Congress Asked for an Assessment of the War on Al-Qaeda. Here’s What We Told Them


In 2015, the U.S. Congress decided it was time to take a public accounting of the U.S. government’s war against al-Qaeda. In that year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Congress mandated:

The Secretary of Defense, in coordination with the Secretary of State and the Director of National Intelligence, shall provide for the conduct of an independent assessment of the effectiveness of the United States’ efforts to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat Al-Qaeda … since September 11, 2001.

At CNA, we recently completed that independent assessment and concluded that the current U.S. strategy will not defeat al-Qaeda, and that a renewed approach is needed. After 16 years of war against this group, at a cost of over a trillion dollars and thousands of U.S. military members killed, how can this be?

First, al-Qaeda today is a different organization in a different world compared to 2001. Today, the group is larger, more agile, and more resilient than it was 16 years ago, having evolved from a rigidly hierarchical organization with no more than a few hundred members operating primarily in Afghanistan to a flat, decentralized, and geographically dispersed organization with tens of thousands of members operating in at least ten countries from Niger to Bangladesh. This evolution, combined with al-Qaeda’s notable ability to withstand significant setbacks — and come back stronger in their wake — is proof that al-Qaeda is a learning and adaptive organization. Further proof of this observation comes from the fact that while al-Qaeda continues to largely pursue the same goals that it had when it attacked the U.S. homeland in 2001 — most notably, the establishment of a global caliphate — the strategy that it uses to pursue those goals has changed over time as well. In particular, al-Qaeda has evolved such that today it consists of a set of dispersed, yet interconnected, localized affiliates who are engaged in insurgencies and civil wars in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia. While the global coalition led by the United States has been focused on combatting the Islamic State in recent years, Al-Qaeda’s affiliates have made steady gains in numerous locations across the globe.

Second, al-Qaeda does not operate in a vacuum, nor does it operate everywhere. In our assessment, we identified seven factors that exist within the security environment of some countries that can give al-Qaeda an opening. These range from a history of violent jihadism, to illegitimate or collapsed governments, to a neighboring state in crisis, to demographic instabilities. Applying these factors globally, it becomes clear that in the years since 2001, many of the countries in the Middle East and Africa have become increasingly politically, socially, and economically unstable — trends that increasingly put countries at risk of al-Qaeda intrusion or expansion. Compounding this issue is that worsening trends in the stability of these countries also hinders U.S. and international efforts to counter al-Qaeda, via the loss of local partners (e.g. when governments or security forces collapse), the loss of bases for counterterrorism operations, and/or the loss of the ability to engage at-risk communities in these areas.

Third, while the U.S. government has made some significant advances in the ways in which it tries to counter al-Qaeda, it has yet failed to learn some of the most valuable lessons from its experiences of the past 16 years. For example, toppling the ruling regime in a foreign country followed by ineffective (or no) stabilization activities creates enormous opportunities for al-Qaeda. Further, America’s strategic narrative of U.S. values and priorities is often undercut by its actions overseas. And finally, a strategy focused predominantly on military action against al-Qaeda largely ignores the security conditions that Al-Qaeda exploits to grow and expand. Admittedly, these are hardly new observations — some of them were observed by leaders of the fight against al-Qaeda over a decade ago. And yet, time and time again these supposedly well-known observations are exposed as lip service when strategy is actually executed.

There have, of course, been some successes. First and foremost, the United States has been largely successful at “disrupting” al-Qaeda’s efforts. For example, there has not been another attack on the homeland anywhere approaching the scale of 9/11. And we were able to identify a small number of instances in which the United States was successful at dismantling some parts of al-Qaeda— the most notable example being the near-extinguishing of al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq between 2006 and 2008. But even these successes must be painfully qualified, since al-Qaeda has successfully inspired attacks within the United States like the mass shooting that took place at Fort Hood, Texas, on Nov. 5, 2009.

