Sixteen years ago today, the United States was forcefully pulled into a war that had been raging for decades before average Americans knew it existed.
When those planes crashed into the Twin Towers on September 11, 2001, Americans experienced something we hadn’t dealt with previously: an attack on our soil. As we watched the buildings collapse, we knew our country would change forever. On that day, the war on terror began.
Over a decade later, we are still fighting against radical Islamic terrorist groups; we have won victories, and we have suffered numerous casualties. Currently, the terrorist threat we face has evolved, but it remains an existential threat to Western civilization. On the other hand, despite our mistakes, we have made progress in preventing terrorists from causing the level of damage they desire.
Americans seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic about the war we are fighting against radical extremism. A Rasmussen poll conducted in August show that only 17% of likely voters believe that terrorists are winning the conflict. According to Rasmussen, these numbers are the lowest it has been in five years. 39% believe the United States has the upper hand.
ISIS Is In Decline, But Switching Tactics
In 2011, the United States finished withdrawing our troops from Iraq. Former President Barack Obama decided to continue the timetable set by the Bush administration despite warnings from military experts and former President George W. Bush himself. Our removal of our troops created a power vacuum that the Iraqi army was not powerful enough to fill. This decision gave birth to the Islamic State (ISIS).
After conquering large swaths of land in Iraq and Syria, ISIS began implementing their cruel version of Sharia law. They viciously executed Christian minorities by beheading, burning, shooting, and stabbing. Members of the organization brutally raped women and young girls and sold them as sex slaves. Allowing ISIS to emerge as a major terrorist organization was one of the biggest mistakes made by the Obama administration. However, it seems this misstep is now being rectified.
Now, the Islamic State has lost over three-quarters of the territory it previously held in Iraq and more than half of what it had conquered in Syria. The efforts of the Iraqi military and U.S. – backed forces in Syria have fought hard to push ISIS out of the regions it has controlled.
CNN reported that we have killed over 60,000 ISIS fighters. However, the fact that the radical extremist group is on the decline should not fool us into believing that they are becoming less dangerous.
The leaders of ISIS knew that it was highly possible that they would lose their territory, so they developed a contingency plan which involves infiltrating the West to carry out terrorist attacks. While ISIS fighters have not been able to infiltrate the United States, they have had some success in Europe. They have accomplished their goals by taking advantage of the European Union’s open border policy. Europe’s policies have enabled ISIS fighters to infiltrate groups of refugees from the Syrian conflict and other areas of the Middle East.
The United Kingdom, France, Belgium, and most recently, Spain, have suffered a significant number of terrorist attacks. The fact that these countries don’t seem willing to strengthen immigration policy or screen immigrants from the Middle East effectively has emboldened jihadists. Indeed; the European union’s misguided fixation on the idea of multiculturalism has allowed radical Islamist to blend into predominantly Muslim communities. These areas cater to Muslim immigrants who are unwilling to assimilate into Western culture.
As it stands now, it is unclear whether or not Europe will start doing more to protect its citizens from the threat of radical extremism. Its leaders have not yet shown any signs indicating that they will take more aggressive action against the thousands of radical extremist who reside in their countries. If they fail to take the appropriate steps to stop the spread of radical Islamic ideology, it is unlikely that the threat will abate.
Homegrown Terrorism Remains A Threat
While the U.S. has prevented attacks from foreign operators, we are not invulnerable to terrorism. Since 9/11, the United States has seen numerous terrorist attacks carried out by “lone wolves.” The Boston marathon bombings, the shootings at Fort Hood, SanBernardino, and most recently, pulse nightclub in Florida are just some examples of the types of attacks we have experienced. The common thread in these incidents is that they were perpetrated by people who are born in the united states, or were brought here as children. These individuals were radicalized in the United States.
ISIS’s strategy does not only involve having their operatives gain entry into Western nations — they are also using the internet to spread their propaganda. The Trump administration’s travel ban cannot prevent this tactic. More and more, we are seeing Americans join groups like ISIS because of extremist propaganda that the group disseminates through social media and the dark web. Dr. Gabriel Weimann, a Fellow at the Wilson Center and Professor of Communication at the University of Haifa in Israel, penned a piece that discusses the phenomenon of the lone wolf terrorist. He states:
Lone wolf terrorists are not completely out of contact. They are recruited, radicalized, taught, trained, and directed by others. They connect, communicate, and share information, know-how, and guidance exclusively online, through the “Dark Web.”
Weimann also states that these individuals don’t only receive propaganda, they can also learn how to facilitate a terrorist attack. He writes:
Online, an aspiring terrorist can find everything from instructions on how to build a homemade bomb to maps and diagrams of potential targets. In addition, websites, blogs, Facebook pages, and chat rooms all provide easy venues for cultivating extremism in a way that was previously possible only through in-person gatherings.
According to Weimann, the Islamic State has a highly structured method of recruiting members online. First, they use social media platforms like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter to attract potential recruits. He refers to this as the “netting” stage. However, they do not choose every person who shows interest. The 2nd part is the “funnel” stage where prospective recruits are eliminated from the selection process. Next, the recruiters use a phased approach designed to “program” prospects in a way that changes their identity. Weimann states that they utilize a “wealth of techniques well studied in cognitive, social, and clinical psychology” to make the recipient more open to accepting their extremist views.
Finally, the recruiter directs the prospect to self-radicalize and begin learning the tactics extremists use to launch their attacks. The individual is continuously exposed to more propaganda, along with guidance from the group. Then, the student is activated, which means they receive online training on how to use weapons and explosives to carry out their own jihad. The United States may not have to worry as much about foreign terrorists, but if we are not careful, the rise of homegrown extremism could put us in the same type of situation that Europe now faces.
The war on terror is still far from over. In the end, the only way to destroy Islamic terrorism is to target the ideology that spawns it. This is a far greater challenge because we cannot use guns and bombs against a belief system. Nevertheless, if the Western world wants to survive, it will need to find a way to prevent more individuals from buying into the ideology of radical Islam.