Will ISIS attack the United States?

I’ll be straight to the point. Yes, but not in the way you’re probably thinking.

The group we call ISIS will never have a force capable of achieving some sort of international campaign to conquer the United States. Some World War II pitched battle, land exchange style of warfare isn’t going to happen. They way they have been fighting in the Middle East won’t do anything for them abroad. They were barely able to achieve significant gains in Syria and Iraq, owing those victories more to the filling of a vacuum caused by incompetence in the Iraqi military and governance and the Syrians engaged in a state of civil war than to their own military competence. To expect them to expand a great deal beyond their current borders militarily is far reaching, at best.

What is more likely is something like what we saw in France with Charlie Hebdo. Individuals who have fanatical ties and may have been radicalized by direct intervention overseas (such as with the three shooters in France) are also a major threat. Individuals who have actually made a presence in those theaters are a different sort of monster when they return. This is why when people leave the United States presumably to join the Islamic State, they are watched extremely closely by the various intelligence agencies.

The threat of a second 9/11 event is also a legitimate concern. It’s important to remember that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant are much, much more advanced and well organized an organization than was the Mujaheddin of Afghanistan in the 1980’s. From that came Al Qaeda, and Al Qaeda was able to complete the 9/11 operation with only a total annual budget of $30 million for all international operations. To put that to scale, according to Al Araby Al Jadeed, ISIL’s budget now stands at $2bn with a surplus of $250m. I’m not technically saying that another 9/11 is on its way. Islamic law actually does have rules about this which even ISIL must obey to maintain legitimacy with their followers. While terrorist attacks are obviously allowable by such groups, there does need to be an official declaration of war for it to be legal, such as what occurred in Bin Laden’s Fatwa and subsequent declaration in 1996. That I know of, no such official declaration has been made by the Islamic State. To do so would bring about the immediate retaliatory strike which would be nothing less than an existential threat to the Islamic State’s ability to survive as a land empire. That said, right now, it really doesn’t behoove them to declare war on the United States and it would be an even worse strategy to dedicate a massive force to an operation such as a second 9/11, invoking the historical wrath of the US. That also isn’t to say such a thing is impossible. There is a legal loophole that Bin Laden and Al Qaeda’s declaration of war may still be legally valid as, by many interpretations, ISIL is an offshoot of the Al Qaeda that existed in 1996.

What is much more likely, though are attacks like what we saw at the Sydney Lindt Chocolate shooting in Australia late last year where a single gunman attacked the store and took hostages and to pull it even closer to home, the Oklahoma beheading in September of last year. Charlie Hebdo in January and the more recent shooting in Denmark also fall into this category. These events were carried out by individual Islamic fundamentalists, inspired by Islamist fundamentalist principles. They are often dismissed as “Lone Gunmen” or simply “Random Fanatics” by media at large, with their ties to fundamentalist Islamic factions and ideology underplayed. Often they are dismissed by the general public as being the work of the mentally unstable and no real connection to Islam, or sometimes rather, no connection to “real Islam”. Symanantics not withstanding, this is a pernicious viewpoint to take, as it is not always the case and rarely the whole truth. Events like these are praised by the Islamic State who has often directly asked sympathizers to conduct such terrorist attacks everywhere. A new poll recently showed that as many as 11% of Muslims in the areas of the Middle East may be sympathetic to Islamic State views. Knowing this, we have to be concerned if the idea that “only a few deranged fanatics” aren’t actually an indicator of a much larger problem.

The Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, based in Doha, Qatar, surveyed the opinions in the Arab world in relation to IS and the international coalition against it. Their findings were published on November 11.

Findings from telephone interviews with 5,100 respondents in seven Arab countries (Lebanon, Iraq, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey and “Palestine”) and in Syrian refugee camps located in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey show that 85 percent of Arabs hold negative views of IS, to varying degrees. This compares to only 11 percent of the Arab public whose views towards the group were either “Positive” or “Positive to some extent.”

The Islamic diaspora is estimated to consist of more than 1.3 billion souls. While I don’t want to raise flags, 10%, or even 1% of such a massive population that is sympathetic to the cause of the Islamic State is alarming. Though potential fanatics are possible in any community, they are not evenly distributed. Some Mosques may be places of concern and may even function to funnel support toward IS or spread their ideas, but the majority are still benign in nature in regard to this question. As always, we must not underscore the majority of Muslims who do not support violent interpretations of the doctrine, for they are also victims in this. They will face the suspicion and fear of those who are legitimately concerned by these trends in the years to come until they have purged support for IS from their own communities.

