With his prime-time address to the nation last week, President Barack Obama set the United States in motion for another protracted military conflict in the Middle East. This time, the target is the growing terrorist army known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which controls territory roughly the size of Belgium, and has become famous for its wanton brutality against anyone standing in its way.
But while roughly 90 percent of Americans now view ISIS as a serious threat to U.S. national security, there remains confusion over the degree to which the group directly threatens the American homeland.
For example, earlier this year, Obama described ISIS as a “Junior Varsity” version of Al Qaeda, specifically because he said it did not pose a threat inside the United States, but rather was “engaged in various local power struggles and disputes.” Just three weeks ago, Obama reiterated that point, saying groups like ISIS “were focused primarily locally,” not on the U.S. homeland.
Then in last week’s address, he said that while ISIS did not yet pose a direct threat to the United States, it could “if left unchecked.”
Efforts to differentiate threats posed by militant Islamist groups to the regions in which they operate, as opposed to the world at large, are certainly understandable, and important. As seen with the Obama administration’s new threat assessment of ISIS, it can mean the difference between passivity and intervention.
But such efforts are inherently flawed—not because understanding the local contexts of militant Islamist groups is not important (it is). But rather because viewing such groups as of either local or global significance is precisely the wrong way to approach the challenge.
The fact is groups like ISIS always think and act in terms of both local and global ambitions—or, in the parlance of the “defensive jihad” they believe they are waging, their targets are both “near enemies” (apostate Muslim rulers) and “far enemies” (the infidels that support them).
While some in Congress and elsewhere still believe ISIS is a localized problem of little concern to the United States, the inconvenient truth is that ISIS actually represents a dangerous new chapter in the global war being waged by Al Qaeda and its affiliated and inspired groups, and a clear and present threat to the U.S. homeland.
Four new “areas of concern” show why this is the case.
Quantity vs. Quality
Ever since the Taliban government in Afghanistan was ousted in late 2001, the core Al Qaeda group founded by Osama bin Laden has been without formal training camps and facilities. This has forced the organization to rely more and more on recruits and foot soldiers trained under less-than-optimal circumstances, sometimes just over the Internet.
Many terrorism experts believe the multiple “near-attacks” against the United States over the past five years—such as over Detroit in December 2009, in Times Square in May 2010, and on inbound cargo airliners in late 2010—are all signs that while the organization is not lacking in “quantity” of potential recruits, they lack the ability to effectively train “quality” foot soldiers to effectively carry out major attacks.
One of the great challenges ISIS poses is that it currently controls thousands of square miles of ungoverned territory; and it is recruiting highly motivated fighters from all over the world. This influx of fighters, along with the open space needed by ISIS commanders to formally train them, offers the group an ability to creatively think up and effectively carry out major attacks, including against the United States.
The militant Islamist ideology that underpins ISIS is nothing new—it has been around since the Middle Ages, and has ebbed and flowed in prominence over the centuries under movements such as Wahhabism in Arabia, Jamaat-e-Islami in South Asia and the Muslim Brotherhood in the broader Middle East. Unfortunately, movements guided by this ideology are much more flowing than ebbing at the moment.
For example, while attention has been focused on ISIS in the Mideast, two other related challenges have recently exploded elsewhere. In Libya, an Islamist-dominated militia known as “Libya Dawn” has taken over enormous chunks of the country, and is also crossing the border of Tunisia and other parts of the region.
And a bit further south in Nigeria, a new offensive by the group Boko Haram has seized towns, villages and hundreds of square miles of territory in the northeast; potentially pushing well across the borders of Cameroon, Niger and Chad.
Though some take solace that local jihadi groups—such as Boko Haram in Nigeria and Ansar Dine in Mali—come from different regions, nationalities, tribes and so on, and have their own local grievances, they are also fellow travelers of the revolutionary global jihad. In fact, they are often connected by larger umbrella organizations—like Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which interacts with all of these groups.
For ISIS, this means vast swaths of new friendly territory is opening up in Africa and elsewhere, offering it more opportunity to recruit fighters and find logistical and other operational support for attacks it may wish to commit internationally.
And while some have pointed optimistically to splits between fellow traveler groups like ISIS and Al Qaeda’s formal affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, there is less to such splits than meet the eye. They are almost always over tactics, like ISIS’ wanton killing of Sunni Muslims, which core Al Qaeda believes hurts the broader jihad movement. The splits are not over the goals of the movement itself.
In fact, such splits may actually incentivize competition between the different groups to see which can carry out the most high-profile and devastating attack, in order to boost its own franchise name, and reinvigorate its financing and recruitment. Nothing would do so more than a major attack against the United States.
Terrorism is by definition “asymmetric”—a weaker party using violence as a political tactic against a more powerful adversary. And any capable terrorist group can be thought of as having “asymmetric advantages” because it operates in the shadows and can often pick the time, place and nature of attack against its enemies.
