Whatever it takes, ISIL needs to be crushed. There is no doubt about that, particularly because its ranks include an estimated 2,000 Europeans and anywhere from a dozen to a hundred Americans. Those who survive the fighting may head for home, well trained in the basics of terrorism and a serious menace to their homelands. Just because ISIL does not constantly rant about attacking the West does not mean it is not a long-term threat. Reducing their numbers as much as possible and as soon as possible is just common sense.
With its bloody video messages and sophisticated use of social media, ISIL is a magnet for public attention. But while ISIL claims headlines, Al Qaeda and its affiliates attract less notice as they continue to grow, strengthening their roots in a much broader area than ISIL controls. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia are parts of a network that the United States and its allies have never fully understood how to fight. Last week, a new Al Qaeda outpost was announced to "raise the flag of jihad" in Muslim South Asia. By comparison, ISIL is an intense but limited phenomenon that because of the defined territory it occupies more likely could be defeated if those who oppose it muster the will and muscle to do so.
A case can be made that Al Qaeda is more potent now than it was when led by Osama bin Laden. During the first years of Bin Laden's tenure, Al Qaeda had a conventional top-down structure, and if Bin Laden had been removed early on, the organization might well have deflated. By the time he was killed, Bin Laden was more symbol than leader, and today, although it has a new titular head, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda has largely transformed itself into a network with nodes of varying size and capabilities. Even if a Zero Dark Thirty-type raid were to eliminate al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda's operations would barely be damaged.
For dealing with ISIL, a sensible strategy would include building and deploying an Arab military coalition. This takes work, but as Secretary of State James Baker proved during the run-up to the 1991 Gulf War, it can be done. Arab states that are usually reluctant to do anything more than talk might by now be worried enough to act. When Iranian officials visit Saudi Arabia to discuss the ISIS rampage, as happened recently, the region's dynamics are changing.
A unified Arab strike force could inflict significant damage on ISIL, but that would not work with Al Qaeda; its pieces are too dispersed. Dealing with Al Qaeda today requires a mix of hard and soft power. Air strikes, such as the one directed at Al-Shabaab this week, are helpful but are dependent on precise intelligence, which is usually in short supply.
Also, in certain places such intervention could have significant political repercussions. Tunisia, for example, is plagued by a swarm of Al Qaeda-affiliated groups and has seen a measurable flow of its citizens join the Syrian fighters. That is not easily addressed. Since 2011, Tunisia has been advertised by U.S. policymakers and others as evidence of the Arab Spring's success. On its own, Tunisia has had mixed results in maintaining its security, but intervention directed at Al Qaeda would almost certainly lead to a backlash that would undermine what little influence the West has there.
Similar political deterrents to using hard power exist throughout the region. The leaders of Al Qaeda's various pieces need to be picked off over time, but meanwhile more attention should be paid to drying up its reservoir of recruits. This is where soft power can play an important role. Dealing effectively with Al Qaeda requires understanding why people join terrorist groups. Some are true religious or political ideologues who have thought through their commitment to bloodshed and eventual martyrdom. They will not be turned away. But many others have merely drifted into the world of terrorism, won over by fast talk or glorified images. They respond to the most convincing voice they hear, and too often such voices are evil but uncontested.
That points to the greatest flaw in counterterrorism strategy. Those of us who cherish logic assume that a nudge or two will bring misdirected young people back to their senses. Such an approach underestimates the allure of extremist appeals. For a 17-year-old with no defined path through life, those appeals resonate; the online recruiting videos are insidiously enticing, and the vision of an afterlife in paradise contrasts starkly with harsh reality. Recruiting efforts are also reaching a growing number of women who are enlisting in terrorist organizations either as combatants or in response to calls to become mothers of the next generation of fighters. Counteracting extremist messages requires a diverse array of voices: moderate clerics; former fighters who have turned away from the cause; mothers who have seen their children murdered by supposedly holy warriors; and others who see no glory in slaughter. A chorus of such voices can be assembled. So far, however, compared to Al Qaeda's persistent siren song, the response has been off-key.
A prediction: Al Qaeda will still be around after ISIL has become a sour memory, and it will still need to be fought, more thoughtfully and comprehensively than has been the case until now.