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How ISIS Is Spreading Terror Far Beyond Iraq and Syria

In one short year since ISIS proclaimed itself an Islamic caliphate in the Middle East, the terror organization is closer to actually reaching its goal. In Iraq, ISIS has captured the major cities of Mosul and Ramadi despite 10 months of U.S.-led air attacks and an ongoing ground war with the governments of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Libya and Nigeria. It has also made strategic gains in Syria and is expanding its operations in Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Europe, Asia and the United States.

In the United States, the terror plots and attacks are rising. This year, eight attacks or plots to attack in the U.S. homeland have been uncovered. Seven of these plots occurred during the last two and a half months, a sharp rise from the nine plots and attacks in 2013 and 2014 combined. Two of the 2015 plots involved actual deaths. Fortunately, the three people who were killed were the attackers or the plotters. One of these plots was an actual attack that took place in Texas in May.

Related: Why a Military Victory Over ISIS Is Wishful Thinking

All the plots were either inspired by ISIS or planned by ISIS. About 150 Americans went to Syria to join ISIS. More than 50 Americans were charged in the U.S. for helping or trying to help ISIS. “While the terrorists are here, however, their inspiration is abroad,” says James Jay Carafano, Vice President of the Heritage Foundation, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow. “Increasingly, radicalized individuals are found to be inspired or in dialogue with extremists entities overseas. ISIS successes in the field, its sophisticated social network activities and its ability to recruit fighters globally are all real cause for concern.”

A recent government report revealed that 73 terrorism suspects were employed at U.S. airports. One of them traveled to Syria in September 2014 where he was killed. Security procedures at the airports failed 95 percent of the time when investigators at the Department of Homeland Security tried to smuggle fake bombs and weapons through airports checkpoints.

As the Obama administration sends additional 450 U.S. military advisers to Iraq, the terror organization has set its sights on Baghdad. If Baghdad falls, so falls Iraq to the hands of radical Islam. ISIS has controlled most of the Baiji refinery, the largest oil facility in Iraq for weeks. The Iraqi Shiite militias have conducted a long maneuver around a lake to the north of Baghdad to isolate ISIS forces in Ramadi and Fallujah. Until a real result is achieved out of this maneuver, ISIS will have the upper hand.

In Syria, ISIS captured the ancient city of Palmyra after defeating the Syrian government forces. The city is one of the most important archeological sites in the Middle East. To the north, the race is on to capture Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. The contest is between ISIS and a coalition dominated by a branch of al-Qaeda called the Nusra front.

To the south, an ISIS strategy involves capturing the areas bordering Jordan and Israel. The fate of the Druze – a religious minority—hangs in the balance. They could be subjected to mass killing and enslavement similar to what the Yazidis in Iraq suffered under ISIS in 2014. The Assad regime has deployed thousands of fresh Iranian, Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan Shiite fighters to protect its regime from falling. Despite the loss of the city of Tal Abyad on the Turkish borders to the Kurds on Tuesday, ISIS is still the dominant force in Syria.

Related: U.S. Shoots Itself in the Foot by Accidentally Arming ISIS

ISIS is mounting an even greater threat in Saudi Arabia. It has intensified its attacks against the minority Shiites in the eastern oil rich part of the kingdom. Two attacks against Shiite mosques took place last May, killing 26 people. In April, Saudi authorities said they arrested 93 ISIS members. In 2014, they said that 1,200 Saudis went to Syria—only 300 of them returned. However, other estimates suggest that ISIS’s Saudi members are far greater than that.

“They have backed the monarchy into a corner,” says Veryan Khan, the editorial director at Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC). “The Islamic State is attempting to effect change in the region at large and intensify the Sunni/Shia divide. Riyadh is in a tenuous position. It’s forced to defend its Shia minority within the Kingdom to placate them... but their distinct version of Saudi Wahhabism is not that far removed from the Islamic State’s unrelenting stance on Shiites.”

Osama bin Laden became devoted to Wahhabism as a teenager growing up in Saudi Arabia. Like ISIS, the Wahhabis believe in radical Islam. In practice, that means persecuting people they believe are “infidels,” including Shiites and other religious groups who don’t adhere to their radical beliefs.

In Yemen, ISIS found a footstep as the country descended into sectarian civil and regional war. Last March, 142 people were killed when ISIS suicide bombers blew themselves up at Shiite mosques in the capital Sanaa. On Wednesday and Saturday, a new wave of attacks targeted Shiites mosques in the capital. In April, ISIS released a video showing the execution of dozens of Yemeni soldiers. As with Saudi Arabia, ISIS’s strategy is to attack the Shiite minority to intensify the sectarian conflict.

Related: Why Obama’s ISIS Strategy Was Doomed to Fail

Unlike Saudi Arabia, Yemen is now in a state of a sectarian and regional war and Shiite rebels are running the country after seizing the capital in September 2014. Despite three months of Saudi led air attacks against the Shiite rebels, and 1,400 civilian casualties, the Saudi-led intervention failed to force the rebels out of Aden, the second largest city in Yemen.

