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How is ISIS different from Al Qaeda and other terror groups? Does it pose an existential threat to the Western world?

Aaron Ross Powell
Director and Editor
Trevor Burrus
Research Fellow, Constitutional Studies

Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute with expertise in international security and the politics of energy. Her research focuses on the politics and foreign policies of petrostates, particularly in Russia and various Middle Eastern countries.

Emma Ashford joins us this week to discuss the rise of the Islamic State. How is ISIS different from Al Qaeda and other terror groups? Does it pose an existential threat to the Western world?

Where did the Islamic State come from? What do they believe? Is America responsible for ISIS’s rise to power? What’s their end game? How will Trump “deal with” ISIS, and how is that different from Obama’s policies?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Ashford mentions the work of Dr. Daveed Gartenstein‐​Ross on understanding links between terrorist groups and lone‐​wolf attackers. This op‐​ed in Foreign Affairs is a good summation of that work.



Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts, I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is our colleague, Emma Ashford. She’s a Research Fellow here and Foreign Policies Studies at the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
Emma Ashford: Great to be here.
Aaron Powell: We’re talking about ISIS. Where did this thing come from?
Emma Ashford: There is a lot of things out there lying the rise of ISIS. I think when ISIS first burst onto the scene in June 2014, they took the city of Mosul [00:00:30] in Iraq, everyone was really shocked. The roots of ISIS go back more than a decade further than that. ISIS was itself a splinter group of Al‐​Qaeda. It operated inside Iraq, as Al‐​Qaeda in Iraq, for a number of years. They had many internal disagreements with sort of Al‐​Qaeda Central, with Bin Laden disagreeing with the leaders of Al‐​Qaeda in Iraq, about how they should proceed.
The group had many members that were captured and put in prisons during the US occupation. [00:01:00] Got friendly with lots of former Baathist officers that had worked under Saddam Hussein. They didn’t do so well during that period in the mid 2000s.
Then the Syrian Civil War let them grab some territory, extend the region to Syria, and eventually they sort of came back into Iraq. Splintered from Al‐​Qaeda and declared themselves this independent entity.
Trevor Burrus: We think about Al … I’ll be able to define Al‐​Qaeda here because … Al‐​Qaeda is, [00:01:30] my understanding at least, is a loosely connected group without geographic territory, with different cells throughout. That plans attacks. I don’t know if it’s only against America or if they mostly focus on America. They not as doctrinaire on their ideology regarding Islam, for what I understand.
Emma Ashford: I think‐
Trevor Burrus: They’re doctrinaire compared to ISIS.
Emma Ashford: That is probably true. Perhaps it may be better to say, they’re not [00:02:00] as extreme and they’re willing to put off some of those more extreme goals—like achieving a global caliphate—until tomorrow. They’re much more happy to focus on today’s tactical goals in defeating Arab governments that are unfriendly to them, that they think is unIslamic, or defeating the US or other Western powers.
ISIS is definitely more extreme. I think particularly there’s a really an interesting element of apocalypticism underlying a lot of ISIS’s philosophy. [00:02:30] They think that they have to found an Islamic State today in order to be ready for when the final battles for the apocalypse come. That’s something that you really don’t find in thinking of sort of, Osama Bin Laden and a lot of those other traditional leaders of Al‐​Qaeda.
There are some other big differences between ISIS and Al‐​Qaeda, I think. One that really bares pointing out, is that Al‐​Qaeda was, as you suggested, more of a network with cells operating [00:03:00] independently of one another, but they would report back to the central authority whenever possible. They would ask for instruction from the leader of Al‐​Qaeda. They would carry a tax in conjunction with their orders from their superiors. It was very much a hierarchical structure with leaders of different groups around the world bending the need to Bin Laden and to Omar in Afghanistan.
In the context of ISIS, it’s [00:03:30] not quite the same. What we see is this very geographically focused group inside Iraq and Syria, where they’re building themselves up to be much more of almost a state or a proto‐​state. They have these affiliates in other countries. What those basically are is, existing terrorist groups that rebranded themselves under the ISIS umbrella. There’s not this central structure in the same way.
Aaron Powell: How much responsibility does America bear for the rise of ISIS?
Emma Ashford: [00:04:00] That’s, I think, an interesting question. Certainly we bear some of the responsibility of the creation of ISIS. If you go back to when ISIS declared it’s first Islamic State, it was actually in 2006 during the US invasion of Iraq. That was when the group first tried to seize a whole territory and obviously they failed. Partly in result of the American surge of troops into Iraq in the late 2000s.
Trevor Burrus: Well, so what that [00:04:30] … I’m picturing that as moderately comical, because I can see someone going to. Maybe this is why Obama called in the JV team. I can see someone going to Northern Idaho, which I think they probably are and saying, “This is my free state. I’m declaring this as state separate from Idaho” and we would’ve just said, “Those people don’t have the resources to hold it. They’re just asserting something,” and then the army just moves them aside. Is that kind of accurate, do you think?
