Don't let ISIS distract from al Qaeda threat
June 20th, 2014
06:00 PM ET

Don't let ISIS distract from al Qaeda threat

By Jane Harman, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Jane Harman is Director, President, and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. A former U.S. representative from California, she was the ranking Democrat on the House intelligence committee from 2002 to 2006. The views expressed are her own.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a disaster with momentum – we have every reason to fear that they’ll gain more ground, and little reason to hope that the Iraqi government has what it takes to beat them back. But while we watch Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s demotion to “mayor of Baghdad” with horror, let’s remember who (and what) our enemies are.

It’s a media cliché by now to say that these insurgents were “too violent for al Qaeda.” That might be true, but it’s not because core al Qaeda flinches at the sight of blood. For the short term, ISIS is looking for territory; al Qaeda hasn’t stopped looking for targets.

Yet with all eyes on ISIS’s warpath, we risk being distracted from al Qaeda’s very real efforts to launch the next major terror plot. Remember that al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has demonstrated its intent to strike our homeland – and that its dangerously inventive bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, is still at large. Remember that al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb has made a point of targeting the interests and citizens of our European allies and that it still enjoys safe haven in Mali’s ungoverned north. These are threats that can’t drop off our radar, no matter how savage the destruction in Iraq and Syria.

Of course, ISIS is generating new dangers day by day. First and foremost is the risk posed by foreign fighters. The regional war is radicalizing young men and women equipped with the deadliest weapon a terrorist can come by: a clean Western passport. In an especially perverse propaganda coup, ISIS’s rival, Al Nusra, is claiming credit for an American suicide bomber in Syria. This is a threat beyond what the Tsarnaev brothers inflicted on Boston last year. Those two allegedly learned their craft on the Internet; the fighters we face next will have practiced terror in a warzone. ISIS dreams of carving out for itself a neo-caliphate, plucked out of the 7th century and dropped without warning onto their modern victims. In practical terms, they’re creating a vacuum for terror to fill, and a training ground for the perpetrators of future international plots.

We know that ISIS members are thinking westward, and thinking ahead to homecomings. Years ago, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi reportedly quipped to his American captors that he would see them in New York; now, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron is highlighting the threat posed by Britons who are fighting with ISIS. We know that Americans have gone to fight in Syria, and we also know – worryingly – that we don’t know where all of them are. We need to build better links with the communities these angry young people will be returning to. Better yet, we need to know to screen for them before they enter the country. Flagging individuals who would bring terror back home is an exceptionally difficult intelligence challenge, but it must be a top priority for our counterterrorism policy.

Whatever perspective you take on the subject, ISIS is a nightmare realized. We’re witnessing the latest convulsion in a regional war first unleashed by the barbarism of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, with no end yet in sight. Iraqi soil has been practically scoured clean of what stability had been purchased by the blood and treasure of the United States and its allies. What’s left is a clear and present danger.

We should be very cautious about Americanizing the conflict in Iraq and Syria, which would risk painting a target on our back, and I’m encouraged to see that our intelligence services are working with Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to develop a better picture of the regional insurgency. An international effort – led by Arab nations taking responsibility for their regional security – is the surest way to contain the mass violence. Drones alone can’t deliver good governance to Iraq, and a more inclusive Iraqi politics led by someone other than al-Maliki is the only durable antidote to the country’s wasting insurgency.

Even as we work to stabilize the region, we absolutely must keep in mind the end game. For al Qaeda and the rest of the transnational jihadist movement, the brass ring remains a major attack on Western soil. In Iraq and Syria, ISIS may crumble or it may conquer. Regardless, the chief responsibility must be to thwart plots that would put Americans in the cross hairs. Those may come from new foreign fighters radicalized today, tomorrow, and the next day – we can’t ignore that those threats might come too from old enemies who have never stopped planning for American deaths.

In Boston, bombs went off because a pair of first-time terrorists got lucky. Going forward, we’ll face bombs that go off because their designers knew exactly what they were doing.

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Topics: Iraq • Terrorism

soundoff (70 Responses)
  1. chri§§y

    Lol only 3 were mine. I got my sisters 2 when she was killed on 9/11 which is why i KNOW my mother wont ever come arount. Plus shes 87!

    June 21, 2014 at 9:47 pm |
  2. Debbie

    Isn't it something chrissy? I mean your take on our government's stand on ISIS...kind of wishy washy that's for sure.

    June 21, 2014 at 9:51 pm |
  3. Debbie

    I didn't know that. So so sorry about your sister. How heartbreaking. kind of you to care for your sister's children. She would be so glad..I mean to know it is someone as nice as you..

    June 21, 2014 at 9:56 pm |
  4. chri§§y

    My sister and i were very close and as her and my brother in law were in the military i had my niece and nephew most of the time already! They had already lost so much it wouldve been awful to take them out of their other home! Plus they were all good together, my children wouldve been lost without them also!

