The beheading of yet another Western journalist, Steven Sotloff, has ignited another round of commentary suggesting that the Islamic State is the worst terrorist network ever. There is value in this: The current jihadist threat to the United States and the West is more dire than the threat that existed just prior to the 9/11 attacks, so anything that increases pressure for a sea change in our Islamic-supremacist-enabling government’s policies helps. Nevertheless, the perception that the Islamic State is something new and different and aberrational compared with the Islamic-supremacist threat we’ve been living with for three decades is wrong, perhaps dangerously so.
Decapitation is not a new jihadist terror method, and it is far from unique to the Islamic State. Indeed, I noted here over the weekend that it has recently been used by Islamic-supremacist elements of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army against the Islamic State. It was only a few years ago that al-Qaeda beheaded Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg. Jihadists behead their victims (very much including other Muslims) all the time — as Tom Joscelyn notes at the indispensable Long War Journal, the al-Qaeda-tied Ansar al Jerusalem just beheaded four Egyptians suspected of spying for Israel.
Yet, the recent Islamic State beheadings, in addition to other cruelties, is fueling commentary portraying the Islamic State as more barbaric and threatening than al-Qaeda. This misses the point. The Islamic State is al-Qaeda. It is the evolution of the ruthless al-Qaeda division that grew up in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
In order to make the Islamic State seem different from al-Qaeda — i.e., to make it seem like something that has spontaneously appeared, rather than something Obama ignored and empowered — some reporting claims there are “ideological” and “doctrinal” differences between the two. This is true in only the most technical sense, a sense that is essentially irrelevant vis à vis the West.
What is going on among the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood (including Hamas), and other factions is a power struggle for leadership of the Sunni side of the global Islamic-supremacist movement. Because of the audience to which these actors play, some of their differences are framed as sharia-based. Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qaeda leaders (who are allied against Assad in Syria and were allied with the Islamic State until fairly recently) contend, for example, that the Islamic State’s unilateral declaration of a caliphate transgresses Islamic principles that call for consultation and consensus among sharia-adherent Muslims. They argue that Islamic-supremacist groups should work cooperatively in the formation of local or regional emirates, with an eye toward eventually assembling the global caliphate.
From our perspective, so what? Both sides regard the West as the enemy to be conquered. Their differences are germane only to the extent that sharia fidelity, in addition to sheer brute force, will determine who comes out on top in their intramural warfare. As we have been observing here for years with respect to al-Qaeda and the Brotherhood, their disputes are mostly tactical; their splits on the finer points of Islamic-supremacist ideology bear only on how they regard each other. When it comes to the West, both see us as the enemy — and they put aside their differences to attack us.
The same has also always been true of the ideological/doctrinal divide between Sunni and Shiite jihadists. For example, al-Qaeda has had cooperative and operational relations with Iran since the early 1990s. Iran collaborated with al-Qaeda in the 1996 Khobar Towers attack that killed 19 U.S. airmen; probably in the 9/11 attacks; certainly in the aftermath of 9/11; and in the Iraq and Afghan insurgencies. Al-Qaeda would not be what it is today without state sponsorship, particularly from Iran. The Islamic State might not exist at all.
The point is that al-Qaeda has never been anything close to the totality of the jihadist threat. Nor, now, is the Islamic State. The challenge has always been Islamic supremacism: the ideology, the jihadists that are the point of the spear, and the state sponsors that enable jihadists to project power. The challenge cannot be met effectively by focusing on one element to the exclusion of others.
Have a look, for instance, at Bill Roggio’s report today (also in the Long War Journal): In helping Iraqi forces wrest Amerli from the Islamic State, the U.S. Air Force colluded with Iran-backed Shiite terrorist groups, including the League of the Righteous, responsible for the killing of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq. The switch in dominion over territory from anti-American Sunni jihadists to anti-American Shiite jihadists is a setback for the Islamic State, but it does not advance American national security. In fact, it would become a real negative for American national security if it contributed to a revival of the dangerous fantasy that Iran has a helpful, “stabilizing” role to play in rolling back the terrorist threat — a fantasy to which the Obama administration is far from unique in subscribing.
I opined at the start of this piece that the threat to the United States is more dire now than it was before 9/11. How could it be otherwise? What jihadists need to attack the United States is safe haven and state sponsorship, which enable them to plan and train; financial and weapons resources; and lax immigration enforcement. On every one of those scores, the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other violent Islamic supremacists are in a better position than they were circa 1998–2001. The Islamic State, to take the most prominent example, controls a country-size swath of territory; has seized riches and advanced weaponry during its rampage; has enjoyed support from several countries; and targets an America in which border security is a joke, no effort is made to police visa overstays, and the federal government has actually discouraged and prevented state and federal agents from enforcing immigration laws.
The threat is worse, and worsening. But it is not confined to the Islamic State, and we cannot protect ourselves from it — cannot even grasp that it is a threat to us rather than simply to a faraway region — unless we understand the totality of it.
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a policy fellow at the National Review Institute. His latest book, Faithless Execution: Building the Political Case for Obama’s Impeachment, was released by Encounter Books on June 3.