The Islamic State’s barbaric murder of Lieutenant Mouath al-Kasaebeh, the Jordanian air-force pilot the jihadists captured late last year, has naturally given rise to questions about the group’s objectives. Charles Krauthammer argues (here and here) that the Islamic State is trying to draw Jordan into a land war in Syria. It is no doubt correct that the terrorist group would like to destabilize Jordan — indeed, it is destabilizing Jordan. Its immediate aim, however, is more modest and attainable. The Islamic State wants to break up President Obama’s much trumpeted Islamic-American coalition.
As the administration proudly announced back in September, Jordan joined the U.S. coalition, along with the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Qatar. The only potential value of the coalition is symbolic: It has enabled the president to claim that Muslim countries were lining up with us against the Islamic State. Militarily, the coalition is of little use. These countries cannot defeat the Islamic State.
Moreover, even the symbolism is insignificant. Symbolism, after all, cuts both ways. As I pointed out when the administration breathlessly announced the coalition, our five Islamic partners have only been willing to conduct (extremely limited) aerial operations against the Islamic State. They would not attack al-Qaeda targets — i.e., the strongholds of al-Nusra (the local al-Qaeda franchise) and “Khorasan” (an al-Qaeda advisory council that operates within al-Nusra in Syria).
Obviously, if the relevance of the five Islamic countries’ willingness to fight the Islamic State is the implication that the Islamic State is not really Islamic, then their unwillingness to fight al-Qaeda equally implies their assessment that al-Qaeda is representative of Islam. The latter implication no doubt explains why the Saudis, Qatar, and the UAE have given so much funding over the years to al-Qaeda . . . the terror network from which the Islamic State originates and with which the Islamic State shares its sharia-supremacist ideology.
I’ll give the Saudis this: They don’t burn their prisoners alive in a cage. As previously recounted here, though, they routinely behead their prisoners. In fact, here’s another report from the British press just three weeks ago:
Authorities in Saudi Arabia have publicly beheaded a woman in Islam’s holy city of Mecca. . . . Laila Bint Abdul Muttalib Basim, a Burmese woman who resided in Saudi Arabia, was executed by sword on Monday after being dragged through the street and held down by four police officers.
She was convicted of the sexual abuse and murder of her seven-year-old step-daughter.
A video showed how it took three blows to complete the execution, while the woman screamed “I did not kill. I did not kill.” It has now been removed by YouTube as part of its policy on “shocking and disgusting content”.
There are two ways to behead people according to Mohammed al-Saeedi, a human rights activist: “One way is to inject the prisoner with painkillers to numb the pain and the other is without the painkiller. . . . This woman was beheaded without painkillers — they wanted to make the pain more powerful for her.”
The Saudi Ministry of the Interior said in a statement that it believed the sentence was warranted due to the severity of the crime.
The beheading is part of an alarming trend, which has seen the kingdom execute seven people in the first two weeks of this year. In 2014 the number of executions rose to 87, from 78 in 2013.
Would that the president of the United States were more worried about the security of the United States than about how people in such repulsive countries perceive the United States.
In any event, the Islamic State is simply trying to blow up the coalition, which would be a useful propaganda victory. And the strategy is working. It appears at this point that only Jordan is participating in the airstrikes. While all eyes were on Jordan this week for a reaction to Lieutenant al-Kasaebeh’s immolation, the administration has quietly conceded that the UAE suspended its participation in bombing missions when the pilot was captured in December.
The explanation for this is obvious: The Islamic countries in the coalition know they can’t stop the Islamic State unless the United States joins the fight in earnest, and they know this president is not serious. The White House says the coalition has carried out a total of about 1,000 airstrikes in the last five months. In Desert Storm, we did 1,100 a day.
Seven strikes a day is not going to accomplish anything, especially with no troops on the ground, and thus no search-and-rescue capability in the event planes go down, as Lieutenant al-Kasaebeh’s did. With no prospect of winning, and with a high potential of losing pilots and agitating the rambunctious Islamists in their own populations, why would these countries continue to participate?
The Islamic State knows there is intense opposition to King Abdullah’s decision to join in the coalition. While the Islamic State’s sadistic method of killing the pilot has the king and his supporters talking tough about retaliation, millions of Jordanians are Islamist in orientation and thousands have crossed into Syria and Iraq to fight for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. There will continue to be pressure on Jordan to withdraw. Without a real American commitment to the fight, this pressure will get harder for Abdullah to resist.
Jordan has no intention of getting into a land war the king knows he cannot win without U.S. forces leading the way. But the Islamic State does not need to lure Jordan into a land war in order to destabilize the country — it is already doing plenty of that by intensifying the Syrian refugee crisis, sending Jordanians back home from Syria as trained jihadists, and trying to assassinate Abdullah.
I will close by repeating the larger point I’ve argued several times before. We know from experience that when jihadists have safe havens, they attack the United States. They now have more safe havens than they’ve ever had before — not just because of what the Islamic State has accomplished in what used to be Syria and Iraq (the map of the Middle East needs updating) but because of what al-Qaeda has done there and in North Africa, what the Taliban and al-Qaeda are doing in Afghanistan, and so on.
If we understand, as we by now should, what these safe havens portend, then we must grasp that the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and the global jihad constitute a threat to American national security. That they also (and more immediately) threaten Arab Islamic countries is true, but it is not close to being our top concern. Ensuring our security is a concern that could not be responsibly delegated to other countries even if they had formidable armed forces — which the “coalition” countries do not.
The Islamic State and al-Qaeda are our problem.