Having said all this, the “Lone Gunman” style of attack, as displayed in Oklahoma, Sydney, Paris, and now Denmark will likely become not just more likely, but the norm in not just the United States, but across Europe and everywhere else where Islamic fighters feel conflict, as well.


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The Lion and the Lights of Al-Baghdadi

Seven years ago, I was a Corporal in the United States Marine Corps. During that time, I deployed to Iraq twice. The second of these missions took me to the base known by the Marines as Al Asad.

Al Asad, or Ain Al Assad, is the Arabic term for “The Lion”. The base was built in response to the failures of the Arab world against the Israelis in the early 1970’s as a super base to empower Iraq for the future. It now houses elements of the Iraqi Army’s 7th Division, along with 300 United States Marine Corps military advisors and trainers. The base is located in the Hīt District of Al Anbar Governorate, about 100 miles (160 km) west of Baghdad and 5 miles (8.0 km) west of the village of Khan al Baghdadi. That means that Al Asad has been in the center of the contested ISIS held lands since their initial invasion in June of 2014.

Today Al Asad is back in the news. Beginning last week, insurgent forces occupied the nearby town of al Baghdadi. Al Baghdadi serves a key strategic point for the base as control of the town means control of access to the nearest highway and the only land connection to the rest of the country, as well as access to the Euphrates River. It is also of tactical importance because the town lies within range of numerous rockets, some acquired from the fallen and abandoned Iraqi bases, some bought from overseas, and some – homemade. This shows the base, the vicinity to the town of Al-Baghdadi, and the fact that it is in range of the rockets.

What it doesn’t show is why I care so much about this particular battlefield. As I said before Al Asad, was one of the bases I was stationed during my two tours to Iraq. On the Eastern edge of the base, along the long road snaking in, is an entry control point. At least there was in 2008. I spent every day of my seven month deployment checking trucks and vehicles for contraband and explosives at that control point. Beside that point was a very large tower where, if I was lucky I could spend the night alone to watch the shifting sands and be alone with my thoughts. On many cold Iraqi nights, I remember staring out that tower into the open desert. From it, I could see the distant lights of the town that lay just beyond the hills to the Northeast. These were the lights of Al-Baghdadi. The town was so small and so insignificant then.

Today, those lights still shine, but illuminate a different town. Insurgents with the Islamic State have occupied it in a bold move, hoping to put pressure on the Iraqi government. According to reports, the Islamic State have been shelling the base since their arrival. So far, there has been no damage reported to the base. This doesn’t surprise me because this kind of rocket fire is more of a nuisance than a real threat. I can say this from personal experience. After you have survived a few of them, it really is just an interruption to the flow of events before long. That may change very soon, however. It was reported that last Friday, a suicide squad of eight men, four with suicide vests, attempted to infiltrate the base. It is probable that they wanted to sneak onto the base and inflict either massive casualties against the Iraqi army or destroy many of the important assets crucial to maintaining security in Al Anbar and the fight against ISIS housed therein. This squad was intercepted by the Iraqi army without achieving their goals, later confirmed by a Marine attack helicopter, observing the area where the fighting had already ended.

This attack, while ending with a victory for the Iraqi Army, marks another crucial event where Islamist jihadi fighters took the initiative to what appears to be a passive Iraqi force. It symbolizes the Islamic States’ ability to mount just outside the walls of the Iraqi army and deliver attacks at the time of their choosing. Though it ended in their failure it was only one of many so far, and we will most likely see many more to come in the future, as well. In what is being called the Siege Al-Asad, the base has endured such attacks since October. Months ago, the base was reportedly surrounded by ISIS fighters, hopeful to destroy a key asset to defense of the nation of Iraq. That invasion was pushed back by Iraqi forces with the aid of US Marines and again, attacks took place in December which were also met with the pushing back of Islamic State forces.

What can be sure is that news of my old home will continue to come so long as the Islamic State exists in Iraq and the Al Anbar province. It will remain an important strategic point for Iraqi defense and a handsome target for jihadist insurgents. Even in the event of unsuccessful attacks like last Friday’s, the continued fighting around Al Asad and the town of al-Baghdadi showcase the Islamic States’ willingness and ability to mount attacks against the Iraqi forces at their most fortified locations. As Islamist forces grow more desperate and more bold with the coming of warmer whether, we should expect to see more of the Lion in the months to come.


