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ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group

Why Counterterrorism Won’t Stop the Latest Jihadist Threat

On a roll: an ISIS fighter in Raqqa, Syria, June 2014. Stringer / Courtesy Reuters

After 9/11, many within the U.S. national security establishment worried that, following decades of preparation for confronting conventional enemies, Washington was unready for the challenge posed by an unconventional adversary such as al Qaeda. So over the next decade, the United States built an elaborate bureaucratic structure to fight the jihadist organization, adapting its military and its intelligence and law enforcement agencies to the tasks of counterterrorism and counterinsurgency.

Now, however, a different group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which also calls itself the Islamic State, has supplanted al Qaeda as the jihadist threat of greatest concern. ISIS’ ideology, rhetoric, and long-term goals are similar to al Qaeda’s, and the two groups were once formally allied. So many observers assume that the current challenge is simply to refocus Washington’s now-formidable counterterrorism apparatus on a new target.

But ISIS is not al Qaeda. It is not

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