As the Obama administrations engages in an awkward and uncertain recalibration of its policy towards the Middle East since of the emergence of the caliphate of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi -- the Islamic State -- the internal debate amongst the President's inner circle is being mirrored by pundits on both the Right and the Left. They have vastly different perceptions of the degree of threat the Islamic State poses to the United States; however, they share a common disaffection with President Barack Obama's policymaking.
The right-wing media pundits excoriate Obama as an incompetent in the face of hordes of ISIS jihadists stealthily penetrating the nation's southern border, aiming to engage in a multitude of attacks against individual Americans. On the other extreme of the ideological divide, liberal media commentators, particularly on one cable news network, seize upon any alarm being sounded by those on the Right as sure evidence of conservative hysteria, clear proof that any claims of a threat being directed at the United States by ISIS are simply wildly exaggerated scare-mongering.
I think they are both wrong.
Neither the Right nor the Left in America have any credible insights into the strategy, goals and tactical doctrine of the Islamic State. I recall the media response to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's first public appearance at the Great Al-Nuri Mosque located in the second largest city in Iraq, Mosul, soon after its capture by the caliph's army. There was universal scorn espoused by mainstream media representing the entire political spectrum, with more attention devoted to what brand of luxury watch al-Baghdadi was wearing on his wrist rather than the content and meaning of the violent and threatening words pouring from his lips. While the public discourse may have adopted a new script since then, it remains characterized by superficiality.
If it is not for the media pundits to diagnose the threat posed by the Islamic State, can America's intelligence community be relied upon to perform better? The evidence is not reassuring. The most fateful miscalculation the U.S. has made to date in the region has been the invasion of Iraq mounted in 2003 -- an intervention which, to his credit, Obama opposed at the time -- which opened the Pandora's box that fueled the jihadist movements in the heart of the Middle East. The justification for that disastrous military escapade was based on the premise of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, which we now know was a fallacy. What we must remind ourselves of is that the world's most expensive intelligence community lacked a single credible human source in the nation its military was planning to invade. In 2014 the intelligence picture is no more reassuring. It is likely that the United States has no human sources operating within the inner command structure of the Islamic State. That being the case, the policymakers in Washington, and the ideological media pundits of both the Right and the Left, lack any substantive basis to construct a meaningful threat assessment with respect to the intentions of al-Baghdadi and his caliphate towards the United States.
What we are left with are the words spoken by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in Mosul in early July of this year. There is no ambiguity or subtlety in his message. The creation of the caliphate is not an end in itself, but merely the means to achieving the ultimate end, which is total victory for the religion of Allah -- Islam. "So take up arms, take up arms, O soldiers of the Islamic State! And fight, fight!" proclaimed the caliph to his followers, reinforcing his message that the Islamic State's raison d'être was waging perpetual war and inflicting vengeance against the "unbelievers" until their complete destruction and submission.
Though al-Baghdadi defines the entire non-Islamic world as the enemy, and adds to the list Muslims he views as collaborators with those enemies, in the hierarchy of targets it is the "crusaders," primarily represented by the United States and Russia, who are at the top of the hierarchy of "unbelievers." Accordingly, I would infer from his speech the intention of attacking the United States. Furthermore, based on the observable military characteristics of the Islamic State, one can see clear evidence of well conceived strategic planning, effective tactical execution on the battlefield, the ability to think long-term and, most importantly, utter ruthlessness in the infliction of maximum casualties upon its enemies.
I don't have a crystal ball, however, any serious observer and analyst of the intentions and capabilities of the Islamic State must conclude that their command authority is constantly thinking of ways and means of inflicting maximum damage on the United States, and should they succeed, I fear the consequences would surpass that horrible day of September 11, 2001.