President Donald Trump has made the defeat of the Islamic State one of his administration’s top priorities – and rightly so.
He has asked the Pentagon for a comprehensive new war plan. On March 22-23, his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, will host foreign ministers from 68 countries to discuss how to significantly improve our combined efforts to crush ISIS once and for all. In April, Mr. Trump and Vice President Pence will reportedly host a summit for Sunni Arab leaders towards the same end.
It is useful, therefore, to consider the question: at present, are we winning or losing the war against the Islamic State?
First, some context. Americans were initially blindsided by the murderous rise of ISIS, as was the rest of the civilized world.
Having been famously assured by President Obama that this movement previously known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was not a serious threat – merely a “jayvee squad” – we all watched in horror as ISIS fighters carrying black flags launched a stunningly successful military offensive in the summer of 2014. By August, a group most people had never heard of had captured of a swath of territory in Iraq and Syria larger than Great Britain.
Their jihadists beheaded and crucified their enemies and posted the gruesome videos on the Internet. They systematically slaughtered, raped, enslaved, forcibly converted and expelled Christians, Yazidis and Shia Muslims from their territory.
What’s more, it soon became clear that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his senior leaders truly believed that the End of Days had come and that by establishing the caliphate and fomenting chaos and carnage in the Levant they could hasten the coming of their so-called messiah known as the Mahdi, with Jesus as his deputy, to establish a global Islamic kingdom.
Clearly, this was not your garden variety group of militant Islamists. These were followers of a brand of genocidal Apocalyptic Islam the world had never seen before.
Mr. Obama, who had declared the war in Iraq over, and thus removed all U.S. forces from Iraq, at the end of 2011, was suddenly forced to launch a new military campaign there. By 2015, he and his team were insisting that the tide had been turned and we were winning the war, a case they continued to make until they left office.
But that’s not how most Americans see it.
Last month, I asked McLaughlin & Associates, a respected U.S. polling firm who clients included the Trump campaign, to conduct a national survey to better understand how Americans view the war against the Islamic State. What we found was sobering.
Only one-in-three Americans believe “the U.S. and our allies are winning the war against the Islamic State and getting safer every day.”
A remarkable 41 percent believe “the U.S. and our allies are losing the war against the Islamic State and the threat to our safety is growing.”
Fully one-in-four say they had no idea if we’re winning or not.
We also found that almost seven-in-ten Americans (68%) said they “fear catastrophic terrorist attacks by ISIS are coming to the U.S. homeland, possibly involving chemical or biological weapons.”
It’s true that progress in the fight against ISIS has been made. An estimated 50,000 ISIS fighters have been killed, including some top operatives. Coalition forces are retaking land and cities in Iraq. Mosul will soon be liberated. Perhaps Raqqa, too.
But the evidence clearly indicates the ISIS message is metastasizing like a deadly cancer across the planet. Senior U.S. officials – current and former – tell me they believe ISIS fighters who hold foreign passports are retreating from the battlefield and repositioning themselves to launch a tsunami of terror across Europe and the U.S.
ISIS has built a global terrorist network. They have drawn recruits from 120 countries, and have killed 1,200 people in countries outside of Iraq and Syria over the past several years.
U.S. officials believe that more than 250 Americans traveled to Syria to participate in the civil war, or attempted to. How many have now returned home, with ISIS training and experience? That is not yet clear.
We do know that since 2014, 117 people have been arrested in the U.S. for connection to ISIS terror plots. In 2016 alone, 37 suspects were arrested in 18 U.S. States on ISIS-related charges.
Currently, there are at least 1,000 active FBI cases into terrorist plots underway, including investigations in all 50 states, and most are related to ISIS.
The bottom line is troubling: we are winning battles, but losing the war.
President Trump is absolutely right to ask his advisors to design and execute a war plan that will achieve victory, and significantly improve homeland security policies to keep the American people safe from attack. ISIS is coming. God forbid we let ourselves be blindsided.
Joel C. Rosenberg is a New York Times best-selling author of novels and non-fiction books about the Middle East. His latest political thriller, The Third Target, centers on an ISIS plot to attack the U.S., Israel and Jordan.