Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

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Why would the U.S. want to be ISIS’s ‘Far Enemy’?

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:

  • 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. 

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