The U.S. counterterrorism strategy has not kept pace with the ever-evolving threat of jihadi extremism, yielding short-lived military victories against terrorists at the potential cost of losing the broader war, according to a new study.
Despite the constantly morphing nature of Islamist extremism, the U.S. approach to defeating groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic States has changed little from that established in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the American Enterprise Institute found in a report released this week.
"The U.S. approach to countering the Salafi-jihadi base has yielded fleeting results because the foundational understanding of the enemy is wrong," the report said. "Military victories against groups such as al Qaeda in Iraq certainly eliminated the terrorist threat to the United States from that group for a time, but have proved insufficient to prevent the return of a threat."
Katherine Zimmerman, an AEI research fellow and author of the report, said the "crack in the foundation" of American counterterrorism strategy is the "oversimplification of the enemy into a series of discrete groups." She said U.S. policy largely ignores the fact that Islamist extremists do not exist primarily to attack America or Europe, but to replace the governance systems of Muslim-majority countries with their hardline vision of governance and Islam.
"America's view of the enemy still centers on the terrorist threats that specific Salafi-jihadi groups pose to the United States homeland or American interests," Zimmerman wrote. "It misses that these groups are part of a global movement that persists beyond the defeat of specific organization or death of a set of individuals."
Zimmerman said U.S. and European government officials and analysts wrongly point to the jihadi movement's reprioritization away from attacking Western countries toward establishing itself in local communities as a sign they have weakened. Rather, Islamist extremists move closer toward their overarching goal of regional hegemony by currying local support.
She noted that the jihadi movement assesses its success on its ability to transform society locally rather than its ability to attack globally—"the exact inverse" of how the United States assesses its counterterrorism strategy.
"The U.S. has explicitly deprioritized disrupting or attacking groups that are digging deep into local communities, even though those groups pose tremendous long-term threats to American security at home and abroad," Zimmerman wrote.
The U.S. failure to adapt to the changes of jihadi strategy enables groups like al Qaeda and ISIS to advance toward its objective of transforming Muslim societies from within, with little hindrance from the West. Until this approach is adjusted, the United States will fail to achieve lasting success against global jihadism.