While Western analysts try to figure out whether ISIS is getting ahead of itself by essentially proclaiming strategic victory, only a few weeks into the blitzkrieg stage of its Iraq invasion, the al-Qaeda group once dismissed as terrorism’s “junior varsity team” by Barack Obama is plowing ahead and declaring the establishment of a new nation, a “caliphate” stretching from Syria into Iraq, with big plans for further expansion.
Yes, Obama dead-enders, your man really made that crack about jayvee teams, and even friendly journalists thought he was being disturbingly flippant at the time. As it turns out, Obama’s ignorance of the ISIS menace was nearly absolute, and incredibly dangerous. Obama was still trying to make his campaign rhetoric about a decimated, routed al-Qaeda sound good. The price paid by victims of ISIS for the President’s campaign spin has already been horrific; if this “caliphate” holds up, the whole world will be getting the bill soon, in some cases hand-delivered by terrorist couriers.
In reality, ISIS is now larger, richer, and more aggressive than the bin Laden wing of al-Qaeda ever was. Part of the reason for that was strong American action against bin Laden and his fellow travelers. There used to be a guy in Iraq who talked about building a trans-national caliphate and was known for supporting deadly international terrorism, right up to the attempted assassination of a former U.S. president – his name was Saddam something-or-other. ISIS recently made a point of kidnapping and executing the judge who sentenced Saddam to death. Rehabilitating the late Iraqi dictator into a harmless little fuzzball who wouldn’t have bothered anyone if mean old George Bush hadn’t come barging across his border is as witless as Barack Obama blowing off ISIS as an impotent gang of poseurs.
Since the anti-Bush crowd is writing a ton of alt-history fiction these days, let me make a modest contribution of my own: if Saddam was still in business today, he’d either be sponsoring ISIS with money and weapons – and diverting their efforts in even more destabilizing directions – or he’d be running the whole operation. If you like what al-Qaeda has been able to accomplish with help from the Baathist remnant in Iraq, you’d love what they could have done with full-blown Iraqi military and intelligence support. There is no plausible alternate-history scenario in which this threat does not exist in some form.
Here’s what the “junior varsity league” of al-Qaeda is up to in real history, as reported by Fox News:
The leaders of an Al Qaeda splinter group that has seized vast portions of northern and western Iraq have declared the establishment of an Islamic state and demanded allegiance from other Muslim groups.
In an audio statement posted online that coincided with the first day of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a spokesman for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), announced that the group’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was the “caliph,” or leader, of a state whose territory extended from the city of Aleppo in northwestern Syria, to Diyala province in northeastern Iraq.
The spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, described al-Baghdadi as “the imam and khalifah (caliph) for the Muslims everywhere.” He also said that with the establishment of the caliphate, the group was changing its name to just the Islamic State, dropping the mention of Iraq and the Levant.
“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas,” al-Adnani continued. “Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day.”
Doubtless the assorted dictators and oligarchs declared invalid by ISIS won’t take the news very well. They’re not likely to shrug, pack suitcases full of money, and head for the French Riviera any time soon. But the point is that disaffected citizens of their dungeon states will be impressed by this. One of the big strategic fears after 9/11 was that bin Laden would parlay his big attack on New York and Washington into a massive terrorist recruitment drive, using the safe base of operations provided by his Taliban hosts. We can’t afford to replay that nightmare scenario in 2014 with a new base of operations sprawling across Syria and Iraq. The Iraqi government doesn’t seem capable of taking it down, the Kurds are hard-pressed to hold it at bay, and we really don’t want the alternative nightmare scenario of Syria and Iran realigning the entire Middle East by defeating ISIS and gobbling up Iraq, with support from Russia.
The dream of establishing a caliphate, and the tradition of regional support for “strong horses” (as Osama bin Laden put it) makes the new assurances about ISIS ticking off its fellow travelers by over-reaching sound less than convincing:
Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state, or caliphate, that ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and beyond in various forms over the course of Islam’s 1,400-year history.
But experts predicted the declaration could herald infighting among the Sunni militants who have joined forces with the Islamic State in its fight against the Shiite-led government.
