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Future ISIS Terrorist Attacks and Beach Front Property in Arizona

(To read the rest of "On Violence’s Most Thought Provoking Foreign Affairs Event of 2014: Iraq Redux", please click here.)

As the media responded to the death of American journalist James Foley at the end of last summer, the hype for a new war eventually caused 63% of Americans to support air strikes against ISIS. (Read Zach Beauchamp for great coverage on the over-reaction here.) The culmination, for me, was this article by Retired General James Allen [emphasis mine]:

“If all the actions of the Islamic State, or IS, to date weren’t sufficiently reprehensible, this act and the potential for other similar acts will snap American attention with laser-like focus onto the real danger IS poses to the existence of Iraq, the order of the region and to the homelands of Europe and America.

To make sure his readers understand the severity, he continues, “Make no mistake, the abomination of IS is a clear and present danger to the U.S.” Remarkably, General Allen provides almost no evidence to prove this point.

I’m not picking on just General Allen; no one in the Obama administration, including the President himself, or congressmen advocating for war, ever provided evidence that ISIS posed a threat to the US beyond “Trust us.” A perfect example is this USA Today article with the provocative headline, “Islamic State biggest threat since 9/11, sources say”. Again, beyond “sources”, it didn’t have any evidence.  

Since I can’t debunk every media article, I want to use General Allen’s op-ed as a case study in how to over-hype the threat of terrorists. So what evidence did Gen. Allen bring to bear? Here’s a list after reading and re-reading his op-ed:

- The Islamic State wants to establish a Caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

- There are foreign fighters in their ranks.

- They are a well-organized insurgent group.

- They have money and weapons.

- They beheaded one American journalist. (And since more.)

- Al Qaeda used Taliban support in Afghanistan.

- Finally, this vague sentence: “The leadership of the so-called Caliphate has been clear that it will focus on Western and American targets if given the chance...”

So all those factors point to a group that could and is threatening the current state of Iraq. At least they have a significant chance to carve out a chunk of territory for their own. The problem is many of those “facts” don’t lead to ISIS being a threat to America’s homeland, as General Allen claimed.

Take the first and last bullet points; they’re contradictory. If ISIS wants to establish a Caliphate, the worst thing it could do would be to provoke US, UK and European nations into re-invading Iraq. That would set back its plans years, decades or end them all together. (Ask the Taliban how it worked out for them.)

Further, US intelligence agencies really don’t know much about the group. In fact, the US Counter-Terrorism adviser contradicted the Secretary of Defense on whether ISIS posed a threat to the homeland. So its more accurate to say, “Some sources say ISIS isn’t a threat and other sources say they are.” The number of fighters under ISIS control vary wildly from one estimate to another. When the US intel community (and the media) don’t know much about a new terrorist group, they tend to overestimate their strength.

To top it off, this dire and immediate threat to the US finished the year by completely dropping out of the news almost altogether, except for articles about how ISIS ended the year stalled out.

(Oh, and using the evidence that because Al Qaeda was harbored by the Taliban that ISIS will surely harbor international terrorists isn’t evidence.)

Yes, ISIS committed a war crime when it executed a journalist in Iraq. Yes, ISIS is bad for the Middle East and civil wars are bad for the world. However, given that it is against their interests to attack the US, we don’t know how many troops they have in the first place, they don’t have a terrorist arm, it is probably reasonable to conclude they won’t attack the U.S. homeland.

If politicians really want to make the case for action against ISIS, they can, but they shouldn’t hype a terror threat on our homeland.

nineteen comments

Two other points:

I thought about this posting the article today, but one of the main ways people overstate the threat of ISIS is by not emphasizing how they have allied Syria, Iran, Turkey, Israel and the rest of Iraq in the fight against them. How powerful can they be (long-term) if all of the neighboring countries around them are fighting against them?

Also, their territory is landlocked.

Finally, we had a paragraph about IS not having a foreign terrorism arm, but looking for research, we couldn’t find evidence either way. We’re still curious for the proof of that.

ISIS wants to establish a caliphate. In fact they have already established one. They wish to expand it. Because you figure their tactics so far mitigate against that because they are making the mighty West mad at them doesn’t mean they don’t mean to establish one. It may mean they are unwise, maybe, but it doesn’t mean they don’t really mean it. Besides they have been doing pretty well in the last year. It remains to be seen whether the antipathy of the Western nations will mean anything at all in the long run.

As far as asking Taliban & Co how it has worked out for them, it has worked out pretty good. They are still around and as strong or stronger as they have been since 2001 and us mighty Westerners are bugging out. If I was in ISIS, I would find that pretty encouraging.

