The ground truth about the spread of terrorism will be a hard one for many Americans to swallow after 13 costly years of war. Terrorism is spreading worldwide. Our enemies have sustained our blows, adapted, and grown. Two questions loom large as a consequence: Where did we go wrong and what do we do now?

David Rothkopf
David Rothkopf was a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment as well as the former CEO and editor in chief of the FP Group.
More >

Recent headlines and new studies support the conclusion that global terror trends are heading in an ever more dangerous direction. In early June, the Rand Corporation released a study that detailed the growing threat. It reports that in 2007, there were 28 Salafi-jihadist groups like al Qaeda. As of last year, there were 49. In 2007, these groups conducted 100 attacks. Last year, they conducted 950. The study estimates that there were between 18,000 and 42,000 such terrorists active seven years ago. The low-end estimate for last year, at 44,000, is higher than the top estimate for 2007, and the new high-end estimate is 105,000. The administration rightly argues that "core al Qaeda" has sustained "huge" damage. But "core al Qaeda" no longer poses the principle threat to the U.S. homeland. That comes, according to the Rand report, from al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. As Rand summarizes the report: "Since 2010, there has been a 58 percent increase in the number of jihadist groups, a doubling of jihadist fighters and a tripling of attacks by Al Qaeda affiliates. The most significant threat to the United States, the report concludes, comes from terrorist groups operating in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan."

As legitimate as the questions that have emerged in the Bowe Bergdahl case may be, they are secondary to the deteriorating situation associated with the war the recently released prisoner went to Afghanistan to fight. There is no denying that the contempt for Congress shown in failing to inform it of the deal -- even as perhaps 100 in the administration knew of it -- starkly reveals the cynicism behind last year's faux deferral to Congress on Syria. But it would be far more cynical to continue with the Obama team's variation on the "mission accomplished" misrepresentations of his predecessor. The war in Iraq was not over or won when we said it was. Nor is the war on terror won or the threat it poses resolved simply by no longer using the term or suggesting our goal was merely to inflict damage on the tiny fraction of terrorists who were associated with the 9/11 attacks. The reality is that we are still fighting the last war on terror even as a new set of risks loom and are made worse by our minimizing their implications for political purposes.

In its recent assessment, "Country Reports on Terrorism 2013," the State Department acknowledged the trend. It observes that last year attacks worldwide increased almost by half, from 6,700 to 9,700. Nearly 18,000 people died and nearly 33,000 were injured. While the report hails allied forces for making progress combating al Qaeda's core in the AfPak region, it also notes that the group's affiliates are becoming more dangerous. The report takes particular note of the threat posed by foreign extremists in Syria, which has become a kind of petri dish in which a growing global terror threat is being cultivated. Estimates on the number of such fighters range from 7,000 to over 20,000. The news that one recent suicide bomber in Syria was an American and that one of the attackers behind the recent shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium spent time in Syria suggests how this threat may evolve over time. It's not unlikely that, if left unchecked, the long-term consequences of a cadre of fighters trained in Syria who will soon return to their home countries will be one of the darkest legacies of that war -- a legacy that may well echo the long-term costs associated with training jihadists in the battle against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980s, among whom, of course, was Osama bin Laden.

Sleepwalking Into a Trap

On just one day this week, Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for an attack on Karachi's international airport that killed 30 people, while in Baluchistan 23 Shiite pilgrims were killed in gun and bomb attacks. (A follow-up attack on the Karachi airport's security academy occurred less than 48 hours later.) That same day, 52 people were killed in bombings in Baghdad. Elsewhere that day a female suicide bomber attacked a barracks in Nigeria. Scores more died in the fighting in Syria -- many at the hands of the government, to be sure, but many also as victims of extremists.

Such attacks pass with little more than perfunctory comment from our leaders or the media. Yet we are numbed to such attacks at our peril. We compound the risk associated with such numbing by rationalizing them away. The Rand report notes that the number of "near abroad" attacks is up while the number of "far abroad" attacks has gone down. This is a way of saying that the threat to the U.S. homeland appears to be less from these fragmented, decentralized groups. The report also suggests that such groups are more easily defeated or turned against one another. The State Department presented its report with comments from its spokesperson that "the numbers [of attacks] against Americans have been very low for a long time and have continued to go down."

That fewer Americans are being killed and fewer terrorists are seeking to hit targets on U.S. soil is no doubt a very good thing. Much credit for producing such an outcome is due to the U.S. intelligence community and our military for reducing those risks to our homeland security establishment and the private sector organizations with which they must collaborate to be successful. But it would be as dangerous today to interpret current trends as being positive because one particular past enemy is in decline or because at the moment the risk to Americans at home is lower as it was for top officials to underappreciate the threat posed by bin Laden immediately before the 9/11 attacks.

