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In January this year, U.S. President Barack Obama was asked to comment on the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) takeover of the Iraqi city of Fallujah. Almost 100 U.S. troops had died fighting insurgents there a decade earlier, yet Obama’s reply was flippant: “if a jayvee team puts on Lakers uniforms that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.” ISIS, in other words, was small bore -- not the United States’ problem.
Fast-forward six months. ISIS has taken over a stretch of territory the size of Jordan and subsequently declared it an Islamic caliphate. Its advances have helped it pick up more recruits, weapons, and money. Virtually overnight, it has gone from terrorist group to terrorist army. And it seems intent on tangling with the West. Earlier this year, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the head of ISIS, warned the United States, “soon we’ll be in direct confrontation,” continuing “watch out for us, for we are with you, watching.” This month, ISIS begun a Twitter campaign threatening to attack the United States.
Suddenly, Obama’s understanding of the situation in Iraq (as well as in West Africa and Syria) as “local power struggles,” as he remarked in January, looks naive at best and dangerously misguided at worst. Yet his scepticism about ISIS seems unchanged. In a June 22 interview with “Face the Nation,” Obama maintained that “there are a lot of groups out there that probably have more advanced immediate plans directed against the United States.” In other words, the “jayvee team” label has stuck.
That is a problem. ISIS -- and its previous incarnations, al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) -- is aggressive, expansionist, and poses a real danger. It might be focusing most of its attention on Iraq for now, but its long-term ambitions are much wider. For example, in a video released shortly after the fall of Mosul, a British jihadist proclaims that ISIS “understand no borders” and will fight “wherever our sheikh [Baghdadi] wants to send us.” He specifically cites Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria as targets.
And targets they are; the group has already attacked all of those countries over the last decade. In 2004, AQI Leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi helped create the Abdullah Azzam Brigade with the specific purpose of waging battle in the Levant and broader Middle East. In November 2005, AQI killed 57 in suicide attacks in Amman, Jordan. Six years later, Amman would be targeted again. This time, though, authorities disrupted the cell, which had received assistance from ISI to plan a series of attacks. In mid-2011, Mohammed al-Joulani, an ISI member, formed the al-Nusra Front (ANF), which fights the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and was established with funding by the ISI. And this year, ISIS carried out a string of operations in Lebanon. In June alone, it claimed credit for a car bomb attack in Beirut and two suicide bombings.
These are not the actions of a locally focused group. Rather, they are the actions of a group that, like al Qaeda before it, is looking to establish a base in the Levant from which to expand its influence throughout the whole region -- and beyond. The real question, then, is where ISIS will go next. And unlike Obama, some European leaders are beginning worry. In a late June interview with Reuters, Gilles de Kerchove, the European Union's counterterrorism coordinator, said that it is “very likely that the ISIS ... maybe is preparing, training, directing some of the foreign fighters to mount attacks in Europe, or outside Europe." And in an address to the House of Commons, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that “as well as trying to take territory,” radicals “are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom.”
And ISIS does have connections to previous attacks in Europe. In 2007, a British doctor who had fought in Iraq carried out a car bombing attack on Glasgow Airport. It later emerged that he and his accomplice, who had also planted car bombs in London’s West End, had the telephone numbers of ISI members on their cell phones. Counterterrorism officials called the Glasgow and London attacks “the closest collaboration” between ISI and Western fighters to date.
That record was overturned in 2010, when a captured senior ISI operative admitted to Iraqi forces that ISI was preparing to carry out an attack in the West at the end of the year. Later that year, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi-born militant, staged a suicide attack in Stockholm, Sweden. He is thought to have trained with ISI in Mosul for three months prior to the operation, and jihadist websites claimed he was affiliated with the group. Indeed, Abdaly’s attack was potentially inspired by -- and dedicated to -- ISI. In an audio message released after his death, he cited the Swedish artist Lars Vilks’ derogatory cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed as a motivation for his actions. ISI had offered $150,000 to anyone who killed him. Unsurprisingly, ISI praised al-Abdaly’s subsequent suicide mission.
Another link between ISIS and Europe emerged in June 2013, when the Iraqi defense ministry announced that it had arrested members of a terror cell in Baghdad that had been attempting to manufacture chemical weapons to smuggle into Canada, the United States, and Europe. Then, in May 2014, Mehdi Nemmouche, a French citizen whom French intelligence agencies believe joined ISIS in Syria in 2012, shot and killed three people at the Jewish Museum in Brussels. His gun was found wrapped in an ISIS flag.
Whether ISIS directed or merely inspired these attacks, an alarming trend is emerging. Over the last decade, the Iraqi group carried out attacks in four countries in the Middle East and has been linked to three others in Europe. It has offered financial reward for the assassination of Europeans and allegedly planned to smuggle chemical weapons into the West.
Following its recent successes, ISIS is likely to attract hundreds of fresh recruits to its new safe haven in Iraq. The very thing that the U.S.-led coalition fought so hard against in Afghanistan, in other words, is emerging in Iraq. ISIS ambitions should not be believed to stop at the Iraqi and Syrian borders, and its links to attacks in Europe should not be taken lightly. Western governments have no option but to prepare for the time when this “jayvee team” starts having a lot more in common with the Lakers than many previously imagined.