Leaders hunting for a rationale to take action against ISIS could consider the risk of it serving as an incubator for future domestic terrorists.
Is ISIS a risk to international peace and security? No one seems to be certain. President Obama recently declared his intention to pursue military action against the terrorist group currently running rampant in Syria and Iraq. Interestingly, he moved from declaring a commitment to protecting American national interests to positing that ISIS (aka ISIL, the acronym of choice for U.S. government) is a terrorist organisation and hence constitutes such a threat. This, he would have you believe, confers on him both the authority and the duty to act against them.
This is a mildly disingenuous claim – albeit entirely predictable. The Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF) conferred on the President of the USA an open-ended authority to wage a loosely defined “war on terror”. Obama had recently quoted Abraham Maslow, on how owning a hammer makes everything look like a nail. The AUMF is a most excellent and versatile hammer; small wonder then that everyone looks like a terrorist. Never mind that the actual authorisation relates to Al-Qaeda, its affiliates and sponsors, and that ISIS is actually fighting against the Al-Qaeda affiliate known as Jabhat Al-Nusra in Syria.
Did another American President just claim that a violent and militarised entity in Iraq threatens American interests, and hence constitutes a fit case for military action, while providing little or nothing by way of proof to justify that claim? The irony is far from lost on commentators here, who have already started drawing the parallels to 2003. The media is thick with criticism, pointing out that while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his extremists may be genocidaires, his putative caliphate lacks the capacity to be a threat to anyone beyond the immediate neighbourhood.
Amid all this rhetorical and legal hair-splitting – John Kerry emphasising that “war is the wrong terminology”; Obama emphasising that ISIL is a terrorist group, not a state – is a puzzling silence on the one identifiable vector of threat originating in ISIS and stretching well beyond the Levant. This is, of course, the risk that the group will serve as a training ground and incubator for American and European citizens, who could then return to conduct terrorist attacks in their home countries.
This risk, unlike the hazy invocation of a destabilised Middle East with undefined negative consequences, is real and present. Nationals from as many as 74 countries are fighting for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and European countries are trying to determine both how to prevent the outflow of their nationals to this conflict and how to weed out any radicalised returnees. Tunisia, much closer to the region, is floundering through efforts to contain or reintegrate some 400 of its nationals who might have returned from the region.
Surely, to a President who urgently needs to link the terrorists in Iraq and Syria to those who attacked America – so urgently as to propose this new military action on the anniversary of that attack – this should be an obvious justification to invoke. Yet it finds mention only once in his speech, when he suggests that battle-hardened fighters could try to return to their home countries, to carry out terrorist attacks there. A curiously mild threat, these people who “try to return”…
Is it possible this silence is deliberate, even strategic? What no one seems ready to acknowledge in so many words is that ISIS serving as a magnet for radicalised Americans is actually a blessing in disguise, especially for a country with confidence in its intelligence and border control resources. It is, literally, an instance of potential terrorists self-identifying as such. More, they are doing so in a fashion which could justify almost any kind of action against them – up to and including placing them on the controversial “kill list”.
The Indian intelligence and security establishment, one assumes, is watching the unfolding drama with much the same thoughts in mind. There are already reports of Indian citizens fighting with ISIS as well, and at least one has been reported killed in Iraq. ISIS has even posted recruitment videos in Hindi and Tamil, and currently appears to be the more popular cause than Al-Qaeda’s recently announced subcontinental ‘franchise‘. Many of those joining ISIS are educated youth from middle-class families who otherwise held skilled jobs, not the stereotypical unemployed poor lured into jihad as an alternative to destitution. They would not have been particularly easy to identify, if not for leaving of their own volition.
This presents leaders with a delicate choice, and certainly one they could never acknowledge in public. It is in their respective states’ interests for the conflict in Iraq to become the focal point for extremism, drawing away radicalised domestic elements in the short term; in the long term, however, the power of this new movement must be contained, as must the veterans of that conflict. The recently announced American strategy is more plausible from this perspective: keep ISIS in Iraq, besiege them to degrade their capacities and support base, and manage the humanitarian fallout from the conflict. Meanwhile, silently catalogue those who leave to fight there – and make sure, when they “try to return”, that they fail.
As strategies go, this one is in the proverbial riding-on-tigers domain. It will need extremely adroit handling to avoid being mauled – plus a planeload of apologies to the tiger’s other victims.