This week the Islamic State released a propaganda video that included helmet-cam footage from more than one of the U.S. soldiers killed in an ambush in Niger last October. The video, which the group released through its official Telegram channel, is sickening, and ends with a group of fighters standing over a dead or dying soldier and firing repeatedly into his body.
The video is propaganda that plays into their narrative, and I’m not going to be complicit. If you’d like to watch it, you can find it.
The release of the video—which the Islamic State held onto for nearly half a year—might have been strategic: The Pentagon had been expected to publish this week the conclusions of its internal investigation into that ambush. (Some details of the report were leaked today; more on that later.)
Alternatively, though, the video might be an example of what we can expect as the Islamic State metastasizes in the wake of its losses in Iraq and Syria. The video begins with a regional terrorist group pledging allegiance to Abu al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-proclaimed caliph. It’s likely the group in Niger passed the captured video to IS central when they joined, which would explain the long delay.
This offers us a chance to check out the state of terrorism today, and what the U.S. is doing around the world to fight it. Our military is much more active than you might think. We know a lot about Iraq and Syria already, so we’ll look at five other hotspots:
You Can’t Bomb an Ideology
The governing truth we have to understand is that, despite Trump’s trumpeting of the Islamic State’s demise in Iraq and Syria, the “war on terror” will never end. At least not in a practical sense for the foreseeable future. That war will only evolve and, from a military perspective, grow slightly less dangerous but much more difficult. This is ironically because we’ve dismantled the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria.
After a brutal but foolish years-long campaign to consolidate a caliphate, the Islamic State has all but lost the fight there. This doesn’t mean the group has been defeated, though. Instead it has taken a cue from the far less foolish al Qaeda and decentralized, installing and inspiring affiliate group—called wilayats—around the world.
The breadth of this diaspora makes it unlikely we’ll ever defeat the Islamic State, al Qaeda, or their affiliates—as the cliche goes, you can’t bomb an ideology—but we can try to contain them. Decentralization, however, makes even that job much harder. After all, when the Islamic State took territory in Iraq and Syria, it also created a massive target. Now, though, the U.S. and our allies face the prospect of endless, worldwide whack-a-mole.
We’ve been at this for years. If that’s news, I don’t blame you: The U.S. military knows the war on terror is unpopular, so they try to keep operations under wraps. Sometimes the Pentagon doesn’t even fully inform government leaders, as we learned when Senator Lindsey Graham expressed his surprise at learning of our presence in Niger only after the October ambush.
First, then, let’s check out our presence in Niger.
Last October’s ambush of U.S. and Nigerien special forces revealed in tragic fashion a U.S. military operation not many Americans were aware of. (For more background on that ambush, check out this piece.)
For instance, we currently have 800 troops in Niger. We’re also building an enormous airbase there, so we can carry out drone missions across the country, along with neighboring Mali, Libya, Algeria, and possibly Nigeria. NATO allies also staff troops in Niger, a good chunk of them French.
A good chunk of the militant threat to Niger itself comes from across its northwestern border with Mali, where a number of terrorist groups operate. (That’s where we believe the group that ambushed the U.S. forces originated.) It’s all but impossible to understand what’s going on there: Some groups are al Qaeda affiliates, some Islamic State, and others wage independent insurgencies. They also sometimes fight each other, and, as we saw with the recent Islamic State video, they can shift alliances with the desert wind. Fighting them effectively is even more difficult.
The Pentagon’s probe into the ambush illustrates this. According to military officials who spoke to the Associated Press under the condition of anonymity, the investigation determined that the patrol changed the objective and trajectory of its mission on its own, instead of informing superior commanders and waiting for them to sign off. The patrol—which included Nigerien troops and U.S. “advisers”—chose to pursue a militant leader who it heard was in the region, but the soldiers turned for home when they learned he’d left. They were then ambushed by an estimated 100 fighters, who killed four U.S. soldiers and four Nigerien soldiers.
According to the officials, the report doesn’t offer conclusions about whether senior command would have vetoed or changed the patrol’s plan. Those officials also said, however, that had the soldiers notified their superiors they’d likely have received more support, possibly including additional ground forces.
What can we expect now? The military isn’t scaling back operations in Niger, but it will reportedly implement and enforce more rigid rules for mission oversight. If anything, we can expect the military to commit additional resources in the form of vehicles with more armor, and possibly more drone coverage.
