Who killed more terrorists, Obama or Bush? It depends

President Barack Obama, with a group of national security officials, speaks following a meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., April 13. (New York Times)
President Barack Obama, with a group of national security officials, speaks following a meeting at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., April 13. (New York Times)

Some critics of President Barack Obama take issue with what they see as a cold-hearted attitude toward the threat of terrorism. Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace brought up this criticism in an interview with Obama on April 10.

"And some people wonder, I think the concern is, do you worry about terrorism and feel the threat of terrorism the way they do?" Wallace asked.

"And I would say this: There isn’t a president who’s taken more terrorists off the field than me, over the last seven and a half years," Obama said. "I’m the guy who calls the families, or meets with them, or hugs them, or tries to comfort a mom, or a dad, or a husband, or a kid, after a terrorist attack. So, let’s be very clear about how much I prioritize this. This is my No. 1 job."

We were curious about Obama’s claim that he has "taken more terrorists off the field" than any other president.

Every expert we talked with told us that Obama’s claim could be accurate, but it’s hard to quantify because of the loose definition of "terrorist" and the fact that most of this activity is shrouded in secrecy. None of the experts felt comfortable putting a number on it. Because of that, we won’t rate Obama’s statement on our Truth-O-Meter, but we will review our findings.

The administration would not give us the number of terrorists Obama has killed, citing classification concerns.

One thing to keep in mind is there’s only one other president that offers a meaningful comparison: Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush.

While other recent presidents have dealt with bouts of terrorist activity, such as Bill Clinton’s campaign in Africa and Ronald Reagan’s response to attacks in Lebanon, none have engaged in an extended campaign against terrorists other than Obama and Bush, said Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

So Obama might have killed more terrorists than any other president, but it’s among a sample size of two.

Experts said Obama’s claim is likely accurate if one is using a strict definition of terrorist — members of an organization who primarily use acts of terrorism against civilians to provoke a state to react — as opposed to a more inclusive definition that would encompass insurgent fighters, who are more military-like.

"Probably, the more inclusive one makes that definition, the more the numbers might favor George W. Bush, and the less inclusive, the more they would back up President Obama's statement," said Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University security studies professor and a former intelligence worker.

Gartenstein-Ross agreed that Bush likely killed more combatants, but Obama engaged in more targeted attacks, which would mean his operations likely killed more people who would be considered "terrorists" under a strict definition.

Similarly, Obama’s claim is likely true if by "terrorist" he was referring specifically to leaders of al-Qaida and its affiliates and the Islamic State, said Stephen Van Evera, a political science professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Obama has put higher priority on killing the leadership and cadres of the most dangerous global terrorist organizations, and has in fact killed considerably more of these leaders and operatives," Van Evera said, comparing Obama with Bush.

Obama’s use of targeted attacks, particularly drone strikes, is the main difference between the two presidents on this question, Gartenstein-Ross added.

For example, Bush launched about 60 strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen, according to data from the New America Foundation, killing a maximum of about 400 militants. Obama, on the other hand, has launched more than 500 strikes in those three countries, killing anywhere between 2,700 and 4,000 militants.

The heaviest covert drone warfare has taken place in Afghanistan, with about 1,000 strikes there as of 2014, according to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. In 2015 and 2016, the Air Force reported more than 500 strikes combined.

A 2015 report out of Brown University estimates that the number of Taliban deaths in Afghanistan may have been between 5,000 and 15,000 total over the course of the Bush administration, but up to 5,000 per year during the Obama administration.

So Obama has likely killed several thousand militants through drone strikes and special operations, according to limited publicly available information. Counting these deaths, though, still raises the question of whether the killed militants were terrorists, insurgents, or both.

When we move out to the more expansive definition, the Bush administration killed the lion’s share of about 24,000 "enemy" combatants in Iraq. That figure, which spans 2003 through the end of 2009, comes from a Pentagon document leaked in 2010 through Wikileaks.

Similarly, for the Obama administration, coalition forces have killed more than 26,000 Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to an official estimate reported by CNN in March.

In December 2015, the Washington Post tried to come up with its own count of how many terrorists the Bush and Obama administrations have each killed. Using an inclusive definition of terrorism, they tallied up between 65,800 and 88,600 terrorists killed since fighting began in the early 2000s, throughout both presidents’ terms. Obama is responsible for a little below half by their count — between 30,000 and 33,000.

One reason Obama may have been more successful in killing more strict-definition terrorists, for example, al-Qaida leaders, is that these groups have grown under Obama, Van Evera said.

"Obama has more terrorists to kill," he said. "Unfortunately al-Qaida affiliates have grown in number and size since 2009.  It’s a target-rich environment."

Gartenstein-Ross said the fact that the global terrorist threat has grown under Obama renders his claim meaningless. That being said, Gartenstein-Ross said the claim is "reasonable but disputable."

"It would be impossible without really delving into data, and that data isn’t publicly available," he added.