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A nation must think before it acts.
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.
In response to ISIS aggression and their beheading of American Jason Foley, the calls for U.S. direct military action have begun to mount with many equating ISIS with al Qaeda. ISIS will remain a problem for years to come, but there is little reason for the U.S. to act so strongly. The very notion of deploying 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. soldiers to flush out ISIS reflects several things:
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:
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.