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Opinion

US must rethink its strategy to defeat terrorist safe havens

Feb 23, 2023

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Last month U.S. special operations forces killed a senior Islamic State leader, Bilal al-Sudani, in a remote area of northern Somalia. U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said al-Sudani “was responsible for fostering the growing presence of ISIS in Africa and for funding the group’s operations worldwide, including in Afghanistan.” Areas of Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Africa’s Sahel region, Iran and Syria are only some of the locations where terrorist groups train and recruit.

According to Straight Arrow News contributor Katherine Zimmerman, the U.S. must figure out how these groups gain support in those regions if they want any true success at eradicating their safe havens.

The daring commando raids or drone strikes targeting terrorist leaders barely make headlines these days.

U.S. commandos raided a remote cave complex in northern Somalia in January with the goal of capturing a key Islamic State figure, a man who has facilitated foreign fighter travel, and whose network stretched down into South Africa and over to Afghanistan. His name surfaced in assessments of the Islamic State Khorasan after the deadly suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2021 that killed 13 U.S. service members, and it was added to the kill-or-capture list. But that list never seems to grow shorter despite regular attrition at the top. Over the past year, at least nine Islamic State leaders were removed from the battlefield, two of whom were taken alive.

Targeting top terrorists involved in transnational plotting and global operations weakens the Islamic State but taking them out won’t be enough to win this fight. Instead, the United States must refocus on denying terrorists the safe havens they need to regroup, build strength and plant attacks. Terrorist safe havens allow them to recruit new fighters and replace lost resources. Whether the terror groups actually control the terrain or not, they benefit from having a destination for would-be operatives, where they can train and prepare for future attacks.

The destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria sharply reduced its safe havens in both countries. But some remained. And from there, the Islamic State has begun carrying out increasingly brazen attacks, especially on detention facilities, freeing past fighters and rebuilding its rank and file in Syria. Elsewhere, Islamic State safe havens have actually expanded, growing alongside local African insurgencies that destabilize large regions in poorly governed territory.

Eliminating safe havens is by no means easy. It took a resource-intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq to remove al-Qaida safe havens in 2007. And replicating that, again, is neither desirable nor feasible.

The Daring commando raids or drone strikes targeting terrorist leaders barely make headlines these days. US commandos raided a remote cave complex in northern Somalia in January with the goal of capturing a key Islamic State figure. A man who has facilitated foreign fighter travel, and whose network stretched down into South Africa and over to Afghanistan. His name surfaced in assessments of the Islamic State course on after the deadly suicide bombing in Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2021. That killed 13 US service members, and it was added to the killer CAPTCHA list. But that list never seems to grow shorter despite regular attrition at the top. Over the past year, at least nine Islamic state leaders were removed from the battlefield, two of whom were taken alive.

Targeting top terrorists involved in transnational plotting and global operations weakens the Islamic State. But taking them out won’t be enough to win this fight. Instead, the United States must refocus on denying terrorists the safe havens they need to regroup, build strength and plant attacks. terrorist safe havens allow them to recruit new fighters and replace lost resources. Whether the terror groups actually control the terrain or not. They benefit from having a destination for would be operatives, where they can train and prepare for future attacks. The destruction of the Islamic State’s physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria sharply reduced its safe havens in both countries. But some remained. And from there, the Islamic State has begun carrying out increasingly brazen attacks, especially on detention facilities, freeing past fighters and rebuilding its rank and file in Syria. Elsewhere, Islamic State safe havens have actually expanded, growing alongside local African insurgencies that destabilize large regions in poorly governed territory. Eliminating safe havens is by no means easy. It took a resource intensive counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq to remove al Qaeda safe havens in 2007. And replicating that, again, is neither desirable nor feasible.

Counterterrorism partners whom US forces have supported have had some success temporarily in places like Somalia and Yemen. But the groups simply reestablish themselves when partners lift pressure.

Removing groups from terrain is not simply about military victories. terror groups entrench themselves in local dynamics, building relationships with communities that largely reject their extremist ideology by filling some basic needs, even by creating a demand for their services in Mafia like fashion.

Once pushed from terrain, terrorist groups can come back because the local problems persist. So what’s the solution? It’s focusing efforts not just on targeting or taking back to rain, but on identifying how terrorist groups build support and addressing those issues. The answer will be less about security, and more about socio economics or politics. The immediate terror threat from al Qaeda in the Islamic State is low. Now is the time to capitalize on those hard won gains to try a new approach that would deny terrorists the safe havens they need.

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