Unless defeated, the Islamic State (IS) taking root in Iraq will be a greater threat to the United States over the long run than al-Qaida was before 9/11.
Before al-Qaida’s 9/11 attacks, that organization had only two advantages. First, it had stealth; although U.S. intelligence in 2001 had confidence al-Qaida was preparing some kind of major attack on the U.S., we had not yet penetrated the organization sufficiently to know its specific targets or its timing.
IS has achieved something that the core al-Qaida leadership still can only dream about: It actually controls territory.
Second, al-Qaida had a safe haven in Afghanistan from which to plot and plan securely, the U.S. having attacked it only once with cruise missiles prior to 2001 — to little effect.
Today, the Islamic State enjoys many more advantages. Attacking the U.S. is not its top priority at the moment, but there can be little doubt this is among its ambitions — and something it can realistically contemplate.
Four things give IS the capability, reach, allies and motive:
First, IS has achieved something that the core al-Qaida leadership still can only dream about: It actually controls territory. Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida was merely a guest in an Afghanistan governed by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001. IS, by contrast, is actually the government in vast stretches of Iraq and Syria — more than 400 miles end to end, roughly from Aleppo in Syria and across Iraq to the outskirts of Baghdad. While its atrocities are well-documented, it is also in many areas providing a variety of social services to populations, such as electricity and water.
And with these accomplishments and the call to join its so-called “Islamic caliphate,” it is doing another thing al-Qaida failed to do — projecting a positive vision of the future for many Sunni Muslims.