    June 21, 2014 at 10:02 pm |
  5. Debbie

    @chrissy. I have two sibblings . I haven't spoken to either one in a long time. I feel a need to call them to tell them I love them and would like to see them soon...
    Good night chrissy.
    Again. I am sorry for your loss.

    June 21, 2014 at 10:03 pm |
  6. Debbie

    I understand fully..

    June 21, 2014 at 10:06 pm |
  7. chri§§y

    As for the US governments stand on ISIS...i think our POTUS is a wise man and he really cares about the citizens. He knows we are war weary plus he is a diplomatic kind of guy but CONGRESS...thats a whole different can of worms! Obama knows they will critisize whatever plan he comes up with just out of spite! Doesnt matter to them what the people want.

    June 21, 2014 at 10:09 pm |
    • Isobel

      Obama has been funding allies of the al Qaeda group al Nusra in Syria, and 'reached out' to the Islamic Front, the biggest group of rebels, who are Salafis, allied with al Nusra and share their desire to start a 7th century caliphate. The only thing that prevented him was they wouldn't agree to his conditions for association. He is on record of saying they are 'OK'.

      Obama, on the other hand, isn't OK.

      June 24, 2014 at 10:53 am |
      • Tom Bukowski

        Yes, this is a 1500 year old problem. No Western state can fix this. Don't blame any one administration. This is purely a Middle East concoction. The West didn't get it when they set up false, self-serving boundries after WW1, and we still don't get it.

        June 27, 2014 at 12:49 pm |
  8. Debbie

    I know it still has to hurt. At least memories are precious as well as one can ever take that away from you chrissy.
    God bless your sister.

    June 21, 2014 at 10:13 pm |
  9. chri§§y

    Thank you! I learned long ago you have to forgive to heal! And you cant blame a whole race for the actions of a few! My sister and i will be together again one day! Until then i plan on helping as many as i can and to do my very best to harm no one! Have a good nite and God Bless!

    June 21, 2014 at 10:20 pm |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini@

      @ chrissy:
      You did yet another tremendously admirable thing by raising your sister's two children.
      Also, I am deeply sorry that you lost your sister in that horrible attack.

      June 22, 2014 at 1:04 pm |
  10. chri§§y

    And just think i did all that without having "to leave my intelligence at home while using my elegant heart!!!"

    June 22, 2014 at 1:48 pm |
  11. chri§§y

    Oops i got that wrong "left my brain at home while thinking with my elegant simplistic heart"

    June 22, 2014 at 1:54 pm |
  12. chri§§y

    And for the record it wasnt exactly admirable! It was an act of love and it was also theraputic in helping ALL of us heal! The heart KNOWS what the heart knows! And sometimes that is far more intelligent than the brain! Thats why we have both!

    June 22, 2014 at 2:43 pm |
    • Joey Isotta-Fraschini@

      @ chrissy:
      Did you see SUNSET BOULEVARD?
      SWANSON: I wrote that with my heart!
      HOLDEN: Sure. That's what makes it great.

      June 22, 2014 at 4:56 pm |
  13. chri§§y

    Lol as a matter of fact yes i did. Now you know that my "admirable act" was selfish though right? It helped me cope with the loss of my sister but also helped my kids as well as hers as well.

    June 22, 2014 at 7:10 pm |
  14. j. von hettlingen

    The ISIS under its current leader Abu Bakr al Bagdadi appeals more to young foreigners than Al Qaeda chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, who – a theologian – is nearly twice the age of al Bagdadi. The ISIS is loaded and can afford to recruit more foreigners. Most of those, who join the Jihadists are young Muslims born in the West. Some of them have lost their bearings and are misfits. Not all of them pose a security threat, when they return home, but the authorities don't want to take risk. In Britain, the Home Office had deprived those fighting in Syria, of their British nationality, to prevent them from entering the country.

    June 23, 2014 at 10:30 am |
    • Isobel

      The Home Office has talked about depriving them of their nationality but it's not that simple, many of them will have been born in the UK or at least have had citizenship for a long time. Another problem is that they're not necessarily tracked on re-entry to the UK so it isn't always known if they return. It's a mess, they have been stating in Syria they do intend to bring the war back to Europe complete with their fighting experience gained there.

      June 24, 2014 at 11:02 am |
  15. rick

    I remember my son. Age 9 at the time of 9/11. Walked up to me and asked. "when will they attack us here dad..?" My answer was.?"Behind every cop.. Fireman.. Ambulance person.. And emergency responder. Is a country hick.. Father.. Mother.. Grandfather.. Anf family who WONT let it happen again son.!" God.. Guns.. And guts.. Made america free. And we WILL defend our families.. Homes.. And life. To prevent any oppression from that ungodly section of the world..! Our history should prove that back to 1776.. We may not have the perfect society. But it MICH BETTER than that alternitive by a huge margin! And I defended it. And will if asked again. Dont let the ones who paid the ultimate price. Be in vain..