Emma Ashford: Yeah. That’s extremely accurate. Particularly [00:05:00] as I say, if you look at the first instance where they tried to create a state. They really didn’t have the capacity to do it. They didn’t hold any territory. They had delusions of grander far above of what they were capable of doing. It’s kind of a testament to the turmoil that has existed in Iraq and Syria over the last five to seven years, that they were actually later come back and seize territory.
I wanted to finish addressing Aaron’s question about what responsibility the US bears [00:05:30] for the rise of ISIS. We really can trace a lot of this back to the US invasion of Iraq. Without the Iraqi Civil War, there would have been no need for a major Al‐​Qaeda splinter group in the country. The opening for that group wouldn’t have existed.
Without the US invasion of Iraq, we wouldn’t have had the sectarianism that came about in the Iraqi Government under Maliki. Which again, drove a lot of people to start supporting the Islamic Stay as [00:06:00] an alternative to the Government in Baghdad.
There are other causes. Things like, the Arab Spring, things like authoritarianism among Arab leaders. The US definitely bears some responsibility for the rise of ISIS.
Aaron Powell: In a terminology point, we here, we’re calling it ISIS, but it often gets called ISIL as well. What’s the difference?
Emma Ashford: It’s gone through a bunch of iterations of naming during it’s existence. Variously throughout the period we’re talking about, it’s been the Islamic [00:06:30] State, the Islamic and the Levant, that’s ISIL. The Islamic State, in either Iraq or and Syria, or Iraq and al‐​Sham, depending on which language you want to put it in.
 There’s also this word Daesh that gets thrown around. Particularly by leaders in the Obama Administration, which is a much more derogatory way of referring to the group. In Arabic and I think US leaders under the Obama Administration thought, “If we use the more derogatory term for them maybe we’re gonna make them feel bad about [00:07:00] it.” I think ISIS works as shorthand.
Aaron Powell: I’ve also heard regarding our complacency in creating them, that we have armed them. You hear this a lot. At most, I generally imagine that means that unintentionally means that American weapons have got into their hands. Would you call that not an accurate claim that America has armed ISIS?
Emma Ashford: Yeah. This is such a ridiculous rumor. It really is. [00:07:30] You’re right that US weapons absolutely fell into the hands of ISIS. When ISIS seized Mosul in 2014, the Iraqi army that we armed, and trained, and equipped at such huge expense during the occupation, dropped all their weapons and fled. ISIS was able to seize those things.
So much so, that during the Era Campaign Against ISIS, sometimes people in the Pentagon would refer to it as, “Operation Dude, That’s My Humvee.” Referring to the equipment they had left behind after the occupation.
[00:08:00] There are other reasons why people say that we might have armed or funded ISIS. It mostly has to do with our alliances with some of the gulf states, with the Saudi’s, with Turkey, with the United Arab Emirates, or Qatar, all of which who have provided some support to extremist groups inside Syria during the Civil War against Bashar al‐​Assad. Note, none of them directly funded or armed ISIS.
What [00:08:30] we saw over and over was, them giving weapons to groups that would either lose their weapons in fighting, or perhaps they would switch sides and join up with ISIS. Again, a lot of those are American weapons found their way into the hands of the group.
Aaron Powell: What’s their end game? What are they hoping to accomplish besides … They’ve claimed some territory and they want to expand that territory. Do they have some grand vision of where this all leads?
Emma Ashford: Philosophically speaking, ISIS does have a grand vision [00:09:00] of a globe‐​circling Muslim caliphate that will ensure their passage through the apocalypse. I am no theologian, so I don’t entirely understand the roots of some of this theorizing, but that is their ultimate goal, to conquer and take a bunch of territory. ISIS has really adept at building on a variety of Messianic Prophecies. They are found in the Arab World to argue that their [00:09:30] military successes mean that they’re predestined for success. It help that a lot of the places names in these prophecies actually are in Syria.
Imagine, if we had a conflict in the land that’s around Israel or Palestine right now, there’s a lot of biblical prophecies that you could tack on to that and say, “Our victories mean that the end times are coming.” ISIS has been able to do that quite effectively.
On a more practical level, shifting [00:10:00] down from that very ideological approach. ISIS wanted to seize, and hold territory, and prove that they could run a fundamentalist Muslim State, that would be an example to others elsewhere. In that for me, I mostly think of the Soviet Union when I think of ISIS in this context. I think the Soviet’s thought that their state would be an example that would encourage people in countries around the world, the workers [00:10:30] to rise up and overthrow the state and build their own utopias. I think to a large extent, that is what ISIS hopes to do. To build a functioning state that they could then hope to grow up elsewhere.
