Matt Johnson: Total number of terrorists has exploded during the Obama era, and here’s why

07/11/2014 3:27 PM

07/12/2014 6:33 PM

Remember President Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University in June 2009? It was called “A New Beginning.” And it was supposed to ingratiate the United States with the Muslim world and alleviate hostilities engendered by the Bush administration.

In some quarters, the speech was lauded as a progressive step toward cultural, religious and political cohesion. In others, it was despised as the low point of what was derisively dubbed an “apology tour.”

The speech was reasonable in theory, and it was competently delivered. But five years on, Obama’s attempts to placate the Muslim world — that is, the parts of it that really did need an attitude adjustment (extremists, sadists and would-be empire-builders) — haven’t worked. And this should be taken seriously, as the effort has been a major undercurrent of his foreign policy.

First, take a look at the ballooning ranks of the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Low-end estimates about its strength hover around 7,000, but some analysts suspect it has swollen to well over 10,000.

In terms of size and ferocity, the Islamic State vastly outstrips al-Qaida core. It’s also about ten times larger than the most dangerous threat to the American mainland — al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).

Furthermore, the Islamic State churns out propaganda — much of it via social media sites such as Twitter — that saps Western populations of their will to intervene while terrifying its enemies, often into retreat (see: northern Iraq).

This point was recently made at length by Kori Schake in Foreign Policy Magazine, to which she added, “The Islamic State is not making the same mistake that its al-Qaida predecessor did: choosing the ‘far enemy’ instead of the ‘near enemy’ of Middle Eastern governments.” Needless to say, this tactical shift has worked devastatingly well.

All of this amounts to a potent, multi-tiered strategic platform — and an influx of recruits. Foreign fighters are traveling to Iraq and Syria. British authorities now suspect that 500 Britons have made this odious pilgrimage. Prime Minister David Cameron recently said many of these militants intend to return to “attack us here at home in the United Kingdom,” and he may well be right.

A recent propaganda video features a band of British Muslims — fresh citizens of the Islamic State — calling upon their countrymen to martyr themselves or join the fight in Iraq and Syria. The total number of foreign fighters assisting the Islamic State is estimated to be around 12,000 (with about 100 from the United States).

But the most dismaying numbers are aggregates.

The Rand Corporation recently conducted a study of international terror, and their findings are astonishing. In 2007, there were 28 radical Islamist groups akin to al-Qaida. Now there are almost 50.

In 2007, there were between 18,000 and 42,000 active terrorists. Now there are between 44,000 and 105,000.

One of the most common narratives about the war on terror has practically become a truism for many commentators and academics — that America’s behavior has created more terrorists than it has destroyed since 2001.

But most of this terror renaissance has occurred under the Obama administration. Although one could argue that its policies are continuations of those pursued by the Bush administration — the United States is still in Afghanistan, it remained in Iraq until 2011, targeted assassinations are being carried out across the globe, etc. — there are also major differences.

Obama has made the restoration of American “credibility” a mainstay of his foreign policy. This requires, in his mind, a great deal of modesty.

Here’s a different way to look at the above list: The United States is in the process of leaving Afghanistan, it’s out of Iraq, and it now prefers small-scale measures like targeted assassinations to full-blown invasions.

Moreover, it’s content to let massive swaths of Iraq and Syria fall under the Islamic State’s banner.

As the Obama years demonstrate, terrorism is not a reflexive response to American foreign policy. In 1995, after the United States had helped the Afghan mujahedeen fight the Soviets, Osama bin Laden said, “The urgent thing was communism, but the next target was America.” Even when we provided terrorists with direct material support, we remained in their cross-hairs. Theirs is an ideology that seeks to completely undermine civilization, not bargain with it.

As bin Laden went on to say, “This is an open war to the end, until victory.”

It doesn’t matter if the United States revamps its foreign policy and disengages from the Middle East. Members of the Islamic State (and their co-thinkers) are opportunistic fanatics, and they’ll ruthlessly exploit any vacuum of American power — to the ruin of the victims they dominate.

To reach Matt Johnson, editorial page intern, send email to


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