What to Do about the ISIS ‘Caliphate’

While the first necessity in dealing with a threat like ISIS is to finally get Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar to cut off its financial and military life lines, the terror group’s claim to a territorial caliphate presents a unique problem for the international community, as ex-CIA official Graham E. Fuller explains.

By Graham E. Fuller

Enthusiasts for U.S. or NATO intervention to destroy the ISIS are lining up, especially among those who have never shrunk from any U.S. military intervention in the Middle East. Some even invoke a call for initiating a “World War IV.”

While there is every reason for deep skepticism towards yet another (failing) exercise in U.S. imperial interventionism, a powerful case nonetheless exists for an exception here, as to why, in the ISIS case today, a truly broad international coalition should undertake the destruction of the territorial, administrative, military and social structure of the ISIS “state” in Syria and Iraq. Non-interventionism by the West in the Middle East, normally a sound principle, cannot be taken in every case as an invariable principle of foreign policy.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative, known as Jihadi John and identified as Mohammed Emwazi, the target of a drone attack that the Pentagon announced on Thursday.

Journalist James Foley shortly before he was executed by an Islamic State operative.

Why make the exception here? Given the choreographed brutality of ISIS policies it is very hard indeed not to vigorously oppose ISIS (also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh). The victims of ISIS terrorism are tragic to behold, in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Turkey, as well as in Paris.

But there are perhaps deeper reasons than immediate terrorist attacks that make (truly international) military intervention, in this specific case now, an important task. That argument hinges on the fateful “collateral damage” wrought by ISIS.

We witness this most vividly in the frightening resurgence of extreme right-wing, nationalist, “nativist” and neo-fascist reactions to ISIS in Europe and the U.S. Such reactions are, of course, virulently anti-Muslim, in which the actions of a few jihadi fanatics are generating a blanket Western condemnation of an entire civilization and all its members.

Over-the-top and hysterical Republican campaign rhetoric may fade after an election, but it is already deepening its mark and impact upon U.S. political discourse, in permanently damaging ways. This is far from the American ideal of receiving the “huddled masses” of the oppressed on American shores. It is deeply damaging to American integrationism and sparks racism that extends beyond Islamophobia.

But worse, ISIS and its attacks summon up deeper anti-immigration impulses all across Europe, North America and beyond. This is the reality: flight from large parts of the world will be the hallmark of the rest of this century as people flee hardship, poverty, war, plague, injustice, hopelessness, and climate degradation. This is not the time, especially in large immigrant-based societies such as the U.S., Canada and Australia, for a hardening of hearts against the phenomenon of immigration. Mass migration will have to be managed, dealt with creatively at the source, and involve major expenditures, but it is coming.

The refugee flow now caused by ISIS poses a deep, long-term threat to the very nature of the European Union experiment, that is surely a signal innovation in human political history. In simplest terms, Europe will easily and quickly find itself drowning, even with the best of intentions, in trying to provide shelter, social services and social integration.

European societies represent highly distinctive and discrete socio-cultural entities that are relatively small and fragile in the face of massive refugee surges. European populations and territories are small, dense, and culturally highly integrated. There is only one Holland, one Poland, or one Norway in this world; they cannot be replicated elsewhere. Europe, and especially Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel, have made honorable and noble efforts to promote a vision of an accommodating Europe, but Europe’s receptive capacity is severely limited. This civilizational experiment is at risk.

Furthermore, Angela Merkel, arguably the only responsible adult in power in Europe today, is threatened by backlash to her generous pro-immigration values. Europe will be much the poorer and dangerously blind on East-West issues if she falls.

Meanwhile ISIS is serving to radicalize a small but younger generation of disaffected Muslim youth in the West and elsewhere who crave Muslim authenticity, restoration of Muslim power and principled statehood, and a return to the idealized values of early Islam. (Sadly for them, they won’t find it in the Islamic State, and many will die in the quest.) But it is easier to migrate to an “Islamic state” structure than to join up with Al Qaeda somewhere in the mountains of Yemen.

And ISIS has now turned Syria into an intense cockpit of a dozen nations fighting a proxy war on its soil, something other terrorist organizations have not managed. It has driven Russian-Western confrontation (unnecessarily) into deeper confrontation. We could be looking at the Balkans on the eve of World War I.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent irresponsible willingness to shoot down a Russian aircraft in this volatile border area raises extremely dangerous prospects of wider confrontation, even by error. Fortunately his dangerous bid for full NATO backing backfired.

Russia, of course, has undeniable longstanding and legitimate interests in Syria. But Russia’s new role in Syria, potentially quite positive, is lending grist to the viscerally anti-Russian contingent in Washington for whom the very idea of a Russian military role in the Middle East is an ideological affront to American domination of Middle Eastern land and skies. No other terrorist organization has accomplished this.

