Free Minds & Free Markets

ISIS Isn't an Existential Threat to America

Why politicians shouldn't overestimate the terror group’s power.

ISISISISIn 2014, a militant group calling itself the Islamic State, or ISIL, but more generally known as ISIS, burst into official and public attention with some military victories in Iraq and Syria in the middle of the year—particularly taking over Iraq's second largest city, Mosul.

From the outset, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have deemed the group to be an existential threat to the United States. President Barack Obama has repeatedly insisted that this extreme characterization is overblown, but he has clearly lost the debate. A poll conducted a few weeks ago asked the 83 percent of its respondents who said they closely followed news stories about ISIS whether the group presented "a serious threat to the existence or survival of the US." Fully 77 percent agreed, more than two-thirds of them strongly.

However, although the vicious group certainly presents a threat to the people under its control and in its neighborhood, and although it can contribute damagingly to the instability in the Middle East that has followed serial intervention there by the American military, it scarcely presents an existential threat to the United States.

Actually, in fact, it seems to be in considerable decline.

Its coun­terproductive brutalities, such as staged beheadings of hostages, summary executions of prisoners, and the rape and enslavement of female captives have left it without allies and outside support—indeed, it is surrounded by enemies.

ISIS's ability to behead defenseless hostages certainly should not be taken to suggest its military might. And its major military advance, the conquest of Mosul in 2014, was essentially a fluke. Its idea was to hold part of the city for a while in an effort, it seems, to free some prisoners. The defending Iraqi army, trained by the American military at enormous cost to U.S. taxpayers, simply fell apart in confusion and disarray, abandoning weaponry, and the city, to the tiny group of seeming invaders even though it greatly outnumbered them—even taking into account the fact that many soldiers had purchased the right to avoid showing up for duty by paying half their salary to their commanders. The fall of a smaller city a few weeks earlier was similar. As the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff put it, the Iraqi forces weren't "driven out of Ramadi." Rather, "they drove out."

After its advances of 2014, however, the group's momentum has been substantially halted, and its empire is currently under a form of siege. And, by holding territory, it presents an obvious and clear target for airstrikes and other methods by military opponents.

Even by late 2014, it was being pushed back from a strategically-located area in northern Syria, and was finding that its supply lines were overstretched and its ranks of experienced fighters were being thinned. In late 2015, it tried to push back by launching three badly coordinated offensives in Northern Iraq using, among other things, "armored bulldozers." The offensives were readily beaten back. By 2016, it had lost some 40 percent of its territory overall, 65 percent of its territory in Iraq.

After a string of failures, ISIS is now in retreat in many areas, and frontline commanders are observing of ISIS that "They don't fight. They just send car bombs and then run away. And when we surround them they either surrender or infiltrate themselves among the civilians….Their leaders are begging them to fight, but they answer that it is a lost cause. They refuse to obey and run away." One local tribal leader says, "Every week they execute four or five members because they refuse to obey orders or try to turn against their leaders." More generally, concludes one analyst, "They are starting to fall apart. They're a small movement. If you bring them under pressure on half a dozen battlefields at the same time, they can't do it."

There may also be another problem for ISIS. By most accounts, their most effective fighters are those imported from Chechnya. Many of these arrived in early 2014 because, fearing terrorism at the time of the Sochi Olympics, Russian authorities were opening borders and urging them to leave. In the latter half of that year, however, the Russians reversed the policy. Overall, the flow of foreign fighters going to ISIS may have dropped by 90 percent over the past year even as opposition to the group among Arab teens and young adults has risen from 60 percent to 80 percent.  A poll conducted in January found that 99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunni Iraqis said that they opposed the group.

ISIS is also finding that actually controlling and effectively gov­erning wide territories is a major strain. And it has to work hard to keep people from fleeing its brutal lumpen caliphate. On close examination in fact, its once highly-vaunted economic capacity seems to be proving to be illusory. Even by late 2014, it was finding that there were major problems with providing services and medical care, keeping prices from soaring, getting schools to function, keeping the water drinkable. Indeed, conclude some analysts, ISIS is "extremely unlikely to be sustainable from a financial perspective. Its economy is small compared to its enemies, its institutions are not conducive to economic growth, and it is reliant on extractive industries that in all other non-democratic countries foster the creation of kleptocratic elites….Even if it endures as a fragile state, it will be vulnerable to internal strife."

In 2016, there have been increasing reports of "financial strain," as well as of "clashes among senior commanders over allegations of corruption, mismanagement and theft." The tax, or extortion, base was much reduced as it lost territory, oil sales were disrupted, and the huge cash windfall from the seizure of banks during the group's season of expansion in 2014 was now "mostly gone." In late 2015, ISIS was forced to reduce the salaries of its fighters by half; those salaries, it appears, constitute two-thirds of the group's operating budget.

A major fear is that foreign militants who have gone to fight with ISIS would be trained and then sent back to do damage in their own countries. However, this may well prove to be a quite limited phenomenon. As researchers have detailed, foreign fighters tend to be killed early (they are common picks for suicide missions); often become disillusioned, especially by in-fighting in the ranks; and do not receive much in the way of useful training for terrorist exercises back home.