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Does ISIS really stand a chance in the long run?

The group that exists today is probably doomed, but the ideas that they have propagated and evolved will live on, as will most of the individuals who are taking part in the atrocities.

The ideas that the Islamic State are building themselves around are not new. By some interpretations they can be sourced to Islamic leaders in the mid 1700’s in Saudi Arabia, but more recently in the contributions to these philosophies by others in from the Egypt, Kashmere, and others since the 1920’s. These ideas have spread throughout the Islamic world and are the root cause of Islamic Jihadism today. Until these ideas are segregated from the greater Islamic philosophy, villainized properly for the barbarity they eventually lead to, and purged by Muslims from their own practices, these ideas will continue to grow, prosper, spread, and evolve in places like Iraq and Syria (ISIS) , Afghanistan (Taliban), Mali, Nigeria, and Chad (Boko Haram), and Somalia (Al-Shabaab). Even if ISIS were to be completely routed and destroyed, (magic wand thinking), the ideology behind what brought it into existence will continue to grow even if the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant no longer exists.

Second, the people who fight for ISIS will continue to exist, as well. Most of the people who fight in jihadist wars don’t come from the land where they are fighting. Instead, they follow an international call to arms against a myriad of supposed threats. Below is an estimated map of where most of the international recruits to ISIS come from. The vast majority of are from Middle Eastern and North African nations. Still, a disturbing amount are coming from Islamic communities within Western Europe.

There are several problems with this beyond the sheer terror that it invokes. First that I will mention, is that if the core of ISIS were magically destroyed, all of these individuals would return home to their native countries. In places like France, this phenomenon has directly caused at least one massacre, as well as others in Spain and London, not to mention the rest of the Middle East. The fear that many international security agencies have had is that these individuals will go back home and bring terror with him, once again, independent of what is going on in actual war zones like Syria and Iraq. Charlie Hebdo provided proof of concept in this concern, dubbed “islamophobic” only a month ago.

Moving on from this is the international conflict it invokes. What happens if we were to be able to just capture all these individuals, not kill them, but not let them go back home? Well, they are still citizens of those foreign governments and now they are under US (or whoever’s) control. How would the Russian community respond to hearing of Russians being held by Western forces indefinitely for actions that took place overseas? What about the Chinese, or the French, or the Saudis? The United States doesn’t even understand the rationality behind it and will fight the very act of detaining known terrorists, so I have to ask about the strain this sort of event would have on international relations. Probably, in at least a few cases, important bonds would break down and geopolitical stability would be damaged.

Third, even if ISIS were to disappear, the Jihadi Wars will continue. As I have said, the land may be deprived of the jihadists, but their ideas will not go away, nor will the individuals disappear. They will continue to go on and spread their ideals and attempt to reform their home mosques to their own version of Islam. If we were to even hope to track all these people, it would require the creation of perhaps another separate CIA or an international intelligence task force with the sole purpose of tracking these individuals. It’s an almost impossible problem, let alone the philosophical and legal burdens that implies. This means that keeping track of them is a pipe dream. They will also take with them the connections: financing, weapons dealers, fanatical religious leaders, the media. These relationships will be able to grow, as well. So too will their will their tactics and the ideas which form the pillar of their fundamentalist agenda. All this will be happening as they reintegrate into their native homelands, unaware of the jihadist’s past.

Eventually, the call to arms will move somewhere else. It may be that the fight is called for Somalia, or West Africa. Perhaps it will be in the Kashmere region. It may just as easily move to places like Chechnya, Kazakhstan, Serbia, or even in Southwestern China or France. When that happens, the same mujahid fighting today will flock to the region, this time with their sons and their friends who they have converted to their perverted view of Islam. The rest of the world won’t make the connection between say, Chechnya in 2020 and ISIS today, but by the same connection, no one was tracing the link to Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, or between them and the Mujahideen of Afghanistan in the 1980’s or between all of them and some Saudi cleric three hundred years ago.

If we ever want to truly see the forces which caused the rise of the Islamic State to fail, we are going to have to support Muslim’s effort to purge the jihadists’ ideology from their own belief system. Their media outlets and outreach need to be secured and silenced and as many of them as possible need to be killed right now, before they go on to pollute the rest of Islam with their fanatical belief system.


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