Ten years after the attacks of Sept. 11 and the start of the war on terror, it is fair to ask: Where do we stand in this struggle? Listening to the rhetoric of the White House, it would be easy to get the impression that Washington is just days away from declaring "Mission accomplished." With the death in May of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. commandos, the United States "is within reach of strategically defeating al Qaeda," newly appointed Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta told reporters in July. "I think we have them on the run." More recently, John Brennan, the White House's counterterrorism czar, said much the same, telling the Associated Press that the group that carried out the most devastating attacks on the U.S. homeland in American history is "on the ropes."
Such triumphalism, however, is both premature and unfounded. After all, the contemporary terrorist threat confronting the United States and its allies is considerably larger than just al Qaeda. America today faces a trio of distinct - and daunting - strategic challenges.
The first is the Sunni jihadist front embodied by al Qaeda, its affiliates and its ideological fellow travelers. In the decade since Sept. 11, U.S. and allied counterterrorism operations indeed have wreaked havoc on the bin Laden network, eliminating and apprehending many of its top commanders and disrupting the organization's day-to-day operations. But while al Qaeda may be down, it decidedly is not out. Despite significant setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan, the organization remains relevant, operating through regional franchises such as North Africa's al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and its Persian Gulf branch, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. More dangerous still, the group's ideology has become a source of inspiration for a diverse network of radical cells and "lone wolves" the world over, which have shown both the ability and the resolve to take up al Qaeda's war against the West as their own.
The second challenge confronting the United States and its allies is a state-centric, mostly Shia global movement that is tethered to one nation: the Islamic Republic of Iran. Nearly all of the groups that make up this radical collective (from Lebanon's Hezbollah to Iraq's disparate Shia militias to various Palestinian rejectionist groups) rely extensively on Tehran for economic, political and ideological support. The scope of that assistance is staggering: U.S. officials have maintained for years that Tehran "has a nine-digit line item in its budget for support to terrorist organizations," and there is abundant evidence that Tehran is deeply enmeshed in instability in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian Territories and beyond. This has given Iran's radical regime strategic influence over a broad web of terrorist actors.
Perhaps America's most important contest, however, lies within the Muslim world itself. Islam is the world's fastest-growing religion. Its adherents already make up as much as one-fifth of humanity, and - buoyed by positive demographic growth in the world's majority-Muslim countries - its ranks are poised to swell in coming generations. Although those who hold the most extreme interpretations of the religion are a distinct minority, a substantially larger percentage has proved itself sympathetic to at least certain elements of that worldview, from support for the spread of Shariah to antipathy toward the United States. Islamists of all political stripes understand this state of affairs very well and, as a result, have made it their mission to court, engage and exploit this constituency. That, in turn, makes Islam's "undecided voters" - those who have not yet become irreconcilably opposed to the West - the center of gravity in the current conflict and the place where our struggle against the extremist ideology of our adversaries will be won or lost.
Washington, however, has been woefully slow to adapt to these challenges. During the George W. Bush era, America's post-Sept. 11 offensive against al Qaeda and its Afghan hosts, the Taliban, set in motion a sweeping worldwide counterterrorism campaign that for a time put the United States on the offensive. But the subsequent war in Iraq proved costly, diverting resources from the Afghan front and - at least in the view of many critics - providing America's adversaries (including al Qaeda and Iran) with much-needed room for geopolitical maneuvering.
Since taking office, Team Obama has taken a rather different tack. President Obama undoubtedly deserves credit for the May killing of bin Laden, a feat his predecessor was never able to accomplish. His administration also has become noticeably more aggressive in prosecuting the tactical campaign against jihadist elements in a number of theaters, including South Asia and Southwest Asia. At the same time, however, the White House has waged a persistent campaign to downgrade the intellectual parameters of our current struggle from a comprehensive "war on terror" to a more modest series of "overseas contingency operations."
The results are more than merely semantic. The Obama administration's latest counterterrorism strategy, released publicly in late June, paints a simplistic picture of the contemporary threat, focusing exclusively on the state of America's campaign against al Qaeda and its affiliates. No attention, for example, is given to state sponsors such as Iran even though the U.S. State Department ranks the Islamic republic as the world's "most active state sponsor of international terrorism" and mounting reports from the field suggest that Iran is deeply involved in arming Iraq's Shia militias and Afghanistan's Sunni irregulars in their fight against coalition forces. Likewise, there is hardly a mention of the need for an expansive "battle of ideas" through which to contest al Qaeda's narrative, dilute Iranian influence and empower competing interpretations of Islam throughout the Muslim world.
As such, the Obama administration's counterterrorism strategy represents nothing so much as an exercise in deliberate minimalism. It defines down the contemporary threat arrayed against the United States and its allies and enables official Washington to declare imminent victory against it. Strategically, however, such an approach is both counterproductive and deeply dangerous. That is because the past decade has shown radical Islam to be a phenomenon that is far-flung, resilient and complex. We ignore its scope - and its menace - at our own great peril.