Trevor Burrus: It makes me think of various Christian sects that have, not necessarily now, but in history, have done similar things. The ones that most come in mind are the Anabaptist, who seized the town of Meunster in Germany, desired [00:11:00] to create a new Jerusalem and run it according to their opposition to infant baptism. So, the stricter viewer version of Christianity or a different one and an apocalyptic desire to bring about, to make a move that brings about the return of Jesus and what they want and religiously. Christians have done this stuff too.
 When you say that they’re running it like a fundamental place, you mean the law. That nothing in the Quran can be ignored, every rule … It’s like going to Leviticus and saying, “Okay, now we have to follow every [00:11:30] single law in Leviticus and we’re gonna set up a territory that does this, and we’re gonna eventually take over the whole world in doing that.“
Emma Ashford: Yeah. One of the really interesting things about the way that ISIS has governed the territory that they’ve taken is, it is not strategically wise. They have implemented a whole bunch of these very unpopular chronic punishments for crimes. Things like cutting the hands off of thieves, lashes for people who are convicted of adultery.
[00:12:00] You see some of that in Saudi Arabia, but in Saudi Arabia it’s hidden and it’s not in public view. ISIS actually set it up so that people would have to show up and stone their neighbors for their crimes, these very strict, absolutist interpretations of the crime. That actually cost them in public support, but they believed that implementing it was correct. They did so even though it cost them.
Aaron Powell: What does life look like then in this state? We hear about the horrific things [00:12:30] that they do, and we see videos of them, and we know about the attacks that they carry out or claim to have carried out throughout the world. The day to day, how much like a state do they operate? Do they infrastructure? Do they provide services?
Trevor Burrus: They have a pretty good Twitter account. So they have Wifi, I imagine. Also, I want to add on to Aaron’s question, which is, how much of it who came because I know they called Muslims to come and how much of the people who were already there … Then [00:13:00] of course, I’m sure people fled too.
Emma Ashford: Yeah. ISIS tried to provide a lot of the trappings of a state. Especially when they were kind of at their peak in that 2014–2015 period. They really did try. They set up infrastructure. They set up police. They set up schools. One of the commonly banded around facts actually is that ISIS didn’t bother writing their own textbooks. They just downloaded the Saudi textbooks because those were actually extreme enough for them.
They really tried [00:13:30] to present this range of social services and keep the people under their rule, I guess, happy and wanting to stay there. The problem is they didn’t really have the resources to do it. They started rationing goods, rationing food, rationing money. A lot of that went to people that were their strongest supporters.
 The people who came in from outside, as Trevor asks, the foreign fighters, they got gray housing, and good food, [00:14:00] and cell phones, and all this stuff. A lot of the people who were locals, who had been forced to stay in these cities, often times they were starving. They didn’t get very much food. They would suffer from brutality, from the enforcers of these very strict laws.
They really did try to create a state, but being so constrained by the US and Coalition attacking them, being constrained by all the fighting around them. They didn’t have the resources to do it.
Aaron Powell: You mentioned that [00:14:30] part of their appeal is that they position themselves as fulfilling a set of prophecies that speak to other people within the Muslim world. Part of that was, “Look, we’re having the kinds of victories that the Quran says are the important victories.” Does that mean that as they fail, as they get defeated more often, or as they cease to have an ongoing string of victories that their support [00:15:00] will dry up?
Emma Ashford: Certainly we have seen the stream of foreign fighters drop off dramatically. During that, again 2013 to 2015 period, ISIS was getting a lot of foreign fighters coming in to fight for them. Even though, we were killing substantial numbers of fighters in airstrikes during that period. Even though, on the ground they were losing a lot of personnel. Their numbers remained pretty much stable, about 30,000 fighters. They kept replenishing them.
Over the last [00:15:30] year or so, as they started to suffer more defeats, lose their big cities, we’ve seen the number of ISIS fighters drop pretty much precipitately. They’re just not able to recruit in the way that they were before.
Trevor Burrus: How common is this level of fundamentalism, strictness to doctrine, to the Quran in the Islam World? It’s an important point that I think a lot of Republicans and committee who are in the White House don’t understand. They just think, “Oh, [00:16:00] they’re all Arabic extremist. They’re all the same.” They don’t understand that Al‐​Qaeda doesn’t really like ISIS. ISIS doesn’t really like Al‐​Qaeda. If you move away from these very strict doctrines, if you make one sin, then you’re not good enough for ISIS. It seem like most of the Arab World should not like them at all because to ISIS most of the Arab World are part of the problem at the very least. Would that be accurate, do you thinK?
