Terrorism was clearly trending down globally as President Barack Obama took office, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database. But that desirable trend has reversed, and nowhere is the upswing in terror activity more glaring than here in the American homeland.
Since Sept. 11, 2001, at least 89 Islamist-related terrorist plots have been aimed at U.S. soil, according to a database maintained by the Heritage Foundation.
And both the number and frequency of plots have dramatically increased on Obama’s watch. Of the 89 plots, only 30 percent occurred in the Bush era (2001-2008). Fully 70 percent emerged under Obama, and the pace is quickening. Twenty-five plots have been uncovered since the start of last year. And terrorists have launched five successful attacks since July 2015.
While plots are proliferating, there is less diversity in who is behind them. Of the 25 most recent plots, 21 are connected to the Islamic State. And unlike the 9/11 attacks – organized from abroad and conducted by foreigners – the vast majority of plotters are now being recruited and inspired right here in the homeland. Seventy-eight of the post 9/11 plots involved a homegrown element.
Of course, no one is to blame for terrorism other than the terrorists. The growth of the terrorist threat is largely attributable to deteriorating stability in the Middle East arising from post-Arab Spring economic and political chaos, a deepening Sunni-Shia divide, and constant meddling by Iran. Yet the dramatic uptick and transformation of the threat also can be traced at least partly to a gap created by the Obama administration – a gap that the terrorists were only too happy to fill.
In 2011, the administration published its new counterterrorism strategy. The guidelines reflected changes the president had implemented at least a year earlier. The strategy was clear: Obama looked to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan and to deemphasize most aspects of the global war on terror except for drone and special operations focused on core al-Qaida leadership.
The decision to “lead from behind” for most of the war on terror helped create massive new space for terrorism activity. In addition to the botched withdrawal from Iraq, the absence of a post-conflict counterterrorism plan in Libya (following the 2011 ouster of Moammar Gadhafi) opened the gates to a dramatic expansion of Islamist terrorist activity throughout North Africa.
As a result, today transnational Islamist terrorism has a larger global footprint than it did when Obama took office. According to the Global Terrorism Index, for example, terrorist attacks soared 80 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year. Far more people are dying from Islamist terrorism. Far more regimes are under attack.
The Bush administration’s prediction has come true: Unwillingness to commit to defeating Islamist terror abroad has forced us to confront it on Main Streets in America.
The Islamic State is the most visible threat. While the administration says it supports operations to reduce the territory controlled by the Islamic State in the Middle East, its efforts have been “too little, too late.” The Islamic State has now built a global network animated by a narrative of reestablishing the historical caliphate. As a result, it can orchestrate terrorism worldwide – as demonstrated by this year’s string of attacks from San Bernardino to Bangladesh, including attacks on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iraq, France, Belgium, and Germany.
While the face of the Islamic State looks different in different parts of the world, the cold truth is that the Islamic State has built a worldwide global terrorist infrastructure. And it did so under Obama’s watch.
What’s more, the Islamic State isn’t the only problem. Al-Qaida has been quietly rebuilding its base. In some ways, al-Qaida is more insidious. Not wanting to attract the global attention that the Islamic State relishes, al-Qaida has in some cases instructed its leaders to keep their affiliation secret. As one leader of al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb wrote:
“We should also take into consideration not to monopolize the political and military stage. We should not be at the forefront. Better for you to be silent and pretend to be a ‘domestic' movement that has its own causes and concerns. There is no reason for you to show that we have an expansionary, jihadi, al-Qaida or any other sort of project.”
When Obama took office, the terrorists were on the run. His successor will inherit a full-blown global Islamist insurgency.
Jim DeMint is president of the Heritage Foundation and a former U.S. senator. James Jay Carafano is a Heritage vice president, directing the think tank’s research on issues of national security and foreign relations.