History has a dark sense of humor. Nearly 13 years to the day after al-Qaeda launched cataclysmic attacks on New York City and Washington, a U.S. President again appeared on television in prime time to declare a new front in the same antiterrorist war. It was not an announcement Barack Obama anticipated or sought. But he believed that another band of extremists operating in a distant desert left him no choice. “I want the American people to understand how this effort will be different from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Obama said on Sept. 10. “It will not involve American combat troops fighting on foreign soil.”
American warplanes and drones had already pounded the army of roughly 10,000 fighting men with more than 150 air strikes. And that was just the count for the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. A U.S. air strike on Sept. 1 in a coastal area of Somalia killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of an Islamic militant group that killed dozens in a terrorist attack on a Kenyan shopping mall last year. That day, a U.S. strike killed three Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan. In August, American drones took out suspected al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen and radicals in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Obama’s Pentagon also disclosed plans for a new drone base in the desert of Niger–the better to target Islamic militants marauding in the region–while dozens of U.S. special-operations troops help Nigeria’s military hunt the Islamist maniacs of Boko Haram.
This multifront conflict was hardly the vision Obama offered in his second Inaugural speech, when he declared that “a decade of war is now ending.” Nor was it the future Obama conjured in a May 2013 address to the nation explaining his plans to transition away from the extraordinary legal authorities George W. Bush claimed after the 9/11 attacks. “This war, like all wars, must end,” Obama declared. “That’s what history advises. It’s what our democracy demands.”
But the terrorists didn’t care about what history advised or what democracy demanded. From Mali to Benghazi to Mosul to Karachi, they have grown in numbers and ferocity. The number of radical Islamic groups has increased nearly 60% in the past four years, according to a June study by the Rand Corp., while attacks by al-Qaeda and its affiliates–a category that doesn’t even include ISIS–have tripled. Al-Qaeda now seeks to radicalize India’s Muslims, even as militants multiply in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The new burst of radicalism–unleashed by the Arab Spring, fueled by social media and financed by wealthy donors, kidnapping and extortion–may not be Obama’s fault. But it is consuming his second term and shaping his legacy in unwanted ways. A leader who hoped to lower the temperature on terrorism finds his Vice President vowing to chase ISIS “to the gates of hell.”
“Here is a President who wanted to end the war on terror and is now dealing with a threat that is actually much more global, more metastasized and which requires the full panoply of U.S. tools and authorities in a way that I don’t think he imagined,” says Juan Zarate, a former top Homeland Security adviser in George W. Bush’s White House. “The term war on terror”–which Obama banished from official government usage–“is ironically more relevant today than it was on 9/11.”
The morning before Obama spoke, secretary of State John Kerry touched down in Baghdad on an Air Force cargo plane. He was there for a meeting with Iraq’s new Prime Minister, Haider al-Abadi, at his offices in the former Saddam Hussein palace that for years served as the headquarters of the U.S. occupation. Despite the grim circumstances of the visit, with whole sections of Iraq under the control of ISIS, Kerry told al-Abadi he was “very encouraged” by Iraq’s formation of a new government this month. A new Iraqi and U.S. military offensive against ISIS would follow, Kerry hoped, along with reconciliation between Baghdad’s leadership and the disaffected Sunni tribes of the north. “It’s full speed ahead,” Kerry declared at the heavily fortified U.S. embassy here.
The plan to defeat ISIS is a complex brew of diplomacy, continued U.S. bombing, American special forces and an unlikely alliance of regional forces providing an army on the ground. It will require shutting off foreign support for ISIS fighters and reconfiguring old alliances and animosities. Iran, a longtime foe, is now something of a part-time ally. The regime of Bashar Assad, a onetime target of Obama’s bombing plans, is now a secondary concern. In theory at least, Jordan will supply intelligence about the group’s movements near its borders. Wealthy Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will use their influence–not to mention treasuries–to persuade Iraq’s Sunnis to join the fight against ISIS.
In a coalition like this, patience may be the most vital ingredient. The American military role–Air Force and Navy bombers attacking ISIS from the sky and perhaps as many as 1,000 troops on the ground–is limited by design, at least for now. While U.S. public opinion backs a limited return to Iraq, in part to avenge the beheadings of two American journalists, that support does not extend to committing U.S. troops to a new ground war in the country.
