Michael Rubin | @mrubin1971 02.18.2015 – 11:55 AM
Nature may abhor a vacuum, but terrorists love one. The U.S. military-led surge in Iraq largely pushed al-Qaeda in Iraq into oblivion, but the uprising against the Arab Spring created a space for radical Islamists to incubate. The Bashar al-Assad regime ironically found the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, Daesh)’s presence useful both because he could hold them up as the alternative to his rule and because they often did the dirty work targeting the more moderate opposition. For his part, President Obama opposed any military action in Syria. Rather than excise the tumor when it was small, the United States sat aside as it metastasized, creating the circumstances that last summer enabled the Islamic State to bulldoze through much of Iraq and Syria. Even this was not inevitable: tumors need oxygen, and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey’s Islamist dictator, provided it, allowing men and munitions to traverse the Turkey-Syrian border. Libya increasingly risks being the next Syria.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s declaration of the caliphate might sound overwrought in the West, but Arab security experts in the Middle East with whom I have spoken in recent weeks say it has been tremendously inspiring to Islamists across the world. In Libya, the Sinai, and the Sahel, Islamist terrorist groups swore loyalty to the Islamic State. Boko Haram seeks its own caliphate, but nevertheless expressed its support to Baghdadi.
Clearly, the Islamic State brand reverberates. No matter how much the White House and State Department deny the Islamic basis of the Islamic State, it is resilient and attractive to many in the Islamic world. Right now, the Islamic State talks about conquering Rome, and while lone wolf and sleeper cell terrorism in Europe will continue to be a threat, a full-fledged invasion of Europe is unlikely. The nightmare scenario about which policymakers should be most concerned is a spread of the Islamic State to Pakistan.
Before 9/11, I spent a few weeks with the Taliban in Afghanistan. At the time, the group was desperate for recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. It declared an Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and continues to embrace an essentially nationalist vision. Ditto the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, the Pakistani Taliban group which continues to dominate and terrorize Pakistan’s tribal territory, with ambitions throughout Pakistan. However, as Osama bin Laden once said, everyone loves the strong horse, and the Islamic State—which dismisses modern nationalism as illegitimate—has certainly proven itself that. If Pakistani radicals and militants—and there are no shortage of these in Pakistani society—shift their focus to the Islamic State, then all bets are off.
Pakistani officials might deny or even sneer at such suggestions that they are vulnerable to the Islamic State. But a consistent problem in Pakistani society has been that the elite believe that they can harness radicalism toward Pakistani ends in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and not pay the price. Simply put, the elite bubble is like a one-way mirror: Islamists can see in, but the Pakistani elite can see only their own reflection.
The danger for the West is, of course, that Pakistan is a nuclear power. What a tempting target Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal could be for the Islamic State or its fellow-travelers. And while Western officials have long fooled themselves into thinking states like Iran developing a bomb could be contained because Iran isn’t suicidal, clearly the Islamic State prioritizes ideology above pragmatism.
Pakistan today might seem safe, but the allure of the Islamic State is a game changer. Indeed, it can change the game in a matter of months, as it has shown in Libya. The West allowed the Islamic State to metastasize. Unfortunately, policymakers still have no clue about how horrendous its terminal phase might be.