A new expert study argues that the "growing" threat of foreign extremist groups requires a continued U.S. focus on the Middle East and North Africa.
The RAND Corp. report, released on Wednesday, urges Washington to maintain its foreign counterterrorism focus in spite of numerous other security challenges that are clamoring for the country's attention and money.
"Based on these threats, the United States cannot afford to withdraw or remain disengaged from key parts of North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia," report author Seth Jones said in a provided statement.
Jones, associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, recommends that a "more adaptive" counterterrorism policy be developed that relies on diplomacy, special forces and intelligence capabilities "to conduct precision targeting of these groups and their financial, logistical and political support networks -- where there is a high threat to the U.S. and a low local government capacity," according to a RAND press release.
U.S. President Obama last week asked Congress to authorize up to $5 billion in new funding for the establishment of a Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund. The money, as outlined by the administration, would be used to improve the ability of partner nations to combat local extremist groups. However, the prospects of that funding being approved in the next budget cycle do not look good, according to a Tuesday report by Defense News.
In writing his report, Jones looked at thousands of published primary source documents, including public proclamations and internal memos written by senior operatives from al-Qaida and other terrorist groups. Jones also relied on a database that tracks characteristics of Sunni-jihadist groups and the activities that they are involved with.
The study points to a nearly 60 percent increase in the last four years of the number of operating extremist Islamic groups, and to a roughly 300 percent increase in the number of strikes carried out by al-Qaida and its franchises. Terrorist groups based out of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen represent the most serious threat to the United States, according to the report.
It is important to note, however, that the documented uptick in terrorist activity is largely regionally focused, says Daniel Drezner, a Tufts University professor of international politics.
In a Wednesday blog post for the Washington Post, Drezner argues that "I'm not seeing all that elevated of a threat to the United States homeland. ... These groups seem far more concerned about local politics rather than world politics. It's certainly more accurate to say that these groups threaten 'U.S. interests in the Middle East,' rather than just 'the United States.'"
Jones contends, though, that the actions of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- which has been behind multiple botched plans to directly strike the U.S. homeland -- and radicalized individuals such as the Tsarnaev brothers -- who are accused of committing the 2013 bombing of the Boston Marathon -- shows that Sunni terrorist ideology still seriously threatens the United States.