The Obama Legacy on Jihadism
By Robin Wright
By Robin Wright
One of the most memorable moments of the Obama Presidency was his abrupt appearance on nationwide television, shortly before midnight, on Sunday, May 1, 2011. The press pool, which had been given a “lid” to stand down for the night almost six hours earlier, received an e-mail alert from the White House to get positioned for a statement. Many had to scramble to get ready before President Obama walked down the red carpet to a podium set up in the East Room. “Tonight,” he announced, “I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama bin Laden, the leader of Al Qaeda.”
It would prove to be Obama Administration’s high point in confronting jihadism. The President’s legacy on extremism will be mixed. He leaves the White House with the threat both broader and more diverse than when he took office. During his eight years, jihadis gained far more turf, more followers, more arms, and more money. They have had a deadlier impact and a bigger theatre of operations than they had in 2009—even though most of the trends were seeded during the Bush Administration. Obama may never fully recover from his description of the Islamic State, in 2014, to David Remnick, as the “jayvee team” involved in “various local power struggles.”
At the same time, the Administration has turned the tide on jihadism over the past two years. The two premier movements—the Islamic State and Al Qaeda—are both on the defensive. The Islamic State caliphate, which straddles Iraq and Syria, will have been about halved when Obama walks out of the Oval Office for the final time, next week. At its height, in 2014, it was about the size of Indiana or the country of Jordan. For all the fighters it recruited during the Obama years, ISIS has now lost the majority of them—an estimated fifty thousand. It has somewhere between fifteen thousand and eighteen thousand still on the battlefield, U.S. officials have told me.