In the past year alone, the number of people who have left their home country to join terrorist groups in the Middle East has shot up 71 percent, according to a new United Nations report.
Nearly 25,000 foreign fighters have fled to join al-Qaida and the Islamic State, with the vast majority of them heading to Iraq and Syria, according to the Associated Press, who obtained the U.N. panel of experts report April 1, 2015.
The rise of the Islamic State and other extremist groups casts a new light on President Barack Obama's 2008 campaign promise to "crush al-Qaida." Last time we looked at this promise in 2012, we rated it a Compromise. The administration had stripped al-Qaida of many leaders, but its global reach was still growing. The trend continues today.
Back before 9/11 and when Obama became president, al-Qaida was generally understood to mean the several hundred people who swore allegiance to Osama bin Laden, said Larry Johnson, a consultant specializing in counterterrorism and a former CIA employee, in a previous interview with PolitiFact.
Now when people think of al-Qaida, they usually think of a much broader category consisting of that core group, plus affiliates and other Sunni Islamic extremists, such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, located throughout the Middle East, North Africa and the Indian subcontinent.
Anne Stenersen, a research fellow in terrorism at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, said the narrowly defined al-Qaida -- that is, its core members -- has stayed relatively stable at fewer than 300 members since 2010.
The last time we updated this promise, we gave the Obama administration credit for killing several high-ranking al-Qaida members, not to mention killing bin Laden and raiding his compound in 2011. However, bin Laden's successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, and other al-Qaida leaders are still at large.
Other than membership, al-Qaida's diminished power since 2008 is evidenced by the group's minimal media presence and the lack of large-scale attacks involving core members, said J.M. Berger, a Brookings Institution fellow and an expert in extremism.
Much of this progress has to do with the Obama administration's continued presence in Afghanistan, as well as the drone war in Pakistan -- which Obama ramped after taking office in 2009, Stenersen said. But al-Qaida leadership has started to move elsewhere, to countries like Yemen and Syria, posing challenges for the United States.
Core al-Qaida "is at its weakest point since before 2001," said Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, at a Senate hearing in February 2015.
Regardless, Rasmussen expressed concern about the continuing threat of al-Qaida. He said it's possible that as the United States pulls troops out of Afghanistan, a "power vacuum" could arise, and al-Qaida could take advantage of that opportunity.
Bruce Hoffman, director of Georgetown University's Center for Security Studies, told PolitiFact that his research has shown that the number of al-Qaida affiliates has more than doubled from eight to 17 since 2008. Adding the Islamic State, once an affiliate, to that count would dramatically increase the number of fighters.
In September 2014, al-Qaida launched its newest affiliate in South Asia. There's also Yemen's al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula -- which took credit for the Charlie Hebdo attack in France -- Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa, and others. And the Islamic State was born out of al-Qaida in Iraq but split off due to ideological differences.
The CIA estimates that the Islamic State has up to 31,000 members, including a couple thousand westerners.
Between 2010 and 2013, the number of Islamic jihadist fighters doubled, and the number of attacks tripled, according to a 2014 report from RAND, a think tank.
"Militant Islam is definitely not crushed," Stenersen said.
This map shows various al-Qaida affiliates and other Islamic extremist groups throughout the region as of January:
But the growing number of affiliates hasn't been entirely beneficial to al-Qaida -- in some ways it's helped to diminish the core group by creating factions within the group, Berger said. For instance, al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula released a public statement saying the Islamic State was dividing their internal ranks.
Aside from sprouting al-Qaida affiliates and other extremist groups, the west faces an increasing threat of lone actor terrorists, Rasmussen said in his testimony.
"The perceived success of previous lone offender attacks combined with al-Qaida's, AQAP's and ISIL's incendiary propaganda promoting individual acts of terrorism has raised the profile of this tactic," he said.
So while one could make a case that there has been decent progress in battling a narrow definition of al-Qaida, the threat of jihadist terrorism is still a major concern for the United States.
"Overall, I think it's very difficult to imagine anyone who voted for the president on the basis of his promise to crush al-Qaida would be satisfied with the current state of affairs," Berger said. "While U.S. counterterrorism actions have had a detrimental effect on al-Qaida, especially al-Qaida Central, our overall policy and security concerns in the Middle East and North Africa are now more focused on jihadist activity than ever before."
Because there hasn't been much progress since we last checked in, we'll leave this promise at a Compromise.