This paper is part of an MEI scholar series, titled "Obama's Legacy in the Middle East: Passing the Baton in 2017." Click here to view the full project, or navigate using the table of contents to the right.

There have been few terrorist attacks against the United States at home during the Obama administration and only one unsuccessful plot attributable to an al-Qa‘ida affiliate. The rapid rise of ISIS, however, posed a challenge to U.S. interests in Iraq in the second term, which has impelled the administration to intervene militarily both there and in Syria. Since the vast array of social, economic, political, ideological, and identity-related factors that favor terrorist organizations will not recede during this administration, neither will the terrorist threat. The administration’s legacy in this area will hinge on whether today’s terrorist groups retain their local focus or shift their sights to the U.S. homeland, and if they do, how effective homeland defense in combination with intelligence operations, airstrikes, and international cooperation prove to be. 

Current Situation

The United States currently faces terrorist threats to its interests from a range of regional actors. They fall into the categories of al-Qa‘ida and its affiliates and their offshoots; jihadi groups that are not affiliated with al-Qa‘ida; radicalized Americans or emigres; and Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah.

The al-Qa‘ida affiliates have striven to attack the United States several times during Obama’s presidency. Although the evidence is fragmentary, they might have been involved in the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic and intelligence installations in Benghazi. Al-Qa‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was quite active, especially toward the beginning of Obama’s first term, attempting to down at least one, and probably more, aircraft in U.S. airspace with explosives disguised as, among other things, a printer cartridge, and with a bomb secreted in the undergarment of an al-Qa‘ida volunteer. Intelligence and luck evidently thwarted these attempts. AQ also tried to attack the New York City subway system early in Obama’s first term using an Afghan-American, Najibullah Zazi, who was taken into custody before he could act; the planners were subsequently killed by the United States in Afghanistan. So-called core AQ, that is the remnant of the al-Qa‘ida founded by Osama bin Laden and situated in the AfPak region, launched a devastating attack against the CIA base at Camp Chapman in Khost, Afghanistan, killing seven intelligence officers. The suicide bomber in this case was a Jordanian double agent.

AQ suffered a serious blow with the killing of bin Laden by U.S. forces in Abbottabad, Pakistan in May 2011. Overall, AQ has been weakened by the efforts of bin Laden’s successor, Ayman al-Zawahri, to expand AQ’s reach through affiliation with local jihadi organizations and his subsequent inability to control these affiliates, which have tended to march to the beat of their own drum. Zawahri’s deputy for Syria was killed by ISIS earlier this year.

The United States has not been the primary target of most jihadi groups during this period; they have generally persevered in local settings against proximate targets. In Syria, fighters from the Middle East and North Africa, Central Asia, and Eastern and Western Europe have joined Jabhat al-Nusra—an AQ affiliate—or ISIS, whose roots lie with jihadi resistance to the U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Shi‘i Iraqis empowered by the overthrow of the Saddam Hussein regime. Both al-Nusra and ISIS have taken on the attributes of guerilla armies rather than AQ-style cellular networks, and both are under attack by U.S. and allied air forces as of late 2014.

Al-Qa‘ida in the Maghreb (AQIM) emerged as a major player on the African Mediterranean rim, especially after the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011. The civil war and collapse of state capacity created significant opportunities, particularly for Libyans who had left the country years before, both to escape Qaddafi’s suppression of Salafi activism and to join the jihad in South Asia. AQIM was also involved in a jihadi attempt to seize northern Mali, which was blocked by French and African intervention, although scattered attacks in that area as well as Niger and the Sahel continue. AQIM was not the only jihadi presence in that part of the broader region. In late 2012, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a legendary AQIM commander, split from the group to form Al Murabitoun, which besieged the Tiguentourine gas facility near Amenas in Algeria in 2013, holding about 800 employees hostage and eventually killing 39, including three Americans. Also in 2013, this group assailed a Nigerian military base and French uranium mine.  Another group, Ansar al-Shariah, has also been active in Tunisia, where it has attacked tourist sites, and in Benghazi and Darnah in Libya. These activists are not AQ affiliates but are clearly energized by the same ideological current.

The majority of the hundred or so AQAP attacks in the past year have been aimed at Yemeni targets. Its leader, Nasser al-Wuhayshi, has been selected by Ayman al-Zawahri as the deputy commander of core AQ, and is clearly committed to attacking the “far enemy,” the movement’s name for the United States. AQAP has both the capability and intention to continue targeting U.S. interests.

The Sinai Peninsula emerged as a significant magnet for terrorists in the wake of the 2011 revolution in Egypt. Ansar Beit al-Maqdis targeted the Egyptian leadership, law enforcement and military personnel, as well as Israel. Palestinian terrorist organizations also launched thousands of rockets and mortar rounds against civilian targets in Israel in both 2012 and 2014, sparking destructive rounds of fighting in both years.

On the fringes of the Arab world, Al Shabab has demonstrated an ability to carry out spectacular attacks even when under serious pressure, such as the 2013 assault on the Westgate mall in Nairobi, Kenya that killed 65 people, including foreign nationals from 13 countries and six soldiers and police officers. The group has killed hundreds more on its home ground. And farther afield in Nigeria, Boko Haram has carried out a steady stream of attacks against civilian targets, including notorious kidnappings of young women, while defying the attempts of the Nigerian state to neutralize it.

