Imagine that an al Qaeda franchise emerged in a war-scarred nation with a fragile government. Imagine that this franchise launched sophisticated, coordinated attacks every four to six weeks, killing dozens—sometimes even hundreds—dwarfing the operational capacity of al Qaeda franchises in both Yemen and Somalia. Imagine it had between 800 to 1,000 individuals in its network, ranging from fighters to financiers to media operators.
This franchise would be labeled a “new front” in the War on Terror; a potentially catastrophic new threat to Western lives. Governments around the world would never dream of ignoring it.
In fact, such a group does exist today. It is called the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), and it was created in October 2006 out of the remnants of al Qaeda in Iraq. Just last week the group’s leader threatened the U.S. with attacks on its own soil, saying “our war with you has just begun.” Hours later, the group killed over 100 people in 40 coordinated bomb attacks in Iraq. Yet no government in the West seems in the least bit concerned. This attitude could yet come back to haunt us.
There are a variety of reasons for this relaxed attitude toward the ISI.
One lies in the ISI’s parochialism. I recently analyzed two years of their press releases. The ISI are utterly obsessed with Iran and the “Safavid” threat (a reference to the Shiite Persian Empire that the ISI believes Iran is attempting to recreate). This is supported by my analysis of their intended targets of attack over the past year. Majority Shiite areas were bombed in 86% of all major ISI attacks. Furthermore, when it came to ISI operations that solely targeted civilians, six out of seven attacks were aimed at Shiite majority regions.
However, the ISI’s parochialism by itself is not enough to justify ignoring it. After all, an entire wing of Somalia’s al Shabaab leadership wants to focus on local jihad rather than global. Yet the U.S. has engaged significantly in that region on a whole range of fronts—politically, financially and militarily.
Strategic reasons also play a role. Having suffered major military defeats against Sunni tribes and the U.S. military in late 2006 and 2007, the ISI came to be regarded as a busted flush—defeated militarily and without legitimacy domestically. Furthermore, there is a perception that al Qaeda’s core organization is now nearing total defeat.
Yet the ISI is an umbrella group of a variety of Sunni insurgencies, and documents discovered in Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound highlighted how the ISI is in no way beholden to al Qaeda central. In January 2011, al-Qaeda’s American spokesman Adam Gadahn confirmed that relations between the core and the ISI were “cut off for a number of years.” A week before his death, bin Laden bemoaned the “scarcity” of correspondence with the ISI. Therefore, the ISI’s fortunes are not necessarily connected to that of al Qaeda central.
That leaves the ISI’s location as an explanation for the West’s relative indifference toward it. There is a great sense of Iraq fatigue in the West. The U.S. has only just managed to pull itself out the country—the last thing it wants to do is begin to think about threats from that country following the U.S. home.
Yet even this does not fully explain why the U.S. government seems so unconcerned. Despite the carnage the ISI had caused just hours earlier, the noises coming out of Washington last week were bordering on the delusional. U.S. officials said that the ISI remains “isolated,” with its attacks not “having the desired effect.” A White House spokesman said that Iraq’s authorities can “handle their own security.”
That is one way to look at it. Another would be that a country powerless to stop the monthly slaughter of its own citizens is not one that is “handling” its own security very effectively. And here lies the crux of America’s attitude towards the ISI.
The U.S. government does not want the ISI to be a problem, because they know—unlike al Qaeda’s affiliates in east Africa and Yemen—there is precious little they can do about it. There is zero chance of the fallback play—armed Predator and Reaper drones—being used against militants in Iraq. Not only would it be an admission of complete strategic failure, it would fatally undermine the quasi-democracy that America helped bring about. Furthermore, Baghdad would fiercely object to the breach of its sovereignty. And despite eight years of blood and treasure expended, American political capital in Baghdad is disturbingly low.
President Obama oversaw an unexpectedly hasty withdrawal from Iraq, and subsequently the U.S. ceased being a significant political player. Furthermore, intelligence-sharing between the countries has decreased, and there is only so much threat the U.S. military can pose to the ISI while operating out of a base in Kuwait. As a result, the U.S. can only stand idly by as the ISI murders by the hundred, attempts to reignite sectarian warfare and explicitly threatens the U.S. homeland.
It is tempting to believe that the U.S. and its allies can dismiss this. After all, sectarian violence in Iraq no longer threatens Western lives. We have been tempted into such delusions before. Yet the last country with an al Qaeda presence that we ignored was called Afghanistan, and nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11 because of it. We may have lost interest in the Iraqi jihad. That does not mean it has lost interest in us.