For nearly 20 years, al-Qaeda and its ideological cousins have been the most important threats to national and global security. They will remain so over the next 20-30 years. Since its inception, al-Qaeda has used large-scale terrorist attacks and other forms of violence to kill thousands and cause mass destruction. These terrorist groups use a distorted interpretation of Islamic doctrine to justify their attacks and inspire support for their cause. Despite setbacks, al-Qaeda is still a dangerous organization because of its extreme ideology and the rise of its affiliates throughout Asia and Africa.
Al-Qaeda has used religion to recruit members and globalize its movement. Osama Bin Laden sought to inspire Muslims to fight against the West, with his declaration of jihad against the U.S. in 1996. In 1998, he went so far as to claim that the U.S. had made a declaration of war on Islam and Muslims. He believed it was the religious duty of all Muslims to defend Islamic lands, thus conflating his distorted religious interpretation with his extreme ideology.
Al-Qaeda’s primary targets are the US and its allies. It believes these attacks will remove foreign influence from the Middle East and halt what it perceives as Western aggression against Muslims. Despite setbacks in recent years, al-Qaeda has retained a strong presence through its affiliates in Yemen, Syria, and Africa. These affiliates provide al-Qaeda with more opportunities to threaten the U.S. and increase its influence.
Direct war with massed ground troops against al-Qaeda and all of its factions is unwise and unnecessary. Besides the obvious costs of money and human life, military conflict in predominantly Muslim regions would only serve to support al-Qaeda’s claims that the West is out to dominate the Muslim world. Al-Qaeda and ISIS frame these military conflicts as holy wars and existential threats to Islam, consequently drawing in more jihadist groups. Rather than eliminate terrorism from the region, these wars would create more opportunities for existing terrorist groups to strengthen and new ones to emerge.
To avoid the catastrophic consequences of war and an ideological boost for al-Qaeda, the U.S. should implement a two-part mitigation policy of containment and economic stabilization. With both parts working together, this policy would address the threats of current al-Qaeda affiliates and prevent new ones from forming. In order for the policy to be successful, it would require the cooperation and coordination of the U.S. and its allies.
The general purpose of a limited war of containment is to isolate an al-Qaeda affiliate within its given zone of operation, disrupt or halt its access to essential resources, and starve it out of existence. This would require the destruction of access points such as roads, trade routes, and ports. Preventing the influx of weapons, ammunition, and money into terrorist-occupied zones is especially important because of the risk that they will fall into the wrong hands. Drone strikes against key leadership personnel would disrupt the group’s efforts to plan attacks, and would speed up the destruction of the group.
The idea of economic stabilization is rooted in the framework of the Marshall Plan. According to Secretary of State George C. Marshall, political stability and assured peace are not possible without the return of normal economic health to the world. Just as the Marshall Plan allowed Western Europe to recover from the devastation of World War II in the wake of communism, a similar plan can also help to revitalize destabilized and vulnerable countries in the wake of terrorism. The plan would require the U.S. and its allies to invest money in a country’s economy in order to jumpstart it. In theory, this would promote economic growth, encourage foreign investment, and create jobs and opportunities for the general population. A healthy economy and an abundance of jobs would deter the general population away from terrorism and strengthen the country’s government and security, allowing it to eventually sustain itself without depending entirely on foreign aid.
Al-Qaeda and its cousins still pose a threat to the U.S. and its allies. Its twisted ideology continues to influence and inspire other groups to follow in its footsteps and its leadership still calls for attacks against the U.S. and the West. The policy of a limited war of containment working in conjunction with economic stabilization is essential to mitigating and ultimately eliminating al-Qaeda and its affiliates.