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Understanding the threat of the Islamic State

Editor’s note: In the last several months, the Islamic State (IS) has been in the forefront of international news as it has seized a broad swath of Syria and Iraq. Last week, 40-year-old American journalist James Foley was beheaded in what his executioner called retaliation for United States airstrikes in Iraq against IS.

Before Foley’s execution, President Obama had announced that the airstrikes in Iraq would continue in an effort to protect Americans and help Iraqis threatened by IS, which is also known as the Islamic of Iraq and Levant (ISIS or ISIL). The president has said that the U.S. needs a broader long-term strategy in Iraq to deal with the terrorist group.

Today we hear from two local political-science scholars who shed light on the Sunni jihadist militants, the threat they pose to Iraqis and international security, and what they want.

From Vaughn Shannon, Wright State University:

IS — As bad as you’ve heard (mostly)

Many Americans don’t want to contemplate military action in Iraq. After all, the United States military left Iraq in 2011 after an eight-year war that a majority of Americans say should have never happened. Whatever your views about the Iraq War itself, we face a new problem in the breakdown of order in Iraq and a dangerously radical insurgency under the banner of IS.

While stories of forced “female genital mutilation” were a hoax and reports of “systematic child beheadings” were exaggerated misinformation, IS is terrorizing communities, executing civilians and POWs, and engaging in cultural and ethnic cleansing to fulfill its vision for a state in Syria and Iraq.

The U.S. is right to save innocent lives in Iraq and deny IS its dream of a Taliban-like state where it could threaten not only Iraqi minorities but regional stability and American lives.

Who are they and where did they come from?

The Islamic State (IS), ISIS and ISIL are different names for the same group. ISIL stands for the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” while ISIS substitutes “Levant” with either “Syria” or the local reference to the area, al-Sham (a term largely synonymous with the Levant, the geographic region of the Eastern Mediterranean).

By any name, the focus on Iraq and Syria accurately captures where they come from and where they operate.

IS is a radical insurgent organization on the State Department’s Foreign Terrorist Organization list. Estimated at 10,000 in number, most are Iraqi and Syrian, but a few thousand are estimated to be from other countries, including Europe and a few from the U.S.

IS adheres to an extreme form of Sunni Islam, and opposes the U.S. as well as non-Sunni governments in Iraq and Syria. IS has roots going back to the Iraq War, when Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi merged a group in 2004 to form al-Qaida in Iraq (AQI).

After Zarqawi was killed by the U.S. in 2006, successor Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in the Sunni-dominated western provinces. They waged operations against U.S. and Iraqi forces and a terror campaign against Shi’a Iraqis, sowing chaos to drive the U.S. out and create an “Islamic state.”

The “Awakening” movement of Sunni Iraqis turned against the ISI, helping the U.S. disperse the group, but a 2008 agreement between the Bush administration and the Iraqi government led to a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Since then, ISI has wreaked havoc on the weak ruling government of Iraq.

2011 was also when the “Arab Spring” began, bringing mass protests against authoritarian rulers around the Middle East. Syria’s Bashar al-Asad was one such leader and, by 2012, Syria devolved into civil war.

The U.S. supports the pro-democracy Free Syrian Army, but also fighting the Syrian regime are al-Qaida’s Nusra Front and ISI, which became ISIS in 2013. A proposed merger with the Nusra Front ended in rivalry, and al-Qaida has disavowed IS, leaving it operating independently in Syria and Iraq.

What does IS want?

IS wants an “Islamic State” in any territory they can control in Iraq, Syria and beyond.

In Syria, they rule with Taliban-like laws and ruthlessness. In Iraq, they took Falluja in January and Mosul in June, placing ex-Saddam henchmen in positions of power. To minority groups and religious communities that fall under their control, IS offers the choice of converting to their brand of Sunni Islam, paying taxes, fleeing or death.

IS has been responsible for the massacre of 1,700 Iraqi POWs and the execution of hundreds of civilians in northern Iraq.

Iraqi Christians and Yazidi (a local religious sect IS considers heretical) have been persecuted, driven from their towns and threatened with executions. As many as 40,000-50,000 civilians were forced into the Sinjar Mountains, facing the potential for death by starvation or at the hands of IS forces awaiting them at the bottom.

The move to purge its territory of non-Sunni populations, tantamount to ethnic cleansing or genocide if carried out, is a way of consolidating power in the tenuous territory they control. There are also Americans in northern Iraq, and an American consulate in Irbil. Those Americans are in the path of the IS offensive and could be vulnerable to “another Bengazi.”

The humanitarian and strategic implications of all this motivated the Obama administration to intervene.

While 130 new Marines and Special Ops have been deployed to join the 300 or so military advisers already in Iraq, we don’t need an American ground war to keep the “Islamic State” from becoming an actual state.

