Putting the ISIS ‘Crisis’ in Context

The hysteria over Islamic State terrorism is driving talk of a new U.S.-led ground war in the Middle East this time an invasion of Syria under the guise of a “safe zone” but such rash actions would only make matters worse, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

Emotional and ill-focused reaction to the latest mass shooting in the United States, coupled with misguided but unfortunately well-entrenched ways of thinking about terrorism and counterterrorism, along with a political campaign featuring jingoistic appeals, is increasing the pressure on the U.S. administration to embark on costly and counterproductive new endeavors in the Middle East.

A dominant theme in public discourse is that the so-called Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh) is behind what has already become highly destructive terrorism in the West and therefore the United States needs to hasten to destroy the group in its stronghold in Syria and Iraq, and this means increased use of military force.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has joined in calling for a "safe zone" in Syria, a euphemism for invasion.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who has joined in calling for a “war” with “Islamic terrorism.”

Republican presidential candidates have been leading the charge with heavy use of “war” vocabulary, which is the lexicon of choice to convey toughness and to appeal to public fears even when specific meanings and implications of such terminology do not get spelled out.

“Islamic terrorism wants to destroy our way of life,” Jeb Bush declared. “They have declared war on us, and we need to declare war on them.” Chris Christie intoned, “Our nation is under siege. What I believe we’re facing is the next world war.” Ted Cruz proclaimed, “This nation needs a wartime president. … Our enemies are at war with us.”

This approach disregards what the very incidents that have aroused the fears to which these candidates are appealing tell us about the sources of international terrorism in the West and what determines its extent and severity. It disregards the true nature of any connection between strongholds of extremist groups in the Middle East and terrorism carried out on other continents.

And the approach disregards recent and glaring lessons about the application of outside, especially U.S., military force, to Middle Eastern conflicts.

With the caveat that any criminal investigation must be given time to run its course before we start drawing firm conclusions about any violent incident, what we know so far about the two events that have given the biggest boosts to the current alarm simply does not support the image of ISIS decision-makers unleashing and managing a terrorist campaign against the West, however much they might like to do so.

In a pattern that became familiar when “linked to Al-Qaeda” was the phrase most likely to send people into a dither after an incident, now “linked to ISIS” has that effect, with both the people who feel the alarm and the politicians who exploit it not stopping to consider exactly what the link means, or whether it means anything at all in terms of the nature of the future terrorist threat in the West and the variables that affect it.

The investigation into the Paris attacks last month is now more than three weeks old, and based on what has been made public, the attacks still appear to be the work of a Belgium-based radical gang comprising citizens of European Union countries.

What evidently has not turned up, and given the current policy direction of the Hollande government, surely we would have been told about it if it had turned up, is any evidence of someone in Raqqa or elsewhere in ISIS-land ordering or directing the operation. Nor does there appear to have been any imparting from ISIS of any attack-relevant skills, with little such skill being apparent in the first place.

As for the shootings in San Bernardino, the only connection to ISIS of any sort that we have been told about so far is that the female half of the shooting team expressed identification with the group in a post on Facebook. Evidently she made the post with a phone on the day of the shooting.

These circumstances are similar to other incidents over the past few years of terrorism in the United States by individuals with comparable radical Islamist inclinations, such as Nidal Hasan, who perpetrated a mass shooting at Fort Hood in 2009, and Faisal Shahzad, who made a clumsy attempt at setting off a car bomb in Times Square in 2010.

In each case there was some contact with a foreign group: Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula with Hasan, and the Pakistani Taliban in the case of Shahzad. In each case the radicalism was there in the individual before the contact. In each case it was the individual in the United States who sought the contact rather than the other way around. And, despite reported training that Shahzad received, the distinction between people dying and people living was not determined by any attack-relevant skills that came from abroad.

The most that one can say so far about ISIS and the attacks in the West to which it has been “linked” is that it served in some way as an inspiration. Or more accurately, it served as the sort of larger cause on behalf of which even people who are driven by more parochial grievances and inward demons like to be associated as they carry out their violent acts.

That observation leaves a big gap in any analysis that tries to show that even the inspirational existence of ISIS and its mini-state in the Middle East makes a difference in terrorist attacks like the one in San Bernardino occurring or not occurring. If the name of ISIS were not invoked as the larger cause, it could easily have been some other name that was.

