As an organization distinct from the Al Qaeda transnational terror network, ISIL is a hybrid terrorist organization whereby it conducts itself more like an army waging a counter-insurgency that uses terrorism as a tactic. This distinction matters just as much as ISIL’s history vis-à-vis Al Qaeda, and it should inform the U.S. government’s response in the weeks, months, and years to come.
Terrorists plot spectacular and vicious attacks in secret and emerge only at the appointed time and place, subsequently slinking back into the shadows following the death and destruction they wrought. ISIL, by contrast, is taking and holding ground. Much of their success on the battlefield can be directly attributed to former soldiers, including some senior officers, from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army.
Following the U.S. wartime policy of “de-Ba’athification,” many battle-hardened soldiers, seeing no opportunity to play a role in a post-Saddam Iraq, flocked to the Sunni Islamist movement and found themselves in key positions within ISIL and its earlier iterations. In some cases, these former soldiers made contact with ISIL leaders in prison. There is a lesson here: failure to integrate segments of the population into the government pushes them to seek other, more violent means to be heard.
ISIL has gained control of many of Syria’s eastern oil fields and has expanded into Iraq’s oil-producing areas as well, seizing territory estimated to produce between 25,000 and 40,000 barrels a day—worth a minimum of $1.2 million on the black-market. Add that to the millions looted from Iraqi banks, and ISIL emerges as the best funded terrorist/insurgent organization in history. They have also stolen several million dollars’ worth of U.S.-made weapons from the Iraqi Army. To act like a state, one must be financed like a state; accordingly, ISIL has developed a dizzying capacity to fund and equip its undertakings.
However, tremendous capacity is not the same thing as developed capability. Despite a constant stream of belligerent public rhetoric, it is unclear if ISIL could plan and conduct coordinated terrorist attacks beyond the parts of Iraq and Syria that they control. ISIL is a highly disciplined group with a very clear and stated objective: to secure the fragile caliphate they proclaimed in June of this year. Despite having nearly 100 Americans and even more European fighters with Western passports, ISIL’s continued focus on recruitment suggest that defining the borders of their land grab and expelling the so-called “near enemy” is still its main priority, as opposed to taking the fight abroad.
Ultimately, this is because they cannot risk losing control of their raison d’être—the Islamic State itself. ISIL is a very capable and extremely dangerous group, but their strategy is less like Al Qaeda’s and more like the Taliban’s when they sought to gain control of Afghanistan.
Approaching ISIL as if it were the same as Al Qaeda risks the adoption of policies that are insufficient or inappropriate to protect American lives, alliances, and resources. According to Matthew Olsen, Director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, “at this point, there is no credible information that ISIL is planning to attack the U.S.” ISIL does not pose an existential threat to the United States; Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads have been the only truly existential threat we have faced throughout our history. ISIL doesn’t even constitute an immediate or imminent threat to the United States. Alarmists and fear-mongers who would suggest otherwise are either misinformed or cleaving to a hawkish agenda that only proliferates the terror that ISIL itself wants to spread.
Prudent national security policy requires our leaders to consider each situation on its own merits in order to determine if the use of force would likely achieve the desired outcome or be counterproductive, as when it enhances terrorist recruiting or undermines our counterterrorism cooperation with allies. In general, the history of the last decade suggests that we would be wise to pursue threats primarily through security partnerships, diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence cooperation. This vision of a human rights-compliant counterterrorism is in keeping with America’s proper and professed role in the world, not only as a superpower, but as a fundamental force for good.
This prudent approach reserves the use of military force for instances when American lives or vital U.S. national security interests are at stake. As President Obama said in his address at West Point, “just because we have the best hammer does not mean every problem is a nail.”
That being said, I recognize that to allow ISIL to go unchecked puts vital regional security interests at risk. While it is easy to scoff at the ISIL leadership’s ambitious to hoist their flag over the White House, it also must be acknowledged that they do in fact pose an existential threat to Iraq and Syria. If ISIL is allowed to maintain power over their swath of territory, their accumulated resources will allow for a terrorist safe haven unlike any the world has ever seen.
Something must be done, but that something shouldn’t begin and end with military force, least of all American military force. Air strikes may be effective early on, but ISIL forces will likely scatter and adapt to the air campaign. Some bombs inevitably hit the wrong targets; there are already reports that civilians and forces hostile to ISIL have been killed. Meanwhile U.S. Special Forces—extremely capable, but not the panacea that public discourse paints them to be—are also insufficient to achieve a sustainable result that will see ISIL defeated.
The U.S. needs to cultivate non-state partners in Syria and government partners in Iraq that are both effective on the battlefield and relatively respectful of human rights. Angels aren’t needed, nor at they available, but partners of the U.S. must show people threatened (and tempted) by ISIL—as well as the wider Muslim world—that they are morally superior to ISIL. Human rights abuses by the Iraqi government helped fuel the rise of ISIL. Finding and building suitable partners in Syria will be a particular challenge, but it is one we must rise to. Military force can and should be used to weaken ISIL, but it won’t succeed unless its pool of potential support is drained.
And the U.S. should secure support for this effort among powerful allies in the region. As a combat veteran of the recent Iraq War, I have mixed emotions about the possibility of a third conflict. I fear that we are once again on a path to protracted armed conflict in the Middle East without a clear desired end state or comprehensive exit strategy. The ubiquitous phrase “no boots on the ground” is a political consideration, but anyone with military training understands that we will need a reliable ground component to retake and hold territory held by ISIL.
My single biggest concern is that we don’t repeat the mistake of 2003 by going it alone. President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have put together a coalition of Middle Eastern countries willing to join the United States. Let’s hope their contributions are sustained and significant. While these governments are hardly beloved, their participation helps counter the terrorist claim that America and Europe are leading another ‘crusade’ against Islam.
Full participation is needed here at home, too. Congress thus far has abdicated its responsibilities under the Constitution. Cooperation between the executive and the legislature is essential in how we, as a nation, make the decision to go to war. The recent Authorization for the Use of Military Force proposed by Representative Adam Schiff (D-CA) is a good example of congressional involvement: it includes a timeline, defines the enemy, and separates this conflict from our previous entanglements in the region.
Americans deserve a vigorous debate on the specific military challenges and objectives. If and when Congress considers whether to endorse the military action already begun, the proposed authorization should be specific to the threat posed by ISIL and limited in scope and duration. Congress shouldn’t try to shoehorn this effort into the war against Al Qaeda and “associated forces”—that is a new battle that requires a new strategy and new legal grounding.
Remember Sun Tzu’s advice: “Know your enemy and know yourself and you can fight a hundred battles without disaster.” ISIL is not Al Qaeda, so the methods for defeating it will not be the same either. For more than a decade, this country has used military force as the primary tool to combat terrorism and Al Qaeda in particular. But this is different enemy, and a different approach is needed. If the United States tries to kill the threat away by itself, it may fight a hundred battles with many disasters.
Quigley is a senior fellow for National Security at Human Rights First, and a member of the Defense Council at the Truman National Security Project. He is a naval intelligence officer, has served two combat tours in Iraq, including one with Joint Special Operations Command, and served as lead counterterrorism analyst on al Qaeda in Iraq for the Defense Intelligence Agency at the National Counter-Terrorism Center. His opinions are his own and are not endorsed by the U.S. Navy Reserve or the Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MJQuigley4.