Emma Ashford: Most of the Arab World doesn’t like ISIS. One [00:16:30] of the reason why ISIS is doing so badly is everyone hates ISIS. There’s no country in the world that thinks that ISIS is a good idea. That’s actually pretty rare in Civil Wars more generally. There’s always someone willing to pop up an extremist group and ISIS has no one. The Russians, the Iranians, the US, we’re all kind of on the same side here, which is very unusual.
If we’re gonna talk about sort of public support in Middle Eastern countries, do Arab populations in the Middle East [00:17:00] support this kind of fundamentalism? The answer is no, not really. There’s always a small proportion of people who support this level of extremism and I would say ISIS and Al‐​Qaeda both fall on the absolute extreme end of the spectrum.
ISIS is perhaps more brutal and less strategic in how they pursue their goals, but they both, believe broadly similar things. They’re both very extreme. There’s a lot [00:17:30] of people in the Muslim World who have a more moderate attraction to Political Islam. That is a much more modern political philosophy.
In some cases it might be extreme, but in other cases probably more kin to Christian Democratic parties in Europe over the last couple of centuries. You find a lot of people in polls in the Middle East say that they “yes” they believe in aspects of sharia, that’s a common sort of conservative shibboleth about this.
They don’t mean that they [00:18:00] support ISIS, these populations. What they actually mean is that they support some integration of Muslim values with their governance systems and that can vary pretty widely.
Aaron Powell: In the west … In the US, ISIS is the big scary thing right now. Right after September 11th and those years before the rise of ISIS, Al‐​Qaeda was the big scary thing. What was scar was not that they were doing horrific things in the Middle East, which should’ve been more concerning to more people, but it was that they’re [00:18:30] carrying out terrorist attacks against us. That they represent an existential treat to us. Are there differences between the two groups in the way that they plan and execute attacks or the kinds of attacks that they carryout?
Emma Ashford: There is a difference, but perhaps it might be better to compare Al‐​Qaeda historically in planning operations with ISIS, and to some extent Al‐​Qaeda today. In part of what we’re seeing with attacks in the West and actually as on the side, I probably [00:19:00] should note, by far the vast majority of victims of ISIS in particular, but also Al‐​Qaeda, live in Muslim countries. They’re people living in Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, and Tunisia, and Libya. They are the people that are mostly dying of this Western attack or actually pretty rare.
If you look at the way these groups, sort of carryout their attacks in the West today, that’s very much the result of all the counter terrorism work that we have done over the last decade [00:19:30] and a half, since the September 11th attacks. Back then Al‐​Qaeda was capable of putting together a very complex plot involving multiple people converging on planes and taking them over and carrying out this huge attack that killed over 3,000 Americans.
Today it’s hard for terrorist groups to get hold of explosives. It’s harder, though not impossible for them to get a hold of weapons. A lot of the attacks that we see are either [00:20:00] more lone wolf attacks that weren’t under a lot of surveillance and were working pretty much alone. Or it’s coordinated attacks, but it’s coordinated attacks in soft targets, like nightclubs or schools. Using weapons that are relatively easy to get. It’s much harder to stage these big explosive attacks today and that goes for both ISIS and Al‐​Qaeda.
Trevor Burrus: On that point, when one of these attacks takes place and there’s a wondering [00:20:30] if it’s ISIS, which seems to me be a strange question, in terms of anyone could just say, “Yeah, I’m with ISIS,” and tweet it out, “I’m doing this for ISIS.” We would all think that ISIS did that. I know that some people in ISIS think that Muslims were not in the land, who have not come to the caliphate, are problematic. That your duty is to come to the caliphate. [00:21:00] When ISIS plans an attack do they say, “All right, you’re over there in Paris. Get a cab, get a bus, drive it into a crowded place. We’ll pay you and compensate your family.” Is it something like that or is it just some guy does it and then says, “I did it for ISIS.“
Emma Ashford: One of the big differences between ISIS and Al‐​Qaeda and actually the big disagreement that really led to them schism‐​ing eventually, was the fact that Al‐​Qaeda, particularly under Bin Laden [00:21:30] liked to keep really tight control of it’s operations. People had to be vetted and approved before they would be admitted into the group. Often they would have to go specifically for training before they would be trusted to do this kind of thing.
Al‐​Qaeda held it’s brand really closely. They were worried about damage to the brand if they perhaps hurt a lot of Muslims or alienated the population.
ISIS’s is contrast is basically willing to lend it’s brand to anybody. Part of their claiming [00:22:00] a lot of these attacks in the West that’s just sort of one guy with a knife, is them saying, “Look how broad our reach is. We reach everywhere. We have supporters everywhere.” They’re willing to claim these people even if they have no explicit ties,
There’s a framework, I think it was Daveed Gartenstein‐​Ross, wrote up a framework for how to understand links between terrorist groups and attacks in today’s day and age that I think is very helpful here. He says there are four [00:22:30] levels of attacks.
