Terrorism analysts universally regarded 2006 as a disaster. As the year dragged to a close, the Iraq war seemed lost and al-Qaeda had formally gained a safe haven in Pakistan. Perhaps the only silver lining on a year of setbacks was an Ethiopian military intervention in Somalia that was off to a strong start, pushing back the al-Qaeda affiliated Islamic Courts Union. 2007 has been a far better year, largely due to the U.S.’s reversal of fortunes in Iraq. Yet al-Qaeda has also experienced its fair share of successes, in areas that may not garner as much media attention –but may have a lasting impact. In this article we provide a scorecard of the U.S.’s successes and setbacks over the past year, and offer our suggestions about what this means for 2008.
The U.S. experienced its most stunning success in Iraq in 2007. To fully appreciate the dramatic turnaround, one must understand just how bad the situation was to begin the year. “By the end of 2006, deaths in Iraq peaked at over 3,000 monthly,” Bill Roggio, a civilian military affairs analyst who writes at the Long War Journal, told us. “Al-Qaeda and the Mahdi Army were able to establish safe havens in the ‘belts’ around Baghdad to facilitate attacks on U.S. and Iraqi Security Forces, while the rise in sectarian violence, fueled by these terror groups, brought Iraq to the brink of civil war.”
When President Bush announced a shift in military strategy on January 10, accompanied by an increase in force levels (which came to be known as the “surge”), many politicians and pundits believed it was too little, too late — that the war was already lost. Yet by July, the signs of success were apparent. John Burns, Baghdad bureau chief for the New York Times, said in a late July interview with Hugh Hewitt that there was “no doubt that those extra 30,000 American troops are making a difference.” Burns noted that “crucial indicators of the war” had moved in the right direction, including fewer car bombs, lower levels of civilian casualties, and strategic successes against al-Qaeda in Iraq.
Three primary factors contributed to these successes. Public attention focused on the increase in American troops. But beyond that, our war-fighting strategy fundamentally changed, as Gen. David Petraeus shifted toward a classical counterinsurgency strategy. A third factor was local allies. The simmering discontent with al-Qaeda first reached a boil in the Anbar province, where Sheikh Abdul Sattar al-Rishawi and the Anbar Salvation Front became a force for stability. This model spread throughout the country over the course of the year and led to other local allied groups, such as the Concerned Local Citizens. Though questions remain about the future, the U.S. clearly gained ground in Iraq in 2007.
Just as Iraq is the critical area where the U.S. gained ground, al-Qaeda experienced its key victories in Pakistan. The terror group’s gains in Pakistan can be traced back to 2006, when a pair of agreements — the North and South Waziristan Accords — formalized al-Qaeda’s safe haven there. This safe haven had been years in the making, as most of al-Qaeda’s senior leadership relocated to Pakistan after the Taliban fell to U.S. forces, then cooperated with sympathetic tribes to beat back a campaign by Pakistan’s military designed to flush out the terror group. Though Pakistan felt that it had no choice but to negotiate with al-Qaeda and its allies, it wasn’t difficult to predict the inevitable failure of Waziristan accords, which provided that Pakistan would no longer carry out military strikes in the region and would disband its human intelligence network. These accords laid the groundwork for al-Qaeda’s successes in Pakistan during the past year.
Pakistan made further concessions of tribal agencies in 2007, including Bajaur, Swat, and Mohmand. There were numerous indicators of al-Qaeda’s reinvigoration throughout the year, including the assassination attempt against Benazir Bhutto, which strongly suggested extremist infiltration of the police and intelligence services. Islamic militants were able to capture more than 100 Pakistani soldiers at a time on more than one occasion, a chilling sign of their growing military strength. Aside from a raid on the Lal Masjid in Islamabad, Pakistan experienced few successes. Even the state of emergency that Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf declared near the end of the year was aimed more at his supreme court than at Islamic militants.
The effects of al-Qaeda’s growing strength will be felt far beyond Pakistan’s tribal areas. The terror group’s safe haven and its new network of training camps make a 9/11-style catastrophic act of terror against Western targets more likely. But the consequences can already be felt in the region.
The al-Qaeda and Taliban resurgence in Pakistan was keenly felt in Afghanistan in 2007. The extremist safe haven on Afghanistan’s border has given the insurgency greater vitality, signs of which could be seen in such incidents as the Taliban’s capture of the southern Afghan town of Musa Qala in early February, and a November 6 suicide bombing at a sugar factory in Baghlan. That attack was the deadliest since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and six members of parliament were among the dozens killed.
