If the terrorists keep losing ground, why are so many people still dying?

- James S. Robbins James S. Robbins writes weekly for USA TODAY and is the author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive

If the airport bombings in Istanbul are a sign the Islamic State is losing, I’d hate to see winning.

ISIL is being blamed for the bombing at the Istanbul Ataturk airport on Monday that killed 42 and wounded more than 230. Secretary of State John Kerry said Tuesday that the attack was not a sign of terrorist strength but of weakness. “If you’re desperate and if you know you are losing,” he said, “and you know you want to give up your life, then obviously you can do some harm.” President Obama’s public comments at a summit with the leaders of Mexico and Canada backed that point of view.

ISIL has suffered recent reverses. This week, Iraqi forces retook the city of Fallujah, which ISIL had controlled for two years. Coalition forces are pushing ISIL back from the Turkish border in Syria. In the last year ISIL has lost 40% of the territory it controlled in Iraq and 10% to 20% in Syria. The Islamic State’s vision of a Levantine caliphate is being whittled away.

However, the jihadists are not confined by lines on a map. Jihadist networks are complex, adaptive and opportunis­tic. When they feel pressure in one area they move to another. ISIL may be shrinking in Syria and Iraq, but it is growing in Libya, Tunisia and Sinai.

ISIL continues to demonstrat­e its lethal reach. Attacks directed or inspired by ISIL in the past nine months have been numerous and deadly. There was the Orlando massacre, the Brussels bombings in March, the San Bernardino shooting last December, the attacks in Paris last November, a Russian jet blown up over Egypt in October, and a number of less publicized but still deadly attacks in Yemen, Lebanon, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.

And we have heard Kerry’s notion that ISIL is desperatel­y lashing out before. He said ISIL was losing after the March Brussels bombings and November 2015 Paris attacks. Maybe if he keeps repeating the argument, one day it will be true.

At some level terrorism has always been the weapon of the weak. ISIL members do not conduct terror attacks because they want to remain terrorists. They would much rather command large convention­al forces and subjugate their neighbors at will. But lacking the power to erect a caliphate quickly, they do the best they can with what they have.

From the terrorists’ point of view every successful attack is a victory for the jihad. They kill infidels, generate headlines, publicize their cause, encourage followers abroad and attract recruits to join their fight.

They don’t massacre the innocent because they are weak; they do it because they can. If they were truly declining they would not be able to conduct these attacks as often as they do.

If ISIL was defeated, Turkey would not be in mourning and we would not be having this discussion.

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