Anticipating the deepening involvement of the United States in Iraq, the Islamic State and its supporters launched a substantial social media campaign last week threatening the United States with terrorist attacks if it intervenes in the present crisis. Incidentally, the Twitter campaign used the awkward hashtag #CalamityWillBefallUS, wording that, if one does not understand that the "US" in the hashtag refers to the United States, makes it appear as if the group is prophesying its own destruction. Rather than analyze the Islamic State's use of social media — a topic already well-covered by J.M. Berger and others — Stratfor is interested in what the threat says about the group's susceptibility to foreign intervention and the viability of its threat.
Much of the focus has been on the group's audacious claim of founding a new caliphate and the seeming impunity with which it operates in the Sunni areas of Iraq. But the intensity of the organization's anti-U.S. public relations effort demonstrates how much it fears U.S. intervention.
Past U.S. Responses to Insurgents
To date, the U.S. response to the Islamic State's offensive in Iraq has been modest. The United States established a joint operations center in Baghdad on June 25 to coordinate intelligence gathering efforts. It then delivered 75 Hellfire missiles to bolster the Iraqi army's offensive to take back Tikrit. Most recently, U.S. President Barack Obama on June 30 ordered 200 more troops, in addition to some 300 already deployed, to Iraq to reinforce the U.S. Embassy and to provide additional security at the Baghdad airport. Deliberations on whether to conduct airstrikes — and the scale and scope of such operations — are ongoing.
Though there has not been a significant response, it is no wonder that the Islamic State is afraid of a new U.S. intervention in Iraq. Recent history has proved how powerful the U.S. military can be in a campaign against a militant organization — or a government for that matter — even if it has a small presence on the ground.
In 2003, U.S. air power shredded the Iraqi military prior to the U.S. ground invasion of Iraq. The Islamic State will also remember the June 2006 U.S. airstrike that killed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of its parent organization, and the April 2010 airstrike that killed Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the group's first Iraqi leader, and his deputy Abu Ayyub al-Masri.
The Islamic State may also have taken note of instances of U.S. military superiority in its near abroad. In 2001, U.S. air power, combined with a few CIA and special operations personnel on the ground, was able to work with the Northern Alliance to remove the Taliban from power in Afghanistan. In 2011, NATO aircraft with substantial U.S. involvement were able to totally turn the tide in Libya's civil war. They rescued the Libyan rebel forces from destruction at the hands of the Libyan military and overwhelmed Moammar Gadhafi's ability to withstand the rebel onslaught.
Air power is not the only thing the United States can bring to the table. The U.S. military also has extensive intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities that would greatly aid the Iraqis' situational awareness and understanding of the battle space. Furthermore, greater direct U.S. involvement would likely pressure Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's administration to accomodate Iraq's Sunni minority. Al-Maliki's intransigence has alienated and angered the Sunni tribal sheikhs, who have either aided or ignored the operations of the Islamic State in their areas. A similar pattern existed when the Islamic State's forerunners were operating in the Sunni areas of Iraq following the U.S. invasion and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
Using Tribal Sheiks Against the Islamic State
The tribal sheikhs basically used the jihadists as a tool, and when the United States made concessions to them — and essentially bought them off — they quickly turned on the jihadists, who were nearly destroyed. In a December 2013 assessment of the group, Stratfor noted that the Sunni sheikhs did not totally destroy the Islamic State in Iraq because they thought they might need to use the group as a tool again. This dynamic played a large role in the current insurgency. Many Sunni sheikhs were unhappy with al-Maliki's treatment of them, prompting them to allow the jihadists to rise in order to elevate their strategic position against Baghdad.
As the United States becomes further re-engaged in Iraq, it will probably renew its ties with the Sunni sheikhs and place heavy pressure on their Saudi patrons. Discontent with the Islamic State's draconian policies already exists among the more moderate Sunni population, and American money can easily tip the balance. The sheikhs could quickly turn on the jihadists, bringing about part two of the Anbar Awakening.
Already, fissures are appearing between the Islamic State and other Iraqi Sunni factions. After initial neutrality, several Sunni tribal factions are reportedly assisting the Iraqi army in Tikrit. It is reasonable to imagine a scenario in which the Sunni sheikhs' local intelligence networks and U.S. air power once again prove to be a powerful combination. Jihadists hiding in heavily populated cities are hard to strike, but with superior intelligence and precision munitions it can be done.
Viability of the Threat: Bluster Can Backfire
The Islamic State does have cadres who possess advanced terrorist tradecraft skills. However, it has historically struggled to project its terrorist power beyond its core areas of operation.
In terms of terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and Syria, the group is perhaps best known for the November 2005 attack on three hotels in Amman, Jordan. The bombings were the first successful mass casualty attack the group had conducted in Jordan after several thwarted and botched attempts. However, a careful examination of that attack revealed that half of the suicide vests dispatched failed to detonate as designed. Had they functioned, the attack would have been far more devastating. In another Amman attack in October 2002, the Islamic State shot and killed U.S. Agency for International Development employee Laurence Foley.
Except for the Amman hotel bombings and the Foley assassination, the Islamic State's attacks have lacked sophistication and resulted in only minor casualties and damage. The group has launched some ineffective rocket attacks in Jordan, and the jihadist attacks seen to date in Lebanon have been pretty amateurish, including a thwarted suicide bombing attempt last week when Lebanese authorities attempted to arrest the bomber at his Beirut hotel.
The bottom line is that while the Islamic State has conducted successful terrorist attacks in moderately hostile places such as Arbil, Basra and Damascus, those are places with inept or corrupt security forces relatively near to the group's bombmakers and operational commanders and where the group has some local support networks. Even if it wanted to, the organization does not appear to have the sorts of skilled operators who can conduct operations inside the United States or Europe.
Even in its attacks in places like Baghdad, the Islamic State has struggled to hit hard targets in recent years. Most of its recent attacks have focused on soft targets in Shiite neighborhoods. It is questionable that it has the ability to hit the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad with a meaningful strike, let alone the U.S. mainland.
Perhaps the greatest threat from the Islamic State is that it will send or inspire a foreign grassroots jihadist like Mehdi Nemmouche to conduct a small attack. There are far more jihadists in Syria and Iraq who possess Nemmouche's skill set than there are operatives who can orchestrate sophisticated attacks, and the Islamic State has developed a significant international following through its social media outreach campaigns. But while such simple attacks can create some panic, they will not be really effective unless they can be conducted frequently.
If the Islamic State was somehow able to pull off an attack in the United States, or to inspire grassroots jihadists to conduct attacks there, the group could face some serious retaliation. As al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula learned after inspiring attacks in Little Rock, Ark., and Fort Hood, Texas, and then attempting attacks like the December 2009 underwear bombing, attacks directed against the United States might help increase a group's profile, but that increased profile comes at a high price. Like the Taliban and al Qaeda before it, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has seen its operations hit hard by sustained U.S. military and intelligence operations.
A large attack in the United States would risk awakening what has been for the past few years a disinterested giant. Indeed, one of the important factors in the growth of the Islamic State is that the United States has not paid much attention to it. Invoking the wrath of the United States would almost certainly bring a calamity upon the Islamic State, spelling the end of any Islamic polity it seeks to create.