ISIS (I'll use that term, although the others are also valid) is certainly the flavor of the month, or even year. Our Secretary of Defense is certainly concerned about them. From a recent press conference:
"They are as sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen. They're beyond just a terrorist group.We've seen the videos of summary executions, watched the news reports of the crisis on Mt. Sinjar and were amazed at the speed that ISIS moved out of eastern Syria into northwestern Iraq, slashing down through Mosul and Tikirt to threaten Baghdad, and across the western desert through Ramadi to Fallujah.
"This is beyond anything we've seen. We must prepare for everything."
That's a lot of territory - even if 99% of it is roadless and relatively worthless desert - and now that they've gobbled up a large swath of Iraq, what are their prospects for the future?
I don't claim to be an expert, but here are a few things I've learned and some thoughts. I will be glad to correct any factual errors, of course.
First off, who or what is ISIS? Universally labeled a 'terrorist group', they are a group that adheres to the most extreme fundamentalist fringes of Islamic teaching. They were too extreme even for Al Qaida, which expelled them last year. There are several belief systems in Islam known as Wahhabism (generally known for its puritanism and shunning contact with non-Muslims) and Salafism (a belief that everything should be as it was in the first 3 generations of Islam beginning with the Prophet Mohammed, dating back to the 7th century), which form the basis of ISIS's ideology, and, as mentioned above, ISIS is on the extreme fringes of both. Click for more on ISIS and its ties to Saudi Arabia.
While there are millions of Wahhabis - Saudi Arabia has over 4 million - the vast majority follow a more lenient version that is approved by the King. And since neither Syria and Iraq have a large Wahhabi movement, that leads us to the first problem for ISIS and its long-term prospects:
ISIS has no constituency. Let's contrast them to some other groups they are often lumped with.
Hizbollah is primarily a political party and functions as the sub-national voice of over 40% of the population of Lebanon. The same generally applies to the Taliban and Hamas. ISIS, on the other hand, is a band of 'fighters' - or militia if you prefer - that, when it conquers a city or town, brutally subjugates its residents, sometimes offering them a simple choice: convert to its brand of Islam or die (sometimes a fine is an option). They often expel the residents since they don't have the manpower to administer all of their captured territory.
And therein lies their largest problem: it's not all that difficult to over-run civilian towns and even the piss-poor Iraqi army, but to hold and administer a country (or caliphate) in this day and age takes at least some modicum of acceptance or a massive occupying force. ISIS simply doesn't have the ability to 'own' a country long-term.
Second, ISIS has no natural allies. Much has been made of the apparent alliance between ISIS and the Sunni tribes in Iraq, and it has enabled them to sweep through the Sunni areas of Iraq. Make no mistake, however: this alliance cannot and will not last any longer than is convenient for the Sunni tribes. They are not interested in the extreme version of Wahhabism mandated by ISIS, and will turn on them once they achieve at least some of their goals, such as a semi-autonomous region within Iraq or at least some amount of political power.
Third, ISIS has no secure rear area, safe border or coastline. That means they have no opportunity for re-supply or reinforcement. They've done a good job of capturing arms and ammo, especially in Mosul, but their stocks of ammo are limited, and they have no reliable method of the magnitude of logistics they will require, particularly once their enemies get moving and put pressure on them. It's difficult to import a tank - or tank ammo - via FedEx.
Fourth, they have no army. Sorry, but 'technicals' (those pickup trucks with machine guns mounted on the back) are NOT military vehicles. After all, if they were even somewhat decent, why doesn't the US army have even ONE? A bunch of 'fighters' armed with light weapons, no matter how many, is just a bunch of fighters. It's fine to capture tanks, but can they keep them running?
Fifth, everybody in their neighborhood hates them. They occupy a space bordered by Syria, Turkey and Iraq - no friends there. While they seem to get funding from various sources, no government is going to stand up and claim them as friends. No friends means no outside help. And now, they've got the USA hating on them as well. Keep in mind that all they offer their subjugated population is a return to the 7th century and the most repressive interpretation of Sharia law imaginable.
This list can go on for a while, but it's getting late, so I'll close with one last big one: ISIS is also a personality cult, and will have difficulty surviving the demise of its leader. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has proven to be an effective leader in his 4+ years at the head of ISIS, but he is now in the cross-hairs of some powerful adversaries. Part of his problem moving forward is that as his organization grows and spreads out, he's going to have to move around and expose himself - he has a caliphate to run, after all. That may work for a while, but he can't afford to be a hermit.
So should we be worried that some 'Islamic Caliphate' is going to rise up out of the desert in eastern Syria and western Iraq, providing a safe haven for ISIS to attack the USA? Well, maybe in the short term. As we see on the cable news, there are hundreds or possibly several thousands of Americans and/or Europeans fighting with ISIS, and some of them certainly have the ability to travel here with the intent of mounting an attack. So we can expect to see some attempts at terrorist attacks, perhaps some even succeeding.
In the meantime, ISIS is attracting every fundamentalist wacko with an itchy trigger finger and the hots for a harem of virgins, and if we can plan and execute this properly (i.e., get some very sneaky boots on the ground to guide the air-strikes) we have an opportunity to send a whole lot of them to find out how many they can get.