In the first place, you have these large planned exercises where the people are trained in a camp in Yemen. Sent overseas to carryout a planned mission.
The second place, you have the people carrying out the attack. The plan originated with a terrorist group like ISIS. The planning was mostly carried out say over social media or email. They were never actually in those countries.
The [00:23:00] third place, you got people who carryout an attack and had been influenced by a terrorist group or had contact with them before. The group didn’t actually plan the attack.
The fourth place, you got these genuine lone wolfs. People who just read some stuff and go out and attack someone.
I think that’s a really helpful framework because it shows you that there is a range. These groups operate in a lot of different ways. Attacks may be any or all of those subgroups.
Aaron Powell: Why do we seem to see … So [00:23:30] these attacks, these kinds of attacks that ISIS is either carrying out or claiming responsibility for, or saying “This happened under our brand.” In recent years, there’s been things like knifings, and random shootings, and driving a truck into a crowd. These are like very easy attacks to carryout. Don’t really require any resources and are almost impossible to prevent. [00:24:00] Yet, when we’ve seen a fair number of them in Europe, we’ve seen very few in the United States. It seems like if they really wanted to hurt us they ought to be able to. It would be easy enough for someone to walk a bomb onto the subway or whatever. Why are we seeing more in Europe and fewer in the US? Is that it’s harder to attack the US or is it they just simply want to blow up Europeans more?
Emma Ashford: I don’t think anyone [00:24:30] wants to blow up Europeans more and from my accent you can tell I’m pretty relieved about that. I think this really is an interesting question because you would expect given that the US is taking the lead in the campaign in Iraq and Syria. I think we’ve done three quarters of all the air strikes there, that the US would actually be the primary target.
A big part of this is the difficulty for these groups of recruiting people that actually have access to the US. That can come here. That can live here. There are much [00:25:00] larger Muslim populations in Europe. Particularly much larger populations of unintegrated Muslims. Think of the suburbs of Paris where you have Muslim communities that go back three generations, but many of the people still live in poverty and can’t fully integrate into the system. That kind of thing helps as a breeding ground for radicalism and extremism. The pool of people to carryout this kind of attack is much larger in Europe than it is here.
I think it’s probably worth [00:25:30] noting here that nothing that the Trump plate has proposed, that the refugee ban, the stopping immigration from various Muslim countries. Nothing they’ve proposed will really change that equation.
Trevor Burrus: Actually, it seems to me that what they’ve actually proposed and also people like Le Pen in France, with saying the refugees are connected to ISIS are gonna be terrorists. Creating further separation between the Islam world and the Western world is exactly what ISIS would want. They don’t [00:26:00] want there to be moderate Muslims living in Western world who are influenced to be more peaceful and secular and deal with modern life. They would like to have there be at the very least, before they take over the whole world, there be a completely Islam world and a Western world that doesn’t pollute their world.
Emma Ashford: Absolutely. To be honest, Al‐​Qaeda or ISIS’s worst nightmare is somewhere like Dearborn, Michigan where there is a large population of moderate [00:26:30] Westernized Muslims, who are integrating into society the way immigrants always have done here. What they would much prefer is marginalized Muslims that feel like they’re not accepted by Western societies. The reaction of people like Marine Le Pen or even of some of President Trump’s advisors. People like Steve Bannon really actually probably hurts more than it helps.
Trevor Burrus: The refugees themselves, who are leaving, it would be wrong to presume … They’re probably [00:27:00] fleeing ISIS. I mean, they’re fleeing the Civil War, the Syrian War, but I’m sure a lot of people don’t want to live under these regimes where you get stoned in the streets, and you get your hands cut off, and all this stuff. So they’re running away and we’re calling them the terrorists, which seems to be strange.
Emma Ashford: Yeah. One of the very sad things about the discussion about the refugee crISIS in Europe and particularly in the Middle East where it’s worse, is that a lot of this discussion ignores the fact that a lot of people [00:27:30] are fleeing from terrible violence. In a lot of cases these sort of totalitarian and very brutal regimes. Whether it’s Bashar al-Assad’s torch wrap apparatus in the Syrian state, or whether it’s whether it’s somewhere like ISIS.
A lot of the time another thing that you don’t hear is that the people who live in the territory controlled by ISIS, many of them are forced to stay there. ISIS had a lot of it’s population start to flee as the US and Coalition Group started [00:28:00] to advance on their territory. They started preventing civilians from leaving. Today in Mosul, Islamic Stay is basically using civilians as human shields.
Aaron Powell: The picture of ISIS then that gets presented to American’s by Fox News, by then Donald Trump and his people‐
Trevor Burrus: After he heard it on Fox News.
Aaron Powell: After he heard it on Fox News. We know so that they wildly overestimate the threat [00:28:30] of ISIS sneaking refugees in and shooting up American cities. Broadly speaking, what do they get wrong about ISIS as an organization, ISIS as an ideology?
