For over a week, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has consumed much of the world, causing fear of the instigation of a potential war between Russia and the United States and its European allies. This invasion by Russia is yet another reminder that, while the United States ended its forever war in Afghanistan last August in favor of shifting American foreign policy toward the Indo-Pacific, particularly China, there are some topics from which the United States will never be able to fully turn its attention away. Counterterrorism threats in the Middle East are another such reminder.
The Islamic State Loses Its Leader
In the first days of February, U.S. President Joe Biden gave the go ahead for a special forces counterterrorism operation – assisted by Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish militia group that has been American’s most reliable ally in its fight against ISIS – in northwest Syria. The target? The leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic State, Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi. U.S. officials reported that al-Qurayshi detonated explosives, killing himself and several others.
The death of the Islamic State leader will no doubt be a blow to the extremist group, though there is debate on how deep the impact will be. Al-Qurayshi’s death, is not likely to garner the same degree of attention as the October 2019 death of his predecessor, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, or the May 2011 raid that killed al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. If this is the case, then why did Biden sanction a special forces operation on a seemingly insignificant leader of a terrorist group?
Biden Needed a National Security Win
“This operation is a testament to America’s reach and capability to take out terrorist threats no matter where they try to hide anywhere in the world,” President Biden declared when announcing the death of the Islamic State leader. The operation was indeed high stakes: Biden badly needed a win in the national security column as his approval numbers drop and the U.S. faces unprecedented threats from its adversaries abroad. This is not to say that Biden should not have given the order. However, with his political capital waning, a national security win was crucial.
Moreover, following the United States’ disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan that forced U.S. allies to abruptly withdraw and allowed the Taliban to reclaim power of the war-torn country, many were calling into question the Biden administration’s counterterrorism strategy. The over-the-horizon capabilities serve as the cornerstone of America’s counterterrorism strategy. Beyond his counterterrorism policy, America’s leadership in the world is being questioned. For many reasons, the Biden administration needed a win and got one when announcing the Islamic State leader’s death.
ISIS On The Rise
The Islamic State appears to be on the rise once again. The terrorist group grew out of al Qaeda in Iraq in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. In 2013, the Islamic State declared an Islamic caliphate in Iraq and Syria, controlling a substantial amount of land and inspiring terrorist attacks throughout the world (WP 2). During this time, the Islamic State – a sworn rival of al Qaeda – proved to be a sinister insurgency group that posed a severe terrorist threat to the United States and the rest of the world.
For months, counterterrorism officials have speculated whether the Islamic State was trying to regain lost territory in Iraq and Syria. After a period of relative decline, the Islamic State has been recruiting new members and proving it still is a force to be reckoned with. On January 20, the group attacked and seized the Ghweiran prison in the northeast part of Syria, allowing hundreds of prisoners to escape. Last summer, its offshoot in Afghanistan, ISIS-K, set off explosions in Kabul just as the United States and its allies were chaotically evacuating their citizens from Afghanistan. U.S. officials have warned that the Islamic State could attack the United States within months. For this reason, decapitating the terrorist group was well within U.S. national interest.
The Islamic State is once again on the rise. Whether it is regaining territory in Iraq and Syria or launching attacks in other parts of the world, the threat is real. As the United States tries to shift its foreign policy to focusing on China, this serves as a good reminder that the U.S. cannot pretend terrorism or other threats – such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – no longer exist. Even when trying to reinvent its foreign policy, the United States will never fully escape the global threat that terrorism poses.