It is hard to believe that 18 years have passed since the September 11, 2001, hijackings. The world has changed dramatically during that time. Many in the U.S. want to move on from the fight against jihadism, including from the wars unleashed by 9/11 and America’s response. I cannot say I entirely blame them. But the enemy gets a vote, and our enemies have not given up.
Many in Washington argue that “great power competition” is America’s main concern, and that the U.S. needs to pivot away from protracted conflicts against the jihadists. Some argue that we can no longer afford to have our limited resources tied up in the fight against the Islamic State or al-Qaeda, because we need to focus on near-peer competitors such as China, or on spoilers like Russia. Rising challengers, and especially China, do demand more of the U.S. government’s attention. But I think the resource allocation argument misses a key point: By and large, the U.S. military’s pivot has already occurred. The last “surge” of American forces ended in 2011. Today, there are far fewer American troops deployed to wartime theaters than at the height of the U.S. commitment.
The U.S. has also already shifted much of the burden to its allies, as they have carried out the bulk of the on-the-ground fighting against Sunni jihadists for years. For example, Kurdish, Iraqi, and other forces played a leading role in the ground campaign against the Islamic State, ending its territorial claims in Iraq and Syria. Those same allied forces sustained the overwhelming majority of casualties in the war against the so-called caliphate. The same is true in jihadist hotspots such as Afghanistan and Somalia. Unfortunately, 16 Americans have perished as a result of the conflict in Afghanistan this year. Still, Afghan military and security forces, as well as civilians, have sustained far higher casualties.
Going forward, as the U.S. presumably draws down further, a key question is: How will America’s allies continue to keep the jihadists at bay with even less external assistance? We see in Afghanistan, for instance, that the government is barely holding the Taliban and other jihadists back throughout the country. This has been the case even though approximately 14,000 American troops, along with thousands of NATO partners, have been assisting the Afghans. America’s airpower and Special Forces have been essential for preventing the Taliban from capturing more ground, especially several provincial capitals. This means it is extremely unlikely that the situation will improve with less Western assistance. This does not mean that we should paper over the problems with the war effort or ignore wasteful spending. The widespread frustration with these issues is well-placed. However, there are also legitimate concerns about the threat of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan in the future.
Even though the U.S. military’s footprint has been significantly reduced, America’s armed forces continue to strike terrorist targets in several countries. Law enforcement and intelligence officials also continue to face a wide spectrum of threats. These include threats from the Islamic State and its global arms, al-Qaeda and its international network, as well as other foreign terrorist organizations. The Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and allied groups are fighting or operating across an enormous amount of ground, stretching from the remote regions of West Africa, through North and East Africa, into the heart of the Middle East, and all the way into Central and South Asia. The jihadists’ war is far from over. Most of the jihadists are fighting for territory over there, but new threats to American security could emerge from within their ranks at any time.
There are also ample reasons to be concerned about the rise of far-right extremism, including terrorist attacks by white supremacists or other anti-government actors. To date, most of the far-right attacks inside the U.S. have been carried out by individuals. It is far too easy for a lone terrorist to wreak havoc. And we have already witnessed how an attack in one part of the world can inspire or influence another, even half a world away.
Consider that Brenton Tarrant, the accused terrorist who massacred 51 innocent civilians at a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March, claimed to be inspired by Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 77 people in Oslo in 2011, as well as by Dylan Roof, who murdered nine churchgoers in a 2015 mass shooting in Charleston. Even if the Christchurch terrorist exaggerated his ties to Breivik – he claimed to be in “brief contact” with the jailed mass murderer – the evidence shows how one far-right terrorist’s words and deeds can influence the actions of another living faraway. In fact, Patrick Crusius, who has been charged with killing 22 people in August at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, reportedly wrote: “In general, I support the Christchurch shooter and his manifesto. This attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” In addition to their hatred for immigrants, the gunmen in New Zealand and El Paso have also been described as “eco-fascists.” This demonstrates how different extremist ideas can be combined in the minds of would-be terrorists to produce an even more toxic hatred. Also in August, another terrorist opened fire on a mosque in Norway, injuring one. The man named as the main suspect in that attack, Philip Manshaus, reportedly drew inspiration from the killings in New Zealand and El Paso as well as from a shooting at a synagogue in California in April.
I have studied jihadists for years. There are differences between the current far-right threat and that posed by groups such as the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. But I am struck by one similarity. The jihadists portray themselves as the guardians of Islam and its glorious past. They rely on a heavily mythologized view of history, justifying their violence by arguing that it is necessary to restore lost glory. This was a large part of the Islamic State’s caliphate claim. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his henchmen wanted people to believe that an Islamic empire had been resurrected for Muslims, even though most of their victims are in fact Muslims.
There is a similarity with far-right extremism in this regard. The terrorist in Christchurch covered his weapons with historical symbols and names, portraying his wanton violence as a defense of the West against Muslims. Of course, his shootings were no such thing. But not only far-right believers were emboldened by Tarrant’s historically illiterate narrative; so were some jihadists. Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership and their loyalists around the globe called for revenge in the wake of the massacre in New Zealand. We collected messages from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Syria, Somalia, West Africa, and elsewhere.
One message, from Shabaab’s spokesman, the appropriately named Ali Mahmoud Rage, was especially noteworthy. Rage agreed with Tarrant that Muslims have no place in the West. “We say to the Muslims in the West, wake up from your slumber, and know that you are in the den of wolves who surround you from every direction and lie around you,” Rage claimed. “You are not safe from their gaze, even when you are inside the mosques.” Rage continued: “O Muslims, you must realize that there is no future for you in the West, and that you must return to your countries, to participate in liberating them from the enemies and to live afterwards as Muslims, free under the shade of the Shariah and the governance of Islam.”
In other words, both Tarrant and Rage portrayed themselves as the guardians of whole civilizations. Neither man is any such thing. But their hate is not all that different.
 Adam Taylor, “New Zealand suspect allegedly claimed ‘brief contact’ with Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik,” The Washington Post, March 15, 2019. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2019/03/15/new-zealand-suspect-allegedly-claimed-brief-contact-with-norwegian-mass-murderer-anders-breivik/)
 Tim Arango, Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs, and Katie Benner, “Minutes Before El Paso Killing, Hate-Filled Manifesto Appears Online,” The New York Times, August 3, 2019. (https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/03/us/patrick-crusius-el-paso-shooter-manifesto.html)
 Joel Achenbach, “Two mass killings a world apart share a common theme: ‘ecofascism,’” The Washington Post, August 18, 2019. (https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/two-mass-murders-a-world-apart-share-a-common-theme-ecofascism/2019/08/18/0079a676-bec4-11e9-b873-63ace636af08_story.html)
 Jason Burke, “Norway mosque attack suspect ‘inspired by Christchurch and El Paso shootings,’” The Guardian (UK), August 11, 2019. (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/aug/11/norway-mosque-attack-suspect-may-have-been-inspired-by-christchurch-and-el-paso-shootings)