Also playing an important role is Turkey, whose porous southern border with Syria has been the crossing point for perhaps thousands of ISIS fighters from Europe and the Middle East. Washington wants the Turks–who long turned a blind eye to such transit because they hate Syrian dictator Assad and were happy to support the growth of groups fighting him–to choke off that foreign-fighter pipeline. The Kurdish peshmerga will supply an army. Qatar and Kuwait will be squeezed to limit donations from wealthy royals meant to fuel opposition to Assad that might be finding their way to ISIS. And Obama will step up support for moderate rebels within Syria in the hope that they can challenge ISIS on the ground in its base of operations.
A huge amount will depend on achieving a goal Obama once declared to be completed: ensuring that a functioning government in Baghdad represents the views of the Sunni tribes now supporting ISIS. The U.S.-backed shift replaced Iraq’s thuggish Prime Minister of eight years, Nouri al-Maliki–whom many Sunnis had come to see as a repressive Shi’ite version of Saddam Hussein. Although al-Abadi has a similar background to his predecessor, he doesn’t have Sunni blood on his hands as al-Maliki does, and he appears at least nominally more tolerable to Sunnis. In Baghdad, Kerry touted an emerging plan for new local security forces, akin to National Guard units, to take the fight to ISIS in a bid to avoid Shi’ite-dominated units’ fighting against Sunni ISIS fighters. But promises of a new dawn in Iraq often presage more darkness. “This is going to be extremely, extremely difficult. The problems confronting Iraq are incredibly challenging,” says a senior State Department official. “And they can be so daunting that some days you ask yourself where we can possibly go from here.”
The Root Threat
An even bigger challenge–if that is possible–will be defeating the underlying ideology that unites all the targets of America’s global war: the radical dictates of a strain of Sunni Islam that sees battle as holy, secularism as evil and civilians as justifiable targets both regionally and abroad.
This single strand of radical ideology has bred all manner of offshoots and imitators of al-Qaeda that in some cases have grown stronger than Osama bin Laden’s diminished organization. Their ideology has proved impossible to contain at a time of Middle East revolutions and civil wars, which are to religious fanatics what stagnant ponds are to mosquitoes.
The U.S. has long searched for ways to combat extremism that don’t involve drones or dollars to prop up repressive dictators, though progress has been elusive. Introducing his new special representative to Muslim communities in early September, Kerry spoke grandly of “creative partnerships” with religious and civil-society leaders and “a future that embraces tolerance and understanding and, yes, even love.”
A somewhat more tangible approach involves competing with ISIS on the battleground of social media, where the group has displayed a sinister mastery. In July, the State Department posted a video online that depicts ISIS atrocities like executions, crucifixions and the bombing of mosques–all to sarcastic commentary mocking the idea that these were the practices of real Muslims. (“Think again. Turn away,” the video concludes.) Such efforts may keep the war on terrorism from expanding, but they are not likely to actually win it.
Viewed one way, ISIS has provided Obama with a kind of opportunity. By rallying nations to the fight, he shows the global leadership that critics at home and abroad complain has been absent from his presidency; there’s no leading from behind this time. And by ordering air strikes, he has muffled critics who call him dangerously averse to using military force.
But there will be costs as well. In the spring of 2013, Obama was talking about scaling back drone strikes, closing the Guantánamo Bay prison camp and defending core civil liberties. The battle with ISIS and its radical brethren has left those plans in pieces. (Efforts in Congress to rein in NSA intelligence collection, to take just one example, are almost surely dead for now.)
Then there’s the cost to Obama’s other priorities at home and abroad, including the economy and the rise of China, and to the legacy of a President who once considered it a core goal to avoid Middle East conflict.
Now the question isn’t so much whether Obama can end the terrorism war but whether he can make sufficient progress so that his successor, no matter the party, can perhaps bring it to a close. It is a job description that Obama’s predecessor George W. Bush would surely recognize. “The war on terror doesn’t need to be endless,” says Republican Senator Marco Rubio of Florida. “But it’s certainly going to be long.”
In May 2013, Obama warned about allowing the fight against terrorism to consume the national psyche. “We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us,” he said. But he was too slow to see the changing nature of the struggle. And now he is being defined by it. About that much he was right.
This appears in the September 22, 2014 issue of TIME.