06/27/2014 04:25 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2014

How America Can Eliminate ISIS and Avoid a 9/11-Type Attack


There are various local copies of the international terrorist group al Qaeda that engage in internal conflicts. These include "ISIS" in Iraq and Syria, "Qaeda in Arabia" in Saudi Arabia, "Alnusrah Front" in Syria, "supporters of jihad" in Egypt and "Ansar al-Sharia" in Yemen. As different as these organizations and their conflicts seem, they are connected by a string of radical religious beliefs as well as the same funding sources and insurgents moving across borders. And the policies of the West and Russia in the Middle East will determine the future of these organizations and their goals and priorities.

From its early days, the organization of the "Islamic State of Iraq" (ISIS), which was founded in 2006, acquired Iraqi traits. It seemed different from the ideological environment that produced the international al Qaeda which is led now by Ayman al-Zawahiri. ISIS raised two slogans of equal worth: fighting U.S forces, and fighting Iraq Shiites and their regional supporter Iran. The last slogan about Shiites was not at the top of international al Qaeda priorities, but came as a result of changing power balances after 2003.

Indeed, the concept of "state" has been associated with the Iraqi branch, and has not been adopted by any of the other al Qaeda branches. The announcement of the state in Iraq led to deep methodological, intellectual, and ideological disputes in the heart of extremist organizations. Al Qaeda adopts the concept of an "Islamic Emirate" that is global and non-bound geographically. Al Qaeda's Amir is the leader of this non-spatial Islamic nation, and all other branches of the organization undergo tasks of "jihad" under the non-spatial Emirate. These branches do not have the right to declare a territorial emirate of their own.

Even the announcement of the name "Islamic State of Iraq" was a declaration of revolt on the international al Qaeda. The war on terrorism failed to take advantage of this early split. Only after the killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011, were arguments heard about the possibility of dispersion of the branches of the organization leading to its collapse.

In conjunction with this event, ISIS was taking on a different character at the hands of Ibrahim al-Badri (Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi), who took over the leadership of the organization in April 19, 2010. He restructured, prepared and expanded the base of the organization to include officers in the former Iraqi army, former security experts and Baathists who had been with Saddam Hussein's regime. He was able to attract the Sunnis of Iraq because Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has been excluding them. Now, ISIS has managed to take over Sunni cities in Iraq.

With the possession of the land, which stretches from Syrian Raqqa in the north to the limits of Baghdad to the south, ISIS has produced the concept of "state" that it had in mind when it was first established. This "state" considers all surrounding borders as a natural extension of it because ISIS derives its rules from the last form of an Islamic state stretching from the borders of China to the Atlantic Ocean, which fell in 1258. However, these borders belong to the past, and do not represent the ISIS-declared state, which was shown by a map released by the organization to connect territories between the borders of Iraq, Kuwait, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Israel.

The real danger represented by ISIS on the Middle East and the world, is not in slogans, nor in its dogma, not even in the desire to re-form the map of the region. It is the pragmatism that allows it to adapt to changes and attract the sympathy of the local population it seeks to control. What happened in the cities of Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah, is worthy of contemplation. ISIS tried to introduce itself as a militant organization that is not seeking to rule directly but rather defend Iraq's Sunnis and their choices. This is why ISIS handed the city management to local bodies, whether military, tribal or political.

This behavior is, in fact, temporary. By presenting what is happening on the ground as a "popular choice," ISIS is trying not to provoke U.S. intervention or the fears of other states in the region. The word "popular choice" is real, not fake. Sunnis in Iraq, as is the case in Syria, are willing to make their own fate, in isolation from the ruling Shiite government.

Is American military intervention in Iraq against ISIS the solution? The reality is that military intervention would give Sunnis in Iraq the strongest justification for integration with ISIS inside one conceptual loop. It would also render the U.S. the first enemy not only for ISIS but for Sunnis across the Middle East, and that will speed up the premise of a new September 11-type attack.

However, the success of ISIS to consolidate its "state" on the ground, without an active American intervention, will give the Shiites of Iraq and the region a new resource for hostility towards the U.S. Shiites will interpret this as indirect support for a party who wants genocide against them. This will, in turn, accelerate the production of new patterns of extremist Shiite groups that will be as dangerous as al Qaeda, including the possibility of a September 11-type attack.

The most realistic American approach would be to try to make political changes in Iraq to allow the separation of Iraqi Sunnis from ISIS socially, economically, culturally and on security level. Such a goal cannot be achieved without admitting that the political process that the U.S. helped form in Iraq has ceased to exist since ISIS recently seized the Iraqi city of Mosul. There is an urgent need to devote genuine efforts to achieve internal consensus, coinciding with regional involvement (by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey) in order to shape Iraq's future system of government and the rights of ethnic, religious and sectarian groups in it.

The political process that results from this consensus must be supported so that it can eliminate ISIS and end the Sunni need for its protection. Although difficult, U.S. success this time will be a real success compared to the military invasion in 2003. Regaining Iraq, which has significant social and cultural influence in the Middle East, may be the beginning of an environment of reciprocal concessions by regional powers. And that could facilitate solutions to other conflicts in the Middle East related to sectarianism, extremism, the Arab Spring and the Palestinian issue.

Fighting in Iraq