What a difference a couple of months can make. This summer, the Bipartisan Policy Center released a new report from Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, the original co-chairmen of the 9/11 Commission. That study, titled "Today's Rising Terrorist Threat and the Danger to the United States," warned that America was running the risk of becoming a victim of its own counterterrorism success.
"With growing fatigue after 13 years of counterterrorism struggle, with 9/11 receding into memory, and with a younger generation with only the vaguest recollection of the attacks, complacency is setting in," the authors warned. As a result, "There is a danger that this waning sense of urgency will divert attention and needed resources from counterterrorism efforts."
That's decidedly not true today. Over the past several weeks, the growing territorial gains and unfettered brutality of the group now known as the Islamic State has galvanized American attention and public opinion more than at any time in the past decade. In a recent ABC poll, 91 percent or respondents viewed the Islamic State as a serious threat, and 71 percent backed the use of airstrikes against the group.
President Obama has responded in kind. He has pledged to "start going on some offense" against the Islamic State, and outlined his plans to do so via both air power and the creation of a like-minded coalition of the willing. As a result, today, on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, the United States is on the cusp of a new counterterrorism campaign to defeat and degrade radical Islam's most recent manifestation.
As it does, the White House would do well to keep a few facts in mind.
The Islamic State is part of a larger whole. Policy conversations within the Washington Beltway have tended to characterize the Islamic State as a new, more virulent and capable version of al Qaeda. That's true enough, as far as it goes, and a tug of war for ideological legitimacy can now be seen playing out between the two groups. However, this conversation is taking place within the context of a broad global Islamist movement, one whose constituent parts both collaborate and compete.
Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, in other words, are not irreconcilable opposites. Rather, they are different interpretations of a powerful, and popular, Islamist ideology that is at war with the West. Addressing the Islamic State, without recognizing the broader problem of which it is a part, is a recipe for strategic defeat.
Nothing succeeds like success. The meteoric rise of the Islamic State, and its establishment of a new caliphate on territory roughly the size of the state of Maryland, has become a model of emulation. For example, the Nigerian Islamist group Boko Haram has begun to mimic the Islamic State in its attempts to create an African caliphate of its own.
It stands to reason, then, that a collapse of the Islamic State's sanctuary in Iraq and Syria will lead to a re-evaluation of both tactics and objectives by other, like-minded groups. American strategy, now focused simply on eroding the Islamic State's gains in Iraq, should take this into account — and make the collapse of the group's caliphate a core objective.
The Obama administration has remained studiously silent on the question of the strategic significance of Syria ever since the start of the civil war there some 3 years ago. It is now undeniable that what began as an internal conflict has metastasized into a global one.
Syria has become the new Afghanistan, a crucible for what is increasingly a regional and global jihad. Authorities now estimate that some 10,000 foreign fighters are operating on the Syrian battlefield, and law enforcement agencies the world over are bracing for their eventual return. The course of the Syrian conflict, in other words, will have a pronounced impact on the contours of the terrorist threat confronting the West in the next decade. Preparing for this threat at home needs to be a key priority.
All this speaks to the need for a broader, more multifaceted counterterrorism strategy than the one currently on display in Washington. For, if the "complacency" that Mr. Kean and Mr. Hamilton recently warned about is no longer a problem, the core judgment of the 9/11 Commission 10 years ago — that those attacks were made possible by a "failure of imagination" — certainly is. Today's counterterrorism approach, focused overwhelmingly on the threat du jour in the form of the Islamic State, shows little sign of being serious and sustained enough to respond to the changing nature of contemporary Islamic extremism. Because it is not, America still runs the risk of the bloody history of Sept. 11 repeating itself anew.