The rising ISIS threat

by FRED GEDRICH September 1, 2014

With another 9-11 anniversary on the horizon, Americans have every right to be jittery.  The world's most violent jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS - formerly al-Qaeda in Iraq), is ravaging the occupants of those two Arab states and making threats against the United States and others.  And the Obama administration is conflicted on how to treat the threat.  

Despite ISIS beheading of American journalist James Foley and others, and its killings, selling captives as slaves, rampant crimes, and targeting of people on ethnic and religious grounds, President Obama clings to the notion that the threat can be contained regionally, with limited U.S. involvement.

Several prominent members of Obama's cabinet seem to differ with their boss on the gravity of the ISIS threat. U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel recently said, "They're beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. They are tremendously well-funded...This is beyond anything that we've seen...They are an imminent threat."  Secretary of State John Kerry said the group "must be destroyed." Attorney General Eric Holder added the terror group "is frightening."

The international community also expressed alarm. United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay labeled the group's atrocities as "appalling and widespread...which may amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity." British Prime Minister, David Cameron, describes it as a "greater threat than we've known before."

There is a reason for the civilized world to be concerned. This violent Sunni Muslim predominantly Arab jihadist organization:

  • Currently controls area from Aleppo in Northwest Syria to Central Iraq (greater than United Kingdom's land mass). ISIS' leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared that land a new Caliphate with himself as Caliph, telling Americans he "will see them in New York."
  • Compels conquered people under penalty of death and torture to live according to its strict interpretation of Sharia Law. The United Nations estimates thousands of Iraqis and Syrians have been killed and millions displaced as a result of ISIS barbarity.
  • Possesses a growing jihadist army of about 17,000 fighters, according to Pentagon sources, including thousands recruited from the Middle East and North African region, Europe, and America. It uses a huge cache of American and Russian weapons and equipment captured from fleeing Iraqi and Syrian security forces. And it combines contemporary military tactics and technological social media savvy with non-conventional terrorist tactics such as suicide bombings; improvised explosive devices, and video-taped beheadings.
  • Amassed cash and assets totaling about $2 billion to finance its operations, much of it looted from banks in conquered Iraqi and Syrian cities. It also has a daily funding stream of about $3 million garnered from black market sales of gas and oil from fields and refineries captured in Northern Iraq and Syria. These funds allow ISIS to buy weapons and the loyalties of its fighters and local tribesmen and finance terror operations.


ISIS' sudden rise shouldn't have surprised anyone. The West Point Counterterrorism Center reported that "this crisis has been four years in the making." Worse, the civilized world allowed it to metastasize in Syria before the group entered Iraq with a fury.

President Obama reacted to ISIS' rapid entry into Iraq by authorizing limited U.S. airstrikes in Iraq and surveillance flights over the part of Syria under ISIS control. These actions are designed to contain ISIS' advance, prevent genocide, protect Americans serving and guarding diplomatic facilities in Iraq. It's also not enough, and he is contemplating authorizing further military action in Iraq and Syria.  At a minimum Obama should:

One, make a convincing case to the American people and their representatives in Congress that any further military action in Iraq and Syria is in the vital U.S. national security interest.  Americans will respond favorably if a coherent case and strategy is presented to them. 

Two, inform Americans that the radical Islamic Sharia-driven ideology, as practiced by groups like ISIS in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere is as dangerous as communism, nazism, and fascism and must be defeated.  The Obama administration has mistakenly sought to downplay the significance of this ideology for nearly six years and the threat has only grown based on events in places like Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Three, seek approval from the U.S. Congress to use military force in Iraq and Syria.  Duly elected representatives of the American people should be the ones debating, making war decisions and setting legal war parameters, not the president or a small group of administration officials or international representatives and bureaucrats with varying political and national security interests.

Four, organize a "coalition of the willing" similar to what President George W. Bush was able to do during the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.  Such an undertaking may prove difficult given that many of the allies in those coalitions no longer trust President Obama, largely because some allies believe he mismanaged the Afghanistan and Iraq wars and other global crises. 

Five, if congressional permission is granted, direct appropriate U.S. intelligence agencies and the U.S. military to design and mount a campaign to "destroy" ISIS. Targets should include ISIS command and control centers, training centers, leaders, supply routes and oil and gas fields under its control.  Also, the U.S. should fully arm Iraq's Kurds - they are the country's most effective fighting force and most reliable U.S. ally. The mission's overall objective should be victory, not nation-building which turned out to be remarkable failures in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Six, cancel the passports of any Americans and Westerners known to have joined ISIS and other extremist Islamic groups. More than 1,000 Westerners including more than 100 Americans are reportedly fighting with these groups in Iraq and Syria, and the vast majority of them could enter the U.S. without a visa and mount a terror attack.

Finally, if President Obama doesn't heed the advice of his senior cabinet officials and others to mitigate the clear and present danger posed by ISIS, he risks presiding over another 9-11 type calamity.  The situation facing America and the civilized world requires leadership, foresight, courage, swiftness, decisiveness and good judgment.  And if he soon doesn't display these qualities, America and civilized world could suffer a severe consequence for his continued indecisiveness.

Fred Gedrich is a foreign policy and national security analyst and served in the U.S. departments of Defense and State.

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