The evolution of ISIS has operationalized and entrenched the worst of the ugly and violent Wahhabi interpretations of Islam, even if Saudi Wahhabism does not directly advocate violence itself. Violence is the ultimate logic of Wahhabi denunciation and delegitimization (takfir) of other Muslims, even though Islam professes that no Muslim can judge the beliefs of another Muslim, only God can.

The significant role of the Kurds on the barricades against neighboring ISIS has now driven Turkish foreign policy in ever more dangerous, obsessive and authoritarian directions.

The very territoriality and state pretensions of ISIS are what distinguishes it from other terrorist groups driven by much the same ideology.

Warning: Even if a broad-based international coalition succeeds in destroying ISIS as an institution in Syria and Iraq, no one should expect that there will be no more terror issuing from the Middle East. That will not happen until the deeper causes of Muslim political crisis and disaffection are dealt with. But a formal state territory and infrastructure will have been dismantled. International political solution in Syria becomes slightly more feasible.

Finally, yes, the Middle East desperately needs a reform agenda. But Muslims there will not be able to bring something like that about in the middle of ongoing wars, killings, interventions, and recrudescent dictatorships.

These are the grounds for urgency of international action against ISIS now. Terrorism will not go away after ISIS is destroyed. You cannot bomb radicalizing environments and soul-searing, grievances out of existence. But ISIS in Syria will cease to be a geographical rallying point. Syria  will eventually be able to go back to being a state, however miserably administered.

For many it is reassuring to view the problem as residing in Islam rather than in inherent political, social and economic problems of the region. The real question is, when will both the West and East deal with the complex and long-standing specific components of anger and hostilities between the two sides. The presence of ISIS has done more to exacerbate this “civilizational conflict” than anything else since 9/11. (And East-West friction did not begin with 9/11.)

 Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan. (Amazon, Kindle) grahamefuller.com

17 comments for “What to Do about the ISIS ‘Caliphate’

  1. Peter Kraemer
    December 6, 2015 at 18:16

    I’d love to hear and see Graham Fuller interviewed by John le Carre!

  2. Mortimer
    December 6, 2015 at 14:09

    divergent thinking or mental illness???
    US Russia Policy Reflects America’s Slide Into Dementia

    By James Howard
    Friday, Dec 4, 2015


    I doubt that I’m I alone in worrying that America today is losing its collective mind. Our official relations with other countries seem perfectly designed to provoke chaos. The universities have melted into toxic swamps beyond even anti-intellectualism to a realm of hallucination. Demented gunmen mow down total strangers weekly in what looks like a growing competition to end their miserable lives with the highest victim score. The financial engineers have done everything possible to pervert and undermine the operations of markets. The political parties are committing suicide by cluelessness and corruption.

    There is no narrative for our behavior toward Russia that makes sense anymore. Our campaign to destabilize Ukraine worked out nicely, didn’t it? And then we acted surprised when Russia reclaimed the traditionally Russian territory of Crimea, with its crucial warm-water naval ports. Who woulda thought? Then we attempted to antagonize them further with economic sanctions. The net effect is that Vladimir Putin ended up looking more rational and sane than any leader in the NATO coalition.

    Lately, Russia has filled the vacuum of competence in Syria, cleaning up a mess that America left with its two-decade-long crusade to leave a train of broken governments everywhere in the region. A few weeks back, Mr. Putin made the point before the UN General Assembly that wrecking every national institution in sight among weak and unstable nations was probably not a recipe for world peace. President Obama never did formulate a coherent comeback to that. It’s a little terrifying to realize that the leader of our former arch-adversary is the only figure onstage who can come up with a credible story about what needs to happen there. And his restraint this week following what may have been a US-assisted shoot-down of a Russian bomber by idiots in Turkey is really estimable.

    The phenomenon of demented lone gunmen killing strangers and innocents will morph into civil insurrection, especially as the major political parties break apart and the loosed factions set out to settle their old scores by whatever means they can. History knows that violence is infectious and that social inhibitions melt away when the conditions are ripe. Groups give themselves permission to act outside the bounds of normal behavior, and all of a sudden atrocity is the order of the day.

    Both Trump and Hillary have the mojo to destroy their respective parties and I think the probability is that they will. Unfortunately, we don’t live under a parliamentary system that recognizes smaller factions as legitimate parties, so we are sure to live through an era of political disorder. ( Find SP Huntington’s “American Politics, the Promise of Disharmony – published 1987) What emerges from that could be a very severe polity, since it will be based on the wish to restore order at all costs.

