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