By Jonathan Eyal, Europe Correspondent

US losing the fight against terrorists

Figures show terrorist activity is on the rise, and those in rich countries who believe they are safe are living in a fool's paradise

It all sounded deceptively simple: When he first ran for the White House, US President Barack Obama promised that, instead of confronting terrorists with brute military force, he would combat terrorism by "rolling back the tide of helplessness that gives rise to hate".

American administration officials continue to trumpet their anti-terrorist achievements. "Core Al-Qaeda no longer poses a principal threat to the US homeland," they claimed recently.

But, as the current stunning victories by militant fighters in Iraq indicate, the global scourge of terrorism is growing. The truth is, that President Obama is losing the war against the men of violence.

Terrorist activity increasing

THE figures speak for themselves.

An exhaustive study released earlier this month by the Rand Corporation, one of America's biggest operational research outfits, concluded that the number of clearly identifiable terrorist organisations has grown from 20 in 2010 to 48 today, while the number of estimated armed extremists has more than doubled over the same period, and now stands at around 40,000 worldwide.

The US State Department's own assessment, contained in its latest "Country Reports on Terrorism", acknowledges the same trend. It observes that terrorist attacks increased last year by almost half, from 6,700 to 9,700, taking the lives of 18,000 people.

The conclusion is, therefore, inescapable: While the US itself may be more secure than it was on the eve of the terrorist attacks of Sept 11, 2001, the rest of the world is facing the worst bout of terrorism in modern history.

One reason for this terrorist spike is the wave of revolutions which are sweeping through the Middle East, toppling governments which - however corrupt or totalitarian their methods may have been - did exercise effective control over their national territory.

That control has now evaporated and is unlikely to be restored soon.

It is difficult to see how the various tribal and regional militias inside Libya would be disarmed. A much more likely scenario is that they will export violence to neighbouring Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria for years to come.

Meanwhile, Syria will remain a laboratory of international terrorism.

It is a country that has already sucked in an estimated 7,000 European volunteer extremist Muslim fighters, plus at least another 30,000 similar individuals from other parts of the Middle East.

The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group which has stunned the world by occupying a large chunk of Iraq, is one of the smaller terrorist organisations emanating from Syria. Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra each have a bigger number of fighters than ISIL. They can be expected to launch their own attacks in the weeks to come, if only in order to uphold their reputations.

Developments in other parts of the world are grimmer still.

Pakistan has experienced a 37 per cent rise in terrorist activity over the past year, Yemen remains in chaos, and terrorist movements are now entrenched in Kenya and Somalia on the eastern coast of Africa, in Nigeria on the western coast, and throughout the Saharan belt inbetween.

One United States policy objective which remained constant for both the George W. Bush administration and Mr Obama's presidency was America's determination to prevent the creation of "ungoverned territories", blank spaces on the world's map where terrorists could hide and train.

When Mr Obama took office, the US had to deal with only two such ungoverned territories worldwide.

Today, it is confronting about 12. That's failure, and of monumental proportions.

US failure to act

THE United States could not have foreseen or prevented the revolutionary turmoil in the Middle East. Nor can the Americans be held responsible for the failures of governance which afflict many of the countries where terrorism now finds a refuge.

Still, the Obama administration's own mistakes turned a deteriorating situation into a disaster.

The first error was to rule out any use of the US military in handling the crises in the Middle East.

After their adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr Obama's reluctance to deploy his forces to new conflicts was understandable, and in keeping with the mood of his nation. But the US decision not to use force turned into a tendency to ignore the bubbling Middle Eastern conflicts altogether.

"Leading from behind" ended up being no leadership at all.

US officials usually like to blame the Europeans for lack of military verve.

In the Middle East, however, it was the Europeans who acted in Libya and who were also prepared to act in Syria. And it was the US President - often acting against the advice of his own officials - who pulled the plug on every military operation.

It's impossible to know whether an early Western-led military operation in Syria could have prevented a rise in terrorist movements. However, it is clear that a lack of action has contributed to the current disaster, which not only engulfs Syria, but also Iraq. Inaction often carries its own bloody price.

Furthermore, by choosing not to act to contain the violence in the Middle East, the US has contributed to a narrative of hatred against the West which now acts as best recruiter of terrorists.

Sunni Muslims throughout the Arab world accuse the US of sitting idly by as their brethren continue to be massacred in Syria; Shia Muslims suspect the US of helping their enemies by encouraging the illicit supply of weapons to Sunni fighters in Syria.

Sectarianism in Iraq

TO MAKE matters worse, the Obama administration not only eschewed the use of force against the rising tide of terrorist movements in the Middle East; it also neglected to use diplomacy - Mr Obama's preferred instrument - to handle such regional crises.

The real reason why Iraq is collapsing now is that Mr Nouri al-Maliki, the country's Prime Minister, acted not as a national leader, but as a sectarian leader of the Shias. It was a problem which only the Americans had the power to deal with, but they didn't.

The US didn't just take its eyes off Iraq; America's intelligence agencies even managed to be surprised by the quick victories of ISIL fighters last week.

And this was despite the fact that they were warned about the dangers of this movement by European intelligence services for at least a month previously.

As the latest study on terrorist trends compiled by the Rand Corporation points out, up to 90 per cent of all the current terrorist attacks target what experts call "the near enemy". By that they mean opponents in the closest battlefield, as opposed to launching more difficult operations against the "far enemy" such as Europe or the US.

That's what accounts for the strange contradiction that, while terrorism as a global phenomenon is flourishing, Western nations now feel more secure than ever. It's not white middle-class people who are getting killed, but poor people in the developing world.

Yet, this is a fool's paradise, for the lack of attention to the roots of terrorism will ultimately end up affecting rich nations. The terrorist accused of targeting a Jewish museum in Belgium recently is a European veteran of the Syria conflict - a warning of trends to come.

Repressive regimes

AWARE of the growing problem, President Obama recently announced the launch of a US$5 billion (S$6.2 billion) fund to help individual governments fight their terrorism. But the initiative will get nowhere, for the allies the US is seeking to help are themselves corrupt, sectarian and repressive. And they are so not by accident, but by design. The only way some of these countries can be governed is through force and graft.

The US has spent US$20 billion on the Iraqi military, only to see it melt last week in the face of approximately 1,000 ISIL extremists. The Americans also spent $50 billion on the military in Afghanistan, and the result will probably be just as disastrous.

The reality is that, if Washington is truly determined to contain the causes of terrorism, it will have to engage in nation-building, in literally helping states recreate themselves. This is a painstaking and lengthy business for which America's strategic instincts and political system are uniquely unsuited.

So, failure of governance in many countries will continue to combine with anti-Western sentiment to fuel the cycle of terrorism.

The US has succeeded in raising its defences against another 9/11-style attack. But by ignoring wider and longer-term terrorist trends, it now risks repeating the mistakes which led to the 9/11 tragedy in the first place. Mr Obama was right to promise to "roll back the tide of helplessness that gives rise to hate". The snag is, that he did little about it.