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Given all the threats to the U.S., how significant a threat is ISIS right now?


The U.S. military confirmed the death of an ISIS leader in Syria last week. A drone strike killed Maher al-Agal. U.S. Central Command called him one of the top five ISIS leaders worldwide. This mission was the third U.S. counterterrorism operation in Syria in about a month. So how significant a threat is ISIS right now? I asked Seth Jones. He's a senior vice president and director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. His team keeps a database of groups that pose active threats to the U.S. Right now, they've got white supremacists and anti-government militias at the top and groups like ISIS at the bottom.

SETH JONES: I think, last year, there were three or 4% of the terrorist plots or attacks were coming from Salafi jihadist-inspired organizations like the Islamic State. So that threat has significantly declined in the last few years.

FADEL: You know, a statement from the White House said the latest in a series of U.S. military operations significantly degraded the ability of ISIS to operate. And I just want to ask you if that's true. Did it?

JONES: I don't think I could count on my hand - on both hands how many times U.S. officials have said that kind of a statement since 2001. I think what we've seen is the either death or capture of a range of individuals. The challenge is, though, without continuing efforts to operate against these groups and to try to deal with some of the problems, economic and others, that allow them to operate, I think these are short-term tactical and operational rather than strategic solutions.

FADEL: Now, the U.S. government has leaned on these drone strikes. But they've also faced a lot of criticism about either missing their targets or killing civilians. And in some cases, those killings were covered up until investigative reporting publicized them. So how has the use of drone strikes under Biden changed as a result?

JONES: Well, first of all, the - I think the criticism was certainly apt in 2021 when the administration did orchestrate a drone strike in response to the killing of U.S. Marines. And actually, that highlights some of the limitations of drones. In that case, the U.S. military was involved in pulling out, had very little intelligence infrastructure on the ground. The drones were flying from the Middle East, which is a very long way for those drones to go and to come back. So I think what the Biden administration has done is actually decreased, significantly decreased, the number of drone strikes, not just in Afghanistan. I don't think there have been any reported since that failed strike in 2021 - but decrease them in every other theater, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, as well as Syria and Iraq. Doesn't mean there's zero, but it means decreased the numbers and try to be very careful on limiting civilian casualties.

FADEL: All places where drone strikes have also killed civilians - right? - I mean, pre-2021. I do want to ask about the strategy, then, of drone strikes. Are they effective when it's also possible to make more people angry at the U.S. and vulnerable to the propaganda of groups like ISIS?

JONES: Drones can be extremely important in the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance of terrorists, their organizations and infrastructure on the ground. That's how drones are predominantly used, really, for collection of what is going on. There is a limited use of drones, my experience, having been involved directly in some of these activities, limited in the strike component. And I would say, strikes have occasionally significantly disrupted ongoing plots and taken out leaders that are involved in conducting external operations plots, including in the West. But they really should be limited in their use of strikes and as part of a much broader strategy that includes development, improved government in these areas. So they really should be kind of a backup rather than the front in any counterterrorism strategy.

FADEL: You mentioned that ISIS - groups like ISIS are kind of at the bottom when it comes to extremist and terrorist threats. Why is it important to continue preventative efforts with a group like ISIS? And how much of a threat do they pose right now?

JONES: Yeah. I think it's important to put pressure on organizations like ISIS. What groups need to be a serious threat is both the intent and the capability to strike, not just in areas where they operate, but externally. So what ISIS has right now is the intent to conduct attacks overseas, but not really the capabilities. So that's the dilemma, I think, that the U.S. and other governments have in dealing with them right now.

FADEL: Seth Jones directs the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Thank you so much for being on the program.

JONES: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.