Qassim al-Rimi is dead.
On Thursday, the Trump administration announced that al-Rimi, a co-founder of al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula and the terrorist who claimed responsibility for a deadly 2019 attack on the Naval Air Station Pensacola, was successfully eliminated in a January airstrike in Yemen. Al-Rimi had been a target of opportunity for years. A top recruiter for the organization responsible for the 9/11 attacks and a deputy (and potential successor) to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the terrorist operative had an 8-figure American bounty on his head. Before assuming the leadership of the most active and deadly branch of al-Qaeda, he was accused of orchestrating attacks on U.S. targets as early as 2008.
The strategic importance of this strike seemed lost on both the press and the public. When the long-suspected news of al-Rimi’s neutralization was confirmed, few seemed to care. The routinization of the remotely controlled air war against non-state terrorist actors likely contributes to the public’s ambivalence. In three years, the Trump administration has dramatically increased the number of strikes on terrorist targets and widened the area of operations. It’s an act of speculation to guess at the impact of this campaign, but its effects are not entirely unknowable.
Deaths attributable to terrorism declined in 2019 for the fourth consecutive year. After peaking in 2014 at over 33,500, the number of fatalities attributable to terrorist activities has declined by 52 percent to just under 16,000 deaths worldwide. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s “Global Terrorism Index,” 98 nations saw their security conditions improve in 2018, with the security situation deteriorating in only 40 nations—the highest rate of improvement since 2004. Most of those nations afflicted by chronic terrorist violence are already conflict zones. And while violent far-right extremism is on the rise, those attacks are conducted by home-grown radicalized individuals—not well-funded and organized multinational organizations.
Counter-terrorism campaigns do not involve military means alone. Diplomatic measures, intelligence operations, and humanitarian endeavors mitigate the threat posed by transnational Islamist terrorist groups. Nevertheless, kinetic operations like the January strikes that killed al-Rimi, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, and Qasem Soleimani, to say nothing of the hundreds of lesser-known targets, have doubtlessly contributed to these beneficial circumstances. It’s a wonder then that the terror war has so few outspoken advocates.
In the wake of the Soleimani strike—an operation that eliminated the commander of a U.S.-designated terrorist organization in a third-party country where American forces were assisting anti-terror operations at the request of a host government—the Democrats who did not absurdly claim that the strike was illegal went about attacking the legislation that authorizes the president to execute those operations.
In the days that followed that strike, the Democrat-led House Appropriations Committee voted to repeal the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force against al-Qaeda and associated terrorist groups that was passed by Congress three days after the September 11th attacks. That legal war-making authority not only justified the Soleimani strike but hundreds of others, including the operation that eliminated al-Rimi. Advocates of the 2001 AUMF’s repeal insist that it was too broad and needs updating. In principle, it’s hard to argue against the notion that this nearly 20-year-old framework, which has been broadly interpreted by three successive administrations, could use an update. Bipartisan attempts were made in 2015 and 2017, most of which focused on limiting the president’s discretion to expansively define what targets are legal and include sunset provisions that would allow Congress to decide when the terror war is over.
But how would these restrictions work in practice? Sen. Tim Kaine, one of the co-sponsors of a replacement for the ’01 AUMF, explained that it would preclude strikes against, for example, the Nigerian terrorist organization Boko Haram. Though that organization claimed some affiliation with the Islamic State terror group, it was not itself “engaged in hostilities” with the U.S. or its allies. But, of course, if it was, retaliatory strikes against the organization would be justified by a doctrine of self-defense. The 2001 authorization codified a doctrine of preemption, allowing the president to intervene against terrorist cells that had not yet executed attacks on U.S. interests. Likewise, the Democratic effort to repeal the 2001 AUMF was an attempt, according to its advocates, to prevent the president from going to war with Iran. But the Bush administration’s 2002 pursuit of a second authorization to invade Iraq already suggests the ’01 law does not lend the president blanket authority to preemptively attack sovereign states, which the Trump administration doesn’t appear to have any intention of doing anyway.
This seems like a simple case to make, if the president were inclined to make it. But he even shies away from defending his own counter-terrorism policies, preferring instead to rail against America’s “endless wars.” Even if Trump defines “endless wars” to mean only U.S. troop deployments abroad, the War on Terrorism meets that definition. There is no such thing as an entirely antiseptic air campaign, and partner forces on the ground are not a reliable substitute for special forces. Few responsible Republicans would agitate against these aspects of the “endless wars” that followed the 9/11 attacks. Thus, the political argument for repealing the 2001 AUMF is far stronger than the strategic case.
Indeed, the muddle made by the ’01 law’s opponents was inadvertently summarized by NPR host Kirk Siegler in early January. Ahead of an interview with retrenchment advocate Ret. Marine Corps Col. Dan McKnight, Siegler introduced his guest as someone arguing that “it’s time to revisit the law passed after 9/11 that gives presidents the authority to use military force against terrorists without congressional approval.” Read that sentence again, slowly. Few can convincingly argue against the strategic value of these strikes, and so they are left to argue the law. It’s revealing of the strength of their case that those arguments are so confused and uncompelling.
An earlier version of this article indicated that the full House passed a resolution repealing the 2001 AUMF.