But groups like Al Qaeda and its more sophisticated offshoots are especially problematic with regard to asymmetric advantages because they operate in effective, secret global networks; they are focused primarily on Western liberal democracies that are more open and therefore more vulnerable than other types of political systems; and they recruit actors willing to die on their missions, so they are less concerned about carrying dangerous substances, like radiological or biological material.
This is why Barack Obama has maintained that secretly obtained intelligence is often the only way to even begin to level the playing field with sophisticated mass-casualty terrorists operating in the shadows.
This relates to ISIS in two critical ways. First, if the tens-of-thousands of ISIS fighters—including many with Western passports—decide to start attacks against the West and the United States, this will obviously create an “asymmetry problem” of monumental proportions; leading to even more aggressive surveillance and intelligence gathering by the West.
Second, and more problematic, a group like ISIS, with its troves of hard currency from its seizure of hundreds of millions of dollars in bank deposits from towns and cities it has overrun, and from tens of millions more in black-market oil sales, is less susceptible to international electronic surveillance.
Though it does not often get publicized, tracking “terror financing” is one of the best ways to fight terrorism—often even more so than tracking terrorist communications. Terrorists simply cannot operate without financing, so law enforcement and intelligence agencies constantly monitor known or suspected terror financiers or facilitators, which can break up terror finance networks, expose terror cells and even thwart major plots.
With roughly $1 billion in cash, ISIS will not necessarily need to expose itself to international counterfinance efforts, adding another stealthy advantage to its growing list of capabilities.
Theory of the Strong Horse
Of the four areas of concern relating to ISIS and the reinvigorated global jihad, the concept of the “strong horse” is the most misunderstood in the West. It is also the most important because it directly relates to macro “world views.”
As Osama bin Laden said on tape just two months after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001: “When people see a strong horse and a weak horse, by nature, they will like the strong horse.”
This brief sentiment underscored the broader religious-ideological theory espoused by bin Laden and his followers: That those who dedicate themselves to the martial defense of Islam will always defeat those (particularly in the spiritually bankrupt West) who, despite their wealth and sophisticated technology, are actually weak horses or “paper tigers.”
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have always relied on “strong horse” propaganda for their success as an organization. You cannot look through Al Qaeda training manuals without constantly coming across several key dates, notably 1989—the year they claim to have defeated the Soviet Empire; and 1993—the year they claim to have defeated the United States in Somalia following the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Mogadishu.
Indeed, the image of America’s withdrawal from Somalia, “dragging its tails in failure, defeat and ruin,” according to bin Laden, dominated Al Qaeda propaganda and recruitment throughout the 1990s and into the attacks of 9/11.
This directly relates to the ISIS challenge, because ISIS is the descendent of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), which formed in the mid-2000s during the darkest days of America’s war in Iraq, only to be decimated by the Bush administration’s troop “surge” in 2008. AQI’s defeat was a devastating blow to the “strong horse” narrative for Al Qaeda, both locally and globally.
Obama’s decision to withdraw all U.S. forces from Iraq in 2011, though certainly understandable considering his longstanding promise to “end the Iraq war,” clearly illustrates the disconnect between the worldviews of America and the West on the one hand, and the jihadi movements on the other.
While Obama was celebrating America’s withdrawal as evidence that he “ended the Iraq war” with America’s “head held high,” radical Islamist movements were comparing it to the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan in 1989; the American defeat in Somalia in 1993; and even to America’s defeat in Vietnam.
And now the former AQI has reconstituted as a vast terrorist army in Iraq and war-torn Syria; is viewed as the “strong horse” in the region; and serves as a model for countless other groups with similar goals.
None of this is to imply that the United States should be on a permanent war footing, fighting every jihadi group, large and small, all over the world. Nor is it to imply that the United States can simply throw up its hands, say the world is too complicated, and take its global leadership ball and go home (even that would not save the United States from being in the “far enemy” category). It is, however, to remind us that the most important maxim in fighting a war is to know one’s enemy.
After years insisting that “Al Qaeda is on the path to defeat,” the Obama administration now recognizes that despite the death of bin Laden, “bin Ladenism” is alive and well, and expanding.
This is because the threat was never from a person or a group—but rather from a global ideology: a militant, radicalized version of Sunni Islam. And in order to successfully combat the new threat posed by ISIS and like-minded groups around the world, the West will need to join forces with the moderate Sunni world to counter, and ultimately defeat, the ideology.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and counterterrorism at Columbia University, where he is also a Member of the Saltzman Institute of War & Peace Studies. He is author of Debating Terrorism and Counterterrorism: Conflicting Perspectives on Causes, Contexts, and Responses (CQ Press, 2013).