In fact, other names have been invoked by many modern-day radical Sunni Islamists, although ISIS has become over the last two years the preferred brand name for people of that ilk, largely displacing Al-Qaeda in that role. A U.S. official confirmed to the press over the weekend that the male half of the San Bernardino shooting duo had attempted (it is not clear when) to reach out both to the Somalia-based Al-Shabab and to Jabhat Al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria.

ISIS and its enclave certainly constitute a significant security problem in the Middle East and specifically for Syria and Iraq. But that is a problem distinct from, and should not be conflated with, the countering of terrorist threats in the United States. It would be a big mistake to let a surge of fear about such threats, let alone opportunistic political exploitation of such fear, drive the making of policy on Syria and Iraq.

Any use of military force in that theater ought to be guided instead by lessons from recent experience that are almost too obvious to need restating. One of those lessons is that the toppling or ouster of an undesirable regime or quasi-regime does not necessarily end a security problem but merely marks the start of a new phase of a war.

Another is that as long as there is not the will and the consensus among local populations to form a new and stable alternative political order, the resulting disorder only works to the advantage of extremist groups. ISIS was born under a different name in the disorder in Iraq that followed the U.S. toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

One of the few places where ISIS appears to have established a satellite presence where it has more of an organizational and not just inspirational connection is in the chaos of Libya since Muammar Gaddafi’s regime was toppled with the aid of Western military force.

Another set of lessons concerns how almost any use of U.S. military force in the Middle East starts with two strikes against it in terms of the suspicions and resentments of local populations. Such sentiments were reflected in the negative public reaction by the Abadi government in Iraq to the very modest additional deployment of U.S. special operations forces that was recently announced.

The suspicions and resentments are part of the reason why, as President Barack Obama correctly noted in his televised address on Sunday, larger deployments of U.S. forces would only play into the hands of ISIS.

The ISIS pseudo-state contains the seeds of its own destruction. It has neither the economic base, nor the appeal of a better way of life, nor sufficient external support to keep going indefinitely. Dealing with it should not be viewed as a race to crush it before the next terrorist attack in the West, because crushing it will not prevent that attack.

The most effective Western policies will stop any more expansion, and it already has stopped, of the ISIS enclave, push it back in places where it is possible to push back, and exert the other kinds of pressures that will help the seeds of destruction to sprout. A picture of a group that is retrenching more than it is advancing will do much to sour the ISIS brand as a lodestar for potential recruits and as a cover for terrorists in the West.

As Stephen Biddle and Jacob Shapiro have commented, “In practical terms, what’s possible against the Islamic State is some form of containment or suppression. And that’s essentially what the administration’s current policy amounts to.”

The “war” language has become so de rigueur that President Obama felt obliged to use some of it in his Sunday evening address about terrorism. So far, however, he has wisely avoided most of the very costly and counterproductive ways in which vocabulary and metaphor can slide into military policy, as “war” talk so easily does.

He also, just as wisely, has avoided the conflation of attacking an extremist enclave in dusty parts of the Middle East with protecting the American people against terrorism.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

16 comments for “Putting the ISIS ‘Crisis’ in Context

  1. M Awan
    December 16, 2015 at 13:50

    Any writer/commenter who present “ISIS” as Sunni Wahabi terrorist threat to the West is either not familiar with original Wahabi thought or deliberately throwing sand into readers eyes. This mercenary group has nothing to do with any religion It is an attempt by all those writers including the author of this article to exonerate the real proprietors of this death squad ie Western and Israeli intelligence agencies. Any thinking person can easily conclude that this death squad is created to achieve dual nationality American policy makers’ desired goal of regime change in countries that pose even the remotest threat to creation of Greater Israel. So called ISIS as an independent entity has absolutely no capacity even to organise itself into any meaningful force let alone to pose major threat to world powers. It is the Western media which has inflated the ISIS balloon to use it to create fear among public to obtain consent to attack the poor and weaker countries. Islam is being used as scape goat by relating this mercenary force to a perticular sect of Islam knowing the current general impotence of Muslim world. So Mr. Pillar don’t fool us to believe that ISIS is the result of some blow back. It is deliberately created to achieve some goals which are politically difficult to achieve by direct invasion, period.

