Another day, another terrorist bombing – or three of them, as is the case with Saudi Arabia today. And oddly, they persist, and even multiply, at the same time that the world’s most dangerous terrorist organization, ISIS, continues to lose ground militarily in Iraq and Syria, where it had seized control over a scary amount of territory in recent years. I suspect that this seeming paradox both might become an appalling New Normal, and is telling both supporters and critics of America’s counter-terrorism strategy – including yours truly – that they need to question some of their major assumptions.
As I’ve written repeatedly, major U.S. leaders across the political spectrum have it backward in claiming that America’s top ISIS-related priority needs to be to defeat the group militarily on the battlefield. Though they often differ as to the mix of American, other free world, and local Middle Eastern forces that will be needed to accomplish this mission, they all insist that in this era of free global travel and nearly instantaneous global communication, it’s folly to believe that the United States can protect itself from ISIS and similar terrorism by tightening border control.
These voices add that neglecting ISIS’ self-styled caliphate would enable the group to consolidate a sizable, Afghanistan-type base for planning the launching big September 11-like attacks on U.S. and other targets; jeopardize other American interests in the Middle East, like ensuring access to oil; and keep ISIS’ main recruitment pitch intact – including for U.S. “lone wolves” – by reinforcing its claim to be successfully defying the infidel world and riding the wave of history.
I’ve responded that defeating ISIS would at best simply create a breathing spell until the utterly dysfunctional Middle East spawned a successor, and that however difficult it is to control visitors’ access to the United States, it’s much easier than shaping the evolution of the Middle East in more favorable, constructive ways.
At the same time, I’ve recognized that because better border security won’t happen overnight, military pressure needs to continue on the caliphate to impede its consolidation, and keep its leaders too busy defending themselves to be plotting future global strikes. My preferred instrument has been a combination of air strikes and special forces harassment. I’ve also emphasized that, because of the domestic U.S. energy production revolution, the Middle East has become much less strategically and economically important, and that Washington can now afford to focus narrowly on terrorist threats.
But the proliferation of foreign ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks as the so-called caliphate shrinks – especially in Iraq – raises doubts about all these analyses. As I see it right now, here are the likeliest implications:
>ISIS’ prowess with internet-style recruiting is now so formidable that it can spark major terrorist threats to the United States even without a significant territorial base. So significant U.S. military involvement in the Middle East no longer matters much anymore.
>ISIS is lashing out globally precisely because it’s failing on the ground in the Middle East. (Contributor BJ Bethel made that argument on RealityChek in April.) So staying the current policy course makes the most sense.
>Territorial bases are no longer essential for fostering large-scale terrorism, but their potential to generate these attacks must still be minded. As a result, preventing their consolidation is a necessary but not sufficient response.
>Territorial control remains vital for ISIS’ power and global strike capabilities, and the United States and its allies simply haven’t undermined ISIS’ thoroughly enough.
Right now, I’m leaning toward Number Three – along with my ongoing conviction that better border security (including more monitoring of the U.S. Muslim community) will provide the most effective protection for Americans. But the latest twist in the struggle against terrorism should be reminding everyone that these forces remain impressively agile and adaptive. Consequently, both supporters and opponents of U.S. strategy need to display these characteristics, too.