Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 360 km (225 miles) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014
Demonstrators carry the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria's flags in the Iraqi city of Mosul, 225 miles (360 km) northwest of Baghdad, on June 16, 2014 AP

U.S. Weighs Anti-ISIS Strategy in Iraq and Syria

Jun 17, 2014

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.

Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
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Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.Reuters
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June 19.
A satellite image shows smoke rising from the Baiji refinery near Tikrit, Iraq, June 18.
Al-Qaeda inspired militants stand with captured Iraqi Army Humvee at a checkpoint belonging to Iraqi Army outside Baiji refinery some 155 miles north of Baghdad, June 19.
Mehdi Army fighters loyal to Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr march during a military-style training in the holy city of Najaf, June 17.
Newly-recruited Iraqi volunteers, wearing police forces uniforms, take part in a training session on June 17 in the central Shiite city of Karbala.
Personnel from the Kurdish security forces detain a man suspected of being a militant belonging to the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the outskirts of Kirkuk June 16.
Shiite tribal fighters raise their weapons and chant slogans against the al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Basra, June 16.
Demonstrators chant pro-al-Qaida-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) as they carry al-Qaida flags in front of the provincial government headquarters in Mosul, June 16.
Iraqi security forces fire artillery during clashes with Sunni militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Jurf al-Sakhar June 14.
An Iraqi security forces member with his weapon takes position as people, who fled from the violence in Mosul, arrive in their vehicles at a camp for internally displaced people on the outskirts of Erbil in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 14.
People hold posters showing Iran's spiritual leaders Ayatollah Khomeini, while Iraqi Shiite fighters deploy with their weapons in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 southeast of Baghdad, June 14.
Iraqi Shiite men, some of them wearing military fatigues and guns given by the government, raise their weapons as they gather in the Iraqi town of Jdaideh in the Diyala province on June 14, to show their support for the call to arms by Shiite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Iraqi men board military trucks to join the Iraqi army at the main recruiting center in Baghdad on June 14, after authorities urged Iraqis to help battle insurgents.
Peshmerga military direct traffic at a Kurdish check point on June 14, in Kalak.
Traffic from Mosul queues at a Kurdish Check point on June 14,in Kalak.
Iraqi women gather at a temporary camp set up to shelter civilians fleeing violence in northern Nineveh province in Aski Kalak, 25 miles west of Erbil, on June 13.
Iraqi children carry water to their tent at a temporary displacement camp set up next to a Kurdish checkpoint on June 13 in Kalak.
A Shiite man cleans weapons as he gets ready to defend his Sadr City district in case of an attack by Sunni extremists, on June 13 in Baghdad.
An Iraqi soldier bodychecks men as they arrive to volunteer to join the fight against a major offensive by jihadists in northern Iraq on June 13, 2014, at recruiting center in the capital Baghdad.
Iraqi policemen dig trenches at checkpoint in the Iraqi town of Taji, at the entrance of Baghdad, on June 13, 2014, as security forces are bolstering defenses in the capital.
Men chant slogans against the al-Qaida breakaway group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), outside of the main army recruiting center to volunteer for military service in Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
An Iraq army vehicle is seen burned by militants in Mosul, on June 12, 2014.
Refugees fleeing from Mosul head to the semi-autonomous northern Kurdish region in Erbil, north of Baghdad, June 12, 2014.
Families fleeing the violence in the Iraqi city of Mosul arrive at a checkpoint on the outskirts of Erbil, in Iraq's Kurdistan region June 12, 2014.
Fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) stand guard at a checkpoint in the northern Iraq city of Mosul, June 11, 2014.
Civilian children stand next to a burnt vehicle during clashes between Iraqi security forces and al Qaeda-linked Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the northern Iraq city of Mosul
Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take their positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Syria (ISIS) in the city of Ramadi, June
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