December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

The Jihadist Threat Persists

December 15, 2020 | Defending Forward Monograph

The Jihadist Threat Persists

President Trump and President-elect Biden do not agree on much. But they concur that America needs to extricate itself from “endless wars” against jihadists.1 There is just one problem: Jihadist terrorists will not go away simply because Americans want them to. ISIS and al-Qaeda will continue to fight on, seeking victory and threatening Americans.2 The only question is whether the United States will meet the jihadist terrorist threat proactively overseas or belatedly in America’s homeland.

The political desire to “end” the post-9/11 wars is compounded by a renewed sense of urgency with respect to the great power rivals of China and Russia. Defense and intelligence officials are rightly concerned about the growing military capabilities of these two revisionist powers. However, this should not cloud Washington policymakers’ view of terrorist threats. Indeed, one often hears that America must pivot away from the fight against jihadism so the U.S. military and intelligence establishment has the resources necessary to counter Chinese and Russian aggression.3 However, this argument ignores a simple fact: America has already pivoted away from large-scale post-9/11 wars.

Comparing the number of American service members deployed in jihadist war zones over time is instructive.4 In 2008, there were approximately 190,000 American troops deployed across Afghanistan and Iraq.5 By June 2020, there were fewer than 15,000 American troops across those two countries and Syria.6 Approximately 8,600 of them were stationed in Afghanistan, and the Trump administration is reducing the number to 2,500.7 In addition, approximately 6,000 to 7,000 U.S. troops were located across Africa, where they were assisting others in the fight against al-Qaeda and ISIS.8 In sum, there were only about 22,000 American troops in jihadist war zones by mid-2020.9 That was less than 12 percent of the troops deployed in 2008 in Afghanistan and Iraq.10

Islamic State recruits at the “Dawoud al Somali” training camp in Somalia’s northern Puntland region, September 21, 2019. (Photo via FDD’s Long War Journal)

The question today is not whether the United States should end massive combat efforts with tens of thousands of troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those efforts have already ended. The question today is whether the United States will continue its modest, economy-of-force missions in support of allies and partners in these locations. If the United States does so, it can – at a relatively low and sustainable cost – secure American interests, prevent jihadist advances, and deprive terrorist groups of the space they need to launch attacks on Americans. If Washington withdraws from these locations, there could be dangerous repercussions.

ISIS, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups remain committed to their goal of building an Islamic caliphate. They are attempting to overthrow existing governments throughout Africa, the Middle East, and Central and South Asia. They hope to replace those governments with emirates that rule according to Sharia, or Islamic law.

From al-Qaeda’s perspective, the first and most important emirate is the Taliban’s regime in Afghanistan. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has portrayed the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as the cornerstone of a new caliphate, telling his followers around the globe that they should emulate it as a model for Islamic governance.11

Refusing to take him at his word, the United States seeks an exit from Afghanistan. The international terrorist threats in both Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan will not disappear after America leaves. So, while the war in Afghanistan is not going well, the small U.S. presence has actually made a difference. Even more heartening is the fact that Afghan forces have carried the lion’s share of the burden there since 2012.12 Thus, with a reduced presence in the country, U.S. forces have helped their Afghan partners prevent the Taliban and its al-Qaeda allies from seizing provincial capitals.13 This has deprived terrorist groups of the ability to launch another major attack on the United States from Afghanistan. Additionally, the United States has retained a counterterrorism outpost that counters threats across the region – including in Pakistan. Should the United States complete its withdrawal, these gains would dissipate.

A defeat in Afghanistan would also likely inspire al-Qaeda branches elsewhere. In Somalia, al-Shabaab is fighting to topple the internationally recognized federal government and replace it with an al-Qaeda emirate. In West Africa, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its subsidiary, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM, or the “Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims”), seek to form their own emirate in Mali. Both AQIM and JNIM operate elsewhere throughout North and West Africa as well. In Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has twice seized large chunks of the country and still seeks to build its own Sharia regime. Al-Qaeda groups are also fighting in Syria, where the prospects for a jihadist emirate currently look dim, but the threat persists.

In most of these areas, the United States has partnered with local forces or Western allies. In Somalia, for instance, the United States and regional nations have backed the federal government in Mogadishu, preventing jihadists from overrunning the country.14 America’s support has helped prevent al-Qaeda and ISIS from establishing emirates in parts of Africa. In Syria, a minimal footprint of approximately 2,000 U.S. Special Operations Forces, buttressed by tens of thousands of members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), helped defeat the ISIS caliphate (a smaller ISIS presence remains).15 Without such support, Americans should expect jihadist regimes would rise or return.

