As al-Qaeda splits and morphs into different affiliates and offshoots, U.S. counterterrorism officials worry about what one calls a “potential competitive dynamic” in which different factions – including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, now sowing civil war in Iraq – seek to bolster credibility by attacking the United States. This new danger of attacks on the U.S. homeland is what concerns the Obama administration most about the splintering process that has created ISIS, a group so extreme that it has been denounced by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the nominal leader of al-Qaeda.
President Barack Obama said Friday the U.S. will not send troops back into Iraq, but he will consider a range of “other options that could help Iraq’s security forces.”
ISIS has seized control of the Sunni areas of western and northern Iraq in recent weeks – and this success has fueled its rivalry with Zawahiri. The two groups are, in effect, competing for recruits among militant young Muslims. The competition, ultimately, is about who will succeed Osama bin Laden as the world’s leading terrorist.
Zawahiri, although a deadly adversary of the U.S., appears to have followed the logic of his mentor bin Laden, who concluded in his final years that al-Qaeda in Iraq and its leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi had grown so toxic with their wanton killing of Muslims (especially Iraqi Shiites) that they had lost their appeal for many Muslims. ISIS and other ultra-violent splinter groups have not tempered their attacks. They follow Zarqawi’s super-militant path. They still see violent attacks, especially on the U.S., as their best recruiting card – which pressures Zawahiri to keep pace.
In framing its counterterrorism policy, the official said, the administration has tried to focus on this broad jihadist struggle, and the potential threat to the U.S. homeland, rather than the dynamics inside each group. The U.S. also wants to work more closely with its traditional allies, such as France and Britain, to bolster the global counterterror partnership.
The ISIS surge in Iraq appears to have concentrated the administration’s focus. It’s been coming for months. Derek Harvey, an Iraq specialist who teaches at the University of South Florida and advises CENTCOM, said that ISIS had effectively taken control of Mosul two months ago.
The administration’s short-term priority is stopping ISIS before it takes Baghdad, the senior official said. There was no indication from the official whether the U.S. might consider direct or indirect counterterrorism liaison with Iran – which shares interest in curbing violent Sunni extremism.
There is a risk if Sunnis perceive the U.S. as acting in tandem with Iran in helping Maliki. One key former U.S. official remarked bluntly in an email message Friday: “American air cover operations for Quds Force (an Iranian special forces unit) in Iraq? It seems so.”
Obama’s political problem is that this renewed challenge of violent extremism comes at a time when he is weak at home and abroad. The bitter partisan bickering of U.S. politics is a daily fact of life. And abroad, Obama’s America is seen as both arrogant (as in the scandals surrounding the National Security Agency) and as a weakened nation in retreat after a decade of unsuccessful wars in Muslim countries. It’s a dangerous combination at a time when the American homeland may be threatened anew.
David Ignatius’ email address firstname.lastname@example.org. This column was written as a special release because of the issues discussed.