  2. Take a closer look, Obama et al.
    December 10, 2015 at 02:35

    Europe and the United States seem to be pre-occupied with the possibility of hard core Islamic terrorists slipping into our countries amongst the refugees. Our murderous intrusion into the Middle East have actually made it worse than that. Most, or perhaps all, of the terrorism perpetrated in Europe or the US has been done by Islamic citizens of those countries. The Islamists do not have to export anyone to the West to cause us damage. Radicals are being created in abundance by the very savage actions WE commit in the cradle of their civilisation. In fact, we create so many that they have migrated in droves to the battle front from their comfortable Western homes and jobs. It becomes nonsensical to worry about Islamic cutthroats slipping in here when we create so many home grown that we are in reality exporting them to the Middle East.

    • Christene
      December 10, 2015 at 08:12

      Agree! The U.S. has treated the Middle East like its personal sandbox in the world’s playground since 1938. The 1953 overthrow of democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran, Mosaddegh, by the CIA and M16 in Operation Ajax is THE blueprint for our “foreign policy” in the Middle East. The carnage, mayhem, and chaos WE have unleashed into the world I’m sure rivals the “evil empires” we so sanctimoniously point our fingers at. And Obama, our Nobel Peace Prize winning President. If the American public only had a clue of the devastating effects his 7 year drone war has had on the innocent populations targeted……it is all just beyond disgusting! And this is coming from a diehard, flag waving Republican who, at the age of nineteen, fell for the fairytale called Ronald Reagan and never looked back. What a fool I have been.

      • Joe Tedesky
        December 10, 2015 at 11:55

        Christene, don’t beat yourself up too much, because there are many of us, who have voted ourselves into a regretful state of despair more than once. It is for this reason I am now seriously wondering, if being a good American may come down to not voting, if there are no better choices than what we currently have to choose from at this time. At least this way, I won’t need to walk around feeling responsible for putting someone in office who is a complete disaster to this world. I wish there were a way for us citizens to protest against our governments war policies, and a few other important issues, like good jobs. Maybe, we should all sit at home one day, and just do nothing. No shopping, no traveling, no buying gasoline, no nothing, and see what an effect that would have on our corporate overlords. Call it the protest of ‘Silence’. Do as little as you must, except for emergencies, Americans would be in a state of quiet revolt. Imagine the empty malls, the empty airports, the empty Walmart’s, and the almost empty streets. Cook outs, and block parties, would be okay, since this would be an opportunity to meet with your neighbor, but nothing else. Especially, not to turn on your TV or radio, would be enough to drive these corporate greed mongers over the edge. Sorry, I can’t give you better advice, but don’t feel isolated for your voting for a sour candidate. We are you Christene, so cheer up, there are many us who wish and pray for a better day.

        • Christene
          December 10, 2015 at 16:20

          That, sir, is an EXCELLENT idea!! We the people, in the final analysis, truly do hold all the power and it is found in our purse strings. No violent revolution, no dramatic marches, no vitriol, we just quietly zip our purses and wallets closed and we wait. Can you imagine the seismic power shift that would take place! And it wouldn’t take that many of us.

          You have cheered me immensely! And I think you may be right about voting in this election. I have NEVER missed voting in any election, but I just can’t in good conscience participate in this farce any longer. Bless you!

  3. Christene
    December 10, 2015 at 00:47

    It’s really very simple. Every single violent jihadist has his/her roots in Wahhabism/Salafism. Saudi Arabia is the world’s creator of that toxic cesspool known as Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia finances the spread of Wahhabism through their aggressive proselytizing and by slapping up Wahhabi mosques throughout the world, including the U.S. and Europe. Saudi Arabia is the Grand Poobah of the Middle East, therefore, the obvious financing, support, protection, and creation of said jihadists trail right back to them. Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s favorite lap dog (or attack dog, whichever the case may be) in the Middle East, so therefore, everything Saudi Arabia does must have the stamp of approval from the U.S. So, I guess in the final analyses, the “War on Terrorism” leads right back to us! Oops!!

