ISIL as an Insurgency and a Terrorist Threat

Yesterday, I posted four preliminary observations about the campaign against ISIL. My fourth observation emphasized the point that the United States-led efforts against ISIL must recognize that the extremist group represents both a terrorist threat to the U.S., and an insurgency that threatens the stability of the Middle East. If the campaign against ISIL is to succeed, both of these issues must be recognized and addressed.

A pure counterterrorism campaign against ISIL will be too limited in strategic scope, in the sense that it will fail to acknowledge that the extremist group also views itself an insurgency movement. Consequently, the U.S. must thwart threats that involve lone wolf terrorists, on one end of a broad spectrum, and wage a traditional war against a sizable army with numerous facilities, sophisticated weapons, and other resources on the other end of the spectrum. The ways and means of dealing with terrorism and insurgency are very different, and require separate and independent metrics of assessing progress.

The terrorism threat ISIL poses to the U.S. lies in its capacity to strike U.S. targets in the region, and beyond. In this regard, the U.S. will have to closely monitor ISIL’s new ideology as it moves into mainstream jihadist circles, including al-Qaeda, Jemaah Islamiyah in Asia, and associated extremist groups in Southwest Asia. There are indicators in the open press suggesting that ISIL’s advances have emboldened associated groups to emulate it. Two worrisome changes in the terrorism threat posed to the U.S. emanate from these groups: 1) the increasing likelihood of lone wolf attacks; and 2) the increasing propensity for extreme violence, in terms of brutality and wanton scale of destruction. This trend in terrorism cuts against al-Qaeda ideology, which is constrained and measured by comparison, in terms of the application and justification for using violence.

At the same time, ISIL is a classic insurgency movement. Its goal is to overthrow Arab governments and seize power. That prospect represents a strategic challenge to U.S. interests, but does not represent a direct threat to the U.S., at least in the short term. The danger for the U.S. is that if it characterizes the conflict as being a “war,” it establishes the “win-lose” definition of success – setting victory conditions, including metrics such as ability to seize and hold territory, level of attrition/destruction of an opposing army. Such tenets of war invariably result in mission creep, accompanied by military escalation. This may well lead to a military defeat if we were to apply the standards we set for ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One could argue that the reason why the U.S. underestimated the re-emergence of militant Islam under the banner of ISIL was because U.S. counterterrorism metrics of success over the years failed to make a distinction between the terrorism threat that al-Qaeda and its allies represented, and denying them their objectives as an insurgency movement. As a result, the U.S. over-estimated the reduction in threat that was brought about by the attrition of al-Qaeda, when in fact, the underlying basis of support for the extremist narrative continued to thrive, e.g., religious and ethnic divisions, popular grievances against the power elite, political and economic deficiencies, official corruption, and the like.

Such root causes of terrorism were not being adequately addressed as a component of a broader U.S. strategy. Consequently, the attrition-based, heavily drone-reliant approach of “kill them all” was attractive to some, because it satisfied the flawed metrics of success the U.S. had set, and it was measurable, unlike the soft indicators of militant Islam’s continued popularity and ability to continue to attract and train followers. Moreover, some counter-terrorism analysts, who had bought into the culture of the comfort of the kinetic solution, systematically ignored the growing indicators that the appeal of the extremist narrative was finding new sources of popular support in the wake of the Arab spring, and the subsequent crack-down on dissent by the governments of Egypt, Syria, and others.

If the U.S.’s effort against ISIL is more than a counterterrorism campaign, and should not be regarded as being a “war,” at least a war for the United States to fight and win, there are key questions concerning the broader issues that the U.S. must bear in mind, for military action to be effective.

  • What is the the future of political power in the Sunni world?  Will Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi re-establish the credibility of the Hosni Mubarak regime? Will the established order continue to maintain legitimacy, in the eyes of their people?
  • What brand of extremism will prevail, whether ISIL exists, or not?  The implicit assumption of this question is that as one brand of militant extremism is attacked systematically into splinter groups, a new brand of extremism will emerge, more violent and unpredictable than the last, unless the underlying causes of radicalization and extremism are addressed.
  • Will the ruling elite in the Arab world manage to contain, if not eliminate, the increasingly restless ambitions of militant Islamist extremism?
  • What will be the outcome of Shia versus Sunni rivalry for regional dominance? A flaw in western conceptualizing in the Sunni-Shia rivalry lies in assuming all Sunni are allied against Shia, and vice versa. The situation on the ground is far more complicated, and based on historical, tribal, and state to state interaction.
  • Under Saudi leadership, will the Gulf states continue to cooperate effectively to thwart Tehran’s growing regional ambitions?
  • Has militant extremism, as represented by ISIL’s emergence on the scene, grown beyond the boundaries of terrorism and war? Are these the winds of a global war between good and evil?

As a student of history, I find myself hearkening back to the titanic struggle between freedom and fascism that defined World War II. Perhaps today’s lines should be drawn in moral and ethical terms, rather than gracing the enemy with ideological, ethnic or religious legitimacy of any kind. In offering U.S. leadership, the president should consider Winston Churchill’s iron resolve to defeat the existential threat the Nazis posed. There was no equivocation in Churchill’s definition of the nature of the struggle the world confronted; he addressed the threat in stark, uncompromising terms. In more recent times, Bill Clinton has noted that the biggest mistake of his presidency was not intervening to stop a genocide in Rwanda. Today, notable pacifists such as Jimmy Carter and Pope Francis, have made bold statements on the urgency for the global community to intervene to stop ISIL. They have exhorted the world to act out of compassion for the suffering of innocent men, women, and children. Their concern for mankind rises above all forms of self-interest–they are urging global intervention to save people who will be slaughtered if we do not.

Such a justification is the most compelling reason for sustained, relentless military intervention in Syria and Iraq. One could argue that ISIL exists not because the U.S. failed to arm the Syrian moderates, but because the world failed to intervene to halt a genocide in Syria. It is a lesson once more that if the world fails to confront this evil, it will only grow until it threatens all we hold dear. The U.S. must not confuse this intervention with our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, or Vietnam. Responding to ISIL will have a different outcome than the invasion and occupation of other nations, as long as we remain focused on limiting our engagement to the noble cause of preventing genocide and a human rights catastrophe. No doubt, our true interests will be tested, as events unfold. Yet, I am certain in my conviction that the U.S. will not regret taking action, not matter what the outcome, as long as we maintain a focus on doing the right thing by the people whom we are trying to save from the danger that ISIL represents, to the world. 

Filed under:
About the Author(s)

Rolf Mowatt-Larssen

Senior Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, former Director of Intelligence and Counterintelligence at the Department of Energy, former Chief of the Europe Division in the Directorate of Operations, former Chief of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Department, Counterterrorism Center.