08/28/2014 05:09 pm ET Updated Oct 28, 2014

How ISIS Could Change the War on Terror Dramatically


As the U.S. government debates the best strategy to neutralize ISIS, it should also consider the wider aspects of the War on Terror it has been fighting for more than a decade.

After September 11, 2001, the U.S. found itself in uncharted territory. Unlike previous wars, our nation was confronting an enemy that could only be identified in vague terms, was scattered geographically, whose command structure was deliberately diffused, who was constantly recruiting new members to its ranks including in America, and who refused to negotiate. It was a new kind of enemy that could not be defeated through conventional warfare.

All that may have changed with the emergence of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

On the face of it, ISIS has a lot in common with Al Qaeda, in that they both comprise ruthless militants willing to kill anyone to achieve their aims. Yet that is where the groups part ways, for while Al Qaeda's primary aim has always been the destruction of the Western world and only secondarily the creation of an Islamic caliphate, ISIS wants to create an empire of fanaticism that can stand on its own and be able to enforce its principles of fundamentalist religious belief and brutality on the rest of the world. It is essentially another Nazi empire in the making.

This major difference, however, also alters the nature of the War on Terror that the U.S. has been fighting since 9/11. This particular enemy, which is now the biggest terrorist threat faced by the world, is also paradoxically more vulnerable than smaller groups that have threatened us in the past. ISIS, due to its dreams of Islamic nationhood, is relatively concentrated geographically, easily identifiable because of its own arrogance, and can therefore be targeted by methods of conventional warfare that have failed against terrorists in the past.

There is no doubt, of course, that ISIS will try to retaliate for U.S. intervention in its affairs by terror attacks on our soil, and recent messages posted on Twitter seem to bear this out, but the U.S. has been extremely effective in protecting its own shores since 9/11. As a result of capable (if sometimes imperfect) law enforcement, we have not seen any meaningful incidents since that time, and there is no reason to believe that threats from ISIS are any more serious or likely to be successful.

In short, the War on Terror at home has not changed at all, but the war abroad has, and it is this factor that presents the U.S. with a rare opportunity.

Since the War on Terror began, the U.S. has stumbled its way through it, trying to root out an enemy it couldn't see and whose actions were erratic, if still dangerous. ISIS, on the other hand, has a political ambition that goes beyond its butchery, and has escalated terrorism to an institutional level never seen before. That might seem especially frightening, but is also the tipping point that gives the U.S. and international community the chance to address this scourge in a bigger way. With a successful military campaign against ISIS militants in Iraq and Syria, we may just be able to "win" this particular round.

The blinding speed at which ISIS is moving also contains another urgent message for the U.S., which is that our dual foreign policy of going after a handful of militant leaders while devoting the rest of our resources to winning over the hearts and minds of people in the Middle East, will take too long to work. Helping Arab nations achieve democracy, economic prosperity, and better education are all good goals but these efforts are unlikely to succeed in the current volatile environment anyway.

As the litany of violence wreaked recently by ISIS against the Yazidis, Kurds, Syrians, and others, of which the beheading of journalist James Foley is a part, demonstrates clearly, there is no time to wait. During the Second World War, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain failed to acknowledge the threat posed by Germany and in the process enabled the Nazi war machine to grow to a level where it could not be defeated without a massive global war.

Similarly, the longer fundamentalist forces in the Middle East, whether it be ISIS, Al Qaeda, or others are allowed to ply their vicious trade, the more powerful they will become and the wider the global influence they will attain with sympathizers -- case in point, Douglas McAuthur McCain, an American who died recently while fighting for ISIS. And like the Nazis, with each regional victory that a group like ISIS achieves, it will want to expand outwards to enhance its reach and resources; first toward its oil-rich Arab neighbors like Saudi Arabia and Jordan; then Egypt, Israel, and even further.

Diplomatic solutions and nuanced analyses of regional dynamics are important too but can only be so effective in the face of such menace. After a point, we need to recognize the unpleasant reality facing us -- we have an enemy that cannot be neutralized by diplomacy alone.

Sooner or later, we will have to act, or the terrorist threat that the U.S. has been able to contain since 9/11 could easily morph into yet another avatar of violence more deadly than ISIS. If that sounds excessive, keep in mind that nobody really believed that a group with the ferocity and terrifying potential of ISIS was possible just a few months ago.

The clock is ticking.

Sanjay Sanghoee is a commentator and the author of two thriller novels, available on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Please visit his website at and follow him on Twitter @sanghoee.