Emma Ashford: I think they overestimate ISIS global reach. This was particularly true about a year ago when there was a lot of conversation about ISIS. “Now it’s operating in 21 countries and we got to do something about it.” The fact is, if you [00:29:00] looked at that number two weeks before, ISIS would’ve been operating in seven countries. The groups that got added to ISIS in that timeframe had existed for many years.
Boko Haram in Nigeria, for example, or al‐​Shabaab in Somalia, these groups apparently weren’t a security threat to the US, or not a big one prior to joining ISIS. The minute they took the ISIS name, suddenly it was a global threat that we had to push back against. I think there’s a real tendency [00:29:30] to take what these groups say at face value and then extract like that into a much bigger threat than actually exists.
Trevor Burrus: Trump has said some things about ISIS including in his inauguration speech, which I think he said “eradicate” or “We will destroy ISIS.” Aside from whatever he thinks about ISIS, which I’m sure changes by the second if he has any coherent beliefs, but what do people like Steve Bannon and advisors to [00:30:00] Trump think about ISIS?
Emma Ashford: There’s two key groups within the administration that really matter on this. Actually let me say three key groups inside the administration. There is a small group of fairly standard classic Republic Foreign Policy Elites. People like General Jim Mattis. People like Mike Pence, the Vice President, who have fairly conventional Republican views on foreign policy, fairly hawkish, but not crazy.
There are two other groups inside the Trump White House that you don’t often [00:30:30] find in Presidential Administrations. One is a group that we might call Jacksonians. Like the historian, Walter Russell Mead, proposed Jacksonianism is a strain of American Foreign Policy thought that is fairly domestically focused, but also believes in military greatness. If anybody attacks you, you crush them. That is, I think the approach that Trump himself and some of his advisors are taking to ISIS. They hurt us we will go out, [00:31:00] we will crush them. But we won’t stick around to do nation building or anything like that.
There’s this other group surrounding Steve Bannon. If you look at Bannon’s films, he was a filmmaker before he went into politics, his films talk about Islam itself. Particularly the phrase “Radical Islamic Terrorism” as a global threat on the level of fascism in the 1930s and 40s, [00:31:30] on the level of communism during the Cold War. He genuinely thinks that America is going to be engaged in a generational war to try and defeat Radical Islam. That’s a view that I find very disturbing to have so close to the President. It implies that even after ISIS is defeated in Iraq and Syria, he may go looking for broader opportunities to try and push back what he sees as a global problem.
Aaron Powell: What is wrong with that view? We do [00:32:00] have Radical Islam in the form of ISIS and the form of Al‐​Qaeda, and the form of other groups that does has either global aspirations or at least global reach in it’s attacks. We do have a Muslim world that seems to be plenty of countries that are fundamentally against the basic liberal principle that we at least like to think we uphold in the West. Shouldn’t we see this as a real conflict?
Emma Ashford: [00:32:30] I think first of all, this viewpoint really conflates the extremism of groups like ISIS with that much more moderate Political Islamism that you see in countries across the Middle East. That’s not to say that these political parties often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood or other groups, it’s not to say that they’re moderate or liberal. It’s not to say that I agree with what they propose. I think a lot of what they propose would drag us back to dark ages. They don’t pose any security threat to the US. [00:33:00] They don’t want to fight us. They don’t want to attack us. They want to be left alone to run their political systems. If those populations can reach for more democracy, more economic rights, that’s great, but their not engaged in some sort of struggle against the West.
When it comes to the more extreme groups, again I think this viewpoint really just overstates the level of the threat. We know there are a lot of statistics out there now. Some of them from my colleagues at Cato talking [00:33:30] about how limited the threat of terrorism really is. If you live in a Western country, it’s extremely small. Instead, what we do is we go out and we fight what we think is this global threat, something that could really be better dealt with through intelligence and law enforcement here at home. We go out, we engage in military campaigns, which cause future problems. I really do think the 2003 invasion of Iraq is the quintessential example of this. We are here today talking about [00:34:00] ISIS because of the invasion of Iraq that was self designed to prevent a threat to America.
Aaron Powell: What about then I guess a softer threat? These other groups that are not as extreme as ISIS, but are politically Islamic I guess. Those views are the view that Islam should have play a large role in politics is much more popular in the Middle East and among Arab populations than it [00:34:30] is in the Western World. This notion that even though they’re not going to attack us. Even, if the refugees coming aren’t going to all shoot up nightclubs. That their views, even of the more moderate sort, are themselves kind of in conflict. Islam is growing quickly. Is it the fastest growing religion? [00:35:00] If we bring that in, then over time the Western World will begin to look more like the Islamic World. Even, if it doesn’t look as bad as the territory ISIS controls.
