On Tuesday, we witnessed another tragic terrorist attack carried out by ISIS. This time it was Belgium. The episode rang familiar after the Paris terrorist attack by ISIS in November, although this year alone the group has also been responsible for attacks in Turkey, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Libya.
Media coverage of the Belgium attacks – which was more extensive than the other ISIS attacks this year, perhaps due to the victims being white – make it easy for people to get the impression that ISIS is gaining ground, and that our efforts must be failing. In particular, GOP presidential candidates and other conservatives had easy fodder to criticize Obama.
“Obama, and all others, have been so weak, and so politically correct, that terror groups are forming and getting stronger! Shame,” said Donald Trump on Twitter. He also used the attacks as an opportunity to extol his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the US, and to play up the need for water boarding.
“It is long past time that we had a president who will acknowledge this evil, will call it by its name, and utilize the full force and fury of the United States to defeat radical Islamic terrorism, to defeat ISIS,” said Ted Cruz.
“How many times do we have to see this, in how many countries…for our leaders to realize that we are at war, that the other side is currently winning,” said Newt Gingrich on FOX News.
But something that gets lost in all the chatter is the fact that ISIS is currently losing. In Syria and Iraq, as of mid-March they have actually lost about 22% of the territory they held in January 2015. And their grip is loosening rapidly, given that in December they had lost 14%, meaning an additional 8% loss in under three months.
Not only do conservatives ignore this, but even Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders said nothing of declines in ISIS territory in their Twitter statements since the Brussels attack.
ISIS obliquely acknowledges in its propaganda that it suffered some territory losses, but only in the form of boasting of allegedly re-taking areas.
In fact, a number of experts suspect that Islamic State is increasing the number of terrorist attacks worldwide as a result of their losses on the ground. This could be a way to give an impression that they are winning, which might be working based on news media coverage.
This is not without precedent. Seth G. Jones of the RAND Corporation, pointed out that Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab increased attacks as its territory dwindled from over half of the country to almost nothing. Jones pointed this out in a November 2015 piece entitled “ISIS Will Become More Deadly Before It Dies.”
Maj. Gen. Thamir Ismail of Iraq Security Forces also theorized in November that ISIS would ramp up attacks in response to losses.
“They attacked Paris in order to keep up the morale of their fighters and distract from their losses in Syria and Iraq,” said Ismail. “I expect that when we liberate Ramadi there will be more attacks in Europe.” In fact ISF did re-take the city Ramadi in December.
This is not to say that Obama must have a perfect strategy, but nonetheless his strategy to defeat ISIS has had success, and he could stand to better get the facts to the American people and the world.
So give credit where credit is due.