Former Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the U.S. State Department Daniel Benjamin came to campus on September 22 to give a lecture titled “The Islamic State: Imminent Danger or Over-Hyped Threat?”
Benjamin began his talk by explaining American reactions to ISIS (formally known as “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria”). He cited recent polls that suggest that 90 percent of Americans believe ISIS is an imminent threat to the US. This sentiment is at least partially the result of fear-mongering done by politicians across the country. A month ago, Texas Governor Rick Perry said ISIS militants were “streaming” across the border from Mexico. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said not too long ago that ISIS has the capacity to “kill us all.” The ambassador dismissed these statements as “ridiculous assertions at the strength and motives of ISIS.”
Benjamin then outlined the history of the group, which is a lineal descendant of the insurgent group “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” (AQI). The first leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, saw tremendous potential in creating a sectarian conflict that would tear Iraq apart. Despite its name, al-Zarqawi’s group had several points of contention with its parent organization; the leadership of Al-Qaeda disagreed strongly with AQI’s brutality and desire to create a sectarian conflict.
According to Benjamin, Osama bin Laden was more of a “big tent extremist,” not desiring to alienate potential supporters within the radical Muslim world. Following the American “surge” in 2006, AQI was greatly weakened but not destroyed. Several years later, the civil war in Syria offered the group a huge opportunity. Joining this conflict, the group was rejuvenated and re-named themselves “The Islamic State.” When it returned to Iraq in 2013, it rose quickly in popularity and swept across the country in mid-2014.
“[ISIS is] an extremely brutal and barbaric group… clearly a threat to all civilized people,” Benjamin said. “Is it an international threat though?”
ISIS has never carried out a complex
long-distance terrorist operation.
“[As Americans, we] have a tendency to think everything is about us,” Benjamin said.
The former ambassador cited the Vietnam War and the fact that, contrary to American beliefs, it was not chess square in the Cold War. The “bigger story” in the Middle East is the fact that a sectarian conflict is tearing it apart and that ISIS is only a player in the schism. The radical organization fits the profile of a regional insurgent group rather than an international organization like Al-Qaeda.
Benjamin also played devil’s advocate. He acknowledged that ISIS is a very large safe haven for extremism and that it will take a lot of effort and blood to reduce its territory. He also mentioned the tremendous danger posed by the foreign members of ISIS when they return to their homes in the West. Benjamin was complementary of President Obama’s efforts to combat ISIS, saying that the United State’s limited involvement in the problem ensures that the Iraqi army and neighboring Sunni countries will do their part.
The U.S. furthermore avoids the issue of stoking the fires of extremism by not ordering “boots on the ground.” He made two more points: the U.S. is going to be dealing with Jihadi terror for a long time, and the U.S. is not the same country as it was in 2001. By the second point, Benjamin meant that throughout the past decade the U.S. has shown that it can curtail terrorism and is a smarter country.
“We have the tools to deal with this and are not facing an imminent disaster,” Benjamin said.