Some Americans might dismiss such warnings and ask: Why is jihad overseas a security concern for Americans? The answer is simple: The jihadists have demonstrated time and again since the 1990s that as they gain ground “over there,” the threat to Americans rises “over here.”16

The Obama administration withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq in 2011 based on the appealing but misguided belief that America could declare victory and go home, leaving the troubling Middle East behind. But jihadists stormed through much of Iraq and Syria in the months that followed, seizing territory the size of Tennessee and terrorizing civilians across both countries. Some voices dismissed ISIS’ territorial advances in 2013 and 2014 as a purely local concern.17 But that assessment quickly proved erroneous, as the so-called caliphate mushroomed into a global menace, plotting terrorist attacks around the world.18 Today, should the United States give up its small presence in Iraq and Syria, an ISIS resurgence would be unsurprising.

On a tactical level, wholesale withdrawals that remove American troops entirely would make it more difficult for Washington to target key terrorist leaders. Even as Trump has lamented “endless wars,” the U.S. military and intelligence establishment have utilized the relatively modest remaining military presence in key locations to hunt down dozens of dangerous terrorists around the globe. If they were not running from U.S. and partner forces, these terrorists would have had more opportunities to plot and launch attacks on America or our allies.

Intelligence derived from America’s modest military footprint has also made Americans safer. That includes an October 2019 raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.19 It also includes a strike announced one month prior that killed Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son and ideological heir in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.20 From September 2019 through June 2020, the United States took out other senior terrorists in Afghanistan, Mali, Syria, and Yemen.21 These strikes likely saved countless American lives.

The disconnect between the political rhetoric concerning “endless wars” and the reality of the terrorist threat could not be more pronounced. It is easy to decry war and call to bring American service members home. But it is not so easy for advocates of American retrenchment to explain how the United States would locate and strike the world’s most dangerous terrorists without a military presence near the jihadists’ strongholds. Supporters of wholesale American military withdrawals often fail to acknowledge the importance of forward U.S. military bases as platforms for intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations.

The days of massive U.S.-led “nation-building” projects or ill-conceived interventions in the wider Middle East and Central and South Asia are long over. But a complete American military retreat would represent an unnecessary and devastating self-inflicted wound that would only invite more terrorist attacks on Americans – and perhaps even prompt another wave of wars most Americans would like to avoid.


