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Why ISIS is not al Qaida

Thirteen years after the September 11th attacks launched a global war on terror, the U.S. has found a new enemy in ISIS. But is this really back to the future?
Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province
Militant Islamist fighters on a tank take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province on June 30, 2014.

Thirteen years after the September 11th attacks launched a global war on terror that encompassed two major land wars in the Middle East and South Asia, spawned Guantanamo and a constellation of secret prisons, and led to unprecedented domestic spying, over six thousand combat deaths and a 4-6 trillion dollar bill, President Obama has called for a renewed war to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. But is this really back to the future? 

The answer is no. We are not the same country we were in 2001; our adversary is not the same and the battlefield itself is very different.

"We are not the same country we were in 2001; our adversary is not the same and the battlefield itself is very different."'

Thirteen years ago, our government, media and foreign policy elites couldn't grasp the fact that substate actors – groups within states that can act effectively without regard for governments – had become an important factor in Middle East politics, and that religion could be their prime motivation. What most observers didn’t understand then was that Middle Eastern states were becoming weaker while their societies were growing stronger. State capacity was increasingly hollowed out and the legitimacy of governments was eroding.

To maintain authority, rulers suppressed nearly every institution of civil society except one: the mosque. In that setting, the anger and frustration ordinary people felt about their bungling governments and economic decline was channeled into the powerful themes of religious symbolism and scriptural rhetoric. But the reality of a region in flux was missed by many western academics and governments because they harbored lingering expectations from the 1950s and 1960s that a secular, technocratic elite – drawn largely from the ranks of professional militaries -- would rise to Westernize the Middle East. 

In 2014, no one doubts the relevance of religion to politics anymore. We get it.

Neither can there be any doubt in Washington about the weakness of regional states, even those like Egypt that look strong, especially compared to its Arab neighbors. In 2001, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice could dismiss briefings on the new jihad and counterterrorism efforts against al Qaida as “swatting flies,” while she focused on what really mattered, the large states that had been America’s friends and foes in the post-World War II era. No administration is likely to repeat that mistake.

PHOTO ESSAY: War-torn Iraq facing massive refugee crisis

And no administration -- Republican or Democratic -- will have the same resources at its disposal to counter the jihadist threat by staging long, exhausting expeditionary campaigns in the Middle East, or by attempting to reengineer vastly different societies in a region the United States has never grasped psychologically, or really even intellectually. A deep and comprehensive misapprehension that, it must be said, is mirrored perfectly by the other side.

The U.S. today is different too in terms of its defenses. Before 9/11, the U.S. law enforcement and intelligence communities didn’t talk to one another, the defense of our borders was the responsibility of an uncoordinated jumble of different agencies and departments, and, in general, the threat of terrorism was discounted. Counterterrorism then was nobody’s mission. The situation today is clearly different. This doesn’t mean that terrorists won’t get through our defenses, but it does mean it will be a much harder task than it was for the small group that brought down the twin towers.

The enemy du jour is different, too. Al Qaida, which still remains the real terrorist adversary according to the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, is not ISIS. To be sure, the two groups have overlapping ideologies. They are both Salafis, anti-colonial, fierce proponents of Sunni Islam and fierce enemies of Shi’a Muslims. They are both determined to recreate an Islamic society they imagine existed long ago. And Osama bin Laden also shared the preoccupation of ISIS’s leader, Abu Omar al Baghdadi, with reestablishing the Ottoman Caliphate that fell in 1923.

"Despite these shared pathologies, al Qaida’s arm in Syria is a sworn enemy of ISIS because of deep divisions over tactics, targeting, and larger strategic goals."'

Despite these shared pathologies, Jebhat al Nusra – al Qaida’s arm in Syria – is a sworn enemy of ISIS because of deep divisions over tactics, targeting, and larger strategic goals. Al Qaida has a global agenda that includes Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, is constructed as a terrorist organization optimized for urban operations, and has learned the hard way that it must win the hearts and minds of other Muslims en route to eventual victory.

Al Qaida, unlike ISIS, made its debut as a terrorist organization obsessed with attacking the United States, destroying two U.S. embassies simultaneously in 1998, crippling the USS Cole the year after, and plotting a cluster of attacks to mark the millennium. ISIS relies on terror, but against other Muslims; and it has a local agenda. Theirs is the near enemy, to use bin Laden’s vocabulary, rather than the far enemy. ISIS’s lodestar is Islamist strategist Abu Bakr al-Naji, who borrowed freely from French counter-insurgency doctrine to advise jihadists to apply an “ink spot strategy:” seize whatever bits of territory one can and then join these “ink spots” together to create larger and larger areas of control. It is in these domains that Islamic law can be applied, populations cleansed, and the caliphate resurrected. 

This caliphate -- such as it is -- now occupies a desolate, sparsely populated region stretching from parts of central Syria to the barren reaches of western Iraq. It is patrolled by experienced fighters who deploy terror and suicide bombers to subdue already demoralized enemies and control the desperate peoples within its borders. 

"ISIS has no real hope of redrawing the borders that confine the group’s aspirations."'

Yet ISIS has no real hope of redrawing the borders – including those drawn up under the WWI-era Sykes-Picot Agreement and other, older boundaries – that confine the group’s aspirations. The ISIS army – a hodgepodge of militias, terrorists, religious maniacs, thrill-seekers, vandals and extortionists numbering perhaps 15,000, stretched over an area the size of Indiana – is not going to invade Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Kuwait, Jordan or Israel.

The group can’t take Baghdad. It could cause trouble in some of these places, but not on an existential scale. And where it concentrates its forces in threatening ways, it becomes vulnerable to the predations of powerful enemies, not least of which is the United States, whose dominating airpower has already forced the group to retreat from Sinjar, Erbil and the Mosul dam.

But the battlefield today is also shot through with by intersecting conflicts that seriously limit America's room to maneuver. The region is in the throes of multiple wars, both hot and cold. The major Arab states are contesting Iran for regional dominance. This rivalry has intensified a sectarian conflict between Sunni and Shia ignited decades ago by the Islamic revolution in Iran and fueled by the breakdown of Iraqi society under the hammer blows of sanctions and war. And there is an intra-Sunni cold war between Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt on one side, and Qatar and Turkey on the other, over the future of the Sunni world and the role of Muslim Brotherhood within it.

PHOTO ESSAY: Syria's Tragic Decent

These are not conflicts in which the U.S. can have a meaningful, let alone decisive impact. They need to be resolved by the people in the region themselves. Thirty years of intensive U.S. involvement in the region have made this very clear. The colossal naiveté of the Bush administration’s attempt to recast the politics of the region at the point of American bayonets has been washed away by rivers of blood and debt.

Given these differences between September 11, 2001 and today's grim anniversary of those attacks, the prudence of the administration’s essentially cautious approach is not just understandable. It is ineluctable.

Steven Simon served in the National Security Council as Senior Director for Middle and North Africa from 2011-2012 and as Senior Director for Transnational Threats 2005-2009. He is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute.