Is ISIS really a threat to U.S. security?

Two articles in the Washington Post raise a question worth considering: how much of a threat does ISIS actually pose to the U.S.? The question has two components. First, how threatening is ISIS by virtue of what it can do in the Middle East; second, how much of a threat is ISIS by virtue of what it can do within the U.S. homeland?

As to the first question, Ramzy Mardini of the Atlantic Council argues that ISIS finds itself isolated and encircled by hostile forces — Shiite militias to the East, mobilized Kurds to the North, the Syrian regime and Jordan to the West. According to Mardini, ISIS’s expansionist days are over.

As to the second question, Post reporters Greg Miller and Juliet Eilperin point out that President Obama’s description of ISIS as a threat to the homeland “leaned heavily on what-ifs.” They note, as does Mardini (and as I have), that ISIS has seemed focused on establishing a caliphate in the Levant rather than on committing acts of terrorism in the U.S.

Both the Post reporters (citing Paul Pillar) and Mardini worry that U.S. military action against ISIS will prompt these terrorists to target the U.S. in revenge. This danger might increase if ISIS stalls in the Levant, as Mardini predicts it will.

Given these considerations, does it make sense to wage war (or whatever it is Obama says we’re waging) against ISIS? I think so.

Mardini may well be right that ISIS has peaked as an expansionist force. But, though he points to problems ISIS likely will face within its “caliphate,” he is careful not to say that it will be rolled back any time soon if the U.S. does not intervene militarily.

One can debate the wisdom of U.S. military intervention — even if confined largely to bombing — for the geopolitical purpose of rolling back ISIS. For interventionists decisively to win the debate, there needs to be a direct homeland security justification for fighting ISIS.

I think there is. It’s true that ISIS is focused on the Levant. But it has also talked about attacking the U.S. and Europe. Talk is cheap, but considering the stakes, it’s unwise to ignore what well-organized, well-financed terrorists say about their intentions.

Moreover, ISIS’s threats aren’t just talk. One of its torturers killed four people in an attack in a Jewish museum in Belgium. And an ISIS fighter arrested in France possessed a stockpile of explosives.

But will a successful military campaign against ISIS diminish this sort of threat? I believe so based on the following analysis:

First, the threat ISIS poses to the homeland comes primarily from ISIS fighters holding European and (especially) American passports. The more of these there are, the greater the threat to the homeland.

Second, these passports holders are flocking to ISIS primarily because it has succeeded in establishing a caliphate and, more generally, appears to be the answer to the dreams of Islamists everywhere. As Miller and Eilperin point out, the CIA estimates that ISIS’s ranks doubled, or possibly even tripled, following its successes in Iraq.

Third, if ISIS is “degraded and destroyed” the flow of foreign fighters presumably will stop. Its caliphate will no longer be an attraction. And, of course, ISIS’s existing force will be decimated.

Fourth, if ISIS is not “degraded and destroyed,” it will continue to attract recruits from Europe and the U.S. And if it is contained, as Mardini reasonably predicts will happen, it likely will turn its gaze to Europe and the U.S.

Against these considerations, we must weigh the possibility of revenge attacks on the U.S. The “revenge” argument, though superficially plausible, overlooks the fact that, from the radical Islamist perspective, the U.S. has already committed more than enough offenses to avenge.

Keep in mind that ISIS started out as “al Qaeda in Iraq.” The U.S. helped rout this outfit in 2007. More broadly, we have been in Iraq, killing Islamists and others, since 2003. And we have already killed ISIS members as part of our recent bombing in Northern Iraq. The grievances of radical Islamists against us are legion.

Keep in mind too that fanatical outfits like ISIS don’t require current instances of U.S. military action to feel aggrieved. No then-current use of U.S. force prompted the 9/11 attacks. They were ideologically-based. At root, ISIS is driven by the same fanatical ideology as al Qaeda, from which it sprang.

Mardini argues, foolishly I think, that ISIS has focused on the Levant rather than on the U.S. because of Obama’s “restraint” in the Middle East. In reality, as Mardini argues at length elsewhere in his article, ISIS focused on the Levant out of opportunism. The Syrian civil war, the abuses of Maliki in Iraq, and Obama’s abdication (which Mardini calls “restraint’) provided ISIS with an enormous opportunity for vast territorial expansion.

Naturally, ISIS took advantage of the opportunity. We should not believe for a minute that this means ISIS fighters won’t terrorize the U.S. now that the caliphate is established.

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