Seven years after bin Laden’s death the war on terror continues to morph

Matt Saintsing
May 01, 2018 - 7:41 pm

Photo by Jim Stevens/Contra Costa Times/MCT/Sipa USA

May 2, 2011.

That’s when the world learned that Osama bin Laden, the brutal leader of al-Qaeda who ordered the attacks on 9/11, had been brought to justice courtesy of three U.S. rounds entering his head. Not only did the night raid cleanse the world of a murderous terrorist, it was also one of the only concrete “wins” in the war on terror.

Wednesday marks the seven-year anniversary of the successful tactical victory in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and it’s a good time to point out the various actions the U.S. has taken to oppose terrorism worldwide, to recognize the men and women who carry out these operations daily— without proper pay and thanks—and to confront the successes and failures of a global conflict now entering its 18th year.

“For over two decades, bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies,” said then-President Barack Obama. “The death of bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”

Sipa Press/1105021646

But now, seven years later, militant extremism has hardly withdrawn from the world. Part of the cold hard truth of the Global War on Terror is that prior to 2001, countries with higher Muslim populations experienced far fewer terrorist attacks, both domestic and international, in the years leading up to 9/11 than they’ve had recently.

In other words, the world is more at risk of terrorism today, than 9/11, a sentiment echoed by Rukmini Callimachi, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times covering al Qaeda and Islamic extremsism, in the prologue of her New York Times podcast, Caliphate.

“Here’s the thing, despite the billions of dollars we’ve spent, despite the thousands of lives that have been lost—both our own soldiers and of civilians that have been caught in the cross fire—there are more terrorists now than on the eve of September 11th, not less,” said Callimachi.

“Just try to get your head around that. There are more terror groups now, not less. There are more ways that they attack, there are more strategies to do so, more tools that they use. There are more of them, not less,” she said.

Here’s are some important developments since bin Laden’s death:  

Birth of the Islamic State

A group unknown to virtually every American dominated headlines in the summer of 2014 when they successfully pushed the Iraqi military out of the northern part of the country, and set their sights on Baghdad.

Photo by Xinhua/Sipa USA

Public executions, beheadings, human trafficking and enslavement characterized how the terrorists governed. As the organization grew in size and popularity, it seized territory in Iraq and Syria and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi— who was once loyal to al Qaeda—declared a caliphate.

Years of American air strikes in Iraq and Syria, coupled with successful local partners in the two countries, has expelled ISIS out of town hall and onto the margins of Iraqi and Syrian society.

That’s not to say that every ISIS member is on the run. Instead of carving out a pseudo-state in the Middle East, the group has jumped borders and is deeper than we probably know. It has claimed responsibility for terror attacks in Brussels, Paris and Egypt. Meanwhile Boko Haram in northern Nigeria has pledged allegiance to the group, as has al Shabaab in Somalia.

Oh, and the Islamic State has extended their roots to Afghanistan. 

Extending GWOT to Africa

More than 16 years after al Qaeda incited a broad mandate to fight terrorism, four American soldiers—two U.S. Army Green Berets and two soldiers providing support—were killed in an ambush near Tongo Tongo in western Niger, last October.

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Jeremiah Runser

It appears that Africa has already become the next major front where American soldiers will fight terrorism, albeit less like Iraq and more like, well, Iraq just much later.

One of the reasons the American-led coalition to crush ISIS in Iraq has had so much success can be attributed to us not being the ones doing the lion’s share of the heavy lifting. That’s not to say American troops aren’t in danger in Iraq and Syria—they absolutely are—but instead of putting U.S. forces in the lead (much like you and I were during Operation Iraqi Freedom) the U.S. assumed some risk by supporting Iraqi forces as they mobilized to take back their own country.  

Especially important is the fact the counter-ISIS campaign had an Iraqi face on the ground clearing smaller towns and villages, and eventually the metropolis of Mosul, as U.S. bombs rained hell from above. P

That ownership the Iraqi military and Syrian rebels took hold of ensures a more sustainable, albeit messier and bloodier, victory. That logic has been extended both in and outside of the Middle East and top military brass has dubbed the term “By, with and through.”

That’s exactly what the U.S. Special Forces Operational Detachment Alpha (ODA) team was doing when their element came under an ambush. Five Nigerien troops also died, but Americans should anticipate more military operations in Africa as the war on terrorism continues to morph.

“This war is getting hot in places that it’s been cool, and we’ve got to go where the enemy takes us,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Capitol Hill last October after receiving a briefing on the attack.

The always looming “new” Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF)

Written just three days after 9/11, the 2001 AUMF is the most important document you’ve never heard of. It’s the legal justification used to expand each of the U.S. military’s role in the Middle East and beyond.

U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Nicholas Rau

Offensive military operations in Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and Niger are all possible under the banner of the same war authority granted in the days after the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil (And a 2002 AUMF made the Iraq War possible).

But now, there’s a proposed AUMF 2018, and it offers no restriction of military operations and has no expiration date. Moreover, it completely sidelines Congress and abdicates all of their war making authority outlined in the Constitution.

Put another way, the 2018 AUMF represents a permanent extension of almost two decades of war.

Oh, and you know those strikes President Trump ordered this and last year against the Syrian regime? Legally justifiable using the same broad decade-and-a-half old AUMF.

Great power competition

All of this is to say that it really does look like American involvement in combating terrorism worldwide is poised to expand, perhaps indefinitely, but Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says it’s not our biggest priority.

DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. Amber I. Smith

A new national defense strategy unveiled in January shows a tectonic shift in American priorities after more than a decade-and-a-half of focusing on the fight against (mostly) Islamic militants.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis called China and Russia “revisionist powers” that “seek to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models,” when he offered the new strategy.

“We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security,” said Mattis.

Let that sink in.