That's the dangerous trap into which we risk falling. By overly focusing on narrowly addressing the threats identified with the attacks 13 years ago, we risk creating precisely the same conditions that led to those attacks... and ignoring other, perhaps more serious, emerging threats.

For example, serious threats exist to U.S. interests that are not threats to the homeland. The disintegration of Syria is such a threat. The creation of a failed state bordering Israel, Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, and Iraq poses deep and lasting risks to the region. One manifestation of how such a threat can spread is visible right now in Iraq, where ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), a group that cut its teeth in the Syria conflict, has just seized control of much of Iraq's second largest city, Mosul.

This compounds ISIS gains in Fallujah and across Anbar province. Should the Iraqi government fail to regain control of this region, the consequences of an extremist rump state on Jordan's eastern border and of conflict with Kurds in the north are grave. Such a scenario is quite possible, in fact; 11 years after the United States went to war with Iraq we could be on the verge of seeing it fracture into an extremist Sunni state in the west and an Iranian puppet state in the east -- perhaps the worst possible outcome we could have envisioned. It raises the question: What is the opposite of "mission accomplished?" And another: Who lost Iraq? (That the destabilization that caused this was triggered by an Afghan-based extremist's group attack on the United States is illustrative of how unpredictable, convoluted, and widespread the aftershocks of terror attacks can be.)

This last point in turn should lead to the recognition that the cultivation of extremist threats within failed states like Syria or weak states like Iraq, Yemen, or Libya or those in sub-Saharan Africa seems certain to produce a new generation of jihadists who will soon pose a threat worldwide. That such groups have gained important footholds in Libya, Mali, Nigeria, and in the Horn of Africa should be very worrying to us. While they seem like distant places and the damage is not now being visited on Americans, what will be the cost in terms regional stability, access to vital resources, flows of immigrants and refugees to new countries that can ill-afford to house them, etc.? 

The Risks Posed by National Narcissism

In the wake of the 9/11 attacks we had a number of reactions to the trauma it caused. Some were natural -- like seeking to exact a punishment on those behind the attacks. Some were sound national security policy -- like seeking to keep the attackers from ever attacking us again, and increasing the tools we have to anticipate or mitigate future risks. Some were dangerously ill-considered -- like invading Iraq. Some were damaging to our national standing -- like surveillance overreach or the use of torture. Today, we are learning the lessons of this period of reaction, this era in which so many of our initiatives seemed to be driven by fear of a future attack. That is why it would be both ironic and perilous for us to fail to learn one of the first lessons of what happened on 9/11, which is that in today's globalized, technologically empowered world, there is no such thing as a distant problem. All can make their way to our doorstep with lightning speed.

This does not mean we must intervene everywhere against everyone. The first War on Terror was clearly mismanaged in many sometimes profoundly damaging ways. Indeed, some of our best antidotes to the risk posed by terror are not war at all but good intelligence, good police work, and a renewed focus on economic, social, and institutional development. Certainly, invading and destabilizing extraneous countries only makes matters worse.

One of the most pervasive problems behind the first War on Terror was national narcissism -- the sense that now that this problem that had afflicted so many for so long had taken a big enough toll on us, it was all about us, entirely up to us to handle in whatever way we saw fit, the laws of nations and the international community be damned. But there is another insidious consequence of such nationalism. It is the mistaken belief -- the one that afflicted us prior to 9/11 and was one of its proximate causes -- that if such problems did not impact our shores and our people, they never would; they weren't our concern. We can't let such a view delude us into complacency now.

As Seth Jones, the author of the Rand report, has said, "Based on these threats, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or remain disengaged from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. After more than a decade of war in Afghanistan and Iraq, it may be tempting for the U.S. to turn its attention elsewhere and scale back on counterterrorism efforts. But [our] research indicates that the struggle is far from over."

We dare not drop our guard. And we must find ways to work even more vigorously with the international community, with our allies, with stable regional governments upon which we can depend and with whom we can collaborate, to do whatever we can to reverse this disturbing recent trend. President Barack Obama's West Point speech -- which suggested that we could now safely start to hand off such issues to partners on the ground -- has, in the case of Pakistan and Iraq, been debunked within the last few days. We cannot put this effort on autopilot and forget about it. Instead we must develop new strategies and new active and committed alliances -- like finding ways to work more closely with the Chinese, who face a similar threat at home, reinvigorating how the Atlantic Alliance works together on such issues, and working more closely with the more moderate Sunni states in the Middle East. Our new efforts will require more aid (and unlike with some of our Syria promises, aid that is swiftly delivered when it can make a difference). They will mean more technical assistance and training. More shared intelligence. More military support and, yes, action when it is the only and best available option. And above all it will mean instilling the sense of urgency that should be associated with any endeavor, like this one to protect our citizens and interests, in which we are so clearly losing ground. 

This article originally appeared in Foreign Policy.