On the evening of May 2, 2011, America had a chance at closure.
We had lost thousands of our fellow Americans nine years earlier on that beautifully sunny September morning, and thousands more of our citizen-soldiers on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq.
But now President Obama gave the word: The master jihadi is dead.
In an audacious operation deep within Pakistan, Osama bin Laden had been located. And killed. Al Qaeda would soon be described by the commander in chief, as “on the ropes,” condemned to ever-increasing irrelevance. But this was not the end. There would be no closure for our nation.
A new, deadlier enemy has since emerged. A foe responsible for the carnage of San Bernardino and Orlando, and scores of attacks around the world. Now we are at war with the Islamic State — a threat group that has already claimed responsibility for one of the recent attacks — and its new caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. Al Qaeda may no longer frighten us, but the Islamic State has dethroned it and is on the march.
We may be in the final stages of a presidential campaign which has polarized opinion on all matters, mundane and significant, but the facts speak for themselves.
According to the National Counterterrorism Center, part of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Islamic State currently has “fully operational” affiliates in 18 nations around the world. Two years ago, the number was seven. Some of these branches are far from Iraq and Syria, including Afghanistan, where numerous Taliban commanders have sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr, and Nigeria, where Boko Haram — one of the deadliest jihadi groups active today — has changed its name to the West Africa Province of the Islamic State. According to the analysts of the SITE Intelligence Group, the totalitarian message of jihadism is so popular around the world that since June 2, outside the war zones of Iraq and Syria, there has been a jihadi attack somewhere around the world every 84 hours.
But does this mean that Americans are in greater danger today than on Sept. 10, 2001? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding yes, and the empirical data is merciless in its incontrovertibility.
In its latest report titled “Muslim-American Involvement with Violent Extremism,” the University of North Carolina has compiled all the metadata on jihadi plots on U.S. soil since 2001. The trend they describe is an exponential one. The number of successful and intercepted terrorist attacks has grown every year (with an inordinate spike in 2009), and most disturbingly, with 2015 witnessing the greatest number of jihadi plots in America since the Sept. 11 attacks 15 years ago. Jihadism has not been weakened. Not abroad. Not in the States. With the attacks in California, Florida, and now apparently Minnesota, and potentially New York and New Jersey, ISIS has displaced al Qaeda, and it has done so here in America, too, not just in the Middle East or Africa.
In our report “ISIS: The Threat to the United States,” we answer the same question for the Islamic State that the University of North Carolina answered for all jihadists secreted within America.
The facts prove than our new enemy is more prevalent than al Qaeda ever was, with federal and state law enforcement arresting three times as many ISIS supports per month than the average for al Qaeda arrests since 2001. Here are the numbers: Since Abu Bakr declared the new caliphate from the pulpit of the Grand Mosque of Mosul at the end of June 2014, we have killed or interdicted 110 terrorists linked to ISIS, (the last one being two weeks ago in Roanoke, Va). And when one looks at what they were actually doing the picture is grimmest of all.
Just over 40 percent had sworn allegiance to ISIS and were set on leaving the United States to fight for jihad in Iraq and Syria. Just under 20 percent were management-level terrorists, the talent-spotters and recruiters who were facilitating the foreign passage of the “travelers,” as the FBI euphemistically calls them. But a full third of the ISIS suspects, like the San Bernardino killers, and Omar Mateen, the Orlando jihadi, had already decided that they could best serve the new Islamic State not by leaving but by killing infidels here on U.S. soil. This is the reality of life in the West today. Whether it is in California or Florida, or in Brussels, Paris or Nice.
As we start the 16th year of what has turned into our longest war ever, we must radically reassess our strategy for victory. The Islamic State has displaced al Qaeda and it is richer, better at propaganda, and has more fighters than bin Laden ever had.
November represents not only a choice of who the new commander in chief should be, but also what our new strategy to defeat ISIS and the global jihadi movement should be. We owe at least this to the memories of those lost on the beautifully sunny morning 15 years ago.
• Sebastian Gorka is vice president at the Institute of World Politics and author of “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War” (Regnery, 2016.) Katharine Gorka is president of the Threat Knowledge Group.