Why you should care
Because the Islamic State already possesses the money, territory and networks that al-Qaida itself could never manage to acquire.
Unless defeated, the Islamic State (IS) taking root in Iraq will be a greater threat to the United States over the long run than al-Qaida was before 9/11.
Before al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, that organization had only two advantages. First, it had stealth; although U.S. intelligence in 2001 had confidence al-Qaida was preparing some kind of major attack on the U.S., we had not yet penetrated the organization sufficiently to know its specific targets or its timing.
IS has achieved something that the core al-Qaida leadership still can only dream about: It actually controls territory.
Second, al-Qaida had a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to plot and plan securely, the U.S. having attacked it only once with cruise missiles prior to 2001 — to little effect.
Today, the Islamic State enjoys many more advantages. Attacking the U.S. is not its top priority at the moment, but there can be little doubt this is among its ambitions — and something it can realistically contemplate.
Four things give IS the capability, reach, allies and motive:
First, IS has achieved something that the core al-Qaida leadership still can only dream about: It actually controls territory. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida was merely a guest in an Afghanistan governed by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. IS, by contrast, is actually the government in vast stretches of Iraq and Syria — more than 400 miles end to end, roughly from Aleppo in Syria and across Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad. While its atrocities are well-documented, it is also in many areas providing a variety of social services to populations, such as electricity and water.
And with these accomplishments and the call to join its so-called “Islamic caliphate,” it is doing another thing al-Qaida failed to do — projecting a positive vision of the future for many Sunni Muslims.
This control of territory also gives IS a second advantage essential to the success of any terrorist group: a safe haven from which to plot, plan, train, recruit and refit. Old al-Qaida lost its safe haven by October 2001, when a combination of attacks by the U.S. military and the CIA scattered it out of Afghanistan into Pakistan and the Persian Gulf.
Although U.S. airstrikes in recent days have put pressure on IS in Iraq, the U.S. has so far done nothing comparable in Syria, leaving it relatively undisturbed in its sanctuary. And within Iraq, airstrikes will probably cause it only to adjust tactics and integrate more closely into the civilian populations.
Third, IS has money — lots of it, conservatively estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars. It is the wealthiest terrorist organization ever. The money comes from bank takeovers in captured cities like Mosul, smuggling, kidnapping, Mafia-style “shakedowns” of businesses, wealthy Islamic donors — and the sale of oil from several captured regions. This wealth enables recruitment and training efforts, pay to fighters, weapons purchases and provision of services to those under IS sway.
Meanwhile, the al-Qaida leadership, hunkered down somewhere in the Afghan-Pakistan region, has struggled financially in recent years, even asking IS’s predecessor in Iraq for money several years ago, saying many of its “lines have been cut off.”
U.S. intelligence sources say IS is already working to establish cells in Western Europe.
Fourth, IS has the means of access to Western targets. The latest estimates put the number of IS fighters at upward of 10,000, with as many as 3,000 holding Western passports — including something in the vicinity of 100 American citizens. This is the largest number of Western fighters ever recorded for an Islamic extremist group. Those with European passports can move freely throughout much of the European Union because of lack of border controls. U.S. intelligence sources say IS is already working to establish cells in Western Europe, which is a traditional planning and jumping-off point for plots against the U.S.
Making this more worrisome is the Islamic extremist world’s shift from the unitary hierarchical structure that was al-Qaida to a “network of networks.” This means that groups easily form marriages of convenience to facilitate everything from logistics to bomb making. So, while IS is not known for its skill with bombs, it could lean on a group like Yemen-based al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which this week announced its support for IS and which has almost succeeded twice in attempts to attack the U.S. This group has in Ibrahim al-Asiri one of the terrorist world’s leading bomb-making experts.
Adding all of this up puts IS in a league well beyond anything al-Qaida ever was or can now hope to be. In fact, IS is openly challenging al-Qaida for international terrorist leadership. IS thus has a strong motive for eventually planning attacks on the U.S., because success would contrast sharply with al-Qaida’s inability to pull off another major attack here after 9/11. Of course, this also gives al-Qaida an incentive to redouble its efforts to make a comeback on the target where it made its reputation. And for either organization, a successful attack on the U.S. would bring a recruiting bonanza.
Recent U.S. airstrikes were helpful in relieving IS pressure in parts of Iraq, but a senior Pentagon planning official said last week this would have only a “temporary effect” on IS and was unlikely to blunt its momentum. Meanwhile, the IS yesterday said the strikes are the reason for its claimed beheading of US journalist James Foley and threatened to kill another US journalist if strikes continued.
Some hope may lie in the withdrawal of former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose favoring of Shiites had alienated Iraqi Kurds and Sunnis. The new prime minister-designate, Haider al-Abadi, will try forming a unity government, but this will go slowly while IS continues charging at top speed to consolidate and expand its hold on territory.
To neutralize the IS threat will take a far broader and more aggressive strategy than the U.S. has fielded so far. Strategy requires the setting of priorities and the integration of many components into a comprehensive approach. This will probably have to include at least the following elements: going after IS in Syria as well as Iraq; a heavier commitment of military and intelligence resources in both theaters; heavier arming of the Kurds and revitalization of the Iraqi Army; and a regional coalition that will probably have to involve Iran, our adversary in other arenas.
The bottom line is that none of these things marks the beginning of the end for the IS. In fact, the more appropriate characterization may be Winston Churchill’s famous quote about the vastly different battle in 1942, when he said that the fight against the Nazis had only reached “the end of the beginning.”
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).