ISIS' Worst Nightmare

Why the Group Is Not Trying to Provoke a U.S. Attack

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during a joint news conference with Egypt's Foreign Minister, September 13, 2014. Brendan Smialowski / Courtesy Reuters

To fulfill his vow to “destroy” the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), U.S. President Barack Obama will have to make a lengthy military commitment to Iraq and Syria. So far, however, the United States has limited its involvement to air strikes in Iraq and some military assistance to Iraqi and Kurdish forces on the ground. Obama’s speech this month also raised the prospect of air strikes in Syria.

Yet, within the halls of Western power, there are still those who regard using military force against ISIS as a mistake, believing that it will bolster the jihadists’ narrative of the West vs. Islam and aid ISIS propaganda -- especially if there are civilian casualties. In turn, ISIS will find it easier to recruit new members. For that reason, some have argued, ISIS was hoping to provoke a showdown with the United States all along.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Looking at the group’s recent history, it is clear that the last thing ISIS would want is for the United States to step up its military efforts in Iraq. After all, it was the U.S. military -- in conjunction with Sunni tribes -- that crushed the group’s emerging network in Iraq in late 2006 and early 2007. By 2008, the group's estimated 15,000 membership had been eviscerated by the death of 2,400 of its members and the capture of another 8,800. At the time of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq in December 2011, the network now known as ISIS had between 800 and 1,000 members

Although the ongoing civil war in Syria may have reenergized ISIS, it was the U.S. withdrawal that really turned the group’s fortunes around. For example, with the U.S. departure, Iraqi special forces lost access to American intelligence and helicopter transportation, significantly diminishing their abilities to carry out nighttime counterterrorism operations. On the political side, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki took the withdrawal as his cue to purge senior military figures whom the United

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