Today it is hard to keep up with the headlines and to form rational responses. Though neither you nor I are making decisions that will affect our government; we are seeking information to regulate our emotions and intellectual responses to events as they unfold. Do we moan, do we cheer; do we reach out to text? Do we rant on Facebook? And in the midst of the United States’ political-constitutional-tornado there is international violence. ISIS is high on that list.
As you turn to any map of the turmoil created by ISIS, the very first thing you will notice is that on the ground their control has diminished and continues to do so drastically. Yet their attacks and battles rage on—on two fronts, as I will later discuss. A year ago it was reported that ISIS had lost at least three Syrian cities and towns within a short six weeks. That trend has escalated. On the ground, nearly three years after the resurrection of its caliphate, the Islamic state is on the cusp of complete dislodgment from Iraq, and in Syria its remaining centers are faced with imminent destruction. But, please, do not stand and cheer. The dangers they pose are not over, not by “a long shot”.
It is important to remember how ISIS morphed into the power it exerts. It did not merely create itself one day when a couple of jihadists decided they needed a vehicle to attack all non-believers. History teaches us (if we listen) that with the demise of one terrorist group, there is so often a small number within the embattled group that decides it must fight on. Or within a movement there is a divergence of views, and one segment decides it must go “its own way”. Their “cause is too important”, the dying group was “mismanaged”, or their focus was “misdirected”. Find a reason and you will find the creation of a terrorist group in a different form and, in many instances, more deadly.
For ISIS it began in late 1999, and became more deadly than al-Qaeda. In an excellent 2014 article written by Aaron Y. Zelin for The Washington Institute for Near East Policy: “The war between ISIS and al-Qaeda for Supremacy of the Global Jihadist Movement”, we are introduced in great detail to the social, economic and educational backgrounds of both groups. Although they ultimately become fierce competitors in their war of terrorism, my conclusion is that they are really two ends of the same stick: Destroy those who do not “believe”. Who is ISIS– initially they were called the J Amaat al-Tawhid WA-i-Jihad (JTWT) who in late 1999 were the forerunners who command today’s headlines.
We have all seen the words: Caliphate and Caliph. In Arabic Caliphate means “succession” and, as an institution, it came into being upon the death of the prophet Muhammad. The “succession”, or who was to succeed the prophet Muhammad was the issue that split the Arab world between the Sunni and Shias. The nasty politics of control. One writer has said that ISIS is a “charter member of al Qaeda in Iraq”. Another writer has called ISIS a franchise of al-Qaeda. Not quite true. Two very different men, with very different social and educational backgrounds, were pressed to create groups propelled by violence and vision with the same goal: destruction of the non-believers. The caliph embodies both a political and religious leader and, it is he who becomes the successor (caliph) to the Islamic prophet Muhammad. Once appointed, his power and authority is absolute.
Although I am sure that President Trump in the months ahead will claim credit for the demise of ISIS, it was military operations planned and placed into execution during the Obama era that started its destruction. And while ISIS may be described as terminally ill in Iraq and Syria, please let us not celebrate too soon.
Visualize this: the antlers of deer have the amazing ability to grow back, and this is one of the most extreme examples of regeneration. With ISIS, although they may be in the process of defeat on the ground, they will and have already regrown their “antlers” (far beyond Iraq and Syria), and evidence of that has been its attacks in Europe. Think of an octopus whose bulbous body has been killed but whose severed tentacles live on as separate deadly arms. Think last night in Manchester, England
John Esposito, a professor of religion and international affairs, correctly noted that the caliph, as the successor to the prophet, is the head of the early transnational Islamic empire. The word “transnational” has important significance– it reflects that the Caliphate and Caliph transcend national boundaries and are supreme throughout the world—they govern by erasing national boundaries. Do not doubt for a moment that ISIS does not have exit plans in either Iraq or Syria and will carry their movement through its franchises and believers in Europe and, at some moment in the not distant future, here in the United States. They have already demonstrated that ability and their terror. Manchester, England. To conclude otherwise is sheer folly.
