Update: On Tuesday, President Obama sharply dismissed Donald Trump's critiques of the fight against terror in a brief statement. "If there is anyone out there who thinks we are confused about who our enemies are," Obama said, "that would come as a surprise to the thousands of terrorists who we have taken off the battlefield." Last December, we tried to quantify those "thousands."
Joe Biden did his boss's campaign a world of good in 2012 with one simple line: "Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive." The first part of that sentiment has been a standard administration riposte for some time. Given the chance, President Obama likes to point out, he will kill as many terrorists as he can.
He made the point during his Oval Office speech Sunday night. "For seven years," Obama said, "I've confronted [the] evolving threat [of terrorism] each and every morning in my intelligence briefing. And since the day I took this office, I have authorized U.S. forces to take out terrorists abroad precisely because I know how real the danger is."
Given that, an interesting question to consider is this: How many terrorists has Obama actually "taken out"? This is a surprisingly hard question to answer, both from inside and outside the government.
We know of at least five theaters in which the U.S. military has explicitly targeted terrorists: Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and the Saudi Arabian peninsula and the Islamic State.
The northwestern region of Pakistan has been the epicenter of U.S. drone attacks against Taliban fighters. The program began under George W. Bush, but expanded greatly under Obama, as this visualization from Pitch Interactive makes clear.
Because the American drone program strikes from a distance, and because it often has conducted "signature strikes" -- attacks against those fitting a particular profile, or signature -- it's hard to say with certainty how many of the thousands of people killed in the attacks were actually terrorists.
(There's the overlapping question here of how many Taliban fighters hiding out in the region actually count as "terrorists," but, for the sake of argument, we'll include them.)
The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (BIJ) puts the number killed by drones to date at between 2,500 and 4,000 -- 500 to 1,000 of whom were civilians. Most of those were also on Obama's watch.
Total terrorists killed: 1,500 to 3,500
Killed by Obama: 1,000 to 3,000
It's fairly easy to find estimates of the number of American and coalition service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is much trickier to try and figure out how many Taliban or insurgent fighters were killed.
In March 2014, Voice of America indicated that estimates of the number of Taliban fighters killed since 2001 ranged from 20,000 to 35,000. That was a third to a half of the total size of the Taliban at that point. But a report from the Guardian the previous November suggested that 12,000 members of the Taliban were killed, captured or wounded in the previous 12 months alone. How that ratio breaks down isn't clear, but it could result in a far higher 13-year number than that reported by the VOA.
The BIJ separately indexed drone kills in Afghanistan, putting the figure at about 650.
Total terrorists killed: 21,000 to 26,400
Killed by Obama: Unknown
Agence France-Presse has tallied official figures from the Iraqi government that go back monthly to 2007 and include some from 2006. Over that time, more than 14,000 insurgents have been killed.
There are four question marks, though. First, who killed them -- a similar question that can apply to the figures in Afghanistan. Were they "taken out" by the United States or were Iraqi security forces responsible? And if the former, who was president? Second, this doesn't include those killed between the Iraq invasion and 2006. Third, how reliable are these monthly figures anyway? And, fourth, how much overlap is there with those killed during the fight against the Islamic State? (More on this later.)
There aren't many better numbers, however. A 2007 USA Today article put the tally at 19,000 at that point, the same year as the surge of U.S. military into the country. Using a variety of sources, Wikipedia calculates a higher number through 2011 of 21,000 to 26,400 total.
The independent site Iraq Body Count puts the tally between 2003 and 2013 at just shy of 40,000 combatants killed in Iraq -- including members of the American coalition. The Iraq Coalition Casualty Count has 4,800 coalition fatalities from 2003 to 2012, making the number of non-coalition fatalities around 35,000. That's mixing two sources of data, of course -- and conflating Iraqi defenses with insurgent fighters. The best numbers in this case are probably Wikipedia's.
Total terrorists killed: 20,000 to 35,000
Killed by Obama: At least 6,300 since 2009, according to the AFP numbers
Africa and the Saudi Arabian peninsula
Beginning under President Obama, the U.S. government has targeted militants and terrorists in Somalia and Yemen using drones. The scale of these attacks is much smaller according to the BIJ.
Total terrorists killed: 280 to 750
Killed by Obama: 280 to 750
In October, the Atlantic's Kathy Gilsinan tried to estimate how many Islamic State fighters had been killed in coalition actions since fall 2014, relying on a figure of 20,000 that had been leaked to USA Today. The independent site Airwars has a running tally, that as of writing stands at 23,000.
Gilsanin also points to an interesting quote from Rear Admiral John Kirby in January of this year. Asked how many Islamic State fighters had been killed, Kirby replied, "First of all, we don't have the ability to -- to count every nose that we shwack [sic]. Number two, that's not the goal. That's not the goal. The less of these guys that are out there, certainly that's the better, but the goal is to degrade and destroy their capabilities."
Total terrorists schwacked: 23,000
Schwacked by Obama: 23,000
Over those five theaters, then, the total number of terrorists killed since fighting began ranges from 65,800 to 88,600. Of that number, Obama is responsible for between 30,000 and 33,000 -- including only the Islamic State, Pakistan, Africa and the Iraqi kills since 2009 as indexed by the AFP.
In short, neither we nor Rear Admiral Kirby nor President Obama can say with certainty just how many terrorists have been "taken out" since the latter individual became president of the United States. What counts as a "terrorist" is just too murky, and the methods used to take them out are just too imprecise.