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July 10, 2014

ISIS terrorist group is a potential threat to U.S., Stanford scholar says

Stanford terrorism expert Martha Crenshaw says the terrorist group known as ISIS poses a danger to the U.S. in the future if it grows more powerful. But that organization, she adds, may be overreaching in its ruthlessness and religious zealotry. Meanwhile, the U.S. government has not found a way to deal with the larger Iraq conflict that now involves ISIS.

By Clifton B. Parker

Shiite volunteers gathering at the outskirts of Samarra, Iraq, prepare to defend the al-Askari shrine against the terrorist group known as ISIS. (Loay Hameed / Associated Press)

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has drawn worldwide attention in recent weeks after seizing wide swaths of Iraq in an effort to create a caliphate, or Islamic state, that spans Iraq and Syria, and possibly beyond.

To assess the ISIS threat level, Stanford News Service interviewed terrorist expert Martha Crenshaw, a senior fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Crenshaw founded the Mapping Militant Organizations project to identify militant organizations globally and trace how they arise, their root causes and their connections.

What do the United States and its people have to fear from ISIS?

Two threats stand out. First is the fact that an extremely hostile organization with a long history of lethal attacks against the West, particularly the U.S., now has a territorial base from which to plan and organize terrorism against the U.S. and its allies, as well as to destabilize the rest of Iraq. This expansion also makes ISIS a more powerful player in Syria. The second possibility is that citizens or legal residents of Western countries who have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS, so-called foreign fighters, might return home to commit acts of violence. Their training and experience make them particularly dangerous. 

What should the United States do about Iraq and ISIS?

U.S. government leaders have not figured out how to work through the complicated relationships described above, never mind manage them so as to promote our interests. Every proposed course of action is full of contradictions. We agree with Iraq that ISIS poses a grave threat to them and us, and that it must be confronted.  We have urged the government [of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki] to take steps to ensure the loyalty of Iraq's Sunni citizens and to recognize that the solution is political rather than military. But as has happened in past conflicts, we seem to be at the mercy of a much weaker, yet resolutely recalcitrant, ally. 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of ISIS?

Its strengths lie in its ability to recruit followers and mobilize support, and in its fighting experience – and now also in its considerable financial resources and territorial base. Its weaknesses lie in its ruthless violence, sectarianism and rigid interpretation of Islamic law. The overreaching character of its religious and political claims to represent not only all Iraqi and Syrian Muslims, but all Muslims worldwide, may also alienate potential supporters. 

What is ISIS?

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, sometimes known more expansively as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is descended from Al Qaida in Iraq, an affiliate organization established by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2004 to combat coalition forces. After he was killed in an American air strike in 2006, AQI became the Islamic State of Iraq, probably in an attempt to establish legitimacy among Iraqi Sunnis who thought of it as a foreign organization. During the period of the surge and the Sunni "Awakening," ISI became more and more marginalized, in part due to its extremism even by the standards of a vicious civil war.

What are its connections to Syria?

When the civil war in Syria presented an opportunity for expansion, ISI moved in and added Syria to ISI (to make it "ISIS.") ISIS was subsequently rejected by Al Qaida, which supports a rival jihadist organization, the Al Nusrah Front. After occupying northern Iraq, including Iraq's second largest city of Mosul, ISIS declared that it had established a global Islamic state under the command of its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. My research assistants are currently updating our maps of organizations involved in Iraq and Syria.

Why does the Iraqi government seems powerless against ISIS?

I am not sure that anyone has a satisfactory answer as to why the Iraqi security forces collapsed in the face of ISIS advances. We can point to endemic corruption and inefficiency as well as the failure of the government in Iraq to be more inclusive of the Sunni minority. But it is bitterly disappointing to see that years of American training and assistance were of so little avail. The failure of the U.S. and Iraq to agree to retain some American forces in Iraq is often cited by critics of the administration as a reason for the disaster, but it's impossible to say. 

What is a caliphate and how does it relate to ISIS?

ISIS claims that it has re-established the caliphate, a form of religious authority dating from the beginnings of Islam. It represents the idea of spiritual unity and a golden age of Muslim triumphs, before Western intervention and occupation followed the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War 1.  (The caliphate was abolished by Turkey's first president, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, in 1924.) The restoration of the caliphate is an important component of the contemporary jihadist narrative. 

Is the United States supporting ISIS in Syria? Why do we have such strange bedfellows in this situation?

The fact that the opposition in Syria contained radical and powerful jihadist elements linked to Al Qaida is one of the factors that kept the U.S. from taking a more active role in arming and supplying the resistance. There is some irony in the fact that the U.S. finds itself allied with Iran in opposing radical Sunnis, yet on the same side as jihadists in trying to remove the Syrian regime.  It is not always the case that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. 

In your opinion, will Iraq split up?

It seems that Iraq is already disintegrating into Sunni, Shia and Kurdish areas.  Maliki has seemed impervious to appeals to broaden his constituency. 



Martha Crenshaw, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies: (650) 723-0126,

Clifton B. Parker, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-0224,


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