In other words, we’re not leaving Niger any time soon. Before we knee-jerk disagree with that policy, though, we’ve got to understand we’re not there for no reason, and we’re not tolerating the loss of U.S. troops for no reason. There are echoes of Syria and Iraq: The vast lawless areas around Niger provide an ideal place for groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda to establish operations, recruit and train fighters, and gather resources. If those groups grow much stronger they’ll pose a legitimate threat to the already wobbly governments in the region, which is among other things rich in natural resources, including oil and mineral elements used in batteries. The major worry here isn’t because we’re oil-hungry, but that these resources offer terrorists major revenue streams, which we also saw in Iraq and Syria. The more money and space and instability that the Islamic State and al Qaeda can generate (the groups hate each other, by the way, and they compete and fight viciously), the stronger they’ll grow, and the greater threat they’ll pose to Western Africa, Europe, and the United States.
That’s not an endorsement of U.S. military policy there, but we’ve got to realize that there’s no easy answer—including withdrawing troops—if there’s an answer at all.
Which takes us to Afghanistan.
This summer Donald Trump announced an increase of an unspecified number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. (The general thinking is 4,000.) Trump, knowing this is politically unpopular—he got elected on an isolationist platform and has been highly critical of that war—promised that U.S. forces are only there to fight terrorists. That’s it. No nation-building, no open-ended commitment, etc.
Whether Trump knows it or not, this is bullshit.
Afghanistan is quicksand: We’re stuck there, and if we try to pull out we’ll only make it worse in the long run.
That said, there’s a lot wrong with what we’re doing. Here’s a good breakdown of the situation from Jake Weindling. For just one example, we’re basically fighting the war for the Afghan government, which has accepted a lot of money and resources from us and offered milquetoast reciprocation. But the Afghan government has all the leverage, enough to risk their survival: If we leave the country, things fall apart, and if things fall apart it’s bad news for the U.S.
First, the Taliban will likely regain control. The Taliban government sheltered Osama Bin Laden while he planned the September 11 attacks, and there’s little doubt that al Qaeda and the Islamic State will take advantage of the security vacuum to regroup and strengthen. Similar to the situation in Africa, this will give rise to a bigger threat to the U.S.
Then there’s neighboring Pakistan, which Trump has already singled out for not helping the United States enough. Affiliates of both the Islamic State and al Qaeda operate in Pakistan—as do dangerous insurgent groups—and many fighters cross the border between the two countries. Pakistan has nuclear weapons.
Afghanistan also shares a border with Iran.
So yes, we can decrease our presence in Afghanistan, but remember that our troop increases are a result of troop decreases: they create security vacuums, and terrorist groups will and have exploited those vacuums to grow and stage attacks. For one example, the Islamic State has made inroads in Afghanistan, where previously it had been unable to establish a presence. This gave us concern enough to drop the infamous “Mother of All Bombs” on a large underground Islamic State redoubt last year.
Trump was out of the loop in that decision. He’s also asked to stay out of the loop everywhere else, following the disastrous raid in Yemen last February.
Which brings us to Yemen.
Salmon Fishing in the Yemen…
...is a ridiculous title for a rom-com. Yemen is f*cked beyond anyone’s understanding of anything being f*cked. The U.S. left after our airbase was overrun in the war years ago. The country’s central government simply can’t care for its people. The war has erased the infrastructure. Untold thousands have died in a famine that threatens literally millions of people. Medical care is as scarce there as fresh water, which is also cause for violence. Who knows how many terrorist, insurgent, foreign, and government forces are fighting each other. It’s a proxy war for Iran and Saudi Arabia, which has scattershot bombed the hell out of the place, including hundreds of innocent civilians (using American weapon systems; Trump just sold them billions worth). As for us, we’ve carried out untold clandestine drone strikes there for years and years.
But one week into his administration, Trump ordered the first U.S. ground force raid Yemen since we left the airbase. It was a disaster, and led to the death of a special forces soldier. No matter: We carried out a second one, too.
If you’re interested in learning more about Yemen—and I feel every American ought to be—here’s more background.
So yes, even though al Qaeda and a bunch of other groups operate in Yemen with impunity, this is one place where it’s beyond me why we’re investing anything besides trying as hard as we can to stop hundreds of thousands children from dying of hunger. That’s all I have to say about that.
Yes: The U.S. has had a special forces presence in the Philippines for the last 15 years. In 2015 we ended our official mission there, but it didn’t take long for terrorist organizations to regroup in the security vacuum. And so it didn’t take long for us to return.