Emma Ashford: I think people said that about Catholics coming into the US in the early 19th Century, right? I come from Scotland. It’s a Protestant country. We have a long history of political struggle over Catholicism and Protestantism. When Catholics started immigrating to the predominately Protestant US, people said, [00:35:30] “They’re beholding to Rome, they cannot be trusted. They will be traitors to the US. They will bring in their very authoritarian religious ideas.” I think idea that we face some sort of insider threat from immigration is nothing new, but that’s predominately an argument about immigration and about culture. That’s not an argument about security threats.
You could, I think, make a very coherent argument saying there is more threat to liberal values and [00:36:00] more concern about keeping religious values out of politics from Christian for our Right religious groups in the US than from Muslim immigrants that are coming in today.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that part of ISIS would want, and some of the supporting groups, and some other groups like Al‐​Qaeda, would be okay with an attack, another invasion by America. To go and fight them where they are because it fits into their narrative. It [00:36:30] could be good for recruiting and it just proves they were right the whole time. There’s a crusade coming, and a war, and there will be a point we fight on some sort of battleground and they win. Islam will be triumphant. We’ve seen them actually goading on President Obama and saying, “Come get us.” On that level, it would be an extremely bad idea to go in there it seems like. Just on that. For many reasons it’s a bad idea, but it’s what they want.
Emma Ashford: They certainly did go to the Western [00:37:00] powers, but I think ISIS perhaps distinctly from Al‐​Qaeda was a lot less focus on Western public opinion, Western governments when they started their campaign inside Iraq than they were with local governments. They really wanted to focus on say overthrowing the Saudi State. Or overthrowing the Jordanian State. Try to build up these sort of gains in the region.
What we have done, you say if we go in against ISIS, the fact is we are already engaged [00:37:30] in a massive air campaign against ISIS. The number of troops in the region on the ground fighting them is growing by the day at this point. In the campaign against ISIS, what we are doing is elevating them above the rest of the players in the Syrian Civil War.
We’re saying that they are worthy of all our attention. That we should be fighting them because they are a genuine major threat to the US. There are other ways to deal with that kind of problem. [00:38:00] I think policy makers didn’t perhaps adequately consider those ways.
Trevor Burrus: What has Trump done so far in the first three months of his presidency?
Emma Ashford: Trump has stepped up the campaign against ISIS. We’ve seen several thousand more troops deployed to Iraq. We’ve seen at least 1,000 more deployed to Syria. More are reportedly under consideration. What Trump has basically done is take the Obama Era Campaign Against ISIS, which was relatively [00:38:30] cautious for most of the local partners on the ground, was actually a fairly sane approach to ISIS. Trump has taken that approach and he’s basically put it on steroids. He wants to bring victory against ISIS much faster. If he can’t find a political solution in the region, in the local conflict that’s lets him do that, he won’t bother with considering arming the cards or building up a local moderate group. Instead, he’ll just send more US [00:39:00] troops to get the job done. His approach appears to be very military focused.
The problem with it is, the reason the Obama Administration was so cautious and planning for a long term campaign against ISIS was, the political problems that caused ISIS to rise in the first place haven’t been resolved. The Syrian Civil War is still going. If we clear ISIS out of that area, someone else will just come in and hold that territory. We don’t know today, who that’s gonna be.
Trevor Burrus: It seems a pretty frightening prospect about, [00:39:30] if you have Trump the Jacksonian, as you mentioned, and that seems accurate to me, like let’s get this done. It’s kind of like making a deal. Let’s go in all the way and get this done. You have Bannon as the clash of civilizations, the inevitability of war between the West and Islam. That’s a pretty potent combination for placing some amount of odds on another massive military [00:40:00] engagement within the Trump Administration. Would you agree?
Emma Ashford: I think so. Perhaps not necessarily in Syria, it could be elsewhere. One idea that is becoming increasingly popular in conservative foreign policy spaces is the idea that after ISIS is defeated we need to pivot to restraining Iran’s “Melian” influence in the Middle East.
Trevor Burrus: Oh my Gosh. This is a what, forty year war we’re talking about.
Emma Ashford: There was [00:40:30] a report out from the Institute for the Study of War, which is sort of a DOD linked think tank. They advocated a strategy for defeating ISIS that would step up US troop commitments to the fight that would try and defeat them pretty fast. Then would focus on a region wide effort in Yemen, in Syria, and elsewhere in pushing back against Iranian influence. This may end up becoming just part of the same conflict if those recommendations are followed.
Trevor Burrus: [00:41:00] What should we do? You kind of tied into it and said we shouldn’t be doing this, we shouldn’t be doing this, we shouldn’t be doing this. So what should we be doing?
