The deadly attack in the Istanbul airport late Tuesday, suspected to be the work of the ISIS, comes as the terrorist group today marks the second anniversary of the declaration of its Islamic “caliphate,” or kingdom.
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In that time, the group has gone from obscurity, mocked by President Barack Obama as a terrorist “JV team,” to the world’s most brutal terrorist network, not only responsible for thousands of deaths in the Middle East but also linked to hundreds more in dozens of terrorist plots in the West.
ISIS currently controls thousands of square miles in Iraq and Syria, though the U.S. military says the group been pushed out of swaths of land, especially in Iraq, since a territorial high point in late summer 2014.
In January of that year in a New Yorker profile, Obama made the “JV team” remark. Administration officials have since said it was not specifically about ISIS but about various extremist groups.
At the time, ISIS was not a household name. Even when the group declared its “caliphate” on June 29, 2014, in an audio message, relatively few in the West outside counterterrorism circles took notice — though the rare public appearance of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul, Iraq, a few days later raised some eyebrows.
But that August, American journalist James Foley was murdered on camera by a black-clad ISIS fighter.
“No just God would stand for what they did yesterday or every single day,” Obama said in an address to the nation the day after the gruesome video emerged. “People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future’s won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley.”
Videos showing the deaths of more American and British civilian hostages followed. The killer, by then dubbed Jihadi John, demanded the U.S.-led coalition stop its airstrikes against ISIS targets, but the strikes continued.
So far, the U.S. has spent $7.5 billion on operations dedicated to defeating the group in Iraq and Syria, including more than 12,000 airstrikes — over 9,600 of them American, according to the Pentagon. One of the strikes killed Jihadi John last November, and recently Obama said the U.S.-led coalition has “taken out more than 120 top [ISIS] leaders and commanders.”
But as ISIS was bombarded in its territory, it lashed out with operations abroad, using its fighters for major operations, like the nightmarish assaults on Paris that claimed 130 lives, or simply inspiring homegrown terrorists, like the San Bernardino shooters in California, to kill on their own.
This March the House Homeland Security Committee released a report saying that by the time of publication, some 270 people had died in 32 ISIS-linked terrorist attacks against the West, while more than 40 other plots had been disrupted. Since then, ISIS struck in Brussels, killing 32 people in an attack on an airport there. Earlier this month a lone gunman opened fire at a gay nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 people before being gunned down by police. During the attack, officials said, the shooter declared allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
A little more than a year ago, Obama acknowledged that the fight against ISIS would “not be quick," either abroad or at home.
“This is a long-term campaign,” he said then. “[ISIS] is opportunistic and it is nimble … As with any military effort, there will be periods of progress, but there are also going to be some setbacks.”
“It’s also true why, ultimately, in order for us to defeat terrorist groups like ISIL and al-Qaeda, it’s going to also require us to discredit their ideology, the twisted thinking that draws vulnerable people into their ranks. As I’ve said before — and I know our military leaders agree — this broader challenge of countering violent extremism is not simply a military effort. Ideologies are not defeated with guns. They’re defeated by better ideas, a more attractive and more compelling vision,” he said.