Since pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004, the group’s goal has been remarkably consistent: to found a hard-line Sunni Islamic state in their Syrian and Iraqi holdings. As General Ray Odierno puts it: "They want complete failure of the government in Iraq. They want to establish a caliphate in Iraq." Even after ISIS split with al-Qaeda in February 2014 (in part because ISIS was too brutal even for al-Qaeda), ISIS’s goal remained the same.
Despite a lot of rhetoric from Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, the threat from Jihad is overstated (at least in the United States which is far more of a target than Canada).
The slaying of nine African-Americans in a Charleston, S.C., church last week, with an avowed white supremacist charged with their murders, was a particularly savage case. But it is only the latest in a string of lethal attacks by people espousing racial hatred, hostility to government and theories such as those of the “sovereign citizen” movement, which denies the legitimacy of most statutory law. The assaults have taken the lives of police officers, members of racial or religious minorities and random civilians.
Non-Muslim extremists have carried out 19 such attacks since Sept. 11, according to the latest count, compiled by David Sterman, a New America program associate, and overseen by Peter Bergen, a terrorism expert. By comparison, seven lethal attacks by Islamic militants have taken place in the same period.
If such numbers are new to the public, they are familiar to police officers. A survey to be published this week asked 382 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide to rank the three biggest threats from violent extremism in their jurisdiction. About 74 percent listed antigovernment violence, while 39 percent listed “Al Qaeda-inspired” violence, according to the researchers, Charles Kurzman of the University of North Carolina and David Schanzer of Duke University.
“Law enforcement agencies around the country have told us the threat from Muslim extremists is not as great as the threat from right-wing extremists,” said Dr. Kurzman, whose study is to be published by the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security and the Police Executive Research Forum.
I am going to assume the same can be said in Canada that hate groups are a far bigger threat to our security than ISIS.
The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.
We have misunderstood the nature of the Islamic State in at least two ways. First, we tend to see jihadism as monolithic, and to apply the logic of alâ€‘Qaeda to an organization that has decisively eclipsed it. The Islamic State supporters I spoke with still refer to Osama bin Laden as â€œSheikh Osama,â€ a title of honor. But jihadism has evolved since al-Qaedaâ€™s heyday, from about 1998 to 2003, and many jihadists disdain the groupâ€™s priorities and current leadership.
Bin Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible, operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells. The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain legitimate, and a top-down structure to rule it. (Its bureaucracy is divided into civil and military arms, and its territory into provinces.)
We are misled in a second way, by a well-intentioned but dishonest campaign to deny the Islamic Stateâ€™s medieval religious nature. Peter Bergen, who produced the first interview with bin Laden in 1997, titled his first book Holy War, Inc. in part to acknowledge bin Laden as a creature of the modern secular world. Bin Laden corporatized terror and franchised it out. He requested specific political concessions, such as the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Saudi Arabia. His foot soldiers navigated the modern world confidently. On Mohamd Attaâ€™s last full day of life, he shopped at Walmart and ate dinner at Pizza Hut.
There is a temptation to rehearse this observationâ€”that jihadists are modern secular people, with modern political concerns, wearing medieval religious disguiseâ€”and make it fit the Islamic State. In fact, much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse.
The most-articulate spokesmen for that position are the Islamic Stateâ€™s officials and supporters themselves. They refer derisively to â€œmoderns.â€ In conversation, they insist that they will notâ€”cannotâ€”waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.
To take one example: In September, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, the Islamic Stateâ€™s chief spokesman, called on Muslims in Western countries such as France and Canada to find an infidel and â€œsmash his head with a rock,â€ poison him, run him over with a car, or â€œdestroy his crops.â€ To Western ears, the biblical-sounding punishmentsâ€”the stoning and crop destructionâ€”juxtaposed strangely with his more modern-sounding call to vehicular homicide. (As if to show that he could terrorize by imagery alone, Adnani also referred to Secretary of State John Kerry as an â€œuncircumcised geezer.â€)
But Adnani was not merely talking trash. His speech was laced with theological and legal discussion, and his exhortation to attack crops directly echoed orders from Muhammad to leave well water and crops aloneâ€”unless the armies of Islam were in a defensive position, in which case Muslims in the lands of kuffar, or infidels, should be unmerciful, and poison away.
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.
Make sure you read the entire article. Â Itâ€™s a long read but worthwhile. Â
In the end, they are preaching a form of Islamic fundamentalism where violence, executions, and war is all normalized as a part of a bringing about the end times. Â Actually it seems more like a cult rooted in Islam rather than just fundamentalism (which when extreme leads to violence no matter what faith you associate it with) Â Even Al-Queda thought they were over the top.