Iranian involvement in terrorism increased in 2012 with shipment of weapons to Houthi rebels in Yemen and killing Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Iran also conducted pre-operational surveillance against Israelis in Cyprus and attempted to kill others in Thailand. Tehran has also tried to ship weapons to anti-government militants in Bahrain, and plotted to kill the Saudi ambassador to the United States on American soil in 2012.

So-called “lone offenders”—U.S. officials object to the valorizing tone of the usual term, “lone wolves”—have also been a feature of the Obama years. In 2009, an army major, Nidal Malik Hasan, killed fellow soldiers at Fort Hood, a U.S. military installation. A year later, Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate a large bomb in Times Square in New York City. Then, in 2013, two brothers of Chechen origin exploded twin bombs near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring hundreds.

Dynamics and Drivers

Sunni extremists share a basic vocabulary and inventory of tropes that combine elements of Salafism—particularly an emphasis on boundaries between permissible and impermissible, acceptable and unacceptable—with anti-colonial themes, calls for social justice, and demands that human law be subordinated to divine law. Some believe that the reestablishment of the caliphate, which ended in 1923, is necessary to secure a truly Islamic society. Iranian terrorism, in contrast, is a geopolitical tool, as is Palestinian violence directed at civilians, despite the religious convictions and justifications that may be linked to the violence. 

For Iran, terrorism allows the regime to strike Israel—its regional rival and ideological adversary—with limited risk of Israeli retaliation against Iran. The clerical regime backs Hezbollah in part for the same purpose. Its alliance with Hezbollah does what physical geography would otherwise not permit, that is, it puts Iranian military power on northern Israel’s border. Iran’s support for Hamas, which would otherwise appear to violate the sectarian divide between Sunni and Shi‘a, enables Tehran not only to harass Israel but also to claim the mantle of defender of Arab Palestine, an important element of the regime’s broader claim to regional supremacy. The patron-client relationship between Hezbollah and Iran also enabled Iran to mobilize Hezbollah’s support for the Syrian regime, Tehran’s longtime regional ally and the conduit for its military assistance to Hezbollah.

The drivers of Sunni radicalism include state failure, lack of options for political participation, structural unemployment, environmental devastation, and a history of high levels of violence both between state and society and within society itself. Porous borders, the availability of weapons, ample combat experience, and a social media environment conducive to recruiting fighters and maintaining public support are other motivations.

There are strategic differences among Sunni extremists even as their ideologies and worldviews seem very similar. AQ core remains very much focused on the far enemy and tends to encourage humane treatment by jihadis of co-religionists. ISIS, on the other hand, is very focused on the near enemy—its calls for attacks in the United States and Europe notwithstanding—and on ruthless enforcement of rules it considers to be authentically Islamic.

The sharp decrease in state capacity in Libya, Sinai, Mali, Niger, the Sahel, Syria, and Iraq has created the space in which armed groups can operate. At this stage, it seems unlikely that the conditions that have contributed to jihadism will abate in the foreseeable future.

Sectarianism emerged as a somewhat more powerful driver than it had been in the past, especially among Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. This trend was driven, in part, by the use of sectarianism for geopolitical purposes by Arab and Iranian contenders for regional influence. This development will likely prove difficult to reverse.

Obama’s Legacy

The Obama administration’s legacy will be complex. His administration showed how the alluvial collection of intelligence over time, combined with the use of advanced platforms, such as armed UAVs, and special operations could seriously weaken even a determined adversary like al-Qa‘ida. The targeting and killing of bin Laden will come to symbolize this aspect of his legacy.

At the same time, the high level of spending on homeland security during the span of his administration and the administration’s defense of aggressive communications surveillance policies will likely be seen as critical aspects of his overall legacy.

The administration’s efforts to strengthen international partnerships, particularly through the Global Counterterrorism Forum, and to intensify efforts to stanch funding for terrorism will constitute a less glamorous and certainly less controversial part of Obama’s legacy. The administration’s efforts to develop a compelling counter-narrative were, on balance, unsuccessful, but largely because no outsider narrative can counter the tangible spurs to jihadi violence that are at work within the region.

Obama’s legacy, at least in the near term, will be complicated by the controversy surrounding his decision to distance the United States from the civil war in Syria. From the administration’s perspective, the non-jihadi opposition was too fragmented and unreliable to form an effective anti-regime force. Critics dispute this, claiming that a more robust effort to arm the opposition would have stymied the growth of ISIS. This, however, is a duel of counterfactuals, so views on this question will probably forever remain based on speculation.  Over time, the administration’s legacy will probably be shaped by the outcome of the multi-year campaign now underway to attack ISIS by air, while building Iraqi, Kurdish, and perhaps Syrian counterinsurgency capabilities, as well as by ISIS’s ability to maintain cohesion among its diverse constituents as military pressure on the group slowly builds.

>> Series Overview: Obama's Legacy in the Middle East