Read Part One here.
The attack in New York City on September 11th, 2001 set the United States on a trajectory unforeseen in the relative peaceful decade of the 1990s. Since then, we have lived in the shadow of the endless war on terror which produced even more radical regimes, most infamously the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Osama bin Laden, al Qaeda’s shadowy leader, was accused of masterminding the 9/11 terrorist attack, and so the U.S. government demanded that the Taliban governing Afghanistan surrender him to American authorities. The Taliban refused, and invasion of their country soon followed. U.S. forces engaged al Qaeda irregulars in the eleven-day Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, seeking bin Laden in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan. Though they were successful militarily, their target escaped. For years after, Bin Laden remained a high priority target for U.S. forces, and is believed to have gone into hiding in Pakistan during this time.
Over the next few years, al Qaeda sustained various bombing campaigns across the Middle East, forming splinter groups such as al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2003, and al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) in 2004. The latter is especially important. AQI was founded by bin Laden deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri, a longtime ally and organizational co-founder from the 1980s.
On May 2, 2011, Navy SEALs stormed a compound outside Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden was killed. With his death, the nature of al Qaeda effectively shifted from its traditionally centralized command structure to a loosely affiliated network of global terrorist cells. Al-Zawahiri succeeded bin Laden as the leader of the increasingly decentralized group, a position he holds today.
AQI assumed greater independence in the wake of bin Laden’s death. In 2012, al-Zawahiri renamed his outfit to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), commanded by one Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the wake of the 2012 Arab Spring, ISIS gained new prominence as a combatant force in the Syrian Civil War to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Its presence put ISIS directly at odds with another al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra. When fighting broke out between the groups, al-Baghdadi refused a direct order from al-Zawahiri to vacate Syria; soon after in 2014 he officially broke with al Qaeda. Thus the modern ISIS was born.
The Islamic State operates like a terrorist-cell-turned-government. Indeed, al-Baghdadi infamously declared it a worldwide caliphate, with himself at its head as caliph. With its headquarters at ar-Raqqa in Iraq and combined military forces operating across multiple fronts, it bears resemblance to an actual state. This is no coincidence, and indeed harkens back to fundamental disagreements between al Qaeda’s sects over issues like governing territory and the sanctioned killing of Sunnis (both groups are officially Sunni).
Unlike al Qaeda, which is undoubtedly diminished since the American-led invasion and subsequent death of its longtime leader, ISIS appears the more dynamic of the two. Its goals are different, however. Where al Qaeda remains focused on the distant goal of damaging the United States on its own shores, the Islamic State is intent on carving out a permanent empire centered in Iraq and Syria. Both despise Western civilization, yet see different enemies as the primary threat to their power.
Both groups follow Salafism, or Wahhabism - a theological doctrine espousing Sunni fundamentalism. Yet al Qaeda has expressed a hesitancy to murder Shi’ites and even other Sunnis, while remaining committed to the death of Westerners and Christians. ISIS has demonstrated no such restraint, and actively seeks out apostates and ‘moderate’ Sunnis to butcher. This is consistent with al-Baghdadi’s long-term goal of establishing a ‘pure’ theocracy; thus it is understable that he considers apostates a greater immediate threat than the United States.
For American leaders, both terrorist outfits remain thorny issues and must be eradicated, albeit for different reasons. Al Qaeda has long favored huge, symbolic attacks intended to win media coverage and Muslim hearts. Doubtless, even in its decentralized state, the group has not surrendered its vision of a dagger in the heart of the American homeland. Thus we must look to rooting its members out if we are to avoid another 9/11-style attack - a plan much easier said than done.
The Islamic State presents an entirely different challenge: Middle Eastern stability. As long as ISIS’s armies rampage through the Levant there can be no satisfying the Syrian Civil War. Instead, the threat to European cities will continue to grow, and Iraq will prove fertile ground for burgeoning Iranian influence over the region. These are problems not solved in a day, or perhaps even a single presidential term. Nevertheless, these are issues that must be put to the side for the present, and revisited after the immediate threat is terminated. It is imperative that the Islamic State and al Qaeda be destroyed.
Follow this author on Twitter: @tasciovanus
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