During the last years of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the Islamic Stateâ€™s immediate founding fathers, by contrast, saw signs of the end times everywhere. They were anticipating, within a year, the arrival of the Mahdiâ€”a messianic figure destined to lead the Muslims to victory before the end of the world. McCants says a prominent Islamist in Iraq approached bin Laden in 2008 to warn him that the group was being led by millenarians who were â€œtalking all the time about the Mahdi and making strategic decisionsâ€ based on when they thought the Mahdi was going to arrive. â€œAl-Qaeda had to write to [these leaders] to say â€˜Cut it out.â€™â€‰â€
So this isnâ€™t terrorism even in the way we think of terrorism (state sponsored or politically motivated). Â It is terrorism driven by a belief in the end times.
So whatâ€™s the best explanation for why America invaded Iraq? Hubris born of success. From Panama to the Gulf War to Bosnia to Kosovo, America spent the decade preceding 9/11 intervening successfully overseas. As a result, elites in both parties lost the fear of war they felt after Vietnam. In 1988 Reagan had been so afraid of another Vietnam that he refused to send ground troops to Panama. In 1990 John McCain had responded to Iraqâ€™s invasion of Kuwait by declaring, â€œIf you get involved in a major ground war in the Saudi desert, I think [public] support will erode significantly … We cannot even contemplate, in my view, trading American blood for Iraqi blood.â€ In his emotional 1991 speech opposing the Gulf War, John Kerry had mentioned Vietnam 10 times. In his 2002 speech supporting the invasion of Iraq, by contrast, he mentioned Vietnam only once.
It wasnâ€™t only military success that by 9/11 had eroded Americaâ€™s caution. It was economic and ideological success, too. By 2001 the boom of the late 1990s had turned Americaâ€™s budget deficit to surplus. For top Bush officials, the lesson was that just as America had overcome the deficits Reagan amassed while fighting the Cold War, America could easily overcome whatever temporary debt the Bushies incurred fighting the â€œwar on terror.â€ As Dick Cheney declared during the run-up to Iraq, â€œReagan proved deficits donâ€™t matter.â€
The final ingredient was ideological success. In the 1980s, before democratization swept across Eastern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America, prominent liberals and conservatives would have found the idea that democracy could take root in a country like Iraq utterly fanciful. As late as 1983, Irving Kristol, the â€œgodfatherâ€ of neoconservatism, was writing that â€œthe traditionsâ€”political, religious, culturalâ€”that shape Latin American thinking and behavior are such as to make it exceedingly difficult for the countries of Southern America to proceed along the [democratic] lines followed by Northern America and Western Europe.â€ By 2001, however, â€œneoconservatismâ€ had been redefined by ideological optimists like Paul Wolfowitz, Elliott Abrams, and Irvingâ€™s son, William, men shaped by the very democratic transformations that Irving Kristol had deemed impossible.
Obviously, it took 9/11 for the Bush administration to rally the public behind the Iraq war. But had the success of the 1990s not bred so much military, economic, and ideological overconfidence on both sides of the aisle, itâ€™s unlikely they would have tried.
The key thing that has changed in the decade since America invaded Iraq is not Barack Obamaâ€™s election. Itâ€™s the collapse of American hubris. Far fewer people in either party now claim that America can easily topple and occupy distant lands. Far fewer believe we can conduct foreign policy as if â€œdeficits donâ€™t matter.â€ Far fewer believe that the peoples of the Middle East yearn for secular, liberal, pro-American democracies. That doesnâ€™t mean the United States has stopped acting like a superpower. Weâ€™ve simply turned to methods that cost less money and fewer American lives.
Itâ€™s an old story. After Korea left the United States exhausted, Eisenhower told the CIA to overthrow leftist Third World governments because it could do so more cheaply than the Marines. When Richard Nixon could no longer sustain a large U.S. ground presence in Vietnam, he began bombing ferociously from the air. Now Obama has pulled U.S. ground troops from Iraq, is pulling them from Afghanistan, and is fighting al Qaeda with drones instead.
Thereâ€™s nothing particularly glorious, or moral, about empire on the cheap. But at least war will no longer cost America so much money and so many young American lives. Maybe weâ€™ve grown wiser over the last 10 years. Or maybe weâ€™ve just lost the epic ambition that true tragedy requires.
For America, Britain and the Western powers, the rise of Isis and the Caliphate is the ultimate disaster. Whatever they intended by their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and their efforts to get rid of Assad in Syria since 2011, it was not to see the creation of a jihadi state spanning northern Iraq and Syria run by a movement a hundred times bigger and much better organised than the al-Qaida of Osama bin Laden. The war on terror for which civil liberties have been curtailed and hundreds of billions of dollars spent has failed miserably. The belief that Isis is interested only in â€˜Muslim against Muslimâ€™ struggles is another instance of wishful thinking: Isis has shown it will fight anybody who doesnâ€™t adhere to its bigoted, puritanical and violent variant of Islam. Where Isis differs from al-Qaida is that itâ€™s a well-run military organisation that is very careful in choosing its targets and the optimum moment to attack them.