Emma Ashford: Oh look I’m out of time. It’s a very difficult question and I think the problem with ISIS and with the Obama Administration’s Campaign is they went into this with no good options. The Syrian Civil War is a quagmire. Nobody is going to come out of it having won anything. [00:41:30] The Assad Regime will obtain like a small rump section of Syria. The Russians has spent a lot of lives, and money, and equipment in order to retain that and a small part of the Mediterranean. We will have defeated ISIS, but we won’t have solved any of those political problems that gave rise to it in the first place.
What I advocated towards the end of the Obama Administration was that they continue with the strategy that they were pursuing, which is [00:42:00] limited air support for a local coalition that would go in, try to control the territory, but that it would be very slow. We would try to build the political blocks to hold that territory as we went through the campaign.
Parallel to that though, and I think this is where the Trump Administration has just gone completely off the rails, I would advocate that we need to find a political solution to the Syrian Civil War. That really is the root [00:42:30] of this. We can’t really fix the ISIS problem or any other extremist groups that rise in that area if we are just leaving a bunch of Syrian territory uncontrolled where they will grow up again.
The solution for that is the talks in Geneva. Now the Russian led talks in Astana, depending on which way you go, where we try and find some sort of solution that will either create a negotiated settlement in Syria. Or even consider some kind of soft partition to let different groups control different areas. If you can solve [00:43:00] the Syrian Civil War, this problem gets a lot easier.
Aaron Powell: What about Trump when he was campaigning, offered some concrete proposals of sorts to solving the problems. One was bomb the hell out of them.
Trevor Burrus: Cut off the internet. Wasn’t that one of them too?
Aaron Powell: Two of them were, first take their oil, and then the other one was his big beautiful green zones that we would set up and defend. [00:43:30] Are those two proposals … Is there anything to them? Are they unworkable? Are they flat out insane?
Emma Ashford: Let me start with the first one, the take their oil. That is, if not flat out insane, then close to it. Trump had said this a bunch of times during the campaign. Then he even said it at a talk he was giving at CIA Headquarters two days after he was inaugurated. Or three days after he was inaugurated. He said, “We should go back to Iraq [00:44:00] and we will take their oil. Maybe we’ll get another chance to do so.”
This is massively damaging for the US as it tries to work with the Iraqi Government to push back against ISIS. It’s technically really difficult if you want to take Iraq’s oil. You need to occupy and hold that territory for the time it takes to pump the oil, which is a long time. No one really knows where he’s really going with this, but he continues to repeat it. I guess it just sounds good and makes sense to [00:44:30] him.
I am more concerned about the big beautiful green zones idea. This is an idea. Safe zones or no fly zones, that we have seen mentioned a bunch of times, even since the inauguration. It keeps coming up. Rex Tillerson made comments about it a couple of times. Trump himself, has both said, “We will do safe zones. We won’t do safe zones.”
The reason I’m concerned about this is that would transition us from a fairly [00:45:00] limited campaign a terrorist group in a known location to the job of protecting civilians in a multi sited civil war that would require not just air support. It would require massive on the ground forces. Those probably aren’t gonna come from local states. We’re talking about 50,000 US troop easily. It’s extremely difficult to protect civilians on the ground as UN experiences, and Bosnia, and other places have shown.
[00:45:30] At the same time, we’re not resolving the civil war that actually caused these civilian problems in the first place. This is just an incredibly bad idea, but keeps coming back. I think it’s something that really bears watching.
Aaron Powell: Is it possible to then just defeat ISIS.
Emma Ashford: You can defeat this iteration of the group, sure. I promise you, you are not going to defeat the ideas that underlay them, or the factors that caused people to get radicalized [00:46:00] in the first place. The very fact that ISIS itself rose out of Al‐​Qaeda, other splinter groups like Al‐​Nusra and Syria also came out of Al‐​Qaeda. The Al‐​Qaeda network itself is still there.
This is not something that you can defeat. Terrorism is not something you can send the US Military out in an aircraft carrier and destroy. You can kill individual terrorist leaders, but all we have learned from our experiences over the last 15 [00:46:30] years tells us that, that doesn’t resolve the problem either. It just makes the people who are left more violent and a little less organized.
You can bomb training camps and I’m sure that helps in the short term. Or you can rely on intelligence and law enforcement to prevent attacks from happening here at home. That is almost definitely the better approach. It doesn’t involve us in large open ended military campaigns against an idea, which is un‐​winnable in the first [00:47:00] place. It doesn’t create any of the backlash effect. We don’t see populations in the Middle East who almost overwhelmingly hate the US as a result of our campaigns in the region. You don’t get people being radicalized by say drone strikes in their nation as we see in particularly in Yemen. All of those backlash problems, they go away when you focus on the problem at home instead. If you’re gonna talk about defeating [00:47:30] ISIS, or defeating terrorism, defeating Radical Ideologies, it’s much more of a playing defense than offense.
Aaron Powell: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more visit us at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.