Can the West live with ‘brutal’ al Qaeda offshoot ISIS?

Editor’s Note: Fahad Nazer is a terrorism analyst with JTG Inc, an analysis and intelligence company in Vienna, Virginia, that has government and private clients – including defense companies in the U.S. and abroad. Nazer is a former political analyst at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in Washington. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, CNN, Foreign Policy, Yale Global Online and Al Monitor. Follow him on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Story highlights

The West may decide on a "wait and see" approach regarding ISIS, writes Fahad Nazer

Nazer: Unlike other al Qaeda branches, ISIS doesn't seem eager to attack the West

Its focus appears to be consolidating and expanding areas under its control, he says

The declaration of a caliphate last month by ISIS leader signaled a major shift, he writes

CNN  — 

As the international community contemplates what should be done about the Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) – the brutal al Qaeda offshoot that now controls a wide swath of territory spread across the Iraqi-Syrian border – the West, with the United States at its helm, may decide that while ISIS constitutes an imminent threat to the security of the countries in whose midst it has risen, a “wait-and-see” approach, remains a viable option for a simple reason: Unlike other al Qaeda branches, ISIS doesn’t seem eager to attack the West. It has too much to lose.

Its nascent, quasi “state” could be destroyed if it sponsors a terrorist attack in the West and it knows it. Its focus instead appears to be consolidating – and expanding – the areas that have already come under its control in Iraq and Syria. Its clarion call to Muslims is not so much to attack the West but to “migrate” East, where it claims “Caliphate” has been restored.

Fahad Nazer

The declaration of a caliphate last month by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, signaled a major shift. The former al Qaeda affiliate has eschewed being just another branch of a secretive, loose, international network that launches small- and occasionally large-scale terrorist attacks against soft targets in the West in an effort to force it to disengage from the Muslim world, and across the Muslim world to destabilize and ultimately supplant the regimes there.

That does not mean that ISIS will abjure the barbaric violence, insidious sectarianism and abhorrent intolerance that have been the hallmarks of al Qaeda. However, there are indications that Baghdadi’s declaration may be more than mere delusions of grandeur. The Islamic State is starting to act less like a “base” from which to plan terrorist attacks and more like a very violent “state.”

The world grew accustomed to Osama bin Laden’s audio and video messages from undisclosed locations in which he railed about Western “crusaders” and their “agents” in the Arab and Muslim worlds and vowed to bring death and destruction to both. Although what appears to be Baghdadi’s first audio message after the declaration of the caliphate still hit on those themes, war against the West doesn’t seem to be his focus.

His sermon in a mosque in Mosul was startling. The image of Baghdadi preaching in public – mostly about the implications of the establishment of his caliphate and his responsibility to Muslims and theirs to him – was a game changer. It was a stark contrast to bin Laden’s – and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri’s – messages, which are recorded in makeshift studios with no audience and remain largely reflective of an organization engaged in a covert, asymmetrical war whose aim is to weaken its adversaries and their “patrons” before it can establish its ultimate goal. Baghdadi portrays al-Zawahiri’s dream as his current reality.

In addition to controlling more territory than any al Qaeda branch ever has, ISIS has commandeered heavy weaponry from Iraqi security forces that have failed to defend Sunni-majority areas. Its total assets in cash and weapons are estimated at about $2 billion.

Its rapid advances in Iraq also indicate that it has learned from other al Qaeda affiliates’ mistakes, as it has forged tentative alliances with some Sunni tribes and ex-Baathists. Its propaganda makes clear that the group is committed to presenting itself as an entity that can actually govern and that can provide the public goods and services – including security – that weak or oppressive states fail to provide. In short, it is adopting the Hamas and Hezbollah model.

While the West has never been comfortable with Hamas in Gaza or Hezbollah in Lebanon, it has largely left it up to the countries of the wider Middle East to deal with these militant, Islamist organizations. Likewise, and despite what has been described by the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. as the “systematic, industrial-style slaughter and forced starvation killings” being carried out by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the West appears unwilling to intervene militarily to stop the catastrophic war in Syria.

Many will argue that al Qaeda has repeatedly attacked the West in the past and has vowed to do so again. However, ISIS is unlike any al Qaeda affiliate. It has accomplished what “al Qaeda central” and other affiliates have failed to do for years. Thanks to al-Assad’s brutality, it was able to craft a jihadist narrative that made Syria the favorite destination of thousands of Islamist militants. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarianism and his inept military that has seceded entire cities to ISIS, lent credibility to the notion that an Islamic “state” actually exists.

The West may find solace in the fact that ISIS has many enemies in the Arab and Muslim worlds. In addition to al-Assad and al-Maliki, Sunni-led Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan, see it as a terrorist organization committed to their destruction.

As it has done in Syria, and contrary to its grandiose claims of restoring the dignity of Muslims, ISIS has systematically terrorized anyone who stands in its way, including Shia, Sunnis, Sufis and even Christians. While many will unfortunately suffer from ISIS brutality, its violent ideology and brutality makes its endurance over the long-term unlikely.

As Syria has shown, the West appears resigned to leave it to Arabs and Muslims – and recently Israelis – to sort out their conflicts. Unless ISIS makes it so by planning a major terrorist attack in the West, the latter will likely adhere to its new mantra: “It’s not our war.”

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The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of Fahad Nazer.