In the meantime, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) seized the opportunity to take control of about 15 percent of the country, including the capital of Yemen's largest province. AQAP is al-Qaeda's most dangerous branch. It is responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attack in France in January 2015 and the Fort Hood shooting in November 2009. The recent death of its leader, Nasser al-Wahaish — al-Qaeda’s second in command after Ayaman al-Zawahiri — by a U.S. drone will not likely change the escalating situation in Yemen. He was instantly replaced by his military commander.

In Lebanon, ISIS and al-Nusra Front bombings and attacks on the border area have left at least 120 Lebanese soldiers, Hezbollah fighters and Lebanese civilians dead. Hundreds of others were injured. About 20 Lebanese soldiers were kidnapped as well. ISIS’s strategy in Lebanon is again to incite sectarian war by attacking the Shiite minority. This strategy hasn't succeeded yet, but despite vigorous resistance by Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group that dominates Lebanon, ISIS was able to control part of the Lebanese territories by the border with Syria.


A new ISIS-affiliated group was formed recently in Gaza. The group is called “The Sheikh Omar Hadid Brigade” after an Iraqi aide of the late Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of ISIS’s mother organization, al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group introduced itself with an attack on Israel, claiming credit for rocket attacks on Ashkelon in late May, says Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, the Shillman-Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum.

Related: Caught in the Crossfire with ISIS: One Family’s War Without End

ISIS attacks have also killed about 200 soldiers, police officers and civilians in Egypt since November 2014. The Egyptian army gained Israel's approval to deploy large forces in Sinai to curb the insurgency, despite violating the terms of the peace treaty with Israel. A buffer zone was created to stop arms smuggling from Gaza. Then the buffer zone was expanded lately. Despite all these measures, the ISIS insurgency is growing as the disillusion of Egyptians with its military dictatorship rises. Last month, Egypt's former president Mohamed Morsi, an Islamist who was elected legitimately and then sacked by the army two years ago, was sentenced to death. Just hours after the court ruling, three judges were killed. The ISIS insurgency is now spreading to other parts of Egypt and targeting the UN peacekeeping mission.

After the death of Muammar al-Qaddafi and especially after the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya has also fallen victim to hoards of rebel militias, including those fighting for an Islamic State. ISIS captured the town of Harawa a few weeks ago. Last month, it captured al-Qardabiya airbase. During the last few months, the jihadists launched attacks against the two rival governments there: the secularists in the east and the Islamists in the west. They also targeted foreign embassies and Christian citizens. The state of chaos in Libya is turning the country into the largest source of illegal human immigration to Europe via the Mediterranean Sea. ISIS is using the route to send its operatives to Europe. Libya provided training for the two Tunisians who attacked the Bardo museum in the Tunisian capital in March 2015.

“That Libya's importance to ISIS is increasing is seen in its recent expansion into Algeria, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco,” says Jasmine Opperman, the director of Southern African operations at TRAC. “Libya is providing a door to Europe... Libya is becoming an alternative traveling route for foreign fighters to Syria and by moving southwards, it is closing the gap towards the Islamic State in West Africa (Boko Haram).”

ISIS is now aiming at Misrata, Libya's third largest city. The terror group is benefiting from the ongoing civil war and making progress toward establishing a third base in central Libya to go with its command centers in Iraq and Syria. “ISIS’s surge results from its continued exploitation of opposing force weaknesses. In the recent attack on a checkpoint in the direction of Misrata, the checkpoint was guarded by Misrata fighters who were not being paid frequently and who were not well armed,” says Opperman, adding that ISIS fighters in Libya now number between 4,000 and 5,000. ISIS is fighting now another extreme group in the city of Derna in an unresolved battle over power.

Related: ISIS’s Capture of Palmyra—A Return to Barbarism

In Algeria, where an aging president has been in power for 16 years, the authorities there foiled a 9/11-like ISIS plot two weeks ago. The plan was to hijack an airplane from an airport in the eastern part of the country and launch an attack by a car bomb on the capital's airport. The Algerian army recently deployed 50,000 soldiers with tanks and modified rules of engagement on the borders with Libya to prevent ISIS infiltration.

In Nigeria, the terror group Boko Haram joined ISIS in March 2015. In the same month, a joint offensive by five African countries was finally able to decrease significantly the vast areas the terror group controlled. Nevertheless, the Boko Haram insurgency is not over. It is now a regional issue, not only a Nigerian one. The terror group is now attacking Cameroon, Niger and Chad as well as Nigeria.

In Europe, ISIS members are being discovered daily. Countries like France, the United Kingdom, Russia and Germany had been thought to have a few hundreds ISIS fighters each, but some newer estimates put the figure at more than a thousand. ISIS has also launched a new recruiting campaign focused on Muslim majority countries like Bosnia and Albania.

In Afghanistan, where the United States fought its longest war ever, ISIS is not only recruiting, it has started a war against the Taliban, the traditional insurgency in Afghanistan. That threat has made the Taliban open a channel with Iran to fight both ISIS and the U.S. Iran is trying to use the new ISIS resurgence to increase its influence in Afghanistan. ISIS is looking to expand from Afghanistan into nearby Pakistan and India as well.

