War Stories

Are We Winning Yet?

Joe Biden’s deadly strike against ISIS is a reminder that the war on terror never ended, and isn’t going to any time soon.

ATMEH, SYRIA - FEBRUARY 2: In this handout provided by the U.S. Department of Defense,  Image of compound housing ISIS emir ISIS Leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in northwest Syria prior to a raid executed by U.S. Special forces, February 2, 2022 in Atmeh, Syria. It was reported that al-Qurayshi detonated an explosive device during the operation, killing himself and members of his family. (Photo by U.S. Department of Defense via Getty Images)
An image of compound housing ISIS Leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi in northwest Syria prior to a raid executed by U.S. Special forces. Handout/Getty Images

At his United Nations speech in September, President Biden declared, “I stand here today, for the first time in 20 years, with the United States not at war. We’ve turned the page.”

He was speaking of the withdrawal of the last American troops from Afghanistan. But as shown by the U.S. raid on an apartment house in northern Syria on Wednesday night, during which the ISIS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi was killed, the global war on terror is far from over.

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U.S. troops, pilots, and advisers are still deployed in dozens of countries all over the world, prepared to engage—and sometimes actually engaging—in combat.

The Special Forces who mounted the raid on al-Qurayshi’s residence were among 900 American troops and advisers in Syria. About 2,500 U.S. ground troops are still in Iraq. In a letter to Congress, written in compliance with the War Powers Act, Biden acknowledged that the U.S. “has deployed combat-equipped forces” to fight or fend off ISIS and other terrorist groups “in several locations” in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and Asia Pacific.

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A report by Stephanie Savell, director of the Costs of War Project at Brown University’s Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, calculates that, between 2018-20, U.S. military forces were somehow fighting terrorism in 89 countries.

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In 79 of those countries, they were training indigenous forces in how to fight terrorists. In 41, they conducted military exercises either alone or with local armies. In seven, they launched air or drone strikes. In 12 of the countries, U.S. troops engaged in combat operations.

Since the report was published, troops have withdrawn from Afghanistan, leaving 11 countries where they’re engaged in combat operations or are authorized and set up to do so—Iraq, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, Syria, Yemen, Cameroon, Libya, Niger, and Tunisia. (Savell told me that these numbers are slightly lower now because the COVID pandemic has scuttled a few training programs and exercises, but the overall picture has changed little since Biden became president.)

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The big, often unaddressed question is how effective these operations are—not so much in terms of killing their targets (they’re usually very effective in that department) but in terms of stopping terrorism or destroying terrorist organizations.

The answer, it turns out, is that, most of the time, they’re not very effective after all.

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In 2008, Seth Jones and Martin Libicki wrote a report for the RAND Corporation called How Terrorist Groups End. After studying 648 terrorist organizations between 1968-2006, they concluded that military troops destroyed the groups in just 7 percent of the cases. In 40 percent of the cases, police and intelligence worked together to destroy the organizations. In 43 percent, the groups were incorporated into the political process or they disbanded after their political grievances were met. In 10 percent, the groups succeeded in their aims. (Savell’s Costs of War Project will soon publish a new review of several similar studies over the years, which she says is consistent with RAND’s findings).

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The RAND report found that military force is most effective when used against “large, well armed, and well organized” insurgencies. In opposing such large groups, military force “has usually been a necessary component.”

However, against most terrorist groups, “military force is usually too blunt an instrument,” the report stated. In any case, “U.S. military power against terrorist groups”—which often results in the killing of civilians—often turns the local population against the local government, which the U.S. is supporting, and prods many civilians to join the terrorists.

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One section of the RAND report especially relevant to the fight against such Islamist groups like al-Qaida and ISIS found that “religious terrorist groups take longer to eliminate.” Since the report was written, almost a decade ago, 62 percent of the terrorist groups the authors studied have ended—but only 32 percent of religious terrorist groups have gone away. On a more positive note, the report said none of the religious groups had achieved outright victory.

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It is unclear (and, again, often unexamined) whether even “decapitation strikes”—operations where the military kills the leader of a terrorist organization—have a durable impact. Peter Bergen, vice president of New America and author of The Rise and Fall of Osama bin Laden, told me in an email, “They have some effect, but less than generally advertised.”

Bin-Laden was a figure of such power and mystique that al-Qaida never recovered after he was killed in the U.S. raid on his compound. But in general, Bergen said, “these groups name another leader and move on.” Mullah Omar and Akhtar Mansour, two high-profile leaders of Taliban, died, yet the Taliban now controls all of Afghanistan.* “These strikes are not without some utility,” Bergen concluded, “but game changers, they are not.”

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In that respect, Al-Qurayshi’s death, while notable, isn’t likely to put ISIS out of business. Relatively little is known about the man who, in his two years as the Islamic State’s leader, rarely left the apartment where he died. He is thought to have been an Iraqi officer who joined al-Qaida after Saddam Hussein was defeated during the U.S. invasion. A 2020 report on Qurayshi by West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center noted that, in online message channels, some ISIS members criticized al-Qurayshi’s rise to leadership, deriding him as a “secluded paper caliph” or “an unknown nobody.” His defender in ISIS countered that fame wasn’t necessary, nor was it advisable from a security perspective. In any case, there should be little problem finding a successor.

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According to early news reports (which, it should be said, sometimes turn out to be incomplete or wrong), the Biden administration had been secretly planning the operation against Qurayshi for months. Military engineers even designed a replica of his building and analyzed whether the whole structure would collapse if he blew himself up—as his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, had done—rather than fighting or surrendering.

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As a further effort to minimize civilian casualties, Biden decided to send in Special Forces, at some risk, rather than drop bombs, which could kill other residents. The Special Forces also reportedly warned those residents to leave the building. At least a dozen people are said to have died, all reportedly the result of a bomb that al-Qurayshi set off. It is not yet known whether any civilians unrelated to the ISIS leader were killed.

In any case, they are not likely to be the last casualties of terrorism or the war on terror.

Correction, Feb. 3, 2022: This piece originally misstated that Mullah Omar was killed. He died of health problems.

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