Most Americans understand that something has gone terribly wrong in the world since 2011. Before that year, the Middle East was far less violent, with Islamic terrorism troubling only a few countries (like Iraq) and serious al Qaeda–led insurgencies only in distant lands that had seen violence for many decades (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia). Terrorist attacks on the homeland and in Europe were few and generally disrupted before we suffered casualties. Many experts hoped that the world had turned the corner in our fight with al Qaeda and other extremists and that their defeat was finally on the horizon.
After 2011, the fundamental landscape of the Middle East—and beyond—changed. Extremist violence, whether terrorist or insurgent in nature, spread until it engulfed most of the region, led by a resurgent al Qaeda and its offspring, ISIS. As sophisticated guerrilla armies trained and deployed in once-stable countries such as Syria, Libya, and Tunisia and terrorist attacks became commonplace across Europe and the United States, Americans wondered why this occurred and what could be done to stop it from spreading further.
It is no surprise to some observers that the violence spun out of control in early 2011. It was precisely at this moment that the Arab Spring, a series of popular revolutions across the Middle East, began. Many experts hoped that these uprisings would lead to greater freedoms and encourage political engagement rather than terrorist violence as the solutions for these societies’ problems.