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The ISIS expansion in Afghanistan prompted the government in Turkmenistan last March to undertake the first large-scale mobilization of its reserve military forces since its independence in 1991. In Tajikistan, where a Russian-backed suppressive secular dictator has been ruling the country since 1992, ISIS succeeded in recruiting the commander of the special forces, who was trained in the United States and whose very job was to protect his country from groups like ISIS.

In other parts of Asia, ISIS is using issues like the mistreatment of Muslims in China and Burma to establish another base. An ISIS recruiter was arrested in Bangladesh last May with training materials. A former al-Qaeda offshoot group in Indonesia has switched to ISIS and tried to use a chlorine bomb in Jakarta last February. The perpetrators were ISIS returnees from Syria. A dozen ISIS operatives were arrested in Malaysia last April while making bombs. ISIS planned to abduct foreigners and rob banks there.

To many Mideast experts, the current ISIS success is a direct result of years of misjudgment and failed policies. “In Syria, the U.S. did not have any clear strategy. Obama has always dealt with the FSA (the Free Syrian Army) as groups of incapable farmers and dentists and looked for a political solution engineered by Russia and Iran no matter how many years the conflict continues,” says Captain Islam Alloush, the spokesperson for the Islamic Front fighting the Assad regime.

“For Iraq, I believe the administration ‘trusted’ its unreliable partners there and did not trust its own intelligence, which should have clearly alerted the U.S. that the situation there started worsening once we pulled out,” says Laith Alkhouri, director of Middle East and North Africa research and analysis at Flashpoint Global Partners.

Related: The Three Hidden Message Behind ISIS’s Bloody Rampages

The underestimation of ISIS capabilities and the overestimation of its losses are still dominating official rhetoric. The Obama administration claimed that 10,000 ISIS fighters were killed since the U.S.-led air campaign started in August 2014. The number is probably right, but what is missing is how many fighters have joined ISIS since then. Just months ago, it was believed that ISIS had recruited as many as 15,000 foreign fighters from all over the world. Then the number increased to 20,000 and most recently to 25,000. Recent documents seized by Iraqi security forces from a captured ISIS senior leader show that in Mosul and Nineveh province, ISIS’s members have gone from 4,500 in June 2014 to 16,000 members. In Iraq alone, some government sources believe that 40,000 civilians and anti-ISIS fighters were killed by the group in one year.

Despite the actual ISIS threat, the Obama administration is still in a state of denial. The president revealed as much when he once described ISIS as a group of “jayvee basketball players.” His military advisors have been no better. Ten months ago, they were talking about taking three years to defeat ISIS. Now they are saying it will take five years.

What the Obama administration still doesn’t understand is that if the United States can't defeat ISIS, no one can. One major victory by ISIS, like the fall of Mosul or Ramadi, is enough to recruit tens of thousands of fresh members and funds. The longer ISIS controls major population areas like Mosul, the harder restoring these areas will be and more people and assets are collected by ISIS. The Iraqi government needed ten months to liberate a small city like Tikrit. Mosul, Fallujah and Ramadi will be far harder. Saddam Hussein's regime lasted for 12 years against U.S.-led air strikes, and it was only defeated by a major U.S. ground invasion, despite the lack of morale among his forces.

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said this week that Iraq should include more Sunnis in the government. Iraqi Sunnis are well represented in the local, legislative and the executive branches of the government. The real problem in the ground fight in Iraq is the structural corruption within the Iraqi government and its armed forces that prevents any real effort to defeat ISIS.

Related: How ISIS Could Drag the U.S. Into a Ground War

A recently leaked document shows that 12,242 Iraqi soldiers are assigned to protect just 20 senior officials. Their annual salaries are about $150 million. The full budget for those soldiers could reach a billion dollars. The list of the officials doesn’t include the Prime Minister, who is protected by an army brigade. Another leaked document reveals that an Iraqi court has sentenced four ISIS members to life in prison for their involvement in a car bomb that killed 50 people in a Shiite neighborhood in Baghdad in January 2011. The Iraqi penal code and the law combatting terrorism state that murder is punished by death. The three judges said their decision was to show mercy for the four ISIS members' families.

With an army that is accustomed to live in palaces, ride in fancy cars and shoot in the air to clear the way for V.I.Ps, and with a judiciary that shows mercy to the families of the criminals not the victims, no fight against ISIS will be won. The current Iraqi army's mission is to protect the government, not the nation. Eventually, ISIS will attack the prison where four of its members are being kept, and release them to rejoin their leaders.

The positive signs of the last weeks are the 2,000 anti-tank missiles that the U.S. has delivered to the Iraqi government forces, which have already destroyed many of ISIS’s armored car bombs. A spokesperson for the Shiite militias visited the U.S. recently to open communication with the Obama administration. That communication could be crucial for future ground operations to liberate Mosul, Ramadi and Fallujah.

It has been one Islamic calendar year since the Caliphate was declared. Muslims around the world started their fasting month of Ramadan on Thursday. Since ISIS was formed in 2003, Ramadan has been always its favorite month for spectacular attacks. They believe that the sky's doors are open for the believers who kill themselves in suicide missions. For the believers, the world awaits.

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