Pakistan’s Taliban boasts openly of how they use their tribal safe haven to launch attacks on coalition forces in Afghanistan. After the Taliban in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province united under the banner of Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan), spokesman Maulvi Omar declared, “Our main aim is to target the U.S. allies in Afghanistan.” While this safe haven was by far the biggest cause of our recent problems in Afghanistan, another contributing factor has been NATO’s ineffectiveness. Many NATO units in Afghanistan operate under “caveats,” serious restrictions on when, where, and how they can fight. As a senior U.S. military intelligence source told us, “Many of our NATO allies don’t want to be put in situations where they can take casualties. I’m all for symbolic troop commitments, but if that’s all this is, they shouldn’t get their own areas of operation.” And as Roggio has detailed, NATO’s level of troop commitment and the resources it has devoted to Afghanistan have been lacking.
U.S. setbacks in Afghanistan have been accompanied by another alarming development: as a military intelligence source put it, Afghanistan’s Taliban have “for all practical purposes gone global jihadist.” This can be seen, for example, in the late Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, who near the end of his life repeatedly said in interviews that American and British operatives in Afghan camps were being trained to carry out suicide attacks in their home countries. Though there were tentative signs of progress near the end of the year, such as U.S. forces’ recapture of Musa Qala, they have not made up for coalition setbacks.
Somalia. The fledgling Ethiopian military campaign in Somalia that began at the end of 2006 was one of the few possible silver linings to a cloudy year. Yet much of the early promise was lost during the course of 2007, in large part because of U.S. dithering.
The U.S. initially provided military assistance to Ethiopia’s campaign against the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), which was openly affiliated with al-Qaeda and had established a number of terrorist training camps. Though Ethiopia succeeded in dislodging the ICU from Mogadishu and other Somali cities, it is obvious that the U.S. failed to learn one of the key lessons of Iraq: you need to follow up on the success of an initial invasion. Despite its military assistance, the U.S. provided no government-to-government aid to Somalia’s U.N.-recognized transitional federal government (TFG). The Pentagon pushed for large amounts of direct aid, but the State Department disagreed — and the White House failed to take initiative in this regard.
The lack of direct aid to the TFG is, quite simply, an insane policy. The TFG was not known for its effective governance to begin with, but the lack of financial resources proved fatal to its effort to provide Somalia with its first real government in fifteen years. The ICU is now mounting a serious insurgency, including bombings, assassinations, and attacks on peacekeepers.
In late 2006, bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri announced that al-Qaeda had joined forces with Algeria’s Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which had been locked in combat with Algeria’s government for over a decade. The GSPC later adopted the name al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM). Next door to Algeria, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group similarly agreed to join al-Qaeda. As CIA veteran Michael Scheuer has noted, this is part of a broader trend, with more than 40 Islamic militant organizations pledging their allegiance to bin Laden since January 2005. This alliance helped advance al-Qaeda’s interests in the region in 2007, and worse may be in store next year.
Scheuer notes that one advantage al-Qaeda gains from these alliances is moving regional jihadist groups “toward a focus that complements al-Qaeda’s war against the United States.” AQIM, for example, has shown increasing interest in attacking Algeria’s energy infrastructure, something that al-Qaeda correctly regards as a U.S. vulnerability. The alliance with al-Qaeda has also caused an increased flow of militants into Algeria. We have seen prominent suicide attacks there, a tactic that was not typical of the Algerian civil war. Moreover, Iraq war veterans — Islamic militants who battled against coalition forces in Iraq — have returned to Algeria to bolster its jihad. These veterans bring with them skill sets they honed on the battlefield, including tactical expertise and often bomb-building prowess. 2007 closed with a deadly AQIM attack against the U.N. compound in Algiers. In 2008, we should expect AQIM to try to ramp up the lethality of its attacks in Algeria, as well as the damage these attacks inflict on the U.S.
When Russia managed to kill Chechen rebel leaders Shamil Basayev and Abu Hafs al-Urdani in 2006, it dealt a crippling blow to the Islamic insurgency. Around thirty of Basayev’s lieutenants died along with him, a personnel loss from which any organization would have trouble recovering. Though Chechnya itself remains fairly settled, two figures are attempting to reignite the jihad there. Dokka Umarov is trying to capitalize on Basayev’s legacy, and in particular wants to draw recruits from Ingushetia. He underscored his desire to draw foreign fighters back to Chechnya by declaring an Islamic emirate in the greater Caucuses region in late November. The international jihadist movement benefits from open battlefields, and in 2008 Umarov and his deputy Muhannad will continue to try to turn Chechnya back into one such battlefield.
