Why ISIS is More Dangerous than Al Qaeda and What America Must Do About It
In the space of just a few weeks, the jihadi threat group ISIS has accomplished more than al Qaeda did in the the thirteen years since the September 11 attacks. It will continue to grow in power and come to pose a direct threat to the United States unless America guides a regional response. Now.
On a sunny Tuesday morning in September of 2001, al Qaeda entered the history books as the deadliest terrorist group in modern history. In under a few hours it murdered more people in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania than other terrorist groups like the IRA or the Baader-Meinhof Gang had killed over a period of decades.
Since that dreadful day, the original Al Qaeda, what the administration refers to now as ‘Core AQ’, has executed or inspired other attacks to include those of Richard Reid the infamous Shoebomber, Major Nidal Hassan the Fort Hood killer, and Faisal Shazad, the Times Square bomber. At the same time it has recruited foreign fighters to wage guerrilla war inside Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, as well as for other jihadi theaters.
Additionally, it has waged a propaganda campaign to spread its message of holy war against the infidel with publications such as the periodical Inspire, the e-magazine that included a recipe for pressure-cooker IEDs, a recipe that would be used by the Boston bombers.
Despite all of the above, the threat posed by Al Qaeda pales by comparison to the achievements of its off-shoot the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham which recently declared the establishment of a new Caliphate, or empire of Islam, and has, as a result, changed its name to The Islamic State.
How do we know that ISIS / The Islamic State is a greater threat today than Al Qaeda?
Here are just 4 reasons:
Al Qaeda was predominantly successful in bringing Arab Muslims from the Middle East to fight in wars in their own region or in South Asia. But unclassified reports, and ISIS’ own videos, confirm that it is having an unprecedented success in attracting Muslim men from the West to go fight Jihad. Young men who – if they survive the current fight – will likely return back home to America, the UK, or elsewhere in the West, as hardened jihadis skilled in infantry tactics and in employing improvised explosive devices. (The problem is so severe that Attorney General Eric Holder just yesterday had to publicly request his European counterparts do something to stem the flow of fighters.)
Although Al Qaeda was sheltered by the fundamentalist Taleban government in Afghanistan – with bin Laden strategically ensuring that his commanders’ daughter married into Taleban families – as an organization Al Qaeda never controlled a whole country. With the Blitzkrieg assault of ISIS fighters capturing city after city in Iraq in recent weeks and then declaring a new Caliphate, ISIS is on the cusp of functioning as a de facto country, a Jihadi Nation. Al Qadea most often acted like a terrorist group and less often as an insurgency capable of overtaking a whole country. ISIS is a fully fledged insurgency that has captured city after city in a matter of just weeks and is on the brink of functioning as a quasi state.
Bin Laden, and the current leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri, always understood the importance of propaganda and information warfare, especially after the American jihadi Anwar al Awlaki took over editorship of Inspire magazine. But they never came close to the sophistication and media savvy of ISIS with is whirlwind establishment of a Social Media presence. Not only is ISIS filming and distributing the standard jihadi footage of its vicious attacks but also video of the mass murders of its prisoners. More importantly it is also disseminating more subtle and softer narratives via Twitter and other channels in ways that Al Qaeda never did.
ISIS has capabilities that exceed even the wildest dreams of the original founders of Al Qaeda. After capturing the city of Mosul and the raiding the local government coffers, it now has over $400 million
, and it is clear ISIS and Al Qaeda are in totally different leagues.
For all these reasons, and many more, ISIS poses a significantly bigger threat than Al Qaeda ever did. A threat not only to Shia-controlled states like Iraq or Syria. ISIS has made its plan clear
. It is reestablishing the theocratic empire of Islam, the Caliphate, that was dissolved after WWI, in 1924, by the secularizing President of the new Republic of Turkey, Kemal Ataturk. They are driven by an ideology
is absolutist and global. After taking out the “Near Enemy” in Syria and Iraq, they wish to kill other apostates, others they deem to be false Muslims, be it King Abdullahh II of Jordan, or the new president of Egypt, retired General Sisi who has vowed to destroy the Muslim Brotherhood, the ideological cousins of ISIS and Al Qaeda.
Then of course there are the infidels, starting with Israel, which is today in a shooting war with Hamas, another ideological alley of ISIS, and in fact a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Then they will target the “Far Enemy”, the United States and her allies. The idea that a Jihadi State can be established in the Middle East and that its fighters will then lay down their arms is, of course, utterly absurd. That is the greatest mistake made by the isolationist voices in America (or as they like to be called “interventionists.”) Jihad is not a regional hobby of localized radicals.
be it located in the Middle East, Europe or the US. Theirs is a totalitarian ideology, as universalist and
absolute as anything Hitler or Stalin came up with, albeit with a holy sanction and promise of salvation. We are in their crosshairs as much as Assad, Maliki, or Sisi. Either everyone must live under Islamic law in a Caliphate, or they must die. Whether they live in a Christian enclave in Norther Iraq
, or Washington, New York, or Houston.
So before victorious American-born jihadis return home to the US to kill infidels here, we need a plan to destroy the Caliphate now. The response should leverage America’s unique position as a leader and the investments we have made over the years in government and military institutions in allied Muslim countries.
Since the 1970s, and far more intensively after 9/11, the US has built very strong ties with the militaries of Jordan, and Egypt, amongst others. At the same time, there is a force in Iraq already, the Kurdish Peshmurga, that are highly disciplined fighters who hold no affection for Sunni jihadists. Together, these Arab or Muslim forces should be brought together with American guidance to rout the forces of ISIS.
Before I am accused of being just another rabid neocon, it is crucial to note one difference between this campaign and Operation Iraqi Freedom, or what would eventually become of Operation Enduring Freedom. We do not need another large-scale US deployment of troops. That will not work. This is not WWII or Korea. This is irregular warfare and that reality was forgotten after 9/11. These types of messy wars are not won by GIs on the frontlines. We shouldn’t even be contemplating counterinsurgency campaigns under the current conditions. ‘COIN’, as its proponents like to call it is in fact what imperial powers did on their own colonial territory. Whatever Noam Chomsky and his followers may say, America is not a imperial or colonial power. If we were Maliki would not be in power in Iraq and the Afghans would not be freely electing their own leader as we speak. Instead we would have a US ‘viceroy’ in control wherever our troops are still stationed, be it Germany, Korea, or Iraq.
What we need to do it to get back to what really works in foreign lands whose governments we wish to assist and who are threatened by a enemy we share. We should not have Americans fight that fight, but the local forces, with the assistance and guidance of a small number of soldiers trained exactly for such missions. This is in fact the job the Green Berets, Army Special Forces, were created to execute and the mission is technically called Foreign Internal Defense, or FID. It’s what we did in El Salvador and Colombia and it works. Why? Because the actual fighting it done by indigenous forces not “foreigners.”
At the same time we must totally reorient America’s national security focus. We must stop focusing on one organization, on Al Qaeda. It is not about one group, or another. The threat emanates from the ideology of Global Jihad. Whoever supports or acts upon that ideology is a threat to America and her values. Be it ISIS in Iraq in Syria, Hamas in Gaza, or a US Army Major in Fort Hood. Any group whose religious beliefs countermand the Constitution of the United States is an Enemy. Period.
The stakes are the highest possible. The conflict is between one vision of a world free from religious extremism in which the unbeliever is enslaved or murdered, versus a world in which the values of 1776 are protected and can flourish.
Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D. is the Major General Matthew C. Horner Distinguished Chair of Military Theory at the Marine Corps University and the national security and foreign affairs editor of the Breitbart News Network.