Paul Pillar

The Military Impulse and Hysteria Over ISIS

Emotional and ill-focused reaction to the latest mass shooting in the United States, coupled with misguided but unfortunately well-entrenched ways of thinking about terrorism and counterterrorism, along with a political campaign featuring jingoistic appeals, is increasing the pressure on the U.S. administration to embark on costly and counterproductive new endeavors in the Middle East.

A dominant theme in public discourse is that the so-called Islamic State or ISIS is behind what has already become highly destructive terrorism in the West and therefore the United States needs to hasten to destroy the group in its stronghold in Syria and Iraq, and this means increased use of military force. Republican presidential candidates have been leading the charge with heavy use of “war” vocabulary, which is the lexicon of choice to convey toughness and to appeal to public fears even when specific meanings and implications of such terminology do not get spelled out. “Islamic terrorism wants to destroy our way of life,” Jeb Bush declared. “They have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.” Chris Christie intoned, “Our nation is under siege. What I believe we're facing is the next world war.” Ted Cruz proclaimed, “This nation needs a wartime president...Our enemies are at war with us.”

This approach disregards what the very incidents that have aroused the fears to which these candidates are appealing tell us about the sources of international terrorism in the West and what determines its extent and severity. It disregards the true nature of any connection between strongholds of extremist groups in the Middle East and terrorism carried out on other continents. And the approach disregards recent and glaring lessons about the application of outside, especially U.S., military force, to Middle Eastern conflicts.

With the caveat that any criminal investigation must be given time to run its course before we start drawing firm conclusions about any violent incident, what we know so far about the two events that have given the biggest boosts to the current alarm simply does not support the image of ISIS decision-makers unleashing and managing a terrorist campaign against the West—however much they might like to do so. In a pattern that became familiar when “linked to Al-Qaeda” was the phrase most likely to send people into a dither after an incident, now “linked to ISIS” has that effect, with both the people who feel the alarm and the politicians who exploit it not stopping to consider exactly what the link means, or whether it means anything at all in terms of the nature of the future terrorist threat in the West and the variables that affect it.

The investigation into the Paris attacks last month is now more than three weeks old, and based on what has been made public, the attacks still appear to be the work of a Belgium-based radical gang comprising citizens of European Union countries. What evidently has not turned up—and given the current policy direction of the Hollande government, surely we would have been told about it if it had turned up—is any evidence of someone in Raqqa or elsewhere in ISIS-land ordering or directing the operation. Nor does there appear to have been any imparting from ISIS of any attack-relevant skills, with little such skill being apparent in the first place.

As for the shootings in San Bernardino, the only connection to ISIS of any sort that we have been told about so far is that the female half of the shooting team expressed identification with the group in a post on Facebook. Evidently she made the post with a phone on the day of the shooting.

These circumstances are similar to other incidents over the past few years of terrorism in the United States by individuals with comparable radical Islamist inclinations, such as Nidal Hasan, who perpetrated a mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, who made a clumsy attempt at setting off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010. In each case there was some contact with a foreign group: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Hasan, and the Pakistani Taliban in the case of Shahzad. In each case the radicalism was there in the individual before the contact. In each case it was the individual in the United States who sought the contact rather than the other way around. And, despite reported training that Shahzad received, the distinction between people dying and people living was not determined by any attack-relevant skills that came from abroad.

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