The U.S. and Iran both experienced some success in 2007. Previously, Iran had benefited from the chaos in Iraq, which tied down the U.S. military and made serious action against Iran’s nuclear program unlikely. The U.S.’s successes in Iraq thus served to undermine Iran. Though a steep reduction in attacks by Iranian-linked bombs led some to conclude that Iran may now be “cooperating” with U.S. efforts in Iraq, diminished Iranian capabilities seem a more likely explanation. Not only has the improved security situation in Iraq made it more difficult to carry out bomb attacks, but also the U.S. has performed better interdiction of Iran’s ratlines into Iraq due to improved intelligence. Despite the reduction in attacks by Iranian-linked weapons, Iran continues to support and arm insurgent factions in Iraq, as well as supplying weapons, aid, and training to Taliban forces in Afghanistan.
Interestingly, the U.S. provided Iran with its major success in 2007, in the form of a National Intelligence Assessment declaring that Iran’s attempts at developing nuclear weapons had ended. There is ample reason to question the NIE’s conclusions, but the fact is that it may severely undercut the political case that the administration had been trying to build for action to forestall Iran’s nuclear development program.
Terrorist plots. The most surprising aspect of the global war on terror in 2007 was the absence of an attempted catastrophic act of terror. Several terrorist plots were foiled in Britain, as the year kicked off with the disruption of a particularly gruesome scheme to kidnap, torture, and ultimately behead a British Muslim soldier. Other plots were foiled in Denmark and Germany, while in the U.S. relatively crude plots targeted New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport and New Jersey’s Fort Dix. None of these matched the scale of the transatlantic air plot disrupted in August 2006, which according to homeland security secretary Michael Chertoff would have killed thousands if successful.
We should not take too much comfort in the lack of an attempt. The National Intelligence Estimate released in July 2007 noted the regeneration of al-Qaeda’s leadership in Pakistan. Because the group had “protected or regenerated key elements of its Homeland attack capability,” the July NIE assessed that the U.S. “currently is in a heightened threat environment.” The lack of an attempted catastrophic terror plot in 2007 could be attributable to al-Qaeda’s greater focus on Pakistan. It could be attributable al-Qaeda trying to assess the U.S. political climate and determine how much impact openly isolationist presidential candidates will have. Either way, we should expect that al-Qaeda will attempt another catastrophic act of terror in the relatively near future. It has the requisite capabilities.
If 2007 were one round in a boxing match between the U.S. and the forces of radical Islam, the round would likely go to the United States. The U.S. landed a devastating punch by beating back insurgent forces in Iraq and stabilizing large portions of the country. Yet the international jihadist movement has also landed a series of somewhat lighter blows that may come back to haunt us. Since Iraq was the major U.S. success in 2007, the first lesson of the year is that now is not the time to abandon that mission. Calls for immediate withdrawal have abated in recent months, but does anybody want to bet that they won’t return?
A second lesson from 2007 is that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership is far from irrelevant and marginalized. In truth, claims that al-Qaeda was “a fragmented terrorist group living on the run in the caves of Afghanistan” should have been recognized as triumphalist hyperbole well before 2007 — but by 2007 the renewed vitality of al-Qaeda’s leadership became impossible to ignore. Al-Qaeda’s senior leaders have been gaining new affiliates, such as AQIM, and shaping their tactical and strategic decisions. A military intelligence source told us that more al-Qaeda recruits have likely been through the group’s training camps in Pakistan than the pre-9/11 Afghan camps. To more effectively combat al-Qaeda, we need to abandon the idea that al-Qaeda is completely decentralized, “more an ideology than an organization,” and recognize that its top leaders have returned to the forefront of the global jihad.
A third lesson we can draw is that we need to try to replicate our successes. We succeeded in Iraq in large part because of our local allies, because of tribal alliances such as the Anbar Salvation Front. One expert on irregular warfare has suggested that we should try a similar model in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where some tribal leaders “don’t buy into the Taliban’s concept of Islam. They don’t believe this is the correct way to practice the religion.” There are signs that the U.S. is trying to similarly enlist tribal leaders in the struggle against militancy in Pakistan. But the U.S. has too often taken half-measures since 9/11 that have proven counterproductive: it is important to make sure sufficient resources are devoted to tribal alliances, that the U.S. ramps up its level of cultural intelligence and provides the necessary protection to tribal leaders who throw in their lot with us.
Finally, because terrorism remains a threat — and a growing one, at that — we need the right kind of tools to prevent another major attack. Since 9/11, the U.S. has purposefully adopted some of the least efficient law enforcement tools out of the desire to avoid offense, such as strictly random security screening at airports. Civil libertarians have championed inefficient and ineffective anti-terror policing as noble. But it is becoming more and more difficult to afford such policies. The expenses of the global war on terror have been mounting, the U.S. dollar is in decline, and rising energy prices will surely impact every sector of the economy. Anti-terror policing is not the only area where we have implemented deliberately ineffective policy simply because we were rich enough that we could. But we may be fast approaching the point where we can no longer do so.
– Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is the vice president of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of My Year Inside Radical Islam. Kyle Dabruzzi is a research associate at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.