One year ago this weekend, a spokesman for the extremist organization threatening Iraq announced that it would be called Islamic State and that it was proclaiming a Muslim caliphate. There is much we don’t know about ISIS’s role in Friday’s terror attacks in France, Kuwait, and Tunisia. But it’s painfully obvious that ISIS is expanding, not weakening. It has become one of the most successful terrorist enterprises in history. And Middle East dysfunction and the absence of a coherent regional or international response guarantee that it will not be defeated anytime soon.Friday’s attacks on three continents–whether or not they were coordinated from ISIS central in Syria or Iraq–reveal the organization’s capacity to inspire and perhaps direct and plan violence. The assault at a Tunisian beach resort in Sousse was reportedly executed by a student who had not previously been on the radar of Tunisian intelligence. It may well have been launched by an individual or local cell inspired by ISIS’s call for attacks during Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, rather than coordinated from outside. The attack on a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, however, probably took more planning and coordination. And when it claimed responsibility, ISIS named the suicide bomber. This hit–as previous ISIS attacks in Saudi Arabia have been–was clearly designed to inflame sectarian tensions.
The attack against a U.S.-owned factory in France appears to have been carried out by at least one Muslim known to have ties to radical Salafist groups.
The supply of potential ISIS recruits is virtually unlimited, thanks to the pool of radicalized Muslims in the Middle East and Europe; the reach of social media; the impossibility of tracking all homegrown radicals; and ISIS’s skillful manipulation of the young, directionless, alienated, and impressionable. Combine all this with the fact that some 35 groups around the world may have pledged an association with ISIS, and you can see the magnitude of the problem.
Now, al Qaeda also has the capacity to pull off simultaneous attacks. But unlike al Qaeda, ISIS has created a corporeal, visible presence that purports to govern and to control real estate. Once dismissed as meglomaniacal overreach or trivialized as a JV enterprise, the year-old caliphate terrorizes on the ground–and its very existence is a symbol of defiance of the West and the Arab regimes that seem powerless to destroy it. Feeding on Sunni grievances in the face of Shiite majority governance, ISIS maintains its hold in Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, as well as in Ramadi. In Syria, it has capitalized on the absence of governance and Bashar al-Assad’s murderous policies against Sunnis to maintain its hold on large areas. Should the Assad regime fall, it is possible–though not certain–that ISIS could threaten and push into its way into its first major Arab capital. Weakening and ultimately destroying ISIS, as President Barack Obama has said is his goal, requires something that today seems almost unimaginable: the existence of coherent, cohesive states in Iraq and Syria that are inclusive and well-governed.
There’s a reason they say you can’t beat something with nothing. ISIS isn’t invincible. But no single force or combination of forces that oppose it now are willing or able to check its rise. Exhausted from its terrible experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. is risk-averse. And even if Washington were prepared to commit greater military resources, it’s not clear how it would create a sustainable end state in Iraq or Syria to produce the circumstances required for ISIS’s defeat. The current U.S. policy of enhanced counterterrorism can, at best, keep ISIS at bay and weaken its capacity to plan direct attacks against the U.S. homeland. And that strategy, of course, won’t stop ISIS’s efforts to inspire homegrown U.S. radicals. Riven by internal weaknesses and contradictions, the Arab states are neither willing nor able to offer an effective response. For some–particularly Saudi Arabia–Iran, not ISIS, constitutes the more serious threat.
There’s still a great deal to be learned about ISIS and its tactics. Sadly, it’s clear that ISIS will be with us for some time to come.