    It is likely to get the shove it needs from the implosion of the financial system, which is now running on the fumes of dwindling credit. A false capitalism reigns based on false capital — notional wealth where there is really no wealth; value where there is no value. Moments like this in history beat a path straight to currency collapse, and that will open the door to a greater collapse of all our familiar arrangements.

    Surely there is some kind of massive unseen sensory organ in societies that receives the signal that systems are failing. And surely it spooks the individuals who make up those societies so badly that they will believe anything and do anything.


  3. Abe
    December 5, 2015 at 20:23

    IS is IL

    “Caliphate” is an oil extraction operation designed to supply Israel with energy.

    U.S. and NATO bombing is designed to protect this operation, not destroy it.

    IS-controlled oil fields in northern Iraq and eastern Syria are in production between seven and nine hours a day, from sunset to sunrise.

    IS sells Iraqi and Syrian oil for a very low price to Kurdish and Turkish smuggling networks and mafias, who label it and sell it on as barrels from the Kurdistan Regional Government.

    The oil is then most frequently transported from Turkey to Israel.

    Raqqa’s Rockefellers: How Islamic State oil flows to Israel

    It is easy to understand why ex-CIA analysts are such fervent advocates for the dismemberment of Syria and Iraq, and the creation of Sunni and Kurdish states.

    The full spectrum of al-Qaeda forces, including al-Nusra and ISIS/ISIL/Daesh, protected by U.S./NATO air attacks, are the boots on the ground to enforce this regime change agenda.

  4. Haseeb Ahmad
    December 5, 2015 at 11:18

    Very good article, Dr. Graham. I thoroughly enjoyed how you expressed the issues in the Middle East and how there are many threats from many directions, and not one problem and one solution necessarily. Very excellent.

    Ideologically, the fight against ISIS can only be won by the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community since we have a Caliphate running for over 100 years now with the fifth Caliph, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (may Allah be his Helper). We span in over 200 countries and speak with a united voice under the Caliph who resides in England. We’ve been peacefully residing in all of these countries and have been spreading the message of Islam peacefully.

    It seems ISIS has grabbed the attention of the West and most think they are the Caliphate Muslims were waiting for and then the concept of Caliphate gets de-legitimized due to the anti-Islamic efforts of the ISIS terrorist organization. However, I suggest you check this link out which has the speeches of our Caliph to many nations of the world and it shows our efforts on the world stage. It is the efforts of the true Caliphate of Islam:


  5. Mike
    December 5, 2015 at 11:04

    Is Graham Fuller the guy who helped create Al Queda in Afghanistan, & then moved them to Chechnya and whose daughter married the uncle of the Boston Marathon bombers?
    If so, what credibility does he have?

  6. Mortimer
    December 5, 2015 at 11:00

    divergent thinking or mental illness???

    Strategic Engineered Migration as a Weapon of War

  7. Mortimer
    December 5, 2015 at 10:33

    What to do about ISIS? — Get it straight from the horse’s mouth in this c-span coverage of Ash Carter’s Q & A Senate Hearing on December 1st. — Mad Magazine style Divergent Thinking.. .

    But Ash Carter specializes in divergence. The study piece he co-authored with Kelikow (9/11 Commission) and Deutch (CIA Chief) is a precursor, or, the foundation of his current line of thought. In this report, they present the idea of A New Pearl Harbor. It also previews many of the strategies/protocols now in use. It is the essential playbook for the GWOT, devised and written late 1990’s. I’ve included only one paragraph of the text and only section headings. Carter’s fundamentals are built around the strategies set forth in ‘catastrophic terrorism.’

    Foreign Affairs
    November/December 1998, Volume 77, Number 6
    CATASTROPHIC TERRORISM: Tackling the New Danger
    By Ashton Carter, John Deutch, and Philip Zelikow


    Such an act of catastrophic terrorism would be a watershed event in American history. It could involve loss of life and property unprecedented in peacetime and undermine America’s fundamental sense of security, as did the Soviet atomic bomb test in 1949. Like Pearl Harbor, this event would divide our past and future into a before and after. The United States might respond with draconian measures, scaling back civil liberties, allowing wider surveillance of citizens, detention of suspects, and use of deadly force. More violence could follow, either further terrorist attacks or U.S. counterattacks. Belatedly, Americans would judge their leaders negligent for not addressing terrorism more urgently.







    *This article is a distillation of the complete report of the Universities Study Group on Catastrophic Terrorism, published by Stanford University. A version of it will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming Preventive Defense: An American Security Strategy for the 21st Century, by Ashton Carter and William Perry.

    Ashton Carter is Ford Foundation Professor of Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and a former Assistant Secretary of Defense. John Deutch is Institute Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a former Director of Central Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of Defense. Philip Zelikow, a former member of the National Security Council staff, is White Burkett Miller Professor of History and Director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia.
    Reprinted by permission of FOREIGN AFFAIRS, Volume 77, Number 6, November/December 1998.

