Can We Prevent the Next ISIS?

Islamic State militants. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Dean11122

We learned with Al Qaeda and ISIS that localized jihadist movements are not local.

When Islamic State overran Mosul more than two years ago media and observers mistook it for an “insurgent” force fighting the Iraqi army. Amnesty International, on June 11, 2014 described it as an “armed opposition group” and called on it to protect civilians. Although its actions were “deeply concerning,” many commentators didn’t see it as particularly different than the abusive and problematic policies of Nouri Al-Maliki’s central government. It took more than two months for most of the world to finally understand that what was happening in northern Iraq and Syria at the hands of ISIS was much more than just some bearded insurgents. It sunk in that this is not a legitimate organization only after more than 1,500 mostly Shia cadets were executed at Camp Speicher, Yazidi men and elderly women were machine-gunned and thrown into mass graves and young Yazidi women were sold as slaves.

Why did it take so long to connect the dots between ISIS and all the jihadist groups that had come before in Iraq, such as Ansar al-Sunnah and Al-Qaida? ISIS built not only on existing extremist networks but its members had often served in other groups or been influenced by them and their waves of terror that swept Iraq in 2004 and again in 2007. It borrowed its Manichean vision from them as well. Major General Simon Mayall, who played a key role in the surge in Iraq, had noted at a speech in Edinburgh in 2008 that the Syrian-Iraq border was porous and jihadists were moving back and forth. Four years later it used that open border to create the Islamic State that is now being battled in Raqqa and Mosul. In November 2014, Erin Marie Saltman and Charlie Winter wrote in Islamic State: The Changing Face of Modern Jihadism, that “some people persist in claiming IS has a distinctly local focus. Whilst its rampages, thus far, have been localized, it has never shied away from declaring its globalist ambitions.” Those global ambitions became clear in a series of attacks in Europe in 2016 and the numerous groups and individuals throughout the world who swore allegiance to ISIS.

Warnings about the global ambitions of ISIS were similar to those heard before 9/11 in the United States. On August 6 of that year the Presidential Daily Brief included an item titled “Bin Laden determined to strike in the US.” According to the 9/11 Commission Report it was the thirty-sixth mention of Bin Laden in briefs that year to the president. By that time Al Qaeda had already been attacking Americans for years. In 1993 Bin Laden had encouraged his followers to strike at U.S. interests and the Commission concluded that his trainers played a role in the Black Hawk Down incident in October 1993 in Somalia.

Al Qaeda was built on the global attraction of volunteers and veterans from wars in Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya and elsewhere. It attracted not only volunteers but allegiance from other groups that were fighting their own conflicts from the Philippines to North Africa. The Taliban’s Afghanistan provided the base it initially needed to nurture and grow. But after the Taliban were defeated its offshoots continued to expand in Africa, Yemen, Iraq and Syria. Often policymakers only understood their threat to regional stability, and even to whole states such as Yemen, when it was too late.

It’s relatively easy to map all these extremist Islamist movements. For instance Stanford University has a research project supported by the National Science Foundation and Department of Defense devoted to “mapping militant organizations.” A map shows the history and extent of these organizations, from Al Jama’a al-Islamiya (Egypt) to the Haqqani Network (Pakistan) to Al-Shabab. Seeing what is coming next is the real challenge.