America is losing the war on terror, yet many Americans think the United States is winning. The fact that there has been no attack on American soil on the scale of 9/11 has created a false sense of security. Dismissals of Orlando and San Bernardino as “lone-wolf” attacks further the inaccurate narrative that al Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) are somehow “on the run.” According to senior American officials for at least seven years, those groups have been “on the run”—a “fact” that in itself demonstrates the falsity of US pretentions to success. Tactical successes on battlefields in Iraq, Syria, and Libya add further to the illusion of success. But if 16 years of war should have taught us anything, it is that we cannot kill our way out of this problem.
To start winning, Americans must redefine the enemy. A global movement—not individual groups, not an ideology, and certainly not poverty—is waging war against us. This movement is the collection of humans joined by the Salafi-jihadi ideology, group memberships, and common experiences into a cohesive force that transcends the individual or the group. Al Qaeda is but one manifestation of this decades-old ideology and movement. The global Salafi-jihadi movement was and remains more than just al Qaeda—or ISIS. It consists of individuals worldwide, some of whom have organized, who seek to destroy current Muslim societies and resurrect in their place a true Islamic society through the use of armed force. America and the West have no chance of success in this conflict unless they understand that this movement is their true and proper adversary.
The need is urgent. Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and the global Salafi-jihadi movement together are stronger today than they have ever been. Salafi-jihadi groups are active in at least six failed states (Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Mali) and four weak states (Afghanistan, Egypt, Tunisia, and Nigeria). They provide governance by proxy or control territory in at least half of these states. Both ISIS and al Qaeda pursue deadly attack capabilities to target the West, as the most recent terrorist attack in Manchester once again demonstrated. Europe and the American homeland face an unprecedented level of facilitated and inspired terrorist attacks. This situation is not success, stalemate, or slow winning, and still less does it reflect an enemy “on the run.” It is failure.