Americans Think Terrorists Are Winning -- They're Not

By Matthew Kriner

Fears of a terrorist attack happening in the United States are at their highest since 2005. Even more surprising is the rate at which Americans seem to think we're losing the War on Terrorism.

According to a CNN/ORC poll released December 28, 2015, 80 percent of Americans do not believe the United States is winning the War on Terrorism, with 40 percent of respondents indicating that the terrorists are winning. Another 40 percent of respondents said that neither side is winning, and only a pitiful 18 percent viewed Americans as holding the upper hand in the global war on terror. Compare that to the 2006 numbers just after the highly lauded Anbar Awakening (a stratagem which shifted the fight against ISIL's predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq and is being floated today as a response to ISIL's growth and control in Iraq), when nearly the same numbers of Americans said neither side was winning, but 34 percent gave the victory to the United States and its allies, and only 20 percent said the terrorists were winning.

At first, one would expect a surge in attacks on American soil would be the culprit, but the reality is that America is enjoying a period of relative safety from global terrorist organizations like al Qaeda. So what is it that's driving Americans to perceive their world as MORE dangerous, particularly when so many favorably view the current administration's ability to stop terrorist attacks?

Simply put, it's the media. Not just American or Western media outlets, but the media arm of ISIL itself. Each time a terrorist attack is covered in the media two things happen: the public is informed, but the terrorist organization is also given free advertising. From airline hijacking by the PLO, and al-Qaeda's Inspire magazine, to ISIL's Twitter accounts, terrorist groups have capitalized on the ever encroaching news cycle. Much discussion has gone into whether this is an acceptable side effect of the free press, but without doubt one could say that ISIL has become a veritable master manipulator of this byproduct of a free society.

Having nearly perfected the attention-grabbing terror spectacular we've grown uncomfortably used to seeing in the media, ISIL has ramped up its propaganda machine to the point that even a casual observer would assume that it has dramatically expanded its territorial claims. However, the organization has lost roughly 14% of its controlled lands in the last year, is currently facing a 20-30 percent fighter return rate, and just recently ceded Ramadi back to Iraqi forces. Not exactly a formula for success.

Consider another factor - the political rhetoric bordering on xenophobia in the 2016 Presidential race. Candidates such as Donald Trump have staked an impossible-to-flank position on combatting terrorism by suggesting a ban on Muslims entering the United States, claiming that Muslims danced and cheered in New Jersey on 9/11, and adopting an attitude of machismo which has driven other candidates in the field toward more extreme rhetoric. Take for instance this line by Senator Ted Cruz from a December 5 speech at Rising Tide Summit, an event with significant conservative and Tea Party connections: "[W]e will utterly destroy ISIS. We will carpet bomb them into oblivion. I don't know if sand can glow in the dark, but we're going to find out."

Blustery bravado like this will invariably paint the picture that ISIL is as potentially destructive as the Third Reich, particularly when it's paired with the terror spectacular media coverage surrounding the self-declared caliphate. The simple fact is that ISIL presents a low direct operational threat to the American homeland, and we have whipped ourselves into a paranoid frenzy concerning its capabilities and growth. Thus, the resurgent fears of a major (or even minor) terrorist attack, with direct operational connections to ISIL core, occurring in the United States following the events in Paris and San Bernardino are all too understandable. People desire strength in the face of existential threats, and that's precisely how both ISIL has portrayed itself to the West, and how Western leaders have portrayed ISIL to their citizens. But it is not an existential threat to the United States of America. And while we shouldn't be surprised that 80 percent of Americans either think we're losing the war on terror or that neither side is winning, we also shouldn't accept the rabble rousing narratives of fear mongers. To do so would give terrorist propaganda legitimacy, and ultimately make winning the war on terrorism impossible.

Matthew Kriner is the Associate Director for Subject Matter Fellows at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. He formerly served as the Director of Political Affairs at the Israeli Consulate to the Southeast United States. Matthew will be studying at IDC Herzilya for a MA in Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security this Fall.