US intel agencies don’t know much about anything because they are expensive jerks who couldn’t figure out the sun rises in the east if their GPS batteries went dead. The rest of the world knows plenty about ISIS because they tell us just about everything they can about themselves through every method they can. What they tell us plain is they are intent on total domination of whoever they can occupy and they intend to come after us when they can. If people don’t like that they have some choices, convert, dhimmi, flee or die.

As for ISIS itself they may or may not be an immediate threat to Western countries. They seem to be rather busy in Syria and Iraq right now. But they are the leading edge of takfirism in the world today and their very existence, not to mention their exhortations, provides inspiration for takfiris in the West and that is an immediate danger…as exemplified by the very recent events in France.

ISIS and its ilk are a mortal long term threat to the West. They must be destroyed now while they are still relatively weak. If we wait they will only get stronger.

Carl – I have to ask: if ISIS is a mortal long term threat, then why isn’t Turkey treating them as such? Turkey still sees the Kurds as a greater threat than ISIS. By geographic proximity I would think that Turkey’s reaction would give us a clue as to the real threat ISIS poses.

As an aside, I’ve often had a theory that US intelligence is so weak because the US doesn’t have much of an expat community (at least not outside American bases). Those expats have proven valuable sources for other nations, not only with their contacts but their good feel for “ground truth” in different parts of the world. Thoughts?

And thanks for introducing me to Daesh, though I have no idea how to pronounce it, so will stick with what I know for now.

Carl – I’m not sure I entirely agree with your assessment of Turkey and the historical analogies (to throw out another one, there was a time when everyone was terrified of anarchists. That ended badly, but not in a world vs anarchists kind of way). I think we could temper our reactions by seeing how the neighbours perceive the threat first (and of course asking why they take the positions they do).

By expats I actually meant Americans living abroad. Though you’re probably right about why the US doesn’t take advantage of the knowledge of immigrants.

As for sigint, someone has to read it. But then the question should always be along the lines of “ok, so you read it. But do you get it?” Which brings us back to understanding the cultures, which is a step beyond aquiring a simple language skill.

. . . to put my historical point a different way, if Europe hadn’t massively overreacted to an Anarchist act of terror, we wouldn’t have had the First World War. Conditions might also not have existed for the Russian Revolution to go the way it did, so granting Lenin passage might have been irrelevant. But overreacting resulted in all sorts of horrible unintended consequences.

Finding the appropriate reaction is always extremely difficult in the “before” period of history, and balancing different interests makes sound judgement tricky, especially if those interests are kept secret (like pre-war Europe, or the ISI over the past few decades), but I generally believe that if there are any options less bad than fighting those should be tried. Options that are worse than fighting should be avoided. But fighting generally ends up with un-good (to thrown in an Orwellian nod to our hosts) results. On this topic, I side with our hosts in that I don’t think we have enough info to justify the actions we’re taking.


I imagine we do have a fairly large expat community, at least in some countries. India I believe has quite a few Americans living there but I don’t really know much about how good a resource expats would be overall. All the immigrants here all have relations back in the old country though and that seems to me to be a good resource.

The interests of many of the players can be discerned if we bother to read news accounts in their languages rather than what they publish in English. And barring that just look at what they do, especially over a period of years. Then there are those like the Pak Army/ISI who talk in English about what there interests are and whose actions are consistent with their words. But even that help can’t overcome the stupidity of American foreign policy elites.

Daesh is prolix, in English, about proclaiming what they want, what they do and what they intend to do in the future. What they intend to do is kill anybody who doesn’t bow down to them. I don’t see how that can be stopped short of fighting. We don’t have to do the face to face killing. There are lots of locals who are quite eager to do that. (So Daesh man, you want to surrender. You killed my uncle Mustafa. I loved my uncle. He taught me to ride a bicycle. Bang. Bang.) But we do have to support those locals with weapons, money, training and air strikes, because like it or not, the Daesh fight pretty good so the locals need the help.

It is a judgment call though I’ll admit. But I think the extreme behavior they engage in, the attractiveness that behavior seems to have for tens of thousands of young men from most everywhere in the world, the rapidity with which they have developed over the past year and their fighting ability calls for us to do something right away rather than waiting.

I believe the anglophone world – and first and foremost the United States – does have a problem with a too high tolerance for and thus vulnerability to fearmongering and associated warmongering.

There are millions of Americans who should have a check-up by a honest MD and shit their pants then. Instead, they buy into largely baseless fearmongering on TV.

It’s not only the United States, though. Just recently the ASPI Strategist blog published a fearmongering piece (guest author) about Iran. Iran! They’re Australians and still offer a forum to an Iran fearmongerer!
I can understand their attention to the PRC, but Australians being concerned about Iran is ridiculous.
Same with some British being concerned about the PRC.

