Crowded celebrations throughout the United States this July 4th are a tempting target for ISIS and other radical groups. From fireworks to festivals, children and parents, security and police will be stretched thin -- and terrorists see an opportunity to outdo the Boston Marathon bombing in bloodshed.
Three attacks on three separate continents last week -- in Tunisia, France and Kuwait -- add to international concerns that there is more to come. Each one targeted civilians in large crowds, and in each case, the perpetrators had been influenced by radicals fighting in Syria.
How did we get here?
It has been a tragic case of history repeating itself: Al Qaeda formed in 1989, riding the coattails of victory against the Soviets by a range of jihadist actors. When the U.S. pulled out of Somalia four years later, following the ugly battle depicted in the movie Black Hawk Down, Osama bin Laden hailed it as the U.S. "dragging its tails in failure, defeat and ruin." These "victories" became staples of al Qaeda propaganda in the 1990s. The 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan following the September 11 attacks dealt a setback to the movement by driving out many of the fighters from their strongholds -- and a decade of hard-nosed counterterrorist action culminated in 2010 with Bin Laden's killing and President Obama's declaration that Al-Qaeda is "on a path to defeat." Perhaps he was right at the time. But with the war in Syria, the movement and its offshoots acquired a new leash on life. America's withdrawal from Iraq presented ISIS with its own basis to claim "victory," and in the warped mindset of the international jihadist, the subsequent televised beheadings added to its prestige. ISIS is now believed to control more than $1 billion in assets, thanks to oil sales and theft.
Now more than 7,000 foreign fighters have joined the war in Syria, thanks to estimates by U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper -- from at least 50 countries. Other estimates say 12,000 foreigners have come to Syria. More than 2,500 are believed to be Westerners, including the United States.
Thus Syria has become the new Afghanistan, a failed state offering a place for jihadists to gain battlefield training and ideological immersion. Making bombs and shooting accurately requires many months of devoted practice. Serving in a war adds to a combatant's prestige, clearly separating the talkers from the doers. Over the last decade, having lost its training camps in Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda had failed to strike the United States due in large part to poor bomb-making skills. The Times Square bomber is a classic case. But now ISIS has acres for training camps and a nearby war to hone its evil arts-- having conquered territory in Syria and Iraq that is roughly the size of Belgium. As a result, the next generation of bombers will be far more skillful and deadly. And America faces a new threat -- from returning U.S. citizens who have been brainwashed and battle-hardened, and other Western passport holders who can easily enter the country on a "visa waiver" basis.
The BCIJ, Morocco's "FBI," augments its counterterrorism operations.
In the short term, American security measures should be tightened, to be sure. And the U.S. can more closely cooperate with the security services of its Arab allies, benefiting from the latter's human intelligence while sharing its own technological intelligence. Short of putting "boots on the ground," the U.S. can intensify its military struggle against ISIS as well. But looking ahead from the tactical to the strategic, Americans must more deeply engage the Middle East and North Africa beyond the realms if spying and fighting -- and support indigenous efforts to defeat the ideology that informs the terror. An example of a worthy ally in such an effort is Morocco, whose king, Mohammed VI has been successful in preempting jihadist recruitment within his borders and beyond -- thanks to a holistic counterterrorism strategy that goes back over a decade. His strategy is based on support for political reforms to foster inclusive governance, economic and human development, and a values-based cultural intervention within the society. The king has reformed the religious establishment by evicting jihadist preachers from the country's mosques and investing heavily in the spiritual, Sufi strand of Islam -- its traditions deeply rooted in Morocco's history and culture. And he has exported Sufi "soft power" to terror-ravaged countries in sub-Saharan Africa, notably Mali, by training imams in those countries as well. For Americans, how to build on such efforts should be a national security priority.