Arguably the most important story of 2014 is that of ISIS (also known as ISIL or Islamic State) and the US international policy. It is a story that has unfolded throughout the year, with implications affecting the globe. It reflects the Obama Administration policy since 2009. It will continue to shape American international policy into 2015 and likely beyond.
ISIS is a former branch of Al Qaeda that was created in part by remnants of Saddam Husain’s Iraqi army. The group was part of those fighting in the civil war in Syria, and from 2013 – 2014 captured a huge swath of territory in Iraq and Syria including oil and gas fields. This growth in territory under their sway lead to an increase in membership from an estimated 10,000 troops to 30,000.
The manner in which the Obama Administration has dealt with the threat of ISIS had its roots set in 2009. The first sign was in the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. This was the region that candidate Obama stated, in 2008, was where America needed to fight. Yet it took 3 months for the Obama Administration to decide to add 30,000 troops to the fight they wanted to focus on. More importantly, that addition came with a caveat that all troops would be removed in 2011 – without the need to evaluate the impact of those troops to the cause they were being sent to fight.
In a similar manner, the Obama Administration was quick to denounce the Assad regime in Syria, even going so far as to provide supplies and funds to rebels (including ISIS). Yet the Administration was slow to notice that ISIS took the supplies and funds to advance their goal of a caliphate, and the destruction of the West (including America). Once the 20,000 Iraqi troops in Mosul, in Iraq, fell to 300 ISIS fighters the Obama Administration started to pay attention. By that time the number of forces comprising ISIS had swelled, as had its territory.
The immediate reaction was a declaration of no plan, by President Obama. The indecisiveness of the comments set the tone of what would come. While President Obama, a week after the initial comments, went on national airwaves to promise a strong response to the beheading of American journalist James Foley, it was amended by the caveat that no American troops would touch soil in Iraq to engage in combat with ISIS. The mixed response resulted in a coalition of 30 nations.
30 countries agreed to provide varying levels of support, many providing air support for airstrikes but none willing to provide ground troops – including the US and UK (which also had its citizens beheaded by ISIS). President Obama put forward a plan to once again supply Syrian rebels with arms and training to fight ISIS on the ground, while Iran (not a member of the coalition and still strongly at odds with the US over its nuclear ambitions) announced its own efforts to support ground attacks.
More than 180 airstrikes have occurred since August 2014. A total of 5 westerners have been beheaded and 1.2 million Iraqis have been displaced by the fighting. Almost 2,000 US troops have been sent to Iraq for non-combat support roles. The results have been less than positive.
Not only have the airstrikes failed to impede ISIS, but the support given to other Syrian rebel groups has reportedly created a de facto temporary truce between Assad Syrian forces and ISIS. Both groups have been strategically eliminating all other forces in Syria and Iraq, solidifying there powerbases and entrenching the territory each controls. The number of attacks by ISIS have increased since the 30 nation coalition has taken action.
But the threat of ISIS is not isolated to the Middle East. According to journalist Jürgen Todenhöfer, on December 22, 2014, who spent time embedded with ISIS troops, they ultimately plan to attack Europe and the US. In fact a goal of ISIS, as told to Todenhofer, is to eradicate 500 million non-believers worldwide. Moves towards that goal are already being seen, even in the US.
The news story that likely claimed the most headlines in 2014 involved Ferguson, MO. What was not conveyed at the time of the protests and riots was that ISIS was recruiting actively. Most missed the sign behind CNN’s Jake Tapper, as he reported on the events at the time, stating “ISIS here”. Most missed the tweets at the time urging riots across the nation, and attempting to recruit followers.
Yet ISIS has not been limited to just twitter and signs in the background of protests. As Todenhofer also reported,
“We met fighters from Europe and the United States. One of them was from New Jersey. Can you imagine a man from New Jersey traveling to fight for the Islamic State?”
This is the reality that faces America, and the globe, in 2015. ISIS, a terrorist organization that believes in slavery, torture, beheadings, and suicide bombings. An organization that was able to take the second largest city in Iraq (Mosul) from 20,000 defenders with only 300 fighters, some of them children as young as 13, in just 4 days. An organization that is growing by the day, even as airstrikes continue.
America is poised to face this likely long-term threat, under the guidance of a President who has pursued an international policy that has alienated allies (UK, Israel, Germany, ect). A policy that has emboldened enemies (Iran, North Korea, Russia, China). An international policy that has provided unilateral deals with no benefit to America or its interests (Cuba). A threat from ISIS that alone may well be in our own nation as explained by FBI special agent Sean Cox,
“We are very concerned by threats posed by homegrown violent extremists… These individuals are difficult for us to detect… It only takes one of them to recruit, one of them to do a bad act, and now you have the lone wolf and the lone wolf is the one we fear the most…”
While ISIS may not be the news story of the year, in terms of coverage, it assuredly is the news story that will have direct impact for years to come.