At least some of those in the small group that perpetrated the Paris attack of November 2015 and the one in Brussels a few months later may have received training and/or support from ISIS. The returnees may include the Paris plot's apparent ringleader, now dead, who, earlier in the year, had tried several times to institute terrorist acts in the area, none of which succeeded. His success in November may have made up for this, but his failure rate still remains high. However, these attacks seem to have been an act of revenge or retaliation rather than a major change in policy. As a post-attack ISIS video put it, "As long as you keep bombing you will not find peace."

In a reactive pose that has become routine, the group has claimed responsibility for—or, more accurately, boorishly celebrated—tragic ventures abroad like those in Paris and Brussels. But there is little indication ISIS central planned or significantly participated in them. Indeed, when ISIS claimed that the attackers "opened fire" with "automatic rifles" in Brussels, it was repeating errors that were in the initial reporting from the scene.

The attacks in Paris and Brussels seem to have been contrived, after quite a bit of trial and error, by a quite small band, or network, of people. Whether these attacks, like 9/11, will prove to be an aberration rather than a harbinger remains to be seen. But they would have to be much more frequent, destructive, and widespread to even begin to threaten overall civil stability.

Fears have also focused on the dangers presented by potential homegrown terrorists who might be inspired by ISIS's propaganda or example. As the Paris, San Bernardino, and Brussels attacks tragically demonstrate, potential targets for dedicated terrorists—peaceful aggregations of civilians—remain legion. However, as one terrorism specialist notes, "lone wolves have carried out just two of the 1,900 most deadly terrorist incidents over the last four decades." Existence is unlikely to be upended by such minor miscreants—or even challenged.

Moreover, failure on the battlefield may well have a dampening effect on enthusiasm. The seeming successes of ISIS in 2014 inspired a considerable amount of terrorist plotting by exhilarated locals in the United States during 2015—almost all of which were complete, and mostly boneheaded, failures. But there seem to have been few such cases in 2016. The trend for Americans seeking to join ISIS is also decidedly downward. In this connection, there has been a trendy concern about the way ISIS uses social media. However, as several analysts have pointed out, the foolish willingness of would-be terrorists to spill out their aspirations and their often-childish fantasies on social media has been, on balance, much to the advantage of the police seeking to track them.

Photo Credit: ISIS

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  • Eternal Blue Sky||

    I keep hearing pundits say that ISIS is "on our doorstep". And I just wonder why we have to consider some terrible land in Iraq and Syria our "doorstep".

  • Eternal Blue Sky||

    "99 percent of Shiite and 95 percent of Sunni Iraqis said that they opposed the group."

    Who the hell are the 1% of Shiite Iraqis who don't oppose the group calling for their execution??

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    I don't know, but they should be taxed at 90% with the rest of the 1 percenters!


  • JFree||

    Libertarian Party of Iraq

  • Number 2||

    "President Barack Obama has repeatedly insisted that this extreme characterization is overblown, but he has clearly lost the debate."

    Perhaps if he had the Department of Education issue a "dear colleague" letter on the subject...

  • colorblindkid||

    Well his JV comment right before they essentially conquered Iraq pretty much blew any credibility he had. His problem is not making it clear that there is a difference between a threat to our assets and soldeirs overseas and a threat to America itself. ISIS is a threat to the first (although only because we're stupid enough to be there in the first place), and is not a threat at all to the latter.

  • Number 2||

    But this is the idea that galls me: Obama had no problem ramming Obamacare, Dodd-Frank and the Stimulus (remember the "shovel-ready" jobs?) down America's throats even though it cost his party control of Congress. He has had no problem using administrative agencies to push things he couldn't possibly get through Congress, public opinion be damned. He pushes gay marriage and transgender bathrooms over public opposition. But when it comes to an enemy that he supposedly "knows" is not half as dangerous as it is made out to be, he has no problem "surrendering" to public opinion, at the cost of millions upon millions of dollars, lives, and continuing foreign interventions in places we don't belong.

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    President Obama has said so many things that turned out not to be true ("If you like your plan you can keep your plan") that he has damned little credibility on anything. It isn't clear to me whether he's a compulsive liar like Bill Clinton, an un-thrifty situational liar like Hillary Clinton, or simply an idiot. Whatever the case, the only people still listening to him are the metaphorical choir.

  • colorblindkid||

    I wouldn't say they aren't an existential threat, because they are, it's just that there is basically nothing we can do to prevent an attack, which will likely be by somebody already here who has been "radicalized".

  • Shakes||

    Why are they an existential threat? You believe Daesh can cause the USA to cease to exist?

    You believe there is nothing we can do to stop terrorist attacks?

  • Hank Phillips||

    Mohammedans look like competition for Republicans and other faithful. This may be why these Crusaders rushed out to Desert Storm that part of the world. Before that there weren't many bombers, and afterward, kamikazes knocking down buildings. Judging by outcomes, attacking folks on the other side of the world is not looking like a good move to me, but it does make for hobgoblins with which weapons-grade politicians can frighten voters.

