Why is the United States bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? The obvious answer is that the US wants to kick ISIS out of the territory it conquered. But that answer raises a more fundamental question: Why is it worth going to war to boot the violent Islamist group out of land that's thousands of miles away from the US?
There are two obvious answers. One is humanitarian: ISIS is evil, and they shouldn't be allowed to slaughter civilians and destabilize the region with impunity. Another is self-interested: ISIS' caliphate is the world's greatest safe-haven for violent jihadis, the kind of place that could spawn another 9/11-style plot.
Whatever you think about the humanitarian claims (I find them compelling), the national security justification may actually be far weaker than most people think. Conversations with experts on ISIS suggest that, right now, the group isn't focused on attacking the United States. But the more the US bombs them, the more of a target the US becomes — meaning that the strikes could create more danger than they prevent.
Al-Qaeda wants to hit America, ISIS wants to seize territory
ISIS used to be part of al-Qaeda, but they split in February 2014. Some people think ISIS is still al-Qaeda, just with a different name. But that's wrong. Both groups want to create a caliphate governed by strict Islamic law, but they have wildly different strategies for doing it.
Al-Qaeda's strategy centers on attacks on the American homeland. ISIS's doesn't.
Al-Qaeda's theory of the world makes a crucial distinction between the "Near Enemy" and the "Far Enemy." The Near Enemy, or secular Arab regimes, can't be toppled until the Far Enemy, the United States, stops supporting them. So al-Qaeda doctrine says you have to force the United States out of the Middle East first before attempting to establish a caliphate.
ISIS disagrees. They hold a chunk of territory about the size of Maryland in Iraq and Syria, and have already declared it the new caliphate. They've done this without attacking the American homeland directly. To ISIS strategists, this suggests that direct attacks on the United States are just not necessary for accomplishing the central objective
"The desire to get the United States out of the Middle East and the desire to grab territory ... are in tension with each other," Will McCants, the Director of the Project on US Relations with the Islamic World at the Brookings Institute, says. ISIS "has been extremely, almost exclusively, focused on capturing territory."
But if the US becomes a major barrier to ISIS holding onto its territory, that calculus changes. "If the United States poses a risk to its preeminent principle of taking territory," McCants says, "then you start to see more activation of the latent anti-Great Satan sentiment."
"Now that the US is striking it," McCants says ominously, "there's a much more elevated chance that they'll attempt" an attack on the United States.
When ISIS talks about America, they talk about revenge
When ISIS strategists talk about the United States, they talk first and foremost about revenge. Not for supporting ISIS's enemies, but for direct American assaults on ISIS positions.
"ISIS doesn't believe in the need to proactively seek out war with the West," says Thomas Hegghammer, Director for Terrorism Research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment . "ISIS' discourse about the West is about retribution and revenge: they're saying 'Oh, we're going to kill all of you — if you attack us. If the drone campaign starts, then we'll attack you.'"
Right now, Hegghammer thinks ISIS isn't going to turn its focus abroad, though he cautions that it's impossible to say what ISIS leaders are thinking for sure.
"There's probably a more than 50 percent change that they won't launch a major anti-Western campaign, because they're too busy governing," he says. "They're too busy waging a regular war with the Iraqi military and enemy opposition groups in Syria. They just don't have the kind of spare capacity and time that al-Qaeda Central has."
That could change if the US escalates its military campaign in Iraq and Syria. "ISIS foreign fighters ... are more likely to pursue external terrorist attacks outside Iraq on Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and to some extent Western Europe," Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes. "Direct U.S. military engagement will only turn those interested in attacking places like Saudi Arabia, the number one exporter of foreign fighters and home to many of jihad's top financiers, toward America's shores."
Hegghammer also thinks major military escalation would be counterproductive. "A larger Western intervention in Iraq and Syria, in an attempt to defeat ISIS" might lead to "an intractable counterinsurgency operation," he worries.
But ISIS is unpredictable, and might strike the US anyway
The more the US escalates, then, the greater the risk that ISIS turns its focus west. There is, however, a pretty important caveat. It's possible that ISIS might decide to attack the United States anyway, regardless of what it does.
"It's really hard to predict what ISIS's strategy is going to be," Hegghammer says. "They could suddenly decide to launch a series of [anti-Western] operations."
There are two big reasons to think that's at least possible. First, ISIS really does hate the United States. "These guys are global jihadis," McCants says, "and they believe in the al-Qaeda notion that you need to get the United States out of the Middle East."
Second, ISIS is competing with al-Qaeda for global influence over violent Islamist movements around the world. This competition may spur ISIS to attack the United States to show that it, too, can hit the far enemy hard.
"This competition [with al-Qaeda] is the wild card" McCants says. "It slightly increases the possibility that they may have wanted to [hit the American homeland] anyway."
For these reasons, among others, Watts says he supports the current US military approach to ISIS. "The U.S. should continue its limited, measured engagement of ISIS," he writes. "If the U.S. is limited in its approach, maybe [ISIS leader] Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will get the message, 'You mess with the U.S. and you'll go the way of Bin Laden.'"
"I'm quite certain that there will be ISIS members or ISIS supporters who kill Americans," Watts concludes. Indeed, there already have been. But that's not a reason to make ISIS into an even more dangerous enemy than it already is.