In the wake of the Paris attacks, US politicians have been scrambling to show they are more hawkish than their counterparts regarding the terrorist group known variously as ISIS/The Islamic State/Daesh/ISIL (which for the sake of brevity I will hereafter refer to as ISIS). John McCain and Lindsey Graham have called for a deployment of US ground troops. So has Hillary Clinton, though she has so far limited that call to an increase in US Special Ops forces. Donald Trump has openly spoken of registering all Muslims in America, and an increasing warrantless searches and surveillance by law enforcement and federal intelligence agencies. As he stated publicly on Wednesday:
“We’re going to have to do things that we never did before. And some people are going to be upset about it, but I think that now everybody is feeling that security is going to rule,” Trump said. “And certain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
How unthinkable? Well, Jeb Bush has called for the admission of only genuine Christian refugees from Syria. Dozens of governors have stated they oppose resettlement of refugees in their states. Yesterday, 289 members of the House of Representatives, including 47 Democrats voted on a measure that (among other things) would require the Directors of National Intelligence, the FBI and Homeland Security to certify that any refugees “pose no security threat” before allowing them into the country despite the current the Obama administration’s current rigorous and lengthy vetting process that has led to delays of up to 2 years for Syrian refugees to be resettled in the United States.
Obviously, a lot of this is simply political posturing by the GOP in an effort to make President Obama seem week and ineffective at best, and a traitor at worst, when it comes to America’s national security. Secretary Clinton’s motives are no doubt partly defensive in nature, as she tries to distance herself from the President and stake out a position that is as hard line as the GOP field. Yet, one has to ask why the sudden concern? ISIS did not suddenly become stronger overnight. They had taken credit for numerous terrorist attacks across the Middle East against their fellow Muslims as well as attacks in other countries, including the Charlie Hebdo attack in France earlier this year. So, what justifies a more “robust” military response by Western powers against ISIS. The US, Russia, France, the UK Turkey and various other countries in the region have been bombing and shelling alleged ISIS installations and forces for over a year now. US Special Ops forces have been active in targeted attacks such as the recent hostage rescue mission in which an American soldier died. Billions of dollars have been spent by the US and its “partners” in these ongoing military operations.
So, what is the threat that ISIS poses to the security of Europe and the United States that would justify even more troops and military operations in Syria and Iraq? I understand it’s hard for people to look at the matter objectively so soon after 130 civilians were slaughtered in Paris by a relatively small contingent of terrorist operatives comprised of primarily French and other European citizens, but I think it’s fair to ask these questions in light of the responses and proposals being bandied about by many of our our elected officials and candidates for higher office.
So how dangerous is ISIS?
Let’s consider first their actual military capability.
ISIS has no Navy and no Air Force, so their ability to attack US installations, whether abroad or at home is quite limited. Indeed, with roughly a total force of 30,000 or so Jihadi fighters, armed primarily with small arms and a limited supply of heavier weapons (air defense missiles, artillery, etc.) their capability to strike at US forces and US citizens is limited in large part to attacks by small terrorist cells against primarily civilian targets.
Successful attacks by terror cells include the Russian civilian airliner flying in and out of the harm el-Sheikh resort in Sinai, which is frequented by Russian and other European tourists (allegedly accomplished with a simple “soda can bomb), various attacks across the Middle East, including the two suicide bombing attacks last week in Beirut (which killed 44 people) and, of course, the attacks last Friday in Paris.
The important thing to remember is that the “ISIS army” has no way to directly engage or carry out attacks against military or civilian targets. It can only strike civilian targets in regions outside its limited scope of control using terrorist cells – small groups of radicalized individuals in other countries that it primarily aids through recruitment visa online propaganda.
ISIS has no war planes.
ISIS has no weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear weapons, much less delivery systems (missiles, bombers or submarines) for such weapons.
ISIS has limited funds for military and terrorist operations compared to those who oppose it. It derives its monies largely from oil smuggling, donations from wealthy Sunni sympathizers, and other criminal activities including hostage taking and the seeking of ransoms. Recently, President Putin of Russia alleged that over 40 countries contribute to fund ISIS through various dealings with the organization, including $50 million a month from its oil smuggling. Indeed, recent attacks by American air forces have focused on convoys believed to be involved in smuggling.
ISIS also has the ability to tax people in the cities and towns it controls, and has confiscated funds from local banks and businesses. However, its ability to generate income is quite limited compared to the resources of a modern nation state. An attack on its revenue stream and pressure on its donors would appear to be the best way to cripple its ability to fight. Cyber warfare to limit its ability to use the internet to coordinate attacks by terrorist cells would also be useful.
From a strictly military standpoint, ISIS is a weak opponent. It’s only real strength is its ability to generate propaganda victories to attract followers, and for that it must rely upon military and security overreactions by those states it targets through terrorism. In short, ISIS is fighting a classic asymmetrical war against non-muslim, secular states with interests in the region.
Unfortunately, rather than promote a strategy to attack ISIS funding and combat its propaganda, western politicians seem more and more inclined to foster bigotry against Muslims generating a violent backlash against Muslim populations in their own countries. By doing so, they are playing into ISIS hands. Western media outlets and ambitious political figures, such as Donald Trump, are seizing on these terrorist incidents to inflate the actual threat ISIS poses to our society.
This is the same strategy that Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda successfully employed against the United States in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration’s unwarranted invasion and occupation of Iraq laid the groundwork for the rise of ISIS.
ISIS is merely the most recent in a parade of horrible groups, Shiite and Sunni, religious and secular, murderous and even more murderous, to which we have been introduced through the years. They sometimes are our friends, though secretly helping the other side, or they are sworn enemies of the imperialist aggressor (that is, us), but still secretly taking bribes from the C.I.A. They are often splinters from some larger tree, either “brand extension” by the original group or its sworn enemy due to ideological or religious differences that are impossible to fathom.
Some members of these groups even come from the West. The news article about the child of middle-class immigrant strivers in a place like Cleveland or Liverpool who inexplicably withdraws from society and spends his days locked in his room reading the Koran and listening to rock music, only to emerge and resurface at some border crossing, trying to join a radical group that believes in, oh, I dunno, human sacrifice perhaps—news articles like that have become a cliché by now. “He was such a quiet, polite boy,” says a neighbor. “He used to write long love letters to Arianna Huffington and post them on Facebook.” (“Of course I remember him, darling,” says Arianna. “I had to hire two private guards to keep him away from me. But I gave him a blog anyhow. Why not?”)
Where did ISIS come from? What ever happened to the other Middle East groups we used to know? Where is al-Qaeda? How about the Taliban? Does anyone remember the mujahideen? If you do, you’re really showing your age. The mujahideen were the freedom fighters we armed and trained in order to drive the Soviets out of Afghanistan—a shrewd bank shot, everyone agreed, until, after the Soviets slunk away, we counted the leftover Stinger missiles in the freedom fighters’ broom closet and realized that many were now in the hands of unfriendly elements. And a lot of the mujahideen had gone with them.
It may be hard to believe, now that the media are all-ISIS-all-the-time, but the first reference to ISIS in any major news outlet—at least the first one referring to the now notorious terrorist group and not to Lord Grantham’s yellow Labrador, on Downton Abbey—was in the summer of 2013. This is not to criticize the media for being late to the party, or to suggest that the threat to Americans posed by ISIS is currently being exaggerated. It is merely to note that the number of analyses pouring out of Washington think tanks and experts available to CNN about who the heck these people are and what they want is pretty impressive, given that almost no one had heard of them a year ago. And it is also to note how fast the cast of characters in this drama can change, amid the anarchy we helped create—which is another reason not to leap to the assumption that anything further we might do would be of help.
In the same manner, continued foreign military involvement in the region, through air strikes, arms sales, the mistreatment of Muslim populations, the failure to adequately address the refugee crisis and the potential introduction of ground forces in Iraq and Syria will only lead to further destabilization of the region, and an increase in ideologically based terrorist attacks on soft civilian targets in Europe, America and elsewhere around the world.
n a real sense, western governments through their military activities and their other actions are increasing the threat posed by Islamic based terrorism, regardless of the identity and goals of the current groups that generate these slaughters. Our overreaction to them is the best weapon in the terrorists’ arsenal.
It’s also the greatest threat to our own liberties and freedoms. After all, when the leading Republican candidate for President can say this …
[C]ertain things will be done that we never thought would happen in this country in terms of information and learning about the enemy. And so we’re going to have to do certain things that were frankly unthinkable a year ago.”
… with impunity, and indeed with the support of millions of our fellow Americans, it’s clear that the greatest danger to our society posed by ISIS comes from our own irrational fears about the threat it poses now and in the future.