  • JFree||

    Politicians will always politician. The only way to reduce the fearmongering and hyperventilation about ISIS is to either
    a)introduce an alternative narrative into the public discourse that is based on sober reflection - knowing that such a narrative will be undermined by a Prez who also believes it but is too chicken to say so or
    b)spread a Calvin Coolidge virus into the body politick so that everyone goes silent and can reflect on things without either creating or acknowledging public expectations about an outcome

  • mtrueman||

    "But they would have to be much more frequent, destructive, and widespread to even begin to threaten overall civil stability."

    Since when do attacks have to threaten "overall civil stability" to be successful? Thanks to these attacks, America's presidential candidates are talking about banning all Muslims from entering the country. The perpetrators of the attacks couldn't have imagined a much more desirable outcome.

  • Shakes||

    Maybe he meant infrastructure?

  • mtrueman||

    You want to take down infrastructure, forget about terrorism and concentrate on nodes in the network - communications, transportation, energy etc.

  • Sevo||

    "From the outset, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) have deemed the group to be an existential threat to the United States."

    Mr's McCain and Graham can go suck canal water.

  • Trigger Warning||

    McCain is getting senile and should retire. Graham is a world-class retard who should never be listened to about anything. They are the Dynamic Duo of nonsense. If they issued a joint statement proclaiming the sky to be blue, I'd begin seeing a purple sky.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    The Democrat party is, however.

  • Suicidy||

    Of course they're an existential threat. Marxism always is.

  • Hank Phillips||

    Marxism was a threat in 1850. But now we know about mass starvation, gulags, snipers gunning down East Berlin fugitives--stuff Edward Bellamy never mentioned. More worrisome to me are the similarities between Republican conservatism and German national socialism.

  • Trigger Warning||

    Uh, none of that shit is stopping a legion of retards from feeling the Bern.

  • Trigger Warning||

    Hank, did you know that labor unions hate cheap immigrant labor just as much as stupid rednecks?

    Nazi comparisons are spurious and intellectually lazy.

  • woodrow||

    Business school told me greatest generals in history were Alexander the great, Julius Caesar, Ghengis Khan, Napoleon. What about the greatest muther fu*ken general of all time. George muther fuck*n Washington. Thats right! The father of the greatest muther fuc*en country in god da*n history. Murica Fuc* Yeahhhh!!!!!! Happy memorial day!

  • VartAndelay||

    Budweiser kills.
    Exhibit A: woodrow

  • Trigger Warning||

    I thought he was channeling Herbert Kornfeld.

  • Hank Phillips||

    I also recall that very few Americans were killed by Vietcong before Johnson and Nixon escalated involvement there. It was the French that invaded and turned the place into an opium regie, then got righteously stomped. What me worry?

  • C. S. P. Schofield||

    The threat that ISIS represents is quite real, but somewhat different than most people (ISIS included) imagine. They can't really affect us all that much directly. We're too big and they are too small. What they CAN do is pull off a terror attack that thoroughly angers the country as a whole. It doesn't even have to be that big an attack, it just has to hit the right (wrong) sore spot.

    Get the country seriously angry and hell will go for a walk with the sleeves rolled up. Bush was able (possibly accidentally, but I think it was deliberate) to divert the anger over 9/11 into a limited war by limited means for limited ends. Obama isn't that smart, or that lucky. Shrilly is also clueless. And who the hell knows what Trump thinks. We could overrun the middle east with a blast of fire and brimstone the likes of which they haven't seen since the mongols. It would wreck what infrastructure there is, end us up in control of Mecca (*Shudder*), and leave us an Imperial power. If we were the Victorian British that might be OK. We aren't. It won't be good for anyone involved, least of all us.

  • Vincent Milburn||

    I really think most Americans just don't know what "existential" means.

  • Azathoth!!||

    ISIS Isn't an Existential Threat to America


    This is also true--

    Islam is an existential threat to anything that is not Islam, just like fascism is an existential threat to anything that is not fascism, or communism is an existential threat to anything that's not communism.

    But that's a war no one's ready to admit is happening--never mind actually fighting it.

  • AZ Gunowner||

    Actually, ISIS is an existential threat, not just to the US, but to civilization.

    More specifically though, it is not "just" ISIS that is the threat. The threat is the global political ideology of VIOLENT conquest that we call Islam of which ISIS is just the most visible (and visibly VIOLENT) iteration.

    Islam has been at war with civilization since Islam was vomited up by a violent child rapist in the 700's.

    Islam is conquering Europe right now, though conquering bespeaks of a struggle between 2 sides, whereas as all can see Europe is surrendering without a fight.

    It is more like suicide than being conquered.

    And Islam isn't here in the US to assimilate or become Westernized. They are here to conquer too.

    We better wake up if we don't want to look like Europe in 25 years.

    you can see my proposal to deal with the threat in the US at least here -



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