With Iraq’s government and military in disarray, the Kurds’ peshmerga forces are on the front line against IS to protect their community when Iraq’s government forces abandoned the north of the country. Arming and aiding the Kurds and Iraqi military will help contain ISIS, denying them resources and momentum.

All of this is done pending a political solution inside Iraq.

The presiding Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has alienated many in Iraq’s Sunni community, and failed to forge a coalition majority after recent elections.

A new politician, Haidar al-Abadi, is forming a government, a move endorsed by many in and out of Iraq as a way to unite Iraqis so that IS and other problems can be handled more effectively. Without a political solution in Iraq, IS’s fanatical dream of an “Islamic State” may indeed become a permanent reality.

Vaughn Shannon, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Wright State University’s Department of Political Science. His research and teaching focus on international security, U.S. foreign policy, the Middle East and norms about the use of force.

From Glen Duerr, Cedarville University

Does Islamic State constitute a major threat that requires military action?

Earlier this month, the first American “military observers” were deployed to Iraq to assist Iraqis in tackling the group now officially known as Islamic State (IS).

President Obama, who has staked much of his foreign policy legacy on ending the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, has reversed course in an attempt to stifle the growth of IS in the Middle East. It is a big gamble for the president, and comes at a time when many Americans are asking a question: Does IS constitute a major threat that requires military action?

The short answer is yes, but military action need not be lengthy, or exhausting. Instead, the root cause of the problem must be addressed: create the conditions for more equitable power sharing in Iraq. IS is not the gravest foreign policy threat confronting the United States.

Other threats like Russia’s ongoing incursions in Ukraine, and North Korea’s proposed nuclear test later this year, are more pressing problems, but neither requires immediate military action. IS has grown in size and authority since splintering from al-Qaida in Iraq in recent years, and can no longer be considered the “jayvee” team described by President Obama in January — the group has become a real and viable actor in the Middle East, and a threat to the United States.

Where is IS in control?

IS now controls vast swaths of territory in both Syria and Iraq, and has designs to create a larger caliphate (read: empire) that would encompass the Middle East, North Africa and parts of southern Europe. Furthermore, IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, recently bloviated that his black flag (representing IS) would eventually be raised above the White House.

The truth is that these lofty goals of IS are unlikely, and should be seen as posturing. However, if left unchecked, IS has the ability to take further territory in Iraq and Syria, and establish a government, which, if al-Baghdadi’s statements are to be believed, would operate like the Taliban on steroids.

IS has already committed atrocities against Christian and Yazidi minority groups, and have warred against Shia Muslims and Kurds. Without opposition, IS will likely continue to obtain territory and will eventually turn against moderate Sunni Muslims. In all likelihood, the group will then implement a strict form of sharia law, wherein any opposition group would be expelled or killed.

This situation necessitates a response from the United States if atrocities, perhaps including genocide, are to be avoided. Lessons of recent past genocides in Rwanda, East Timor and Darfur, necessitate a military response.

Complicating matters is the transnational nature of IS. British Prime Minister David Cameron recently warned about the dangers posed by British nationals who are fighting for IS. The number of Britons in Iraq is estimated to be in the thousands, which poses a range of potential problems. Chief among the problems is the possibility of a terrorist attack in the United Kingdom, or elsewhere.

Some Americans have also joined IS. Although the immediate problem posed by British IS members is not yet as severe in the United States, the possibility of an attack on the American homeland should not be discounted. Al-Baghdadi, after all, has nebulous designs on attacking the United States. A primitive first move was made last week when imprisoned American freelance journalist, James Foley, was executed by the group. When viewed in this context, IS is a viable threat to the United States, and a range of different policy tools should be implemented to stifle, and then debilitate, the power of the group. The best policy tools the president can implement involve air strikes, economic sanctions, support for Iraqi and Peshmerga (Kurdish) troops, and also encourage changes in Iraq’s government.

How long will the U.S. be involved?

Some form of military action in Iraq may remain a necessity for future presidents until the latter point is adequately addressed — improving the governance of Iraq. After all, several radical Sunni groups have fought to wrestle parts of Iraq from al-Maliki’s Shia-led government control in recent years. Where one group is defeated, another group has moved quickly to fill the void. This problem will therefore require a governmental solution.

Iraq’s new democracy is messy, much like any new democracy. But progress is slowly being made, and Iraqis are beginning to make better democratic decisions, like the recent peaceful transition of power from al-Maliki to Haider al-Abadi.

Now the Iraqi government needs to reconstitute its consociational government system, which should adequately share power between ethnic and religious groups, but does not in the eyes of many Sunnis. This perceived imbalance is the root cause of support for IS in both Iraq and the wider Middle East. American military support can buy the Iraqi government more time to resolve this concern.

With support, Iraq can build a more stable society that rejects recalcitrant organizations like IS. It also serves to reduce direct threats against Americans, or the homeland.

Glen Duerr, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of International Studies at Cedarville University. His teaching and research interests include nationalism and secession, comparative politics, international relations theory, and Christianity and politics.