    Now, if a 55 year old quadriplegic grandmother with 1year of college, living in the middle of Nowhere MN can connect these dots, what exactly is our “Intelligence” community doing??

  4. Christene
    December 10, 2015 at 00:46

    It’s really very simple. Every single violent jihadist has his/her roots in Wahhabism/Salafism. Saudi Arabia is the world’s creator of that toxic cesspool known as Wahhabism. Saudi Arabia finances the spread of Wahhabism through their aggressive proselytizing and by slapping up Wahhabi mosques throughout the world, including the U.S. and Europe. Saudi Arabia is the Grand Poobah of the Middle East, therefore, the obvious financing, support, protection, and creation of said jihadists trail right back to them. Saudi Arabia is the U.S.’s favorite lap dog (or attack dog, whichever the case may be) in the Middle East, so therefore, everything Saudi Arabia does must have the stamp of approval from the U.S. So, I guess in the final analyses, the “War on Terrorism” leads right back to us! Oops!!

    Now, if a 55 year old quadriplegic grandmother with 1year of college, living in the middle of Nowhere MN can connect these dots, what exactly is our “Intelligence” community doing??

    • Dear Christene
      December 10, 2015 at 02:22

      It’s simple: they are lying to you.

      • Christene
        December 10, 2015 at 08:25

        Yes. Yes they are. So what does a 55 year old quadriplegic grandmother, with 1 year of college, living in Nowhere, MN do about that?? Because, right now, the only thing I’m looking at are my children and grandchildren and wondering how the he** do I do something about this inconceivable mess they are inheriting and the only option I’m seeing is Donald Trump?!! Give a symbolic middle finger to the Beltway establishment and go for Trump, that’s it. Because right now I’m looking at everyone else as the spawns of Satan himself. That’s how infuriated I am right now.

        P.S. Sorry for the double post. Slow iPad, impatient fingers, hit post twice.

  5. Greg Driscoll
    December 9, 2015 at 21:15

    lamentation for a nation that’s lost its way

    in my lifetime this nation has gone
    from imperfect democracy
    to altogether corrupt plutocracy,
    led by a two-party system of kleptocrats,
    servile automatons with lies
    ever on their lips and bloodied hands
    always extended for their quid pro quo.
    and too many of its people
    go along to get along even though
    in their gut they know that it’s all
    counterfeit, unseemly, perverse,
    the seedy path to perdition
    as a nation, as a people. Heaven
    help us all – for it seems we can
    no longer help ourselves…

    * * *

  6. jaycee
    December 9, 2015 at 19:14

    Appeals to logic and rational thinking cannot overcome the fact that a significant and powerful faction of the US state pursues policy outcomes in coordination with these Sunni terrorists, and that the US mainstream media goes out of its way to protect the regional sponsors of terrorism and prevent the American people from understanding the true source of this threat. Politicians and opinion makers who can be named have acted in common cause with the terrorists and their sponsors. It is almost predictable that the poorly informed American public will, in the name of battling these radical forces, endorse the dismemberment of Syria and Iraq, followed by a campaign directed at Iran.

  7. Abe
    December 9, 2015 at 17:53

    While the White House keeps telling the world the tale about America’s pivotal role in the so-called “war on terror”, the people of the world want to know what role the US-led North Atlantic alliance is playing in the sponsoring and arming of the Islamic State (ISIL). Such tales, as well as Washington-backed propaganda campaigns about the “ever-growing threat of the Islamic State” have a common goal: to excuse the staggering expenditures on arms that the US military keeps burning through in order to satisfy a number of arms manufacturers. Yet, the White House is using terrorist attacks around the globe that were supposedly carried out by Islamist groups to carry on its own wars in the Middle East, subjecting the countries it doesn’t like to bombings and devastation.

    How else could one explain the fact that a year into the fight against ISIL, initiated by Barack Obama himself, with a total of 60 counties that rallied under the banner of the so-called US coalition has nothing to brag about yet? Only Russia’s decision to finally launch airstrikes against radicals in Syria resulted in the destruction of oil smuggling infrastructure that had been providing ISIL with funding for years. In an attempt to save face, a national American broadcaster, PBS, aired on November 19 the footage of Russian strikes against ISIL in Syria, while claiming it was actually US forces carrying them out. It’s clear that the US propaganda machine has gone too far in order to fabricate evidence of a successful NATO campaign in Syria by the stealing of footage provided by Russia’s Defense Ministry. After all, how else would one justify the excessive funding on three thousand so-called advisers that have been training the “forces of the moderate Syrian opposition”, while there’s little more than a hundred of those left in Syria?

