During a short visit to Washington, DC this week and conversations with friends and colleagues across the United States, I noticed very quickly a new strain of political concern, sometimes bordering on hysteria, about the possibility that Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) operatives might carry out terrorist attacks in the United States at any time. This includes widespread perplexity as well as serious debate about the elusive question of exactly what should be done to counter and defeat ISIS.
This trend was highlighted by a press interview in USA Today Monday by former CIA veteran Michael Morell, who after thirty-three years in the agency published his memoir entitled The Great War of our Time: The CIA’s Fight against Terrorism from Al-Qaida to ISIS.
The Hollywood-vintage dramatic title of the book is obviously designed, well, to sell books, which is fair enough in the commercial publishing business. But when such hype and exaggeration reflect national security perceptions—as in calling a violent band of Western social misfits and deeply degraded and alienated Arabs as protagonists in the “great war of our time”—then one has to question some very basic and critical issues related to the ISIS threat.
Has the United States accurately acknowledged:
1) the many reasons why ISIS came into being,
2) the role of U.S. and Arab state policies in inadvertently promoting ISIS,
3) the many different kinds of people who join ISIS for many different reasons, and,
4) the appropriateness and efficacy of how the United States and others fight back against terrorists like Al-Qaeda and ISIS?
I have not read Morell’s book, but the candor in his interview is at once refreshing and troubling. He fears jihadists could strike any time in the United States with an elaborate attack that kills large numbers of people, as happened on 9/11. “If we don’t get ISIS under control, we’re going to see that kind of attack,” he said. He concludes that the United States has not been able to counter ISIS’ ability to recruit hundreds of American converts to Islam, noting, “We’re not effective at it because it’s very hard to do.” He says this “great war” has tested American national security and politics, and it is likely to go on for decades more, “for as far as I can see,” in fact.
If this is correct—and the United States’ national security and political assumptions have often been wrong in the Middle East in recent years—then we in the Middle East should be as concerned about the prospects of American military action in our region as Americans are concerned about imminent terror attacks in their country.
A frightening combination of elements shapes official and public perceptions of ISIS. This includes obvious gaps in knowledge about some aspects of ISIS and its operations; some frenzy about not being able to track or counter the multiple means of recruiting ISIS adherents via social media; and exaggerated fears that hundreds of ISIS members or supporters with foreign passports may be lurking in backyards, mosques or local grocery stores across American towns and cities.
The really troubling thing about Morell’s comments—inherent in the title of his book—is that with all its power, technology and bright people, the United States seems not to have learned very much in the long stretch between fighting against Al-Qaeda from the late 1980s to dealing with ISIS today. The fact that so many different kinds of young men and women in their thousands go to join ISIS or affiliate with it in their home countries abroad should suggest to any serious political analyst that the way to defeat ISIS is to address and remove the reasons that created it and continue to see it expand.
This has not been attempted in any serious way, so it should be no surprise that ISIS continues to grow, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula fortifies itself in tandem, and people across the United States, Europe and the Arab world understandably remain perplexed and frightened. Military and intelligence actions have curtailed the ability of groups like ISIS to carry out their dreadful deeds in Western countries, but the continued underlying generators of ISIS recruits remain in place and overwhelm the impact of military strikes. Those underlying generators have remained largely unchanged for decades on end, including brutal Arab mismanagement, corruption, security state governance, poverty and massive social disparities, curtailed citizen rights, and foreign militarism by the United States, Israel, the UK, Iran and others.
It’s not the war against ISIS that is “long,” it’s rather the conditions of inequity, oppression, imperial reach, state violence, and mass deprivation that have gone on for so long that they have finally erupted in the form of the terrible revenge called ISIS.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.