Later this year, a U.S. service member is likely to be deployed to Afghanistan who was not yet born on September 11, 2001, when al-Qa'ida terrorists launched the most devastating terrorist attack in history and killed almost 3,000 people, mostly Americans. The years in between have seen wars in Iraq and Syria justified in the name of counterterrorism as well as more limited U.S. interventions against jihadi groups in Libya, Somalia, and other countries. Hundreds of thousands have died in these conflicts--some from terrorism, but most from combat and the associated ravages of war. Yet even as this body count soared, neither al-Qa'ida nor other jihadi groups have proven able to conduct a repeat of 9/11 or even anything close to it. (a)
Judging the threat that jihadi terrorism currently poses to the United States and, more broadly, the success of the U.S.-led struggle against various jihadi groups in the post-9/11 era depends on what interests are prioritized and which perspective one takes. Under three very different administrations, the United States has scored impressive successes against al-Qa'ida, the Islamic State, and other jihadi groups, decimating their leadership and limiting attacks on the U.S. homeland to a fraction of what Americans feared in the aftermath of 9/11. Yet, almost two decades after 9/11, the United States has still not put the nail in the coffin of jihadis. Indeed, although the operational freedom of jihadi groups is constricted by U.S. and allied counterterrorism efforts, the jihadi cause as a whole has far more local and regional influence than it did in the years before 9/11, it is better able to inspire individuals in the West to act on its behalf, and groups have proven resilient despite the fierce U.S.-led onslaught. Americans are wearying of grinding conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, and other countries and favor, at most, limited efforts in far-flung theaters like Somalia or West Africa where jihadis are active. (1) Efforts to pass the burden onto allies have met little success in most parts of the world, with a few important exceptions like the French counterterrorism campaign in Mali.
Before Americans celebrate or despair, however, it is useful to take stock of the problems facing the main jihadi organizations themselves. The al-Qa'ida core is weak and under siege, the once-triumphant Islamic State caliphate is now a memory, and the movement as a whole is plagued by infighting. Even in areas where jihadis groups are stronger in the post-9/11 era, they have largely failed to become sustained mass movements and otherwise exert influence beyond violence for a prolonged period, in contrast to less radical groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. Nor are they likely to find a theater of jihad as favorable as Syria in the near and medium terms. The jihadis, however, can comfort themselves knowing that their overall sphere of activity has expanded, the enduring weakness of regimes in the Muslim world will give them considerable operational space, and problems with Muslim integration in Europe may present new opportunities.
The movement as a whole is likely to remain persistent, but the strongest regional groups, like Boko Haram and al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), will probably be caught up with the pressing demands of the civil wars in their countries and regions. The United States, Europe, and other stable regions will face continued but low-level attacks from inspired jihadis or those with some coordination from abroad, but the greatest dangers, and impact, will be felt on U.S. interests in the Muslim world.
This article has five parts. It first gives a brief status report on jihadi attacks in the United States and abroad and describes other factors, such as levels of public fear, that are important components when weighing the terrorism danger. Sections II and III then look at what has gone well for the United States with regard to counterterrorism and what has gone poorly. In Section IV, this article reverses its perspective, asking similar questions for the jihadi movement as a whole. Finally, Section V explores possible future directions of the movement and argues that the jihadi movement will continue to localize and regionalize.
Snapshots of the Terrorism Threat
Judging how dangerous the jihadi terrorism threat is depends heavily on which factors are used in its evaluation. At the most basic level, the number of Americans killed on U.S. soil has been low since 9/11, and the pool of jihadis in the United States shallow and composed largely of untrained individuals with few direct connections to jihadi masterminds overseas. (2) At the end of 2018, jihadis had killed 104 Americans since 9/11, an average of six deaths a year. Only one American died in a jihadi attack on U.S. soil in 2018, which occurred when one teen murdered another at a sleepover, hardly a jihadi spectacular. (3) Almost half the deaths (49) occurred in one attack, when Omar Mateen shot up a Florida nightclub while declaring his allegiance to the Islamic State. Mateen was a troubled man who at different times had claimed to be a member of the Lebanese Hezbollah and Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian faction linked to al-Qa'ida, despite the fact that both are violent rivals of the Islamic State. (4) From the jihadi terrorists' perspective, he was hardly a worthy successor to Mohammad Atta, the steely-eyed 9/11 cell leader.
Using the deaths of Americans from jihadi attacks overseas as a criterion for the overall threat is trickier. Just over 140 Americans died between 2002 and 2016 in such attacks, excluding attacks in war zones--a significant number, but far fewer than died in the 1988 Pan Am 103 bombing over Lockerbie, which claimed 190 Americans among the 270 overall victims. (5) Yet the American death toll soars to almost 7,000 if soldiers killed in war zones in which jihadis are active--Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on--are counted. (6) Many of these soldiers died in attacks by Iraqi nationalists or other actors, such as Shi'a radicals linked to Iran, who killed over 600 Americans fighting in Iraq (7) In addition, over 2,000 of these losses represent U.S. deaths in Afghanistan, primarily against the Afghan Taliban, which in the post-9/11 era is not directly linked to extra-regional terrorism despite being a deadly foe of the United States in its home country. (8)
Some Americans, however, take a broader view of the death toll. Attacks in Europe in particular are often considered part of the overall balance sheet on the war on terror. U.S. fears of terrorism spiked after the Islamic State killed 130 innocents in a series of attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015. With high-profile bloody attacks in France, Spain, and the United Kingdom as well as many smaller strikes, jihadis have killed far more civilians in Europe than in the United States since 9/11. After a decline at the end of the last decade, attacks again increased when the Islamic State was at its peak from 2014-2016, but they have fallen again in recent years. The years 2018 and (so far) 2019 have seen lower levels of jihadi violence. (9) Yet in Europe, the pre-9/11 picture was bleaker, when left-wing and ethnonationalist terrorism plagued Europe and when state sponsors like Libya wreaked havoc. The number of attacks peakedin 1979 when Europe suffered over 1,000 attacks, but attacks averaged around 10 a week during the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Much of the violence was in the Basque region of Spain or in Northern Ireland. The average number of attacks fell after 1997. (10)
In addition, jihadi groups are active in bloody civil wars around the Muslim world. Deaths from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen, and other countries may number over one million. (11) As with the body counts of U.S. soldiers, such numbers are only partially linked to jihadi groups. There are many violent actors involved in addition to jihadis, and governments (some U.S.- or allied-backed) are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths. (12) Nevertheless, jihadis are contributing to human suffering on a mass scale. Indeed, the United Nations reports they are expanding the scale of their operations in the Sahel and West Africa. (13) State Department Coordinator for Counterterrorism Ambassador Nathan Sales, noting the spread of al-Qa'ida to Africa, even goes so far as to claim that "what we see today is an al-Qaida that is as strong as it has ever been." (14)
Terrorists, of course, seek to do far more than kill people, and much of their violence is aimed at instilling public fear. And here they are doing better than their body count would suggest. Polling shows that the number of Americans who are "very worried" that they or someone in their family would fall victim to a terrorist attack actually increased from November 2001 to June 2017, going from eight percent to 13 percent while the number who were "somewhat worried" also rose from 27 percent to 29 percent. So, as terrorism analyst...