise Institute estimated that, under President Obama’s current strategy and military and diplomatic efforts, the terrorist groups could control "at least twice as much territory and population—in Iraq, Yemen, North Africa (especially Libya), the Sinai, and Syria—and with an army of regular and irregular fighters at least twice as large within two years." Those safe havens would allow al Qaeda and the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) to plot more attacks against the United States and the West.

"As these conditions worsen, al Qaeda, ISIS, or both will carry out a mass-casualty attack against the US: it is a question not of if, but rather of when," the report said. "Even more worrisome is our assessment that, if we fail to stop the extremists from taking territory and undermining states like Pakistan, al Qaeda or ISIS will obtain weapons of mass destruction, and then it will be too late to act."

In an address to the nation on Sunday, President Obama said the current combination of U.S. airstrikes, raids by special operations forces, and training of local allies would "achieve a more sustainable victory" against terrorist groups and "won't require us sending a new generation of Americans overseas to fight and die for another decade on foreign soil."

However, both al Qaeda and the Islamic State have expanded the amount of territory they control in recent months while launching attacks against Western interests or inspiring radicals to conduct killings in other countries, including in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. The Islamic State has established a new base of operations in war-torn Libya outside of its original stronghold in Iraq and Syria, while al Qaeda has exploited the chaos in Yemen to carve out more territory.

Additionally, the Daily Beast reported on Sunday that, according to a new U.S. intelligence report for the White House, the Islamic State will increase its global presence, and continue to attract foreign fighters, unless it loses territory in Iraq and Syria.

The authors of the AEI report, including two counterterrorism experts, Frederick Kagan and Katherine Zimmerman, said that a retooled strategy to defeat terrorist groups would not require large deployments of hundreds of thousands of U.S. ground troops. In fact, such a strategy would be "unnecessary and inadvisable," they said, and should focus instead on training local partner forces to conduct counterinsurgency campaigns and work with civilian populations. U.S. forces employed a similar counterinsurgency strategy and achieved some success when they had a larger presence in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Still, the U.S. military will likely need thousands more boots on the ground—trainers, advisers, and, when necessary, combat troops—than Obama is currently advocating, they said.

"Insurgencies have a tendency to flare up repeatedly, even after being suppressed with all the skill at the command of the counterinsurgents, while civil wars are inherently generational conflicts," the report said. "This fact might mean that the U.S. and its partners will have to leave sizable numbers of troops on the ground throughout the world, perhaps for decades, as we had to do following World War II and the Korean War."

The report called jihadist ideology "the center of gravity" for terrorist groups and said it must be delegitimized to defeat them. U.S. military and diplomatic officials should seek to "empower local religious rivals" such as Sufi Muslims to undermine al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ideology, the think tank said, as well as deprive the groups of territory to diminish their recruitment narrative of a growing, successful caliphate.

The report also advised against working with U.S. adversaries—including Russia, Iran, and Syria—to combat the Islamic State, which would be "wasteful" and "strategically counterproductive."

"Campaigns should be designed in part to build American and allied confidence that success is possible while acknowledging our commitment must be sustained over time," the report said. "Our allies, in particular, must be convinced we will not again leave them in the lurch."