What did America gain for the blood and treasure it spent in Iraq from 2003 to 2011? The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the past year and the collapse of central control by the government in Baghdad in recent weeks suggest to some that the long and costly effort in Iraq yielded little.
But current and former government counterterrorism officials learned at least one important lesson from the fight against al-Qaeda allies in Iraq and elsewhere: restraint. For them, ISIS looks like a growing threat to the U.S., but not an imminent one, for now focused more on its enemies in the region than on Americans thousands of miles away. That buys the U.S. time to see if others can address the threat and to weigh helping them if necessary.
“One of the big questions right now is whether [ISIS] can turn its tactical victories in Iraq into strategic gains,” says a U.S. counterterrorism official. “With only a few thousand fighters, [ISIS] couldn’t have moved as rapidly as it has without the support of some nationalist Sunni groups and sympathetic tribes, some of which are merely drafting off of [ISIS’s] advances and may not cooperate over the long haul.”
The U.S. has been watching for signs that the Sunni tribes, aggrieved at their treatment by the post-Saddam Shi‘ite leadership of Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad, have pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Dua, but so far they have not seen it. That suggests to the officials more of an alliance of convenience between the tribes and ISIS than a long-term commitment to the group's radical agenda. That pattern played out from 2006 to 2008, when the tribes aligned with ISIS's predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, but then turned on the group and drove it out.
America's approach to counterterrorism outside Iraq has been informed by that experience as well. The success against so-called core al-Qaeda in Afghanistan left loosely linked terrorist franchises around the world aligned more in spirit than operation. At different times over the past decade, the U.S. has faced growing threats from al-Qaeda franchises in Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. While some of those groups have posed real threats to the U.S., they have often been focused closer to home.
“The evil genius of [Osama] bin Laden was persuading people that the enemy was the far enemy,” says former senior CIA and FBI counterterrorism official Philip Mudd. “Increasingly, I see near-enemy al-Qaedas — in Yemen, in Syria, in Iraq — who want to take over the police station, kill the guards and take over the government, not necessarily saying, I want to spend a lot of time [focused on the U.S.]”
The question is what action the U.S. can take, if any, that will keep ISIS focused locally and attempt to split the tribes away from it. That strategic calculation is informed by the pre-9/11 lesson that local threats can become international threats if they don’t face a local foe, and if they are led by a visionary. “When groups that have a poisonous ideology don’t have to fight the government, idle hands are the devil’s workplace, and they start to think bigger,” says Mudd.