The support structure responsible for illuminating the alleged rampant criminality and religious extremism aligned with ISIS should be appropriated to other meaningful discourse. Generally, I think we have an abundance of commentary about other states’ insurgent or terror networks, but never enough discussion about causative factors which precipitate an individuals participation in the previous violent subcultures.

ISIS isn’t a mortal threat to America. Our army is too big, too competent and too well funded for them to ever pose a “mortal” threat.

@ F – Great point. Look at ISIS. Do we have ISIS without the Iraq war? No.

Warmongers often forget about blowback, about how our military actions have negative consequences. To defeat those evil Russians, we alienated and pissed off millions around the world. Like Iran. Oh, and armed the Taliban.

I’m studying up on El Salvador right now. I’m sure the thousands of innocents killed by the corrupt far right government disagree with you.

You have a few of Islamic extremists. We don’t agree with it. You don’t have to comment on every post disagreeing with us.

I’ve seen nothing of D’aesh that points at unusual brutality.
What I’ve seen are perfectly normal civil war party atrocities, which have been reported from other Syrian civil war parties as well.
I’ve also noticed distasteful beheading scenes, of which the regular state and Western ally Saudi-Arabia actually is the #1 producer world-wide.

I’m strongly under the impression that politicians and news people have formed the consensus that D’aesh is “evil” and “our enemy”, and produce propaganda accordingly. Meanwhile, they stay largely silent about atrocities elsewhere (Saudi Arabia, Egypt).

Finally, I have little doubt the Western air strikes against D’aesh have killed more innocents than D’aesh has killed Westerners. The balance will likely stay tilted like that forever.

@Eric C:
At least he doesn’t fully submit to cognitive dissonance. Most people avoid sources which contradict their opinions.

Carl – you mentioned the headlines. I’m not sure what you were referring to. The bombing of an NAACP building in Colorado Springs? A Florida man killing his daughter? ‘cause if you’re referring to the Paris shootings, done by allegedly Yemenese-French citizens, then I’d point out that Yemenese terror movements and ISIS have about as much in common as the IRA and Basque ETA. Both of those were/are of European Catholic Marxist origins, and members may have met in training camps and occasionally used similar sources for weapons, but otherwise worked in isolation. Targeting one had neglibile effect on the other. Which holds true for the alphabet soup of Islamic extremist groups.

As to whether or not ISIS/Daesh is extremist, violent, and dangerous in its own small region – that’s clearly not in doubt. What is in doubt is whether they’re a threat that can move beyond their region. That is what has yet to be shown. I also offer this theory: sometimes its not the worst idea to let a radical group get to a stage where it has to exercise political control in a region. That will demonstrate whether or not they actually have the means to back up their rhetoric about governance. It also forces those movements to adopt more rigid hierarchies in order to exercise political control, which in turn makes the organization easier to target and destroy should that really be necessary.

As a last thought (for now), and returning to Paris, I’m noting a lot of solidarity with the victims and talk about refusing to bow to pressure. If that’s how we react to our own being killed, shouldn’t we suspect that these violent groups react similarly to the deaths we inflict on them? Do our attacks (especially when they only hit one node in the network at a time) strengthen their resolve? We’ve spend over a decade trying to kill our way to coexistance. It hasn’t seemed to work to date. When is it time to try a different approach?

Carl – you write that if we’d had our heart in it, we would have convinced Pakistan to hand over bin Laden and Mullah Omar. But what if Pakistan has interests that are so contrary to those of the USA that it would be prepared to actively fight against the US? It has proven capable of training, equiping and launching attacks against India. Could it not do the same against the US, to include possibly using nuclear weapons – even knowing the effects of American retaliation? Is it worth commiting to total war to deal with a threat that isn’t existential? Is it worth so alienating other states to deal with a threat to US citizens that is, annually, less lethal to the American population than the combined US police forces (never mind American drivers)? You advocate escallation, but what are the consequences of increased use of force? I don’t think it’s going to be the total capitulation of any extremist movement. I think it might actually aggravate the existing problems.


The Pak Army/ISI/feudal elites of Pakistan interests do differ radically from ours. Our refusal to really recognize that and act seriously upon it is the heart of our problem. But the actions we need to take or should have taken (it may be too late now) consist mostly of no longer giving them things. Stopping the military and gov to gov aid. Shutting down the Karachi supply line completely thereby depriving a lot of military and civilian VIPs of a lot of money. Yes we would have had to severely curtail the number of people we could have supported in Afghanistan but it would have been worth it. The impact of these things would have been to hit the feudal elites and senior military officers in the wallet which I am convinced is one of their main interests.