“Now the insurgents in Iraq have no excuse for working with ISIS if they were hoping to share power with ISIS,” Aymenn al-Tamimi, an analyst who specializes in Islamic militants in Iraq and Syria, told The Associated Press. “The prospect of infighting in Iraq is increased for sure.”
I wouldn’t be too sure about that. For one thing, ISIS became ruthlessly effective at suppressing factional splits during its Syrian campaign, which is one reason critics of Obama’s sudden “red line” rush to war said it was a pipe dream to think we could single out the “nice” elements of the Syrian resistance and give them the assistance needed to take down both the Assad regime and al-Qaeda. The critics accurately predicted that Obama’s planned intervention would effectively turn the United States into ISIS’ air force, and put American weapons in their hands, possibly after being pried from the cold, dead fingers of the “moderates” we wanted to help.
A guy named Abu Adnan al-Anadali tried to get a little ISIS infighting against head honcho Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi in the Syrian theater. On Friday, he was accused of “corruption” and crucified for his troubles. I wouldn’t count on a lot of ISIS affiliates throwing in the towel and walking away because al-Baghdadi is calling himself a caliph these days. On the contrary, he says he’s the guy who actually made the dreams of Osama bin Laden come true. Bin Laden got a lot of mileage out of peddling Islamic super-state fantasies from caves in Afghanistan (and later, apartments in Pakistan.) Al-Baghdadi is doing it from Mosul, while black flags flutter over buildings constructed by Americans.
Charles Lister of the Brookings Institute gets it, telling Fox News that ISIS’ declaration will rally further support to their banner, by making it clear they have completely eclipsed whatever remains of bin Laden’s al-Qaeda: “Taken globally, the younger generation of the jihadist community is becoming more and more supportive of (the Islamic State), largely out of fealty to its slick and proven capacity for attaining rapid results through brutality.”
They’re looking to achieve some of those rapid and brutal results far outside of Iraq’s borders, too. Supporters of ISIS actually launched their own sick version of Team Obama’s goofball “hashtag diplomacy,” creating a Twitter stream called #CalamityWillBefallUS to make such promises as, “We will kill your people and transform America into a river of blood 🙂 !” and “EACH and EVERY American is targeted, whether he lives in or outside the US!” The smiley face doesn’t really do much to take the edge off that first threat. This has been accompanied by a blizzard of terrorist-nostalgia photos and videos, including images of the 9/11 attacks, the beheading of American hostage Nick Berg, and the murder of Ambassador Chris Stevens – the latter an event whose significance to the terrorist community was only enhanced by Team Obama’s efforts to dismiss it as a spontaneous protest, or a case of accidental smoke inhalation.
Sure, a lot of that is just belligerent daydreaming by gasbags, but the dimensions of the real terror threat from ISIS are sobering, as outlined in a CBS News report over the weekend:
ISIS “is not just a threat in Baghdad or even Syria. It’s a real threat to the West, because it’s able to recruit fighters, train them, send them out, and then possibly redeploy them back West,” said CBS News Senior National Security Analyst Juan Zarate, a national security adviser under former President George W. Bush.
Officials estimate that 5,000 foreign nationals have flocked to Iraq and Syria to fight the governments there, bringing the total number of ISIS fighters to somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000. Of the 5,000 foreigners there, the FBI estimates that maybe 100 are Americans.
The concern is that the foreigners recruited by ISIS could become more radicalized after their time on the battlefield and return home to “attack their fellow citizens in the West,” Zarate said Wednesday.
The fighters “turn in [their] passport, get paid for it, the passports then get reconfigured and sold to others heading back west,” he said. “There’s an entire infrastructure to getting people in and out, money in and out, and it’s very easy then to have people hidden in that mix. The challenge then is: who’s coming out to potentially attack [other] countries?”
If you’re one of those people who stick your fingers in your ears and shriek “Nobody from the Bush Administration can ever talk about Iraq ever again ever ever ever!” then maybe you’ll listen to President Obama’s former CIA director, Michael Morrell, who warned that ISIS’ first goal is to “set up that caliphate, and it’s not just in Iraq and Syria,” to facilitate their second goal, “use that as a safe haven to attack the United States.”
