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Will ISIS try Australian-style plot in America?

By Frida Ghitis
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region. Kurdish Peshmerga fighters assemble at a shrine on Iraq's Mount Sinjar on Friday, December 19. The Kurdish military said that with the help of coalition airstrikes, it has "cleansed" the area of ISIS militants. ISIS has been advancing in Iraq and Syria as it seeks to create an Islamic caliphate in the region.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Authorities uncover suspected ISIS plot to behead someone in Australia to shock the public
  • Frida Ghitis: ISIS works diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies
  • She says ISIS wants to turn the conflict into war between Islam and the West
  • Ghitis: The U.S. and West must be strategic and smart in dealing with the brutal ISIS

Editor's note: Frida Ghitis is a world affairs columnist for The Miami Herald and World Politics Review. A former CNN producer and correspondent, she is the author of "The End of Revolution: A Changing World in the Age of Live Television." Follow her on Twitter @FridaGhitis. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Australian authorities say that ISIS leaders ordered followers to behead someone on Australian soil as a "demonstration killing." Prosecutors say they uncovered a plot that was "clearly designed to shock and horrify" the public.

Now that President Barack Obama has announced the United States will seek to degrade and destroy ISIS, should Americans worry they will become targets for similar plots from this ruthless terrorist group?

ISIS has worked diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies. The alleged plot in Australia, which triggered that country's largest ever anti-terrorist dragnet, is only the most recent example. Even before ISIS became well-known, British soldier Lee Rigby was butchered in a London street last year. There is a real possibility that Americans, too, will face the threat of such "demonstration killings" on U.S. soil.

Frida Ghitis
Frida Ghitis

The news from Australia comes on the heels of recent videotaped decapitations of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff. The ISIS killer mocks the American President and addresses him personally in the Sotloff video: "I'm back, Obama. ... I remember a time you could not win an election without promising to bring out troops back home from Iraq and Afghanistan." The militant claims to want an end to American missile strikes against the group. But everything ISIS does seems to indicate the opposite.

It's hard not to escape the impression that ISIS wants to be attacked by the United States, by its Western allies and by the rest of the world.

ISIS beheading plot thwarted in Australia
ISIS hostage forced into propaganda video
ISIS consolidating control of Mosul, Iraq

Killing Americans and broadcasting their beheadings; slaying a British citizen the same way; calling for the deaths of Australians in the streets of Sidney -- these all seem designed to stoke fury in the West against the Islamist extremists.

Is ISIS on a suicide mission? Not really.

ISIS wants the United States to join in the fight. But that does not mean the U.S. should ignore the threat. Obama should deal with ISIS carefully. The group is extremely dangerous and allowing it to continue scoring victories would be disastrous.

Still, ISIS efforts to draw America into its vortex are telling.

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi believes he has much to gain by turning this into a war between his forces -- whom he perceives as representatives of Islam -- and the United States, the most powerful military force in the world.

Washington is trying to enlist a wide-ranging coalition to fight against ISIS, and it is enlisting other Muslim-majority Arab states to participate. It is crucial that ISIS not be allowed to portray this battle as a war pitting Muslims against non-Muslims.

It is a fight between a blood-thirsty extremist organization that embraces a brutal interpretation of Islam against those who disagree with ISIS' goals, methods and ideology.

The United States is the country with the power to tip the scales, but it is hardly ISIS' main enemy. As a former ISIS fighter told CNN, "The main and principal goal of the Islamic State that they tell their new members is to establish an Islamic state that will encompass the Arab world," he said. "And after that, we go to other countries."

For al-Baghdadi, fighting America and its coalition of 40 countries is a badge of honor, a powerful recruiting tool. It is proof that he and his organization have become the leaders of global jihad, toppling al Qaeda, their rival in that contest. ISIS was once part of al Qaeda (it was once called al Qaeda in Iraq), but its tactics proved too extreme even for the perpetrators of 9/11, which predicted public beheadings of Muslims would turn other Muslims against the group.

Now ISIS has become more powerful than al Qaeda. Al-Baghdadi has conquered more than Osama bin Laden dared to dream he might do in his lifetime.

But that does not mean al-Baghdadi did not learn from his former leader. As bin Laden explained, "When people see a strong horse, by nature they will like the strong horse." Nothing makes for a stronger horse, a more powerful draw in the world of jihad, than fighting America.

Until now, ISIS has achieved enormous victories, adding to its allure, but these are likely inebriating the group with the poisonous brew of hubris.

ISIS has scored battlefield victories against Syrian government forces, rival Syrian opposition fighters, the Iraqi military and even the storied Kurdish Peshmerga militias. By now, al-Baghdadi and his men may be feeling invincible. They may believe they have all the power of God on their side.

This is where hubris comes in. This is where they risk overplaying their hand.

The killings of Foley and Sotloff already jolted the American public and their war-weary president out of the all-pervasive post-Iraq War opposition to entering a new conflict in the Middle East. ISIS is a threat that cannot be ignored.

ISIS' atrocities in Syria, along with all the killing in that country, were receiving little attention until the Syrian civil war boiled over into Iraq, and ISIS swept across the border it says does not exist. Now that al-Baghdadi and his men have started challenging and defying the West, they have finally captured attention beyond the Middle East.

With every step they have taken beyond Syria, with every move closer to American, British, Australian or European interests, they have given new impetus to international involvement. Even Obama, the most reluctant of commanders in chief, has decided to act.

For three years, Obama had resisted calls to arm Syrian rebels despite some 200,000 killed in that country's civil war. ISIS has suddenly changed that equation with its sweep in Iraq, endangering America's friends, the Kurds, threatening genocide against the Yazidis and then ostentatiously killing American citizens.

According to Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott, officials had firm evidence that an attack on a "random" Australian citizen was in the works. "This is not just suspicion," he said. The Australian people "are at serious risk from a terrorist attack."

In al-Baghdadi's calculus, an attack on Australians -- or any Westerners -- would produce propaganda and recruiting gains. ISIS is gambling that drawing America and the West into the fight will make it stronger, but if the West is strategic and smart, this move will prove to be ISIS' worst mistake.

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