    June 24, 2014 at 12:15 pm |
  16. chri§§y

    Oh gees @ Isobel... Obama is NOT funding anything! Thats pure slander! ALL taxes and expenditures MUST be approved by Congress!!!! Its how it works, you may not like it that you cant blame the black muslim man but thats just how it is!

    June 24, 2014 at 3:47 pm |
  17. chri§§y

    Sad that no one can find a ligitament scandal to tag him with isnt it? Hardly fits the profile of what we are used to! Lol the REAL sad part is the way you all try to blame him for things that he OBVIOUSLY cant be responsible for!!!

    June 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm |
  18. Rick McDaniel

    ISIS is a component of Al Qaeda.

    June 24, 2014 at 4:17 pm |
  19. Eddie Fonseca

    When we think of terrorism as American's we always think of dreaded day of 9/11 when innocent American's family's felt the pain, as they lost loved ones from the NYPD Police Department, NYPD Fire Department, NSA Agency also FBI terrorism unit of NY those brave men and women put their own lives on the line for their city and country, so the rest of us could enjoy life and liberty free from terrorism attacks on our soil. Terrorism is not a new thing for the Middle East it was started thirty years ago by a young women from Lebanon when her family was killed, it was about revenge not about religion or anything like terrorists claim today to the hateful videos they broadcast to the Western countries. So ISIS is just another radical spin of terrorists group from Al Quaeda, which just makes claims they are tied to them which not be the case atall. As an European American who has traveled to the Middle East and Israel before and seen the first hand devastation that terrorism play's in the lives of young Jewish and Arab men and women, who are college educated they denounce terrorists attacks which kill innocent men and women of all religiousness backgrounds. As Americans we need to start understanding about different terrorist groups, that harm our way of life in our great nation, which stands for freedom and liberty under the great Stars and Strips flag which allows all American's to live their lives free from any type of harassment of dangers to our lives. Without more American's doing more international traveling or having culture programs on terrorists groups on our local televisions, will we become a nation which is scared from all spin of and real terrorists groups for years to come.

    June 24, 2014 at 11:24 pm |
    • Fonseca port wine was awesome...

      I used to love Fonseca Bin #29 port wine, in the US. What a shame you can't get it anymore. Taylor Fladgate bought them out, I believe..... can you still get Fonseca Port in Europe????

      June 25, 2014 at 10:31 am |
  20. Skorpio

    Islam is the biggest threat! Had prophet Mohammed been alive, he would've been the supreme leader of ALL radical and moderate Islamic groups in the world, in fact, he would've made it to the top FBI list as the most wanted criminal of this planet.

    June 25, 2014 at 9:37 am |
  21. Fred Champ

    To all haters of Cheney,Bush or republican party!!!Inaction in military terms or political ones like economics have led to 9/11!To people who are unaware, we actually don't live in a world of physics though physics and abstractions(ideas,emotions,spoken words)them both rule the actual world we live in as beings.
    Not taking care of Al-Quaeda since 1993 WTC failed bombing have led to 9/11!!U.S.S. Cole bombing of 1998 whom made 200 some deaths actually was a sign of what was coming!

    Inaction show weakness and let evil grow!Inaction as well weakness is provocative to evil doers!!
    LOL!!It's funny to see extreme liberals find a scapegoat like whether Cheney or Bush for Iraq war!!
    I much prefer Iraq war to 9/11!Attack on america was tied to Afghanistan war!!

    I'm dead serious ignorant lefties scapegoat Bush and Cheney for what's happening now!
    It is actually a bit similar to ignorant people who blame Hitler for world war 2.Where actually it was much more
    complicated than this crazy Hitler guy!But actually only worse because Cheney and Bush are not close to be on par
    to Hitler!
    Bush and Cheney are not bad guys them two tried to protect the country!Inaction is much less physics and more abstracts though war is much physics it does meet the eyes!Final say these guys in the government know much more what they're doing than some peace lovers extreme liberals that have their ass at the end of the day saved by the
    warmongers they bully by their own ignorance.Peace is and always be won and saved by some kind of wars.

    Ah!!Those Clinton years have done good to fat cats,where was the security of foreign affairs involved?Al-Quaeda loved
    those Clinton years!!They lived and grew big in peace!Although those clinton years were so peacefull!We miss them,I

    June 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm |
  22. Marc Aurele

    Just like Nazism, Islam is not a religion, it is a political movement.

    July 5, 2014 at 6:12 am |
  23. reason1984

    "Al-Qaeda is on the run."

    July 5, 2014 at 6:42 pm |
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