Understanding the ISIL Threat

on August 27 | in Foreign Policy, Terrorism

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For those who have not seen it, check out Aki’s provoking essay, Why Obama Will Bomb Syria, and also the rebuttal from Jonah Shepp, Why Intervene in Iraq and Not Syria. In his piece, Aki articulates why, given the current trend line with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the Obama Administration will ultimately conduct strikes against ISIL in Syria. I’m uncertain of Aki’s conclusion here, if only because our policy towards Syria has become such a mix of contradictions that it is difficult to say with any degree of certainty where we will end up. I want to use this opportunity, however, to highlight a two themes that may on occasion appear on OvertAction.org and that are apparent in this debate.

First, like a good intelligence professional, Aki is dealing with the reality of the world we confront today rather than the one we wish to confront. He articulates why, given the current threat from ISIL, we will conduct strikes in Syria. The Shepp rebuttal argues why, given competing interests and challenges to any action in Syria, we should not conduct those strikes. It is deductive and normative.

Second and perhaps more importantly, this reflects a growing debate about the nature of the homeland threat posed by what I call al-Qaeda-somehow-linked groups. For example, Aki cites James Clapper, who told Congress that Syria-based groups have aspirations for attacks on the homeland. Shepp counters that, “This conflict is not ultimately about US homeland security; it remains, first and foremost, a regional power struggle.” Shepp is in some sense correct—this is fundamentally a regional power struggle. But his analysis demonstrates a current desire within the national security policy community to place al-Qaeda-somehow-linked groups into a clean dichotomy that separates those focused regionally from those which pose a global threat.

A group such as ISIL can be both focused on regional conflicts while also representing a direct threat to the United States homeland. Indeed, this has typically been the case with al-Qaeda’s Iraq-based affiliate, which has always focused the vast majority of it resources towards local concerns while also maintaining a small, skill group of individuals dedicated to planning and conducting attacks outside of the region.

The Islamic extremist movement has evolved since 9/11 from a direct, sophisticated threat to the United States homeland, to a more regional threat to western interests, and now to a regional threat against non-U.S. interests. Simply put, these groups are less interested in the United States and less sophisticated in their operations. This is the genesis of President Obama’s “jayvee team” analogy. Indeed, many current members of al-Qaeda-somehow-linked groups are on the jayvee cricket team. They aren’t even playing basketball! But for each al-Qaeda-somehow-linked group, there almost certainly remains a small minority of individuals who represent a more enduring, direct threat to the United States. It is this fact that creates such a policy conundrum with groups like ISIL.

Many current and former intelligence professionals have watched in real time as the al-Qaeda threat has evolved. As a result, I think individuals like Aki are comfortable dealing with the reality of the threat that exists from groups like ISIL, rather than dealing with the threat we wish existed or the threat that existed on 9/11. The sad reality today is that al-Qaeda-somehow-linked groups are at once both regional and global.

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