Why Islamic State threat is 'unprecedented,' but doesn't change much for US

The Islamic State is a unique hybrid of terrorist group and nation-state that has shown remarkable strategic clarity and organization. But its threat to America – and America's options for dealing with it – remain limited.

AP/File
Militants from the Islamic State parade in a commandeered Iraqi security forces armored vehicle on a main street in Mosul, Iraq, in June.

The Islamic State is a unique phenomenon that "is unprecedented in the modern age," according to a new report, but a co-author suggests that – for now – the threat to the United States remains limited and the potential for solving the crisis is frustratingly familiar.

The investigation, conducted by the Soufan Group, a security intelligence firm in New York, delves into the terrorist group’s own strategy papers and tweets, as well as the observations of defectors and analysis of Soufan's staff, including a former CIA officer.

What sets the Islamic State apart is its strategy and organization, says Patrick Skinner, a former CIA case officer who has worked in the region and was a co-author of the report. That makes the militant group a hybrid between a terrorist group and a nation-state with the ability to switch between the two as needs dictate.

“We’ve never seen a group as strategic and clear as they have been,” says Mr. Skinner.

For example, in July 2012, the Islamic State announced that it was undertaking a campaign called “breaking the walls” to begin springing its fighters – more than 1,000 of them, according to Skinner – from two major prisons in Iraq, including Abu Ghraib. 

“It took a year, but that’s exactly what they did,” Skinner says. “It helped swell their ranks.”

Its underground cells became military divisions, the report notes. These changes required leaders with different skills, so “it was fortunate for the Islamic State that many in its top echelons were ex-Ba’athists who had held senior positions under Saddam Hussein.” 

In this way, Islamic State is unique in its ability to “act like a terrorist group when they want to, but with an infantry Army, so they can jump back and forth,” Skinner says.

Yet those capabilities likely do not yet pose a direct threat to the United States, Skinner suggests. While there is always a danger that IS tries to attack US interests abroad, as they have vowed to do, attacking America is less likely.

“The idea of sending fighters over is kind of a Hollywood notion,” he says.

The greater potential threat relates to Americans becoming radicalized by the Islamic State’s message, largely through its social media campaign, the report argues.

And the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, is unlikely to collapse soon, the report adds.

“ISIS isn’t going away,” Skinner says. Starting with its roots in Al Qaeda in Iraq, “It took a decade for things to get this bad,” and will take “years, not months or weeks,” to address.

But how? Even if America did have the desire to wage another long war, hundreds of thousands of US troops would not be advisable. “It’s the absolute worst thing we could do.”

The conditions that gave rise to the Islamic State were in large part the result of US military intervention in Iraq, he says, adding that US boots on the ground would “reinforce every single propaganda message IS has.”

Currently, rebel groups are fighting one another, and “IS doesn’t have any friends.” But US troops on the ground would unite them. “Every one of them would turn and fight us.”

And so US strategy is to wage airstrikes and contain the Islamic State. With that strategy, “We’re probably not going to be able to push them back – and we’re not trying to,” Skinner says. “We’re trying to keep them from gaining ground.”

The idea is “to put them in a box and pound them and hope the new Iraqi government can do some kind of reconciliation,” he adds. “But for that to work, so many other things have to go right at the same time.”

Chief among them, the report argues, is addressing the conditions of deprivation and hopelessness that give rise to such fighters in the first place. 

“Military action will limit its physical reach,” the report concludes of the Islamic State, “but will not destroy its appeal.”

The Islamic State's biggest problem might well be that it becomes a victim of its success. Military leaders do not always make good civilian administrators, , the report argues, and the challenge of governing territory could prove the state’s undoing.

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