Why ISIS shouldn’t be ​branded terrorists

Terrorism leads to panicked over-reaction.​

ISIS 2Yesterday I posted about Kenneth Pollack’s valuable Iraq Military Situation Report that appeared June 14 on the website of the Brookings Institution where he’s a  senior fellow in the Saban Center for Middle East Policy . He explains the gains of the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (or Syria, or the Levant) have been relatively easy because they were in primarily Sunni territories. But now, with ISIS stalled outside Baghdad, between Shia resistance increased on its own territory and help from Iran and the United States, he foresees a stalemate leading to a war of attrition.

Among other insights in the report that may be new to you as they were me was that Sunni militants, as exemplified by Isis, as a subhead of his report reads, “are Militias First and Foremost, Terrorists only a Distant Second.”

Here as well, Prime Minister Maliki and his apologists like to refer to the Sunni militants as terrorists. Too often, so too do American officials. Without getting into arcane and useless debates about what constitutes a “terrorist,” as a practical matter it is a mistake to think of these groups as being principally a bunch of terrorists.

Why exactly?

The problem there is that that implies that what these guys mostly want to do is to blow up buildings or planes elsewhere around the world, and particularly American buildings and planes.

​​… Somewhere down the road, they probably will begin to mount terrorist attacks against other countries from their secure areas in Iraq and Syria.

Then, what’s motivating them​​?

They are looking to conquer territory.

​Yes, conquering is still a thing. Ye olde Islamic Caliphate. Furthermore, Pollack writes:

​… this is a traditional ethno-sectarian militia waging [a] civil war. (They are also not an insurgency.) ​…  They will do so using guerrilla tactics or conventional tactics.

​In fact

Their entire advance south over the past week has been a conventional, motorized light-infantry offensive; not a terrorist campaign, not a guerrilla warfare campaign.

​Why is it crucial to make clear that they’re not primarily terrorists? Pollack:

That is important because defining the Sunni militants as terrorists implies that they need to be attacked immediately and directly by the United States. Seeing them [as] a sectarian militia waging a civil war, puts the emphasis on where it needs to be: finding an integrated political-military solution to the internal Iraqi problems that sparked the civil war. And that is a set of problems that is unlikely to be solved by immediate, direct American attacks on the Sunni militants.

Indeed, he writes:

. . . such attacks could easily make the situation worse.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.

Categories: War/Security

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2 replies »

  1. Yes, calling the Taliban and the Sunnis in Iraq “insurgents” always bugged me because it obviously implied they were trying to usurp a legitimate authority in place, and in the mideast where territory and power has been handed back and forth like a joint at a Dead concert, I’m not sure one group can ever claim legitimacy.

    Again, helpful series of posts. Also enjoyed previous posts. I think we tend to forget that one of the primary purposes of war is and ever has been looting. Watching TV last night, flipping channels. On one, some people were rhapsodizing about an antique Luger in “pristine” condition someone had “brought back” from the war, and on Antiques Roadshow, some guy was pricing toys his dad had “found” in Germany and brought back. I much prefer ISIS as a sectarian group who wants money and land than a bunch of religious zealots.