The Usual Explanations

The Arab Spring. It is no surprise to some observers that the violence spun out of control in early 2011. It was precisely at this moment that the Arab Spring, a series of popular revolutions across the Middle East, began. Many experts hoped that these uprisings would lead to greater freedoms and encourage political engagement rather than terrorist violence as the solutions for these societies' problems.

But the Arab Spring also deposed despotic—but grimly effective—leaders, men who had "kept the lid" on radical Islam and prevented the rise of al Qaeda in their countries. With the removal of regimes led by men such as Hosni Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar al Qaddafi in Libya, and the serious weakening of Bashar al Assad in Syria, the extremists were able to escape from jails, gather weapons, train men, and begin violence in their own and neighboring countries.

Failure of Local Governments. The Arab Spring is only a partial explanation, however, since local regimes clearly failed to deal adequately with the entire situation. First, they failed to reform and therefore avoid the uprisings altogether. Second, they failed to manage a peaceful transition to democracy or even more responsive governance. Some, like Assad, have continued to resist any reform at all. Third, they failed to deal with the Islamic extremists as covert assassinations, terrorism, and eventually insurgencies engulfed their own territory.

Failure of Coalitions and Outside Forces. We cannot be too harsh on these local regimes, however, since many of them simply lacked the capacity to handle the violence as it spiraled out of control after 2011. Indeed, we can point to many others who entirely failed to adequately deal with al Qaeda and other extremists during the same time period. Coalitions of regional countries like the African Union peacekeeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) against al Shabaab, the Lake Chad Basin Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram, and the international coalition against ISIS also failed to solve this difficult problem. Even the deployment of "boots on the ground" by great powers such as France and Russia have not defeated the extremists, ended their violence, or slowed the spread of their reach.

Failure of the U.S. And, lest we feel superior to others, we should remind ourselves that the United States has also failed to defeat al Qaeda or ISIS. Whether in Iraq, Afghanistan, or dozens of other countries working with and through partners, the U.S. military has engaged the extremists and left without victory.

The failures then of the entire world—local regimes, grand coalitions, and great powers alike—seem to offer a definitive answer for why the violence has spread out of control over the past six years.

Societal Fissures. But other observers have noted that this leaves out an entire class of explanations for the rising violence: deep fissures within these societies. In many of the countries afflicted by extremist violence, sectarian, ethnic, and racial divides have long stoked tensions and even violence. The terrorism and insurgency in countries such as Nigeria, Mali, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen have deep roots in these tensions and cannot be understood without taking existing societal fractures into account.

Withdrawal of the U.S. A final explanation is far more personal for Americans: President Barack Obama's decision to withdraw from Iraq, draw down in Afghanistan, and cede leadership of the Middle East to other powers. Many observers have pointed out that the center of the violence today, Syria and Iraq, was restive but pacified by 2010, a fact that allowed the U.S. government to argue for withdrawal in 2011. But Iraq had suffered through a sectarian civil war, much like Bosnia, and needed an outside power, one that both sides could trust, to remain engaged for at least a generation (as we still are in the Balkans). The decision to prematurely and entirely withdraw American forces sparked anxieties for Sunnis and Shi'a alike and led directly to the spiraling violence of 2012–14.

In much the same way, the absence of American capacity and capabilities in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban and its al Qaeda allies to retake a majority of the country. That mostly ungoverned space is now as great a threat to the U.S. as it was on 9/11.

And throughout the Middle East, the lack of American leadership has encouraged bad actors such as Russia and Iran to intervene with maximum violence to achieve their own national security interests. By "leading from behind," the U.S. has, in fact, objectively supported the Russian and Iranian regimes, as well as substate actors such as Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi'a militia, the Syrian Communist Kurds, and "moderate" Sunni rebels. Because of our support, we are understood by people across the Middle East as involved in their atrocities in places such as Aleppo, Syria.

But what about the enemy?

All these explanations share one failing: They do not take into consideration the plans and actions of the extremists themselves.

We must understand the enemy in two separate ways: organizationally and as fighting groups. If we fail to correctly define the enemy in these two important ways, we will never understand the problem as it actually is.