    Copyright 1998 by the Council on Foreign Relations, Inc.

    (((A Conversation with Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter
    Why the United States Should Spread Democracy
    Strategic Engineered Migration as a Weapon of War)))

  8. George
    December 5, 2015 at 01:50

    well there’s adam 12 like police vs not like adam 12 police–as we raise our periscopes-we look and see such chaos that partly stemmed from the treatment of palestinians to the breaking international law and invading afghanistan (did the taliban have anything to do 9/11) and invading iraq-killings untold thousands and destroying infrastructures…bombs coming down everywhere-to the present drone attacks—as we leave thanksgiving and prepare for christmas-we should be-putting on our judeo christian thinking caps and attire….is there a plug-a plotting a course for possible peace—appears just as jews, protestants, and catholic divisions-we are able to live together–is there a way for stopping this chaos-putting down weapons…there seems 3 peoples-shiites, sunnis and kurds and countries such as saudia arabia which is sunni and iran which is shiite-to have all parties seek out a solution to this madness

  9. Berry Friesnen
    December 4, 2015 at 22:14

    Well done, Mr. Fuller. You are a consummate professional.

  10. Bob
    December 4, 2015 at 22:06

    You’ll have to excuse me if I believe there are no such people as “ex CIA”. Getting away from that is like getting away from the mafia. What you seem to ignore is the fact we created ISIS, along with our main allies in the region. We allowed the oil to be transported and the money to be laundered. We watched as the gasoline was consumed in Europe. We propped up and promoted ISIS into the terrible organization it is today. I’m sure it was hoped Assad would be gone by now, because now that many around the globe want to eliminate ISIS, what can we say when they attack them? The US looks like a bunch of rank amateurs, liars and thieves. And the CIA and whoever the masters are you report to are incompetent and morally compromised.

    • Roberto
      December 4, 2015 at 23:13

      Well said.

    • Peter Loeb
      December 7, 2015 at 07:30


      By dumping Syria and shouting that Syria’s current government
      must go, the US and the West came to believe that Bashar al- Assad
      would indeed go. MSM informed us that it was only a matter of
      months or perhaps even weeks.These were the urgent voices of
      well-trained puppet followers of the group-think view (in years past
      this was pejoratively called “the party line”).Special “news analyses”

      Now the extent of US and western support of extremist group
      is much clearer. It was not earlier as MSM rushed forward its
      stories of the demise of Syria.

      And still we are jubilantly singing, “It’s a long way
      to Tipperary”…

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  11. alexander
    December 4, 2015 at 21:05

    Dear Mr Fuller,

    Maybe its time to take a look at the forest from the trees.

    , As a nation we have accrued nearly 13 Trillion dollars of Debt over the last fourteen years….
    .Our national debt now stands at nearly 19 trillion dollars…close to 80% of that 13 trillion (if not more)has been asked of the US taxpayer, by our “neocon government” to” eradicate” the scourge of terrorism…..

    .That is an obscene amount of money to have taken from of us considering after nearly fourteen years of supposedly “eradicating” it ….all the” Neocons ” have to show for themselves is the rise of ISIS…the greatest terrorist scourge ever created….

    If we implement these same “expert ” policies.over the next decade logic dictates that in ten years we will be 30 trillion dollars in debt, and a terrorist scourge five times worse than ISIS will emerge…

    What is wrong with this picture ?

    I spent the first three decades of my life as an American in a country that spent less than a fraction of what we spend now…fighting terrorism……and the threat of it was 10,000 times less then it is today.

    These ” Neocon policies” have proven themselves to be an abject failure if not a complete fraud…

    Throw the bums out !

  12. David Smith
    December 4, 2015 at 21:01

    Why would we harm cute baby ISIS? Mommy and Daddy are so proud of cute baby ISIS. Cute baby ISIS turned out exactly like Mommy and Daddy wanted.

  13. Erik
    December 4, 2015 at 19:12

    The problem here is that the author does not consider that
    1. An air war against Isis/AlQaeda is not likely to do more than gain them members.
    2. Eliminating a Sunni state there places the Sunnis under Shiite rule again, the source of the problem.
    3. The West has never had any intent of, or success at, creating a better government in an Islamic state with multiple subcultures, or indeed anywhere.
    4. The West has never had humanitarian intentions except in Europe, and is governed by organizations without humanitarian intentions, for whom better government is not a consideration at all, just an excuse to give money to corrupt pretenders.
    Without any reason to believe that an “international political solution in Syria becomes slightly more feasible” this looks like just more of the no-option-but-bombing logic.

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