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Hit ISIS without bolstering their recruitment

The recent rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), or simply the Islamic State (IS), has rekindled a fear that this group may soon attack American cities. Today, President Obama will give an address to the American people outlining his strategy for combating the terrorist group. In a letter to Speaker John Boehner, a bipartisan group of members of Congress stated the need to debate and vote on whether to authorize President Obama to expand operations against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. That is the right approach – a public discussion which will allow us to understand the nature of ISIS and the extent to which existing authorities permit the administration to target the group.

The brutal murder of a second American journalist, Steven Sotloff, ups the ante for the U.S. to respond on our terms, not theirs – to use the tools at our disposal to track those responsible without giving them what they want.

{mosads}They see these grotesque acts of violence as recruitment tools and as lures to pull the U.S. in on their terms. Clearly these acts cannot go unanswered. The only way to defeat ISIS is to erode their support network. To do so, we must be deliberate in our response and ensure we don’t strengthen their hand with the same unintended consequences that resulted in the response to indefinite detention at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and a policy of targeted killing from drones.

Some in Congress and elsewhere make no distinction between ISIS, al-Qaeda, and wanna-be extremist groups at every level of sophistication – or disintegration. They see armed Islamic extremists waving black flags and spouting hate-filled diatribes against the United States. They watched in horror as shocking videos showed the beheading of American journalists, recalling similar images of Daniel Pearl and Nick Berg being executed in the same grisly fashion. Surely this is the same group, the same ideology, the same threat, right? Wrong! 

Daniel Pearl was killed by Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a senior leader of al-Qaeda. But Nick Berg was executed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of an early rival of al-Qaeda, Jama’at al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad, which formed in the 1990s. While al-Qaeda set out to wage a global jihad aimed at pushing out Western influences and nations from the “Islamic world,” Zarqawi’s group had more immediate, sectarian goals and also targeted Iraqis, especially “apostate” sects including the Shia majority. Osama Bin Laden sought to bring Zarqawi’s group within the fold of al-Qaeda, but only if they would stop killing fellow Muslims. Late in 2004, Zarqawi coopted the whole process by changing the name of his organization to al-Qaeda in Iraq and falsely claiming to have received Bin Laden’s blessing to cleanse Islam. The alliance between al-Qaeda and Zarqawi’s group was always uneasy and often hostile. Al-Qaeda tried to send an emissary to rein in the rogue leader, but he never arrived.

After Zarqawi was killed by an American airstrike in 2006, the group eventually adopted the now infamous ISIS moniker. They joined the fight against Bashir al-Assad’s regime in Syria, but soon found themselves at odds with other Islamist groups. Again, al-Qaeda sent an emissary to arbitrate between the warring jihadist factions. This time ISIS killed him. Al-Qaeda denounced ISIS and excommunicated it from their affiliated groups.

ISIS is a regionally focused insurgent group that is committed to establishing an Islamic State. While ISIS is a very sophisticated and highly disciplined group that has gained control of considerable resources, this doesn’t change their strategic objective—to secure the fragile caliphate they proclaimed on June 29th. Despite having nearly 100 Americans and even more European fighters with Western passports, ISIS’s recruitment efforts suggest that it cannot yet afford to have these fighters depart the battlefields in Iraq and Syria, for to do so jeopardizes their most important objective —their raison d’être— the Islamic State itself.  ISIS is a very capable and extremely dangerous group, but their strategy is less like al-Qaeda’s and perhaps more akin to the Taliban when they sought to gain control of Afghanistan.

The question of whether the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria heightens the threat of international terrorism directed at the United States homeland is an important one. Ensuring that ISIS cannot threaten the United States directly is a vital goal of U.S. counter-terrorism policy. Yet approaching ISIS as if it were the same as al-Qaeda and ISIS risks the adoption of policies that are insufficient or inappropriate to protect American lives, alliances, and treasure.

Prudent national security policy requires our leaders to consider each situation on its own merits in order to determine if and when the use of force would likely achieve the desired outcome or be counterproductive, as when it enhances terrorist recruiting or undermines our counterterrorism cooperation with allies.  In general, the history of the last decade suggests that we would be wise to pursue threats primarily through developing security partnerships, diplomacy, law enforcement, and intelligence cooperation, reserving the use of military force for when American lives or vital U.S. national security interests are at stake.

Should the president consider ISIS just such a threat, he must seek a separate and distinct congressional authorization to engage in sustained military action against ISIS rather than attempt to shoehorn them into the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the increasingly obsolete authorization that was passed in the days following the 9/11 attacks. Neither this authorization, which has been interpreted to target al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and their “associated forces,” nor the 2002 AUMF, which targeted Saddam Hussein’s regime, apply to ISIS.

To date, the president has justified his strikes on ISIS under his inherent self-defense powers in Article II of the Constitution. Even if one accepts this rationale, if this use of force extends beyond 60 days, the War Powers Resolution requires any further military operations to be authorized by Congress.

What is more, returning to Congress will ensure a debate that will allow policymakers and the public alike to understand what is unique about the threats ISIS poses, and what is the right way to combat it.

Quigley is a senior fellow for National Security at Human Rights First, and a member of the Defense Council at the Truman National Security Project. He is a naval intelligence officer, has served two combat tours in Iraq, including one with Joint Special Operations Command, and served as lead counterterrorism analyst on al Qaeda in Iraq for the Defense Intelligence Agency at the National Counter-Terrorism Center. His opinions are his own and are not endorsed by the U.S. Navy Reserve or the Department of Defense. @MJQuigley4

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