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Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department on April 24, 2023, in Washington. Among topics he addressed was the ongoing conflict in Sudan, where the U.S. has evacuated its embassy in Khartoum.Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

After the United States suspended embassy operations and evacuated its personnel from Sudan, it’s important to recognize that conflict and terrorists have always threatened U.S. diplomatic posts. Al Qaeda bombed the U.S. embassies in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, and Nairobi, Kenya, simultaneously in 1998. More recently, an al Qaeda threat from Yemen resulted in the temporary closure of over 20 diplomatic facilities in 2013. Yet many Americans may not realize that even as they have become safer at home because transnational terror threats are low, the threat from Salafi-jihadi groups to U.S. personnel abroad has increased. 

The U.S. reaction has been to pull back from areas where al Qaeda and self-styled Islamic State militant groups are active to reduce risk to personnel. But this response only harms long-term U.S. interests and enables the spread of the Salafi-jihadi movement.

Salafi-jihadi terrorism threats have affected the U.S. diplomatic posture over the past 10 years. Threats in 2012 and 2013 temporarily halted U.S. diplomatic activity. Today, threats are having a more lasting impact. Embassies increasingly have reduced staff and imposed no-go zones. A timeline of such events shows a rise in disruptions to regular embassy operations. Security restrictions peaked in 2022 with 18 restrictions on U.S. personnel, representing a third of total restrictions since 2013.

Decreasing risk tolerance may contribute to the rise in embassy-driven restrictions. The State Department implemented new security measures after an attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in 2012. Strict protocols enacted in the aftermath made it nearly impossible for Foreign Service and USAID officers to travel outside the wire. The U.S. military also tightened restrictions on personnel movements after an Islamic State ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger, killed four U.S. Army special operators in 2017.

These policies weaken U.S. diplomacy and damage relationships. State and USAID now rely heavily on local hires in conflict zones — essentially outsourcing diplomacy to them as Americans remain bound to the capital or, in certain cases, the immediate vicinity of the embassy. Such developments also reduce opportunities for U.S. diplomats to develop relationships outside of a country’s political elite, skewing the U.S. understanding of national dynamics.

A closer examination of several cases indicates that rising threats, not just changing policies, drove the security restrictions. The Islamic State has expanded rapidly in Nigeria and the Lake Chad Basin — replacing Boko Haram — and may have sought to target public and government sites in the capital, Abuja. The U.S. embassy responded by reducing its services and ordering non-emergency U.S. embassy personnel and their families to leave the country.

Moreover, Secretary of State Antony Blinken eased post-Benghazi restrictions in late 2021 and called for the department to recalibrate its risk calculus to increase “on-the-ground, person-to-person” diplomacy, which should have shown in the data from 2022. Instead, the only country with reduced embassy warnings about al Qaeda or Islamic State threats is Iraq, where counterterrorism pressure has weakened these groups (though Iranian proxy militia threats now serve as the primary threat to the U.S. Embassy Baghdad).

Embassies should lead U.S. efforts to counter the Salafi-jihadi movement. But growing terrorism threats and subsequent security restrictions inhibit America’s — and others’ — efforts to prevent or contest Salafi-jihadi expansion. Foreign assistance programs target local conditions that drive support to these groups, including programs aimed at conflict resolution and improving access to basic services. Cutting staff and reducing the ability of U.S. personnel to be in the field adversely affects implementation of these programs. The U.S. embassy in Mali quadrupled its restrictions on staff from 2020 to 2022 because of terrorism concerns, including downsizing staff in July 2022 due to the risk of al Qaeda attacks. Already, USAID has struggled to implement programs in northern Mali.

The Mali example is not unique. The United States expanded its no-go zones for U.S. embassy personnel in northern Mozambique between 2021 and 2022 due to an Islamic State threat. The travel restraints mean that U.S. personnel may have less capacity to distribute assistance to victims of mass displacement caused by Islamic State attacks. Similarly, the U.S. embassy in Somalia issued four travel restrictions on staff in Mogadishu in 2022 after having not issued any restrictions since reopening in 2019. Compared to others — the Turks, Chinese, Russians — U.S. influence has shrunk considerably as U.S. presence has waned.

Hamstringing U.S. diplomatic presence and aid matters because Salafi-jihadi groups are trying to outcompete in terms of governance as well as violence. For example, Somalis regularly turn to al Shabaab, al Qaeda’s affiliate, for arbitration in legal disputes — a legitimacy challenge for the Somali government even as a recent counteroffensive recaptures territory from the group. The Nigerian government witnessed how rapidly violence escalated in Mali after the government sidelined armed groups and first covertly, and now openly, keeps channels open with Salafi-jihadi commanders in an attempt to reduce efforts to undermine the government.

Inevitably, reduced American presence — and the likely reduction in other partners’ presence — only ensures opportunities for Salafi-jihadi groups to strengthen. Stronger groups present a greater threat, creating a dangerous cycle that benefits al Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Decisions to protect American lives must be made when threats are known and imminent. But they must not dictate the terms of U.S. engagement in the field going forward. The United States must retain its capacity to coordinate with local partners to prevent al Qaeda’s and the Islamic State’s further expansion. That means taking calculated risks by keeping embassies fully staffed and enabling travel to remote areas despite security concerns. U.S. embassies should not cede space to terrorists.

Kathryn Tyson is an analyst for the Critical Threats Project at the American Enterprise Institute. Follow her on Twitter @Kathryn__Tyson

Katherine Zimmerman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and advises the Critical Threats Project. Follow her on Twitter @KatieZimmerman.

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