As I was about to review my initial draft of this Commentary, two things occurred. First, I came across a must read article posted on- line in Politico magazine written by Bayan Bender ( Letter from Israel –5.22.17) and, second, as I finished rereading Mr. Bender’s conclusions, my screen flashed the initial reports of the Manchester bombing . I felt as if I was reliving the horrors of the Paris attacks in 2015. I became more convinced of my initial thoughts and expanded my conclusions.
The “transnational” component of ISIS and the Caliphate in particular is not understood by most: the extent of its mission. Its mission reaches far beyond the Mideast. Each attack outside the Mid East is not a mere thrust to test either its own capabilities far from home or our resolve or our ability to resist its movement. Second, understanding the transnational aspect of ISIS and its caliphate is fundamental to our combating its force and presence. ISIS, notwithstanding its loss on the battlefield, is in the process of weaving is presence into the very frabric of our daily life and is doing so with the force of each explosion. Do you go or allow your child to go to that concert? Do you spend an afternoon in Trafalgar Square? Do you walk the Boulevard St. Germaine in Paris? And at the very same moment how do we plan our next moves? Fear, it is claimed, allows ISIS to win. But bombings and death are real.
Upon rereading Mr. Bender’s article in Politico, my focus has shifted a bit. Both the Trump and Obama administrations have been myopic and appear to be able to focus on one threat-object at a time and fail to understand the entire peril we, as individuals and nation, face. Iran is a formidable enemy—nothing less. Its capabilities and influence overshadow that of North Korea. Iran should be more than in our vocal condemnation of its action but also in our gun sights. Iran’s present and future plans clearly evidence their ever present involvement in the violence in the Mid East. They are a major player in the chaos in that part of the world. At the very same moment, we should be planning our engagement in Syria and Iraq with a greater understating of the combination of fighting forces in those war-torn countries. Mr. Bender writes: “the United States has failed to understand the competing interests and constantly shifting alliances among what the IDF estimates are between 400 and 500 different groups fighting in the Syrian civil war—including underestimating the level of local support ISIS actually has. Take Mosul, for example. Mosul is a million-citizen city and the largest estimate said [there were] 8,000 militants. You can’t control a million-people city with 8,000 people if you don’t have some support within the population.”
This is a powerful indictment of what we do not understand in the terrorist we face today. Which threat is the more potentially deadly for us as a nation and individuals? Mr. Bender writes that the Israelis believe it to be Iran. We should allow, they claim, ISIS and al-Qaeda to destroy each other in their fierce competition for domination. But then we must recognize that Israel has more to fear from Iran than ISIS or al-Qaida. We, though, live thousands of miles away from Iran’s weapons, and we do not have the internal security systems in place as does Jerusalem. We need to stop both the bombastic, uncontrollable language pouring out of the White House and the escalation of forces and, stop for a moment and to reassess what is actually happening and the interplay of the various tribes on the ground in Syria and Iraq. Could we be competing with ourselves?
There are some 12,000 ISIS foot soldiers that remain in the Mid-East. How many of them have made their way to the European continent? How many of them have crossed the boarders from rural areas in Canada and live quietly in the United States? How many of them are men and women who were born and raised in the United States but who have an affinity to their cause? How many have become motivated to carry that belief, to wear vests of bombs or fill their pickup truck with bombs and drive through Times Square, or deliver saran gas to the subway lines of New York or attend a concert at Madison Square Garden or any other city with a congested area of “just people” ? And the answer is not how many of these persons do in fact exist, because it does not take too many to create deadly havoc. One man, some help and with one vest, Manchester, England. Where Tomorrow?
So by the end of this year, when it is announced, by whoever is president of the United Sates, that ISIS has been defeated, keep two things in mind: However defeated they may be on the battle field now raging in the Mid-East, they are far from defeated in the death and destruction they are capable of inflicting here at home. And, second, please let us not ever forget in the 21st Century: terrorism is and will be a fact of life for us and generations to come.