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They Have a Strategy

The jihadists’ insurgencies may look like ‘ local power struggles,’ but their ambitions are far grander

Sep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By THOMAS JOSCELYN
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During a press conference on August 28, Barack Obama had a rare moment of candor. “We don’t have a strategy yet,” the president said in response to a question about the prospect of using military force against the Islamic State in Syria. Obama’s declaration drew widespread criticism, as the Islamic State (often referred to by its previous name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL) has made stunning advances this year. Administration officials sought to deflect critics by noting that the president was referring solely to Syria, and not to neighboring Iraq. This does not make the president’s admission any less troubling, however.

Murderous Terrorists

The jihad in Syria is inextricably linked to the fighting in Iraq, and, therefore, Obama cannot have a strategy for combating the jihadists in one country without tackling them in the other. The organization is dedicated to wiping out the boundary between the two nation-states. Its propaganda videos frequently feature footage of bulldozers symbolically demolishing an Iraqi-Syrian border that has defined maps for decades. Today, the Islamic State controls a large swath of contiguous territory across both nations.

Only belatedly this year, in early August, did Obama authorize airstrikes in Iraq. The bombings have halted the Islamic State’s momentum in some areas, but there is no reason to believe the strikes will dislodge the jihadists from the significant ground under their control. Obama has no strategy for winning back the territory lost to the Islamic State and its allies in either Iraq or Syria.

Obama’s lack of strategy is no accident. It is a direct result of the way he has chosen to see the post-9/11 world.

For the president, the only terrorists who have ever really mattered are the ones who planned the September 11, 2001, attacks or plotted similar spectacular strikes against the U.S. homeland. Obama is satisfied as long as America’s vast intelligence bureaucracy stops jihadists from committing mass casualty attacks on American soil. This is the real reason he doesn’t have a strategy for combating jihadists in Iraq, Syria, or elsewhere. Simply put, he doesn’t think such a strategy is necessary.

Obama has thought this way since well before he became president. During the summer of 2008, Obama toured the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq as a presidential candidate. He repeatedly told the press that Afghanistan mattered, whereas Iraq did not. When he arrived in Iraq, he was challenged by General David Petraeus, who was in charge of the American-led war effort at the time. The exchange between the two was recorded in The Endgame: The Inside Story of the Struggle for Iraq, from George W. Bush to Barack Obama, by New York Times reporter Michael R. Gordon and General Bernard E. Trainor.

No matter what one thought of President Bush’s decision to invade the country in 2003, Petraeus explained, al Qaeda’s leaders had made Iraq the “central front” in their war. Obama disagreed. “The Al-Qaeda leadership is not here in Iraq. They are there,” Obama said, pointing to Pakistan on a map. He wasn’t telling Petraeus anything he didn’t know, of course. Obama pressed on, wondering “whether Al Qaeda in Iraq presented a threat to the United States,” according to Gordon and Trainor’s account. “If AQI has morphed into a kind of mafia then they are not going to be blowing up buildings,” Obama said. Petraeus pointed out that an AQI operative was responsible for a failed terrorist attack in Scotland in 2007. Obama was unmoved. Al Qaeda’s fight for Iraq was not, in Obama’s opinion, a major concern.

Obama has not changed his mind in the years since, even as AQI evolved into the Islamic State, eventually gaining power and territory. The president has, if anything, doubled down on his belief that America’s only real priority is to stop the terrorists who pose the most immediate threat to the U.S. homeland.

The president said as much during a fundraiser on August 29 in Newport, Rhode Island. While recognizing that the upheaval in the Middle East is “scary,” Obama sought to assure his supporters the government’s “security apparatus” has been sufficiently improved since 9/11 such that it “makes us in the here and now pretty safe.” Obama continued: “We have to be vigilant, but this doesn’t immediately threaten the homeland. What it does do, though, is it gives a sense, once again, for future generations, is the world going to be upended in ways that affect our kids and our grandkids.”

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