When the Pew Research Center asked registered voters in summer 2016 what the top issues influencing their votes were, 80 percent said that terrorism was “very important,” more than any issue but the economy. In summer 2020, the issue wasn’t even on the list.
The tenure of President Donald Trump has proven catastrophic for what was, at the time of his inauguration, considered the most dangerous terrorist organization on the planet: the Islamic State (ISIS/ISIL), which had split from its parent group al-Qaeda with only two years left to the Obama administration and established its “caliphate” on June 29, 2014.
The Trump era, which resulted in both the demise of the “caliphate” and “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, experienced an over 60-percent drop in the number of casualties attributable to the core Islamic State group, according to a Breitbart News analysis of data from the State Department’s Annual Country Reports on Terrorism. Under President Barack Obama, ISIS beheaded at least four times the number of civilians as under Trump, despite the fact that ISIS in its current state was founded with less than three years left in Obama’s tenure.
Breitbart News tallied the total number of both deaths and injuries (“casualties”) beginning in early 2014, when the Islamic State split from al-Qaeda, through 2016 as casualties during the Obama era. Those from the beginning of 2017 through 2019, the last year for which data is available, fell under the Trump era.
The State Department’s report documented 41,213 casualties and 3,174 terrorism incidents attributable to core ISIS (not affiliate groups or ISIS-inspired individuals) during the Obama era. Under Trump, the report listed up to 15,728 casualties and 2,079 incidents, representing an estimated 62-percent drop in casualties and a 35-percent drop in incidents.
Breitbart News tallied the number of known civilian beheadings attributable to core ISIS documented by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), a non-profit that tracks political violence and unrest around the world, using similar timeframes as noted above for general casualties. ACLED identified 46 beheadings of civilians between January 2016, the earliest date in which such data was available, and January 19, 2017, the end of the Obama administration. Since Trump has been in office (including so far in 2020), that number has dropped to 12.
Under “caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIS controlled as much as 40 percent of Iraq, over 30 percent of Syria, and territory that 10 million people called home. It attracted pledges of allegiance from some of the world’s most brutal jihadists – groups like Khorasan Province in Afghanistan, Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. In a little over a year of the establishment of the “caliphate,” it killed 10,000 people. Previously “lone wolf” jihadists found their identities in ISIS from all over the world, including nations with low Muslim populations like Brazil and Chile.
The tail end of the Obama era marked the height of the brutality that came to define Islamic State propaganda. Videos of the beheadings of Americans Steven Sotloff and James Foley – wearing orange prison uniforms in footage apparently meant to appear filmed by professionals – surfaced in 2015. That same year, ISIS published the full video of jihadists burning Muath al-Kaseasbeh – a Jordanian pilot who crashed in ISIS territory – alive in a cage. Islamic State jihadists also appear to have tired of beheading one person at a time on video that year, as they published footage of jihadists beheading 21 Christians at once, all wearing the same orange uniforms.
Americans watching the brutality in the Middle East from home also lived in fear of their neighborhoods falling under jihadist attack. A month before Pew published its “top issues” poll, Omar Mateen killed 50 people and wounded 53 attending a “Latin night” at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. According to transcripts of a call Mateen made to 911 while committing the atrocity – which the Obama-era FBI censored – Mateen pledged allegiance to Baghdadi and dedicated his act to ISIS.
Even before Mateen’s mass murder, in May of that year, Pew found that 80 percent of Americans said that ISIS was a “major threat,” more than any other challenge to the country.
Monday marked the one-year anniversary of al-Baghdadi’s death. U.S. Special Forces found him in northwest Iraq, prompting him to run into a tunnel and detonate a suicide vest.
“He died like a dog, he died like a coward … whimpering and crying and screaming all the way,” President Trump said at the time.
The economy, Pew reported in August 2020, remains the top issue for Americans. Terrorism no longer appears on the list. Foreign policy generally appeared at number six. Terrorism did appear near the top of a list of “threats” presented to Americans, but not of more concern than “infectious disease.”
Al-Baghdadi’s death, while facing off with an American canine officer, froze any momentum the group may have managed to spark from the embers of its caliphate in Iraq and Syria, which fell in early 2019.
The elimination of key propagandists resulted in the discontinuation of alarmingly popular ISIS media products such as the magazine Dabiq and its signature high-production-value torture and beheading videos. On the battlefield, ISIS lost the entirety of the territory it claimed as its “caliphate” thanks to a joint operation between the U.S. military and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a majority-Kurdish anti-jihadist militia. Even after the fall of the territorial caliphate, the losses continued to rain in for ISIS. As the Wilson Center detailed in a recent analysis:
From September 2019 to August 2020, the United States and its allies eliminated many senior leaders of al Qaeda and ISIS, including:
- Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, caliph of ISIS core, killed by U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria during a raid on October 26, 2019.
- Qassim al Rimi, founder and emir of al Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate, killed by a U.S. airstrike in Yemen in January 2020.
- Abdullah Orakzai (nom de guerre Aslam Farooqi), founding member and emir of ISIS in Afghanistan, arrested by Afghan intelligence officials on April 4, 2020.
- Abdelmalek Droukdal, emir of al Qaeda’s North African affiliate, killed by French Special Forces in Mali on June 3, 2020.
- Khalid al Aruri, deputy emir and de facto leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, killed by a U.S. drone strike in Syria on June 14, 2020.
Also prominently facing justice, though not dead, are two ISIS killers known as half of the “Beatles” – a group of four executioners who became jihadist celebrities for their gruesome killings and mutilations promoted in ISIS videos. Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh are now in the United States, the Department of Justice announced this month, and facing American justice for having “allegedly engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence against the hostages, including against American citizens James Wright Foley, Kayla Jean Mueller, Steven Joel Sotloff, and Peter Edward Kassig.”
As the Islamic State’s influence has receded in the Middle East, many observers predicted that its star would rise elsewhere as veteran jihadis escaped to unstable nations throughout Africa and Southeast Asia.
While progress has not been linear, no second caliphate has arisen yet in Indonesia, or Nigeria, or any other vulnerable state at press time. In May 2017, the Islamic State affiliate in the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf, did appear poised to establish a caliphate in the heart of one of the world’s most Christian countries. By October of that year, however, President Rodrigo Duterte’s hardline military tactics in Marawi, the Islamic capital of the Philippines, resulted in the death of Abu Sayyaf chief Isnilon Hapilon and a shift in government focus from eliminating terrorists to rebuilding the devastated city. Duterte, a Trump ally, even succeeded in attracting the help of other anti-government Muslim separatists to fight the ISIS affiliate.