  1. Steve Holland, “Trump to West Point grads: ‘We are ending the era of endless wars,’” Reuters, June 13, 2020. (; Bill Barrow, “Biden promises to end ‘forever wars’ as president,” Associated Press, July 11, 2019. (
  2. The idea that America can unilaterally “end” the post-9/11 conflicts dates to the Obama administration. President Obama claimed to have brought the Iraq War to a “responsible end” in 2011 and argued he was doing the same in Afghanistan in 2014. However, the jihadists continued to fight, forcing Obama to intervene once again in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. For Obama’s comments on bringing the wars to an “end,” see: President Barack Obama, The White House, “Remarks by the President on Ending the War in Iraq,” Remarks to the press, October 21, 2011. (; David Hudson, The White House, “Bringing the War in Afghanistan to a Responsible End,” May 27, 2014. (
  3. In December 2019, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he seeks “a lower number” of troops in Afghanistan so they could either be brought home or “redeployed to the Indo-Pacific to face off our greatest challenge in terms of the Great Power Competition that’s vis-a-vis China.” Shawn Snow, “Esper wants to move troops from Afghanistan to the Indo-Pacific to confront China,” Military Times, December 18, 2019. (
  4. Jihadist war zones are defined here as jurisdictions where al-Qaeda and/or ISIS wage insurgencies. These jurisdictions include Afghanistan, East Africa (mainly Somalia and surrounding countries), West Africa (mainly Mali and surrounding countries), North Africa (the United States has a presence in Tunisia to monitor jihadists there and in Libya), Iraq, and Syria. Jihadists are also waging insurgencies in countries without a significant American presence, such as Yemen.
  5. Amy Belasco, “Troop Levels in the Afghan and Iraq Wars, FY2001-FY2012: Cost and Other Potential Issues,” Congressional Research Service, July 2, 2009, page 9. (
  6. Thomas Gibbons-Neff, “How U.S. Troops Are Preparing for the Worst in the Middle East,” The New York Times, January 6, 2020. ( According to The New York Times, there were “around 5,500 troops in Iraq and 600 in Syria” as of earlier this year. There were also “roughly 12,000 to 13,000 troops in Afghanistan” at that time, but the Trump administration reduced that figure to 8,600 by June 2020.
  7. Mujib Mashal, “U.S. Troops in Afghanistan Reduced to 8,600, General Says,” The New York Times, June 19, 2020. (; Lorne Cook, “NATO mulls its future in Afghanistan as US draws down troops,” Associated Press, November 30, 2020. (
  8. Helene Cooper, Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Charlie Savage, and Eric Schmitt, “Pentagon Eyes Africa Drawdown as First Step in Global Troop Shift,” The New York Times, December 24, 2019. (
  9. An unknown number of contractors, intelligence personnel, and other diplomatic support staff are also dedicated to the counter-jihad effort.
  10. Other support personnel, including contractors and service members deployed outside of the war zones, are also involved in these conflicts. This includes personnel stationed at bases in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar.
  11. Thomas Joscelyn, “Al Qaeda leader argues Taliban’s ‘blessed emirate’ a core part of new caliphate,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 24, 2018. ( Despite the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances, which were enshrined in the February 29, 2020, accord with the United States, the group remains closely allied with al-Qaeda to this day. Thomas Joscelyn, “No Deal Is Better Than A Bad Deal,” The Dispatch, March 4, 2020. (
  12. The United States steadily drew down in Afghanistan from 2011 through 2016. Heidi M. Peters and Sofia Plagakis, “Department of Defense Contractor and Troop Levels in Afghanistan and Iraq: 2007-2018,” Congressional Research Service, May 10, 2019, page 7. ( Obama sought a complete withdrawal but maintained fewer than 10,000 troops because the Taliban-led insurgency was gaining ground. In 2017, Trump ordered a small increase of several thousand troops but began withdrawing these troops in 2020.
  13. For example, several provincial capitals, including Ghazni, Farah, and Kunduz, would likely be in the jihadists’ possession right now if it were not for U.S. forces and airpower. Bill Roggio, “Taliban overruns another base in north as it withdraws from Ghazni City,” FDD’s Long War Journal, August 15, 2018. (
  14. Even with U.S. Africa Command’s help, the Somali government has failed to recapture all territory held by al-Shabaab. The group controlled 20 percent of Somalia as of late 2019. Diana Stancy Correll, “AFRICOM airstrikes take out four al-Shabab militants,” Air Force Times, December 30, 2019. ( France’s intervention in Mali in early 2013 toppled al-Qaeda’s nascent emirate. These partners and allies continue to shoulder much of the load, with American logistical and intelligence support. For example, the United States helped France hunt down the longtime emir of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Abdulmalek Droukdel. French officials identified Droukdel as a senior member of al-Qaeda’s global management team. Danielle Paquette, “France says it killed top al-Qaeda leader in Mali,” The Washington Post, June 5, 2020. (; Baba Ahmed, “French forces kill al-Qaida’s North African commander,” Associated Press, June 5, 2020. (
  15. Brett McGurk, “Hard Truths in Syria: America Can’t Do More With Less, and It Shouldn’t Try,” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2019. ( American airpower and other capabilities were crucial, but U.S. partners suffered the majority of the casualties in the ground war, with the SDF claiming 11,000 of its members were killed and another 21,000 wounded. Had it not been for the SDF, the United States would have either had to commit more of its own personnel to fight or leave the caliphate standing. Ibid. See also: SDF Press, “Statement to Public Opinion,” March 23, 2019. (
  16. See: National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, “The 9/11 Commission Report,” July 22, 2004, page 362. ( After describing how al-Qaeda planned the 9/11 hijackings in the Taliban’s Afghanistan (“in a region so poor that electricity or telephones were scarce”), the commissioners wrote that “9/11 has taught us that terrorism against American interests ‘over there’ should be regarded just as we regard terrorism against America ‘over here.’”
  17. Obama described ISIS as the “jayvee” of terrorism because he thought the group’s aspirations were local. David Remnick, “Going the Distance: On and off the road with Barack Obama,” The New Yorker, January 27, 2014. (
  18. While ISIS has thus far failed to attack the United States, it inspired the December 2015 shootings in San Bernardino, California, and the June 2016 massacre at an Orlando nightclub. By the end of 2019, the FBI was investigating more than 2,000 terrorist cases, hundreds inspired by the caliphate’s call. The FBI has thwarted numerous ISIS plots, including those directed by jihadists based in Iraq and Syria who provide online guidance to willing recruits.
  19. The White House, Press Statement, “Statement from the President on the Death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” October 27, 2019. (
  20. Hamza repeatedly threatened Americans, vowing to exact revenge for his fallen father. The White House, Press Statement, “Statement from the President,” September 14, 2019. (
  21. For a summary of the terrorists killed, see: Thomas Joscelyn, “Examining the Threat from ISIS and Al Qaeda,” Testimony before the House Committee on Homeland Security Subcommittee on Intelligence and Counterterrorism, June 24, 2020. (


Al Qaeda Islamic State Jihadism Military and Political Power U.S. Defense Policy and Strategy