More than 20 years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Biden has shifted the way America fights the war on terror by launching fewer drone strikes, embracing an over-the-horizon approach to killing terrorists in Afghanistan and leveraging alliances.
Following last year’s pullout of U.S. forces from Afghanistan — ending a war that the 9/11 attacks tipped off — Biden has placed more emphasis on working with and through allies to target both new and long-standing foreign terrorist groups.
Meanwhile, Biden is also prioritizing keeping a light footprint abroad, including by using drones and special forces. This marks a major shift from the large numbers of American service members sent overseas to fight the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, as well as to far-flung locations including Syria and Somalia.
But as the Biden administration pushes forward with its counterterrorism strategy, it will have to balance its efforts to combat foreign terrorists with addressing the threat of domestic extremism, experts say.
“I think this is the challenge that the Biden administration is juggling — I’d say generally [it] is doing well,” said Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“Certainly, I think [he’s] taking this range of threats quite seriously. But part of it I think is not being lulled into a sense of complacency that very resilient and determined long-standing adversaries like al Qaeda have disappeared, even ISIS have disappeared and no longer pose a threat,” he continued.
In keeping its footprint small in the Middle East, the U.S. maintains about 900 troops in Syria to counter ISIS in the country and has re-deployed troops to Somalia to counter al Qaeda affiliate al-Shabaab — a reversal of former President Trump’s decision to withdraw the 700 troops that were there.
The administration sought to prove that it could still fight terrorists from afar while maintaining that small footprint in early August, when it conducted an over-the-horizon drone strike — which didn’t involve troops directly on the ground — that killed al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. But whether the over-the-horizon approach works is still up for debate.
“Al-Zawahiri was tracked to Kabul, but he was hiding in plain sight. I’m not sure that it’s proof of the over-the-horizon strategy working. That’s disrupting major terrorist plots and taking out the mid-level commanders, and the operations personnel,” Hoffman said.
Some terrorism experts see Biden shifting toward a broader, longer-term strategy to approaching counterterrorism that isn’t very reliant on boots on the ground, but rather one that focuses on zeroing in on how terrorist groups grow.
Audrey Kurth Cronin, a professor in the School of International Service at American University, said a big part of this is the Department of Defense’s recent efforts to mitigate civilian harm resulting from U.S. military activities. The Pentagon unveiled the Civilian Harm Mitigation and Response Action Plan on Aug. 25, which directs sweeping changes in military planning, training, doctrine and policy for future conflicts.
Not only would a plan like this protect local civilians — who are always impacted by terrorism — but it helps when dealing with terrorist groups that rely on mobilizing grassroots support.
“The only way that you can end groups that rely on mobilization — groups like al Qaeda and also ISIS — is to reduce the number of people that are likely to either actively or passively support them,” she said. “One way to do that … is to absolutely minimize the impact on civilians and to be very transparent with how you do that.”
Others see the move as a direct reaction to the political fallout of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which included surging troops to the countries by the thousands with no clear ending in sight.
“My strong sense is that the lesson in every subsequent administration has been to try and keep military action off the front pages as absolutely as much as possible,” said Ret. Army Col. Gregory Daddis, a professor of U.S. military history at the San Diego State University who served in Iraq.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., the administration has looked to combat domestic terrorism, which the FBI defines as violent, criminal acts committed by people or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences.
The White House released a strategy in June 2021 to combat domestic terrorism, centered around federal agencies enhancing and improving how they share domestic terrorism-related information, preventing domestic terrorists from mobilizing Americans, disrupting their activities before they yield violence and addressing the long-term issues that contribute to domestic terrorism.
Cronin warned that domestic terrorism is difficult to address because efforts to do so can easily bleed into current domestic polarization by giving the appearance of making largely political choices.
“It’s a situation in the United States where our domestic laws are much more difficult to align with, compared to the laws that we use in order to fight international terrorism,” she said. “That’s for a good reason — we’re protecting domestic rights, we have a Constitution, [it’s] very tricky to define exactly what terrorism means domestically without becoming very political.”
Moving forward, experts say that Biden will have to be able to allocate resources wisely as he deals with multiple counterterrorism challenges — particularly as acute threats caused by Russia, China and the pandemic emerge.
“I think the American public and republics of many countries throughout the world, not just in the West, are tired of the War on Terror the same way they’re tired of the global pandemic, and they want to put both of them in the rearview mirror. I think the main challenge for the Biden administration is to be able to develop a flexible and adaptive security strategy that enables us to focus on the array of really unprecedented threats that a presidential administration faces now,” Hoffman said.