The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York, before their collapse on Sept. 11, 2001

Chao Soi Cheong/AP Photo

Are We Winning the Battle Against Terrorism?

After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed almost 3,000 people in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, President George W. Bush declared that the United States was launching a “war on terror.” The primary target of this war was Al Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Within a month, U.S. troops were fighting in Afghanistan, where Al Qaeda was based. 

Fifteen years later, Al Qaeda has been scattered and weakened, but it’s still a threat. And the U.S. is now battling ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and homegrown terrorists inspired by ISIS. Two experts weigh in on whether or not we’re making progress in the fight against terrorism. 


Because of the political and media hype surrounding terrorism, many Americans think we’re losing the battle. Politicians have pointed to the attacks in Orlando, Florida, last June and San Bernardino, California, in December 2015—both conducted by homegrown terrorists inspired by ISIS—as signs of a growing terrorist threat. But despite these few high-profile incidents, the evidence suggests that the U.S. and its allies are defeating ISIS, today’s most significant terrorist threat. 

During the past two years, ISIS has been losing ground. An international coalition has been steadily wearing it down. In October, the Iraqi army, supported by American air power and U.S. special forces, began an offensive to recapture the Iraqi city of Mosul, which ISIS has controlled since 2014. Raqqa, the city in Syria that serves as ISIS’s capital, will eventually be captured, probably within the next year. At that point, ISIS will have lost so much territory that it will effectively cease to exist as a rogue state.

The recent increase in terrorist attacks may be a sign of ISIS’s weakness, not strength.

In addition to recapturing territory, the U.S. and its allies have killed top ISIS leaders and reduced the overall number of ISIS followers. As of July 2016, the U.S. military had killed approximately 45,000 ISIS fighters with air strikes.  

The increase in terrorist attacks over the past year may, in fact, be a sign of weakness rather than strength. As ISIS is squeezed in its heartland, it lashes out farther abroad in a vain attempt to intimidate the United States and its allies. The global network of ISIS terrorist cells will be around longer than the group itself, but those too can and will be worn down. Law enforcement and intelligence agencies, rather than the military, will take the lead in combating them. This is the approach we took in fighting Al Qaeda, and we succeeded in greatly reducing it as a threat to our security.

The struggle against terrorism is not a conventional war marked by dramatic victories. It’s a long battle of attrition that will end not with the elimination of terrorist organizations but with their reduction from a major threat to a minor nuisance.



Professor of History, DePaul University, Chicago, Illinois


Fifty-three years ago, President Lyndon Johnson declared a “war on poverty.” President Richard Nixon declared a “war on drugs” 46 years ago. The last I checked, we haven’t won either of them. We’re not going to win the “war on terrorism” either.

We like the idea of fighting wars because we think we can win a clear victory. And in our long history of wars against other nations, we’ve defeated many of them. But we can’t win a war against a complex phenomenon like poverty, drug use, or terrorism. We can fight terrorists, but every day we are fighting is a victory for them, and a defeat for us.

Terrorists have two advantages. First, what terrorists want most is attention, and attention is easier than ever to come by. Thanks to 24/7 TV news, social media, and web videos, terrorists get instant wall-to-wall media coverage for their deeds. And they even get credit for copycat attacks.

Second, destruction has been democratized, in the sense  that it’s easier than ever for people with little training or expertise to cause vast damage. Nineteenth-century terrorists using pistols could kill one or two people. Terrorists now use bombs, machine guns, chemical weapons, and even airplanes. In the 9/11 attacks, 19 people killed almost 3,000 people in an operation that cost less than $500,000 to pull off.

It’s easier than ever for people with little training or expertise to wreak vast damage.

Consider our fight against ISIS: No matter how many terrorists we kill or how much territory we reclaim, the group can continue to inspire the angry, the lonely, and the alienated. Widespread poverty and political instability in the Middle East will continue to provide a fertile ground for spreading its ideology. The math is in the terrorists’ favor, and it’s paying off. ISIS has fewer than 30,000 fighters, and we talk about them more than Russia, which has almost 150 million people, thousands of nuclear warheads pointed at the U.S., and sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities.

A few terrorists with a few dollars worry us more than a big and potentially hostile nation, and that’s a big victory for the terrorists. How can we be winning?



Center for Strategic and International Studies, Washington, D.C.

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