President Trump's unexpected December announcement that America would pull its military forces out of Syria has reignited a debate over the future of U.S. counterterrorism policy in Washington.
Experts and specialists have noted that, despite the almost-total defeat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the group retains a global operational presence, is still active in other theaters (like North Africa and Southeast Asia), and maintains a resonant ideological message that continues to draw recruits to its cause. Nevertheless, with the collapse of the ISIS "caliphate," it's clear that the complexion of the "war on terror" is changing – and doing so in significant ways. Simply put, the decline of ISIS has ushered in a new era of decentralized jihad.
The shift is significant. At the height of its power in late 2014 and early 2015, the Islamic State controlled a territory of approximately 81,000 square miles - a geographical expanse that was roughly equivalent to the size of the United Kingdom. During this period, the terror group held sway over some eight million civilians, a population on a par with that of Switzerland, and generated a yearly revenue of $1 billion.
ISIS, in other words, looked like it was winning – and other extremists took notice. By 2016, nearly three dozen separate radical groups had made common cause with, or pledged allegiance to, ISIS and its emir, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. That list included, among others, Nigeria's militant Boko Haram movement, the radical Ansar al-Khilafah group in the Philippines, and the violent Ansar Beit al-Maqdis militia located in the Sinai Peninsula.
Today, these factions have been deeply affected by the Islamic State's decline. But they haven't been fundamentally derailed by it.
That's because, in virtually all cases, the groups that made common cause with ISIS were independent entities first, and still retain autonomous personnel, infrastructure and operational capabilities. Indeed, for many, affiliation with the Islamic State was more an ideological and political alignment than a genuine merger. And now that the global standing of ISIS has been eroded, these affiliates have become unmoored from the "caliphate" and are free to pursue their own, independent objectives.
The results are visible in developments like Boko Haram's redoubled efforts to establish a local caliphate in Nigeria's north, and a spike in the anti-state activities of Somalia's militant al-Shabaab movement.
This doesn't mean that ISIS is no longer relevant, of course. It maintains the ability to inspire, to mobilize and to carry out significant acts of terror, as recent attacks in Syria and growing activity by its affiliates in places like the Sahel suggest). Nevertheless, the diminished status of the Islamic State has led to a scattering of sorts in the global Salafi-jihadi movement, which previously had been largely consolidated around the ISIS "brand."
What does all this signify? For America's allies in the Middle East and North Africa, the threat posed by extremist factions remains as real and pressing as ever, requiring a resolute response and the continued allocation of resources. For America, however, it may not be.
During his successful 2016 bid for president, candidate Trump campaigned heavily on the need to defeat the Islamic State, but also on the importance of withdrawing America from what he saw as needless foreign entanglements. Now that he believes the first objective has been sufficiently achieved, the President is proceeding with the second.
All of which raises real questions about whether the Trump administration will view today's new, more diffuse, terrorism threat environment as America's problem... or simply as someone else's.