For Osama Bin Laden, the calculation to attack the U.S. seemed simple. To topple apostate regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (the “Near Enemy”) that were preventing puritanical Sharia governance and the development of an Islamic state, al Qaeda needed to instead attack the United States and its Western allies (the “Far Enemy”), exhaust them in far flung battles and eliminate Western support for corrupt dictators (“Near Enemy”) suppressing al Qaeda’s vision. Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s attacks did drag the U.S. into extended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, these conflicts did little to erode U.S. support for what al Qaeda deemed the “Near Enemy”. Instead, al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. created a lethal counterterrorism force that destroyed most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership and isolated surviving al Qaeda senior leaders, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, from local bases of popular support nestled amongst al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and now Syria.
While the U.S. and al Qaeda toiled away, “Near Enemy” apostate regimes fell one after another succumbing to local uprisings devoid of any jihadist inspiration. Throughout most of these Arab Spring uprisings, the U.S. sat idly by, not stepping in to be the “Far Enemy” propping up apostate dictators. Ironically, the Arab Spring’s overthrow of apostate dictators and the resulting set of security vacuums created across North Africa and the Middle East have upended the narratives of both the U.S. and al Qaeda. For the U.S., the spread of democracy has not created peace and stability throughout the Arab world. For al Qaeda, attacking the “Far Enemy” did not bring about the fall of apostate regimes. The U.S. and al Qaeda’s fixation on each other has left both flat-footed and peripheral in today’s most significant terrorism and counterterrorism development: the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, or ISIL or IS, please pick whichever you like).
ISIS’s rise in Syria and later Iraq comes from both U.S. inaction in Syria and al Qaeda Central’s failed action since Bin Laden’s death. ISIS’s objectives and direction are inspired more by the group’s first leader Abu Musab al- Zarqawi rather than from al Qaeda under Bin Laden and Zawahiri. ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pursued an audacious and pragmatic plan to develop an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria taking control of Sunni regions suppressed by the Assad regime to the west and shunned by the Maliki government in the east. For ISIS, attacking the U.S. may be a long-term objective but their base of support is mobilized by its delivery on objectives that al Qaeda touted but never moved on-–e.g., establishment of an Islamic State, governance by Sharia law, and widespread violence against all enemies of jihadi interpretations of Islam.
American loss aversion from last decade’s experience in Iraq. For many there is a strong psychological urge to pour more into Iraq so as not to “lose” what was invested in blood and treasure since 2003. But, the very existence of ISIS in Iraq today only confirms that the U.S. investment of the past decade has been lost; don’t chase a bad investment with more blood and treasure.
American misconceptions that it remains central to the stability of the Middle East. A failed intervention in Iraq, meddling in Libya, absence after the Arab Spring, and avoidance of the Syrian conflict have pushed the U.S. to the periphery. The U.S. has not been the center of ISIS thinking in their push to Baghdad.
A lack of American consensus on its national interests in the Middle East. With each call for direct military intervention, I’ve seen no clear articulation of what U.S. interests need to be met through the “rolling up” of ISIS. Yes, ISIS will likely attack the U.S. if given the opportunity, but over aggression towards ISIS will only strengthen their resolve to attack the U.S. rather than lessen it. (Brian Fishman wrote a great piece at War on the Rocks touching on this.)
Broad-based, direct U.S. military action against ISIS will ultimately recreate a narrative that the U.S. has worked vigorously to move past over the last decade-–the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostate regimes, in this case, two regimes, Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq, working in direct opposition to American wishes. Instead, the U.S. should continue its limited, measured engagement of ISIS for several reasons:
ISIS battling against the Iraqi government represents the latest installment of a battle between Sunni and Shia elements in the Middle East. The U.S. should avoid it.
By suppressing ISIS, the U.S. is empowering an Iranian government that has spread its tentacles widely throughout the Maliki regime. Iran had no problem helping the U.S. bleed in Iraq, it’s time for the U.S. to return the favor by letting Maliki’s legacy in Iraq–if unchanged–and Assad in Syria feel the pain for choosing a declared enemy of the U.S., Iran, as its primary ally.
The U.S. has been touting the need to use “Smart Power” for years. There has never been a more appropriate time to apply “Smart Power” against an ISIS adversary that has so few friends. ISIS is widely hated; build a coalition and use other levers of U.S. national power in combination with military action to bring about ISIS’s demise.
ISIS’s biggest enemy is ISIS. When young boys so zealously pursue violence in the name of an ideology not condoned by the local population, they are far more likely to defeat themselves rather than be defeated by an outside force. Rather than providing ISIS credibility by over committing militarily, give ISIS some time to hang themselves.
ISIS foreign fighters, I believe, are more likely to pursue external, terrorist attacks outside Iraq on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and to some extent Western Europe. Direct U.S. military engagement will only turn those interested in attacking places like Saudi Arabia, the number one exporter of foreign fighters and home to many of jihad’s top financiers, toward America’s shores. Why not let countries like Saudi Arabia suffer some of the blowback for what they helped create?
ISIS has been smart thus far in challenging the U.S. more with rhetoric than action. If the U.S. is limited in its approach, maybe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will get the message, “you mess with the U.S. and you’ll go the way of Bin Laden.” If ISIS’s primary goal is an Islamic State, they’ll be antagonistic but well short of delivering another 9/11-scale attack.
Overall, I like the U.S. approach thus far: protecting the Kurds, assisting in re-taking control of key locations like the Mosul Dam, etc. Yes, I’m quite certain that there will be ISIS members or ISIS supporters who kill Americans. But there are many other groups, to include al Qaeda’s “Old Guard,” that will be pursuing terrorist attacks against the U.S. moving forward. In conclusion, don’t give ISIS its “Far Enemy.”
Enough for now, in my next couple of posts I’ll write about what might be some instructive strategies for countering ISIS moving forward.