The Islamic State emerged only recently in the Philippines, where for years the al Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has dominated the militant landscape. Though ASG has made feints at allegiance to the Islamic State, it still hasn’t officially declared a wilayat (a province of the Islamic State) in the Philippines.
Importantly, groups here affiliated with the Islamic State receive support from the core group in Iraq and Syria. The organization has reportedly given one Philippine affiliate—the Maute group—two million dollars to fund attacks. Last June, the Maute group, along with ASG and various associated groups, captured Malawi, a city in the south with a population of 200,000. In response, Philippine forces, including elite U.S.-trained units, laid siege to Malawi for three months before overcoming the militants, in part because the terrorists somehow received material support from outside the city. The New York Timesreported that U.S. forces allegedly fought in the siege.
There’s a reason the Islamic State targeted Malawi: The group wants to exploit ethnic and religious divides in the Philippines, where the south is mostly Muslim and the north—home to the capital, Manilla—is heavily Catholic. The Philippine government’s violent crackdown on terrorism in the south won’t help, and in fact it has already pushed some civilians to join the insurgents.
It’s unclear how our military commitment in the Philippines will evolve, or whether we’d even want to ally with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, whose security policies have included the ongoing extra-judicial killings of thousands of drug addicts.
This ethical dilemma—support bad guys to stop the really bad guys—is a running theme to the war on terror.
Which brings us to Somalia.
Yes: We’ve got troops in Somalia again. Remember Blackhawk Down in the 1990s? We’ve just carried out the first U.S. military operations in Somalia since then.
Our primary target is an al Qaeda affiliate called al Shabaab, which has a strong presence in the country’s south and has carried out a series of horrific attacks there, as well as across the border in Kenya.
—During the 2010 World Cup Final they bombed a restaurant in Kampala, the capital of Uganda, which killed 74 people.
—Al Shabaab gunmen carried out the 2013 attack and siege on the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, which killed about 70 people.
—In 2015 al Shabaab gunmen killed 148 people in a raid at a university in Kenya that targeted Christians.
—In January 2016 the Somalian government accused the group of an attack on a Kenyan military base that killed about 180 soldiers.
—Most recently, al Shabaab was blamed for killing at least 500 people in a truck bombing in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in October 2017. Al Shabaab didn’t claim responsibility.
President Trump, in the first weeks of his presidency, signed an order declaring parts of Somalia “areas of active hostilities”—a term that relaxed the rules of engagement for U.S. forces in the region, practically declaring open season. We’ve now got more than 500 troops in the country, and last year conducted 34 (reported) airstrikes. To give you an idea of how much an effect Trump’s directive has had, that’s as many airstrikes in Somalia as in the previous 16 years, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. The U.S. also carried out three (reported) ground strikes in the country last year.
Trump’s directive has also unsurprisingly led to an increase in civilian deaths. In all, hundreds of people have been killed, the vast majority of them militants, but also many civilians, some of them children.
For example, on August 17, 2017, three airstrikes that we claimed to have “killed terrorists” reportedly killed a family of civilians. Somali media published photos of their bodies. A few days later a US.-led military raid near Mogadishu killed ten people, including children. The families took the victims’ bodies into Mogadishu. In response, Somali officials apologized to the family and offered compensation. The U.S. still says no civilians were killed in that raid.
It’s a little unclear why we ramped up our activity so steeply last year, but it’s likely a combination of reasons. The 2016 truck bombing in Mogadishu, in combination with attacks on hotels in the city, signaled that al Shabaab might soon be capable of returning to Mogadishu and destabilizing the capital. The botched raid on the city outskirts seems to reinforce this interpretation.
But conversely we might have escalated because we think we’ve got al Shabaab on the ropes: Mogadishu is under government control, and the militant group has largely been relegated to the country’s south. Or perhaps Trump’s commanders told him that the directive would formalize a marginally legal Obama-era expanded interpretation of an “imminent threat” to U.S. interests there.
Lastly, the African Union has committed troops to Somalia for years now, supposedly there to help us out, though they’ve been accused of rampant corruption. On top of that, the five African countries committing those troops just held a summit to discuss withdrawing forces in 2020. They plan to fill the gap by training local police—which will nip that corruption problem in the bud, right?
Our most recent airstrike in Somalia was on December 27. That day, Trump tweeted stats boasting about U.S. military gains against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.