CNN and other media are reporting that U.S. and European intelligence suspect that ISIS or one of its affiliates used a bomb to bring down a Russian airplane over Sinai on Saturday, killing all 224 aboard. The reporting on this is early and it would be wise to withhold judgment until more information comes in, but this could be a very big deal. If confirmed, this attack would mark a major shift by the Islamic State and should force us to rethink the threat that the group poses to the world.
The caricature of ISIS is that its members are all wild-eyed fanatics bent on conquering the world, butchering, raping, and enslaving as they go. Unfortunately the caricature bears a strong resemblance to reality. But there is an important exception: While the Islamic State’s brutality is staggering, its operations have largely been limited in scope. The group seems new because Americans only really began to consider it a serious threat in 2014, after the beheading of journalist James Foley and the group’s sudden and massive incursion into Iraq. But it really began a decade before then in an earlier incarnation as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s al-Qaida in Iraq, which emerged after the U.S. invasion in 2003. So while the group’s name has repeatedly changed and it is now led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, we have a long track record by which to judge it.
Zarqawi and his followers likewise raped, beheaded, and killed Shi’a and Sunnis suspected of supporting the American-backed Iraqi government. They too declared an Islamic government in Iraq and otherwise acted in ways painfully familiar to those who have watched the rise of ISIS the past two years. But the scope of the group’s operations for more than a decade has suggested it has been primarily focused on its local enemies: the Shi’a government of Iraq, the Alawite government of Syria, and to a lesser degree neighbors that opposed it like Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Lebanon. In this fight, it primarily has used a mix of conventional and guerrilla war, with terrorist attacks designed to demoralize enemy security forces, sow unrest among its people, and foster sectarian tension. Somewhat surprisingly, despite predictions to the contrary and years of being devastated by U.S. forces in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor organizations focused on killing American soldiers in Iraq but did not prioritize international terrorism as a way of expanding the battlefield. Islamic State, meanwhile, has butchered Americans whom it captured in Syria. And it has also called for attacks in the West, but this has been done by so-called “lone wolves,” most of whom have little operational connection to the group’s core in Syria and Iraq.
Still, Baghdadi’s group has had affiliates in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Libya, Nigeria, and, notably, the Sinai that have pledged loyalty to the Islamic State and have had that pledge recognized. Yet these affiliates have so far largely followed their own agendas, embracing some of the Islamic State’s brutality—like when Libyan followers beheaded Christians, and the Yemeni branch attacked Shi’a mosques—but not really expanding their horizons beyond their home turf. You would not want to be an American who stumbled across their path, but they were not going to bring the war to America either. They seemed more like a local problem, with Baghdadi’s boasts that they were part of a unified caliphate sounding like grandiose rhetoric with little operational meaning.