    Speaking about the “real” anti-ISIL coalition, it turns out that for a year US generals have been struggling to fabricate intelligence and military reports to make them look good. They have not even begun fighting ISIL. The US military’s only real contribution to the situation on the ground was arms supplies to Islamists. Of course they didn’t do this on purpose, they just can’t seem to properly drop crates anymore, missing time and time again […]

    Much effort has been spent on persuading the casual reader that Washington and Ankara are relentlessly fighting the Islamic State back to back.

    But finally, these masks have come off. The obvious role of Turkey in the smuggling and selling of Syrian and Iraqi stolen oil is no longer questioned by anyone […]

    the caravans with stolen oil were reaching their destination at the Turkish port of Ceyhan, located an hour’s drive from the US military base at Incirlik. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the oil stolen by the Islamic State was supplied to numerous NATO allies […]

    Turkey and along with NATO forces are building up their military presence along the supply routes of the Islamic State in order to protect the radical militants from new strikes.

    NATO is No Better Than Turkey
    By Martin Berger

    • Peter Loeb
      December 10, 2015 at 07:18


      “Abe’s analyses consistently add dimensions to articles
      as above.

      In a comment of my own to Lawrence Davidson’s recent
      article in Consortium (“:The Terror from the Gun” ) I
      refer to the words of Gabriel Kolko. My comment is
      entitled POLITICAL CONVENIENCE. I urgently recommend
      “Abe” and others to Kolko’s words repeated in my comment
      which includes source etc.

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • Abe
      December 10, 2015 at 15:13

      Thank you, Peter, for highlighting Gabriel Kolko. His work informs the discussion here on many levels.

  8. Abe
    December 9, 2015 at 17:45

    NATO dislikes Assad because he is an ally of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah in Lebanon. Oil and gas pipeline routes also factor in. Western powers and Gulf States that don’t like Assad have, like a pack of wild jackals, been ripping at Syria since 2011. The primary supporter of ISIS and the Al Nusrah Front is Turkey, which by any objective measure should be considered a state sponsor of international terrorism and isolated immediately.


    No concrete steps are taken against these state supporters of terrorism. Far from it, they are intimate partners with the United States and form a coalition of the willing to use proxy terrorists to destroy Syria. ISIS has been a main component of this effort for years. It was not until they attacked targets in Europe (Paris), that Western leaders finally decided that they needed to appear to do things differently.

    What this coalition does and what it clearly does not do are the telltale signs for understanding these current events.


    In addition to avoiding the illegal oil trade occurring right beneath USAF fighter/bombers for over a year, there is also the matter of approximately 60 ISIS training camps. No training camps have been bombed to date, despite continually churning out “1,000” radical Islamic fighters per month. We can make some educated guesses as to why that is.

    Foreign intelligence and special forces (British and Qatari), and potentially US personnel, have operated inside Syria since at least February of 2012. The CIA admits to spending $1Bn per year training Syrian insurgents and boasts that it has “trained and equipped nearly 10,000 fighters sent into Syria over the past several years.” If US personnel aren’t actually inside the territory of Syria, their pets surely are.

    We know that ISIS, Al Nusrah, al Sham and Free Syrian Army (FSA) are all allies and work closely together. The FSA Colonel Abdel Jabbar al Olkaidi has plainly told us so. Olkaidi was the direct link to US Ambassador Robert Ford, and so there is no longer any plausible deniability on the subject. There is no legitimacy left for US claims of a “moderate” opposition that somehow exists separate from the genocidal terror armies of head-chopping extremists.

    Why ISIS Exists: The Double Game
    By Joe Giambrone

  9. Bob
    December 9, 2015 at 15:01

    I don’t know why the US would be worried about “playing into the hands of ISIS”, the group the US created and armed, and seems to be protecting in Syria and Iraq. Isn’t this what allies are supposed to do?

Comments are closed.