ISIL is being blamed for the bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk airport on Monday that killed 42 and wounded more than 230. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the attack was not a sign of terrorist strength but of weakness. “If you’re desperate and if you know you are losing,” he said, “and you know you want to give up your life, then obviously you can do some harm.” President Obama’s public comments at a summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada backed that point of view.
It is true that ISIL has suffered recent reverses. This week, Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah, which ISIL had controlled since January 2014. Coalition forces are pushing ISIL back from the Turkish border in Syria. The U.S. government says that in the last year ISIL has lost 40% of the territory it controlled in Iraq and 10% to 20% in Syria. The Islamic State’s vision of a Levantine caliphate is being gradually whittled away.
However, the jihadists are not confined by lines on a map. Contemporary jihadist networks are complex, adaptive and opportunistic. When they feel pressure in one area they move to another. ISIL may be shrinking in Iraq and Syria, but it is growing in North Africa, principally in Libya, Tunisia and Sinai.
ISIL continues to demonstrate its lethal reach. Attacks directed or inspired by ISIL in the past nine months have been numerous and deadly. There was the Orlando massacre, the Brussels bombings in March, the San Bernardino shooting in December, the attacks in Paris last November, a Russian jet blown up over Egypt in October, and a number of other less publicized but still deadly attacks in Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
Maybe if he keeps repeating the argument, one day it will be true.
At some level terrorism has always been the weapon of the weak. ISIL members do not conduct terror attacks because they want to remain terrorists. They would much rather command large conventional forces and subjugate neighboring states and communities at will. But lacking the power to erect a caliphate quickly by brute force, they do the best they can with what they have.
From the terrorists’ point of view, every successful attack is a victory for the jihad. They kill infidels, generate headlines, publicize their cause, encourage followers abroad and attract recruits to join their fight on the ground. Each death demonstrates their ability to wreak havoc.
They don’t massacre the innocent because they are weak; they do it because they can. If they were truly declining they would not be able to conduct these types of attacks as often as they do. If they were on the run, we would be hearing progressively less about them, not more.
If ISIL was defeated, Turkey would not be in mourning and we would not be having this discussion.
James S. Robbins writes weekly for USA TODAY and is the author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.
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