The Obama Administration is, hilariously, trying to pretend it saw all this coming, and everything is going according to plan. Back to Fox News:
“[ISIS]’s strategy to develop a caliphate across the region has been clear for some time now. That is why this is a critical moment for the international community to stand together against [ISIS] and the advances it has made,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
Yeah, it was clear for some time now, Ms. Psaki. That’s why the President said in January that ISIS was just the junior varsity team for al-Qaeda, and there was little reason to worry about their antics. That’s why he ignored pleas for help from the Iraq government when the head-chopper squads came rolling across their border. When the prime minister of the Kurdistan region warned Obama months ago that ISIS posed a grave threat to Iraq, and offered to send highly effective Kurdish forces to team up with Baghdad against the threat, Obama completely ignored him. That’s how “clear” this threat has been to the teenagers staffing the Obama Administration for “some time now.”
The Islamic State’s declaration comes as the Iraqi government tries to wrest back some of the territory it has lost to the jihadi group and its allies in recent weeks.
On Sunday, Iraqi helicopter gunships struck suspected insurgent positions for a second consecutive day in the northern city of Tikrit, the predominantly Sunni hometown of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
The insurgents appeared to have repelled the military’s initial push for Tikrit, and remained in control of the city on Sunday, but clashes were taking place in the northern neighborhood of Qadissiyah, two residents reached by telephone said.
Muhanad Saif al-Din, who lives in the city center, said he could see smoke rising from Qadissiyah, which borders the University of Tikrit, where troops brought by helicopter established a bridgehead two days ago. He said many of the militants had deployed to the city’s outskirts, apparently to blunt the Iraqi military attack.
Jawad al-Bolani, a security official in the provincial operation command, told The Associated Press the U.S. was sharing intelligence with Iraq and has played an “essential” role in the Tikrit offensive.
So, great, U.S. intelligence was essential to the largely ineffective attempt to wrestle Tikrit back from ISIS. CNN talked to a resident of Tikrit by phone after the battle, and she said, “There are no Iraqi troops here,” adding that the only force visible in her part of the city was “the Islamic State” – the new name ISIS wants its caliphate to be known by. At the same time Baghdad was hitting ISIS positions with the aid of American intelligence, ISIS was uploading tour videos of Tikrit to YouTube, narrated by someone who referred to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as a dead man walking.
It’s very good to see the Iraq government stepping up and pushing back, but thus far the results haven’t been great – the terrorist invaders dug in so quickly that it’s still a matter of some confusion over whether certain key elements of the national infrastructure are controlled by ISIS or the Baghdad government. The declaration of a new trans-national Islamic state was a bold and boisterous claim, but it’s not entirely disconnected from the realities on the ground, and if more reinforcements follow the sound of that galloping “strong horse” to rally under the ISIS banner, it will be more foolish than ever to suppose that a handful of American military advisers can turn things around.
Update: Appearing on “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace, General Michael Hayden, who has served as direct of both the NSA and CIA, delivers an unpleasant mixture of good news and bad news. The good news is, he thinks the advance of ISIS has effectively stalled out – they don’t have the muscle to take over the rest of Iraq, or the Kurdish autonomous region, and although he doesn’t mention them specifically, I assume he thinks the threat to Jordan can be contained, and the Assad regime will remain in control of Syria.
The bad news – the really bad news – is that he thinks this “caliphate” is the real deal. ISIS has consolidated its gains in Iraq and won’t be dislodged… which underlines the importance of getting this situation right and stopping them before they marched in, instead of Obama’s seat-of-the-pants, “I just heard about this on the news yesterday” foreign policy of perpetual crisis.
Instead, we’re stuck with a new terror state, similar in some ways to the lawless tribal regions of Afghanistan (which have been working out just great for the civilized world.) But this new terror state has an important strategic location, putting it within what Hayden calls “striking distance” of many things we cannot afford to let them strike. He suggests putting all of the West’s chips on the Kurds as a reliable ally to keep the new caliphate on a short leash, effectively ceding the rest of Iraq to Syrian and Iranian (and Russian) spheres of influence… which might be the best strategic option open to us at this point, and is the kind of last-ditch doomsday scenario nobody was thinking about a month ago.