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3Qs: The US response to ISIS

This week, the U.S. began its counter-terrorism campaign against ISIS, with strategic airstrikes against some of the militant group’s strongholds in Syria and Iraq. America also revealed that it carried out a separate mission against the militant group it called Khorasan. President Obama, in an address Wednesday to the United Nations General Assembly, outlined his strong case for the U.S. to “work with a broad coalition to dismantle this network of death.”

Max Abrahms is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science whose work on asymmetric conflict focuses on the study of civil war, insurgency, nonviolent protest, and terrorism. Here, he discusses America’s strategy and what it means for the region.

In President Obama’s address on Wednesday, he asked the world to join the U.S.-led coalition effort to dismantle ISIS. But he also said that America wouldn’t base its foreign policy on reacting to terrorism. With this in mind, what is the significance of the president’s global call to action against this ISIS threat?

Obama won the nomination and then the presidency largely by campaigning against the Bush administration’s unpopular and unsuccessful counterinsurgency campaigns, especially in Iraq. Obama never anticipated launching counterinsurgency campaigns of his own in Iraq and then Syria. But Islamic State advances over the summer, coupled with the beheadings of American journalists seen around the globe, left the president no choice.

Now, Obama is committed to waging the counterinsurgency campaigns differently than his predecessor. In particular, Obama is careful to reduce local perceptions of the United States as an occupying country by both acting multilaterally and abstaining from putting boots on the ground.

Five Arab nations joined the U.S. in leading airstrikes against ISIS in Syria this week. What are the geo-political implications of these nations coming together now to battle a terrorist threat, and what does it mean for the future of the region?

The buy-in of Sunni Arab nations is hugely important for U.S. counterinsurgency success. Islamic State is a radical Sunni group, and the other nations’ participation will help to diffuse the view that Obama is taking sides in the sectarian divide wracking the Middle East. This Sunni buy-in is especially important because the U.S.-led counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Syria are propping up their leaders, both of whom tilt Shia.

On Tuesday, the U.S. also revealed that it had carried out a separate mission targeting a little-known al-Qaida offshoot called Khorasan that was said to be planning an imminent attack on the U.S. or Europe. What do we know about this group? Are you surprised that its existence has been largely been kept secret despite U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s saying that its been known to the U.S. for two years?

Most Americans heard about this group for the first time on Thursday, when U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper mentioned that Khorasan may pose a bigger threat than Islamic State to the homeland.

The truth is they both threaten Americans civilians. While Islamic State has a lot more military capability, Khorasan’s goals are even more focused on striking the U.S. Its weaker capability—in terms of membership size, revenues, and weaponry—is offset by reportedly strong operational ties with al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, which has unique status among terrorist groups for its expertise in devising undetectable bombs that can—and have—been placed on commercial and cargo planes.

The surge in Islamic State capability since the summer has only incentivized al-Qaida and its affiliates like AQAP and Khorasan to strike the U.S in order to remain “relevant.”

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