Many in Baghdad hope the excesses of Isis â€“ for example, blowing up mosques it deems shrines, like that of Younis (Jonah) in Mosul â€“ will alienate the Sunnis. In the long term they may do just that, but opposing Isis is very dangerous and, for all its brutality, it has brought victory to a defeated and persecuted Sunni community. Even those Sunnis in Mosul who donâ€™t like it are fearful of the return of a vengeful Shia-dominated Iraqi government. So far Baghdadâ€™s response to its defeat has been to bomb Mosul and Tikrit randomly, leaving local people in no doubt about its indifference to their welfare or survival. The fear will not change even if Maliki is replaced by a more conciliatory prime minister. A Sunni in Mosul, writing just after a missile fired by government forces had exploded in the city, told me: â€˜Malikiâ€™s forces have already demolished the University of Tikrit. It has become havoc and rubble like all the city. If Maliki reaches us in Mosul he will kill its people or turn them into refugees. Pray for us.â€™ Such views are common, and make it less likely that Sunnis will rise up in opposition to Isis and its Caliphate. A new and terrifying state has been born.
CIA intelligence reports were very clear that Osama Bin Ladenâ€™s intent when attacking the World Trade Centre was to have the United States respond disproportionally in invading part of the Middle East (umm, Iraq) and have the radical elements of Islam rise up against the west. Â It may have taken longer than he envisioned but this looks a lot what the CIA feared happening.
Why? Why, if the U.S. counterterrorism approach is working in Yemen, as Barack Obama’s administration claims, is AQAP still growing? Why, after nearly four years of bombing raids, is the group capable of putting together the type of plot that leads to the United States shuttering embassies and missions from North Africa to the Persian Gulf?
The answer is simple, if rather disheartening: Faulty assumptions and a mistaken focus paired with a resilient, adaptive enemy have created a serious problem for the United States.
Part of the U.S. approach to fighting AQAP is based on what worked for the United States in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where drone strikes have decimated what is often called al Qaeda’s core (though as al Qaeda’s strength moves back toward the Arab world, analysts will need to start rethinking old categories). Unfortunately, not all lessons are transportable. This means that the United States is fighting the al Qaeda that was, instead of the al Qaeda that is.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, al Qaeda was largely a group of Arabs in non-Arab countries. In Yemen, al Qaeda is made up mostly of Yemenis living in Yemen.
This has two key implications for the United States. First, new recruits no longer need to travel abroad to receive specialized training. For years, men like Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the head of AQAP and the man believed by U.S. officials to be recently promoted to al Qaeda’s global deputy, had to spend time in training camps in Afghanistan to acquire the requisite experience. But since AQAP has developed its own network in Yemen, that is no longer the case. Now young Yemenis who want to join al Qaeda can study with Ibrahim al-Asiri, the group’s top bomb-maker, without ever leaving home.
The United States has had some recent experience fighting a similar foe: al Qaeda in Iraq. But that was with the full weight of the U.S. armed forces. One of the many reasons that the Obama administration has settled on a drone-heavy approach to Yemen is the realization that sending large numbers of U.S. troops into Yemen would be a mistake of catastrophic proportions. For the past few years, AQAP has been making an argument that just like Iraq and Afghanistan, Yemen is also under Western attack, which requires a defensive jihad from every Yemeni. AQAP has not been particularly successful making that argument, but if the United States were to send ground troops to Yemen, that would change. And AQAP would move from a few thousand fighters to many times that number.
The second drawback to assuming that what worked in one place would automatically work in another is what Yemenis call thar, or revenge — a concept the United States appears to have overlooked in Yemen. The men that the United States is killing in Yemen are tied to the local society in a way that many of the fighters in Afghanistan never were. They may be al Qaeda members, but they are also fathers and sons, brothers and cousins, tribesmen and clansmen with friends and relatives.
The United States can target and kill someone as a terrorist, only to have Yemenis take up arms to defend him as a tribesman. In time, many of these men are drawn to al Qaeda not out of any shared sense of ideology, but rather out of a desire to get revenge on the country that killed their fellow tribesman.
How soon the U.S. forgets the lesson of General Petraeus.
The Obama administration’s counterterrorism approach in Yemen is primarily concerned with preventing an immediate attack directed at America or its interests in the Middle East. This is a short-term goal that eclipses everything else, from long-term strategy to the stability of Yemen itself. The United States has yet to realize that this is not a war it can win on its own. Only the tribesmen and clerics in Yemen are in a position to decisively disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al Qaeda.
The United States can do a lot of good in Yemen, but it can also do a lot of harm. And right now it is playing a dangerous game, firing missiles at targets in the hopes that it can kill enough men to keep AQAP from plotting, planning, and launching an attack from Yemen. After this terrorism alert that has sent America’s entire diplomatic and intelligence operatives in nearly two dozen countries scrambling, it may be time to rethink that approach in favor of a strategy that’s more sustainable — and more sensible too.