Going beyond that we could have publicized all the sigints we undoubtedly have detailing how the Pak Army/ISI is hand in glove to Taliban & Co. Even further going beyond that we could have gone after the foreign bank accounts of senior Pak Army/ISI officers on the basis of them aiding terrorists and enemies of the US. There are lots and lots of things we could have done but didn’t.

This would have been effective because that particular military has commercial interests of great magnitude and generally speaking I’ve read that militaries like that aren’t very good. The Nigerian army is a good example of that.

Another reason it would of worked is because Pak Army/ISI has India on the brain. Any kind of contentious state with us could not help but weaken them relative to India. Those F-16s don’t fly sans spare parts.

So there were many effective things we could have done to effectively pressure them that we didn’t do. Fighting wasn’t one of them.

Carl – flying steel has a history of increasing extremist behaviour and support. Wars in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Chechnya and surrounding regions, Somalia, Afghanistan again, Libya, Mali, Iraq, Syria, etc have all inspired and drawn fighters from around the globe. Escalation of violence only results in drawing in more fighters. I think we need some different solutions, and one that we should strongly consider is not being there at all. Maybe that will result in more deaths at the hands of extremists in those regions, but will result in fewer innocent deaths at our hands. Which is a good thing. And it will give space to moderates to take action without being tainted as puppets of the west.

As for cutting off spare parts to Pakistan, sure it would have an effect. But remember, Iran is still flying F14s and Super Stallions and Cobras after almost 40 years of being cut off from external support.

@Eric C – hosting a blog shouldn’t be a source of angst, so I won’t say any more on the issue. Your site, your rules, your decisions. Be proud to have articulated an argument that most news organizations would run away from.

Obviously, developed societies should approach armed conflicts with alternative, non-violent solutions. In agreement with the user above, we, developed societies with rightfully retributive agendas, should sit this one out. In contrast with Afghanistan, it’s evident that even the smallest incidence of civilian casualties/collateral damage or accidental blue on green engagements provided enough strife to undermine our entire just operation. I mean, how does one even assume an inevitable defeat of a stateless, transnational terror/insurgent networks maliciously representative of extremist organizations within decentralized religions/sects? We can entertain serious discussions of illicit funding programs, but how is any conventional force imagined to close in with a fluid enemy like ISIS? Perhaps if these regions aren’t truly capable of fermenting education, employment, and interpersonal relationships with diverse populations, then maybe it’s time to start propping up dictators again.

Concerning whether or not ISIS is a long term threat and why Turkey does not appear to be concerned, well there is quite a bit of evidence that Turkey is supporting ISIS. The following is the most comprehensive compilation of evidence that I have seen.


Carl – your concepts about helping people are noble, and are probably what many soldiers think on the ground. But they’re also irrelevant. That’s not why states go to war (if it was, everyone would support the idea of Responsibility to Protect). States fight for particular interests. Unfortunately, in cases of wars for other-than-existential-reasons, those interests end up destabilizing regions and making matters worse. We undermined the concept of national government in Afghanistan. We completely shattered the systems in Iraq. The US widened the gulf between governance structures and the population in South Vietnam. It alienated the populations of Cuba and the Philippines. It destabilized El Salvador, Nicaragua, and most of the rest of South and Central America through covert wars and CIA activities, and set conditions for decades of problems in the Middle East by supporting the ’53 coup in Iran. And they plundered Mexico, creating the vacuum that allowed brutal and cruel men to come to the fore. In the process, the US (and the French, Brits, Portuguese and Dutch have been guilty of this too in their colonial adventures) has broken a compact with its soldiers, who have tried to justify their actions on the ground as helping people, while the state had a different aim all along; and has created false hope in the eyes of local populations who side with America (or foreign) forces, only to abandoned when the war becomes inconvenient.

That’s morally wrong on a grand scale, and that can’t be compensated for by small acts of good within a corrupt construct.

By commiting to violence without clearly confirming that the threat is existential simply adds to destabilization and harm in a region by creating conditions for “strong men” to exploit.

War doesn’t work, not nearly as effectively as so many think it does. Yes, we needed to stop Hitler, but one can easily connect that defensible war to the arguably more destructive but infinitely more pointless World War I.

World War I is ethically and morally indefensible. And it set the stage for the raise of Hitler and the soviets.

Many of the arguments for stopping ISIS could have been applied to stopping Saddam. And we all know how destructive and pointless that war was now.

To quote Martin Luther King Jr. “War is not the answer.”

We know that America needed to stop the Russians. But millions of innocent people died to “stop” the Russians, though their own economic system ended them, with little to nothing to do with our actions. Of course in the course of fighting the Russians, we alienated many, many countries.