14 July 2016

America Is Acting Locally, the Islamic State Is Thinking Globally

July 12, 2016 

The Islamic State has marked the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan with a global wave of terror. Its attacks in Istanbul; Baghdad; Dhaka, Bangladesh; and at multiple sites across Saudi Arabia have claimed hundreds of lives. These attacks follow a landmark mass-casualty shooting in Orlando, Florida, by a gunman who answered the Islamic State’s call to attack the United States directly.

U.S. special envoy Brett McGurk has called the Islamic State’s recent attacks a sign of weakness, spurred by its mounting losses in Iraq and Syria. “ISIL and its leaders have retreated to the shadows,” he testified recently, using another acronym for the jihadist group.

In fact, the opposite is true. The Islamic State’s attacks prove that, despite its recent losses, it remains strong and capable of executing its global strategy to undermine modern states, expand as a caliphate, and spark an apocalyptic war with the West. The United States will fail to defeat the Islamic State and protect the homeland if it does not reframe its strategy to contend with the Islamic State globally, rather than focusing on tactical successes in Iraq and Syria.

The Islamic State’s strategy is both local and global. The group pursues interlocking campaigns across multiple geographic areas: Its local strategy in Iraq and Syria is to remain in control of terrain as a caliphate, while its regional strategy is to expand that caliphate across the Middle East by incorporating more fighting groups, which will allow it to further destabilize states and gain control of more terrain. Its global strategy, meanwhile, is to set the conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West, first and foremost by polarizing societies to be for or against Islam.

This final objective seems too big to be true. Policymakers tend to discount the Islamic State’s grandiose public messaging about its global aspirations as overblown and comfort themselves with estimates of its military losses. But in fact, the Islamic State is operating from a position of strength…

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