Every time the United States has one of al-Qaeda’s affiliates on the ropes, it was able to regenerate its capabilities and in some cases, come back even stronger and in more dangerous form. The Islamic State’s rise from the ashes of al-Qaeda in Iraq is the pre-eminent case, but not the only one — for example, the core group of al-Qaeda fighters that were routed by the United States in Afghanistan in the immediate wake of 9/11 was able to successfully rebound in Pakistan in the years that followed. That the United States has thus far failed to defeat al-Qaeda is self-evident. More troublingly, we found that there is no consensus in the U.S. government on what that defeat would even look like, much less how one might bring it about.

So what should the United States do going forward?

During our study, we heard some express a view that the status quo — in which the United States is continually disrupting al-Qaeda’s activities — should be sufficient to keep the homeland safe. We find this notion to be spurious, most notably because the continued degradations of the security conditions in many Muslim-majority countries means such disruption will likely require an ever-increasing application of U.S. counter-terrorism resources that are already stretched thin.

Some have advocated for the United States to withdraw from its “global war on terror,” citing the relatively small number of U.S. casualties from Islamic terrorism attacks in recent years and the high costs of continuing to fight this war on a global scale. At a time when America seems to be increasingly looking inward, this might be a tempting option.

The Trump administration, for its part, favors an escalating military-centric approach. By sending more troops overseas (e.g. to Afghanistan), pushing authorities for lethal action to lower levels, moving to an even stronger counter-terrorism focus in Africa, and trying to slash the budget of the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the White House is making clear its view that doing more of the same, but faster, more violently, and in more places will be the de facto strategy against al-Qaeda (and like groups) going forward.

Each of these options has significant pros and cons. But there are other possibilities that we believe should be considered as well — a notable one being a strategy focused on containment and degradation. In this option, the United States would focus less on unilateral or bilateral (“by, with, and through”) military actions that often compound the problems they aim to address, and more on building local and regional coalitions that could, over time, collectively isolate, contain, and degrade jihadist militants with U.S. and other international support. To be successful, such support would still require a military component, but the pace and conditions for the provision of that support would be controlled by the State Department, as part of long-term strategies to bring about sustainable security architectures, responsive governance, and microeconomic development in countries vulnerable to jihadist activity. This option is perhaps closest to being implemented in Africa, for example via the Multi-National Joint Task Force that is working to counter Boko Haram or via the G5 Sahel Joint Force that seeks to counter groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But even in these cases, much more could be done to integrate these efforts regionally and to increase efforts on non-military fronts.

Admittedly, this option also has significant pros and cons, which leads to the conclusion that there is not likely a “one size fits all” policy for countering al-Qaeda and like groups globally. To identify a set of options that is tailored to the nature of the terrorism problem across the globe, we recommend that the U.S. government conduct a full, zero-baseline review of counterterrorism strategy and policies, choosing from among the options described above based on objective analysis of the specific conditions present within each area that al-Qaeda and like groups are operating.

The United States has been battling al-Qaeda primarily militarily for 16 years. Yet the group is stronger and present in more places today than it was in 2001 (to say nothing of the Islamic State). It is therefore clear that the current U.S. strategy toward al-Qaeda and like groups will not result in their defeat — and neither will a faster, more aggressive version of that same approach. What it will do is continue the trends of the past 16 years: temporary tactical victories against jihadist groups that give way to the birth of the next generation of those groups, while saddling future generations of Americans with increased national debt and further grinding down our counter-terrorism forces via a never-ending cycle of overseas deployments. Within two years, the United States will begin deploying individuals who were born after 9/11 to continue this fight. We owe the second generation of Americans to carry this burden a better strategy than we afforded the first.


Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Center for Stability and Development, and the Special Operations Program, at the CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism and counterinsurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, to include numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.

Julia McQuaid directs CNA’s Program on Transnational Challenges. Her research focuses on drivers of conflict, terrorism, insurgencies, and emerging non-state threats, with a concentration on, and field work in, Africa and the Middle East. Follow her @juliamcquaid.

The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the CNA Corporation or the Department of the Navy.

Image: U.S. Air Force/Andy Dunaway