The Corner

National Security & Defense

Should We Give ISIS What it Wants — A Decisive Battle in the Middle East?

There’s an argument against boots on the ground to fight ISIS — one adopted by President Obama — that goes something like this: Advocates of a ground war against ISIS are playing right into its hands. ISIS actually wants to trigger an apocalyptic fight in the desert, and it will use that fight as a potent recruiting tool, rallying tens of thousands of jihadists to its side. Why would we give the enemy what it wants?

This morning, the New York Times took an extended look at ISIS’s desire to provoke a decisive fight and the Obama administration’s desire to avoid direct confrontation. Here are the key elements of ISIS’s beliefs:

The Islamic State’s propaganda is rife with references to apocalyptic prophecy about the last great battle that sets the stage for the end times. Terrorism experts say it has become a powerful recruiting tool for the group, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which sells potential fighters on the promise that joining will give them the most direct chance to battle Western interests and will bring ancient Islamic prophecies to fruition.

The specific scripture they are referring to describes a battle in Dabiq as well as in al-Amaq, small towns that still exist in northern Syria. The countdown to the apocalypse begins once the “Romans” — a term that militants have now conveniently expanded to include Americans and their allies — set foot in Dabiq.

Last year, when Islamic State militants beheaded the American hostage Peter Kassig, a former United States Army Ranger, they made sure to do it in Dabiq.

“Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” the executioner announced.

It’s understandable that we don’t reflexively fight just because an enemy seeks to provoke battle. Military history is replete with examples of stronger forces baiting weaker forces into unwinnable fights, and of course not every fight is in America’s national interests. Yet in this instance, America is the far stronger force, it’s being attacked by a weaker foe, and we’re refusing to decisively engage that weaker foe in part because it’s deluded enough to believe it can prevail. This makes little sense. ISIS will keep trying to kill Americans so long as it exists. We’re sacrificing our national security to avoid a bizarre jihadist prophecy. 

This strange notion that we can’t give ISIS the fight it wants is part of the reason why we’ve allowed ISIS to survive and even thrive. We’re permitting it to maintain the safe havens that allow it to plan, inspire, and execute terror attacks across the world. The Times recalls the example of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of al Qaeda in Iraq (the precursor to ISIS). Zarqawi was reportedly pleased by the American invasion of Iraq, calling it the “blessed invasion.” But the Times neglects to remind readers that by the end of American combat operations, Zarqawi was dead, and his terror army was reduced to a mere 700 scattered followers. American weakness threw away that victory, not American strength.

Yes, ISIS wants a decisive fight. As I said after the Paris attacks, we should give them the apocalypse they long for.

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