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.
While Donald Trump is bragging about closing mosques to fight Islamic terrorism, there has been an under-reported surge of right-wing terrorism recently in the U.S.
Since July, when anti-choice crusaders released hoax videos that falsely claimed that Planned Parenthood sells fetal body parts, there has been a rash of arsons at clinics, at least one of which doesn’t perform abortions. Just this week, police in New Hampshire arrested a teenager threatening a Planned Parenthood with a hatchet. After the racist church shooting in Charleston in June, itself an ugly act of domestic terrorism, there were a series of fires at black churches across the South.
And now St. Louis law enforcement fears that there’s an arsonist on the loose in the city, setting fire to churches with predominantly black or racially mixed congregations. This is on top of what the Southern Poverty Law Center was already calling a resurgence in domestic terrorism across the United States.
That we are living in an era of major conservative backlash is not news. From the wholesale assault on reproductive rights to the dramatic increase in restrictions on voting to the bizarrely enduring Donald Trump campaign, the evidence everywhere suggests that right-wing America is freaking out and lashing out. They can feel their control over the country, which has a black president and legal gay marriage now, slipping out of their fingers.
The temper tantrum has grown so massive it’s threatening even the Republican party, which is being torn apart by purity tests and fury over even the slightest hint of cooperation with liberals, who are seen as a subversive threat to be stomped out instead of fellow citizens to work through your issues with.
So it’s really not a huge surprise that, with right-wing anger levels so high, a small number are taking it to the next level and setting fire to churches and clinics. Unfortunately, this isn’t really getting the media attention it deserves.
The summer’s church burnings got a smattering of coverage, but less than the debate over the Confederate flag. The fire bombings and arson attacks that have hit four Planned Parenthood clinics since interest renewed in attacking the organization have barely registered in the national media, according to a report by Media Matters. These St. Louis burnings are so frequent and close together that they are getting more national media coverage, but it has barely gone beyond bare bones reporting to dig into the deeper issue of the connection between the rise in right wing radicalism and the rise in domestic terrorism.
Fatima Bukar, in white, took part in an Arabic lesson at a secret government camp in Nigeria on Aug. 21. Boko Haram held Ms. Bukar and her daughter hostage in a forest clearing for nearly five months. Photo: Patrick McGroarty/The Wall Street Journal
Usman Balami once commanded hundreds of Boko Haram jihadists in attacks on police stations and banks. Now serving time at a prison complex in northern Nigeria, he says he is a changed man.
“In the past, I would have loved to die as a martyr,” said the 34-year-old, after changing out of a yellow goaltender’s jersey following a morning soccer match. In a nearby room, a group of former insurgents strung together beaded necklaces in a jewelry-making class.
About 100 miles away in another government facility, Fatima Bukar prayed that she can move on as well. Each day at midnight, the hour in which she believes God is listening most intently, she rises in the hostel where soldiers are keeping watch over hundreds of women rescued from Boko Haram. The group held Ms. Bukar and her daughter hostage in a forest clearing for nearly five months.
“I pray that Allah can turn them back into good people,” said the 27-year-old. “If not, Allah should destroy them.”
Boko Haram has become Nigeria’s collective trauma. The insurgency has swept thousands of boys and men into its ranks, often at gunpoint. It has snatched several thousand more girls and women, many of them raped nightly for months.
Continued fighting has left more than 25,000 people dead and more than one million people without homes, Ms. Bukar among them.
Now, in these two high-walled camps, survivors from both sides of the conflict are coming to terms with the scars of the six-year insurgency that has redefined their lives.
It is the start of a long reckoning for Nigeria.
Now the commander of those enemy forces is dead—or has been for a while. The announcement of his passing hit the press more than two years late, due to the utility of pretending he was alive for both the Taliban and Islamabad. Despite the “Weekend at Bernie’s” ruse finally ending, however, U.S. policymakers are not celebrating—and for good reason. The announcement of Omar’s death appears to be fracturing the Taliban.
This may sound like a positive development, but the United States will find that dividing is one thing, but conquering is quite another. Subjugating factions requires offering a cogent solution for security and governance. Unfortunately for Washington, the U.S.-allied regime in Kabul is not likely to be that cogent political actor. This leaves the door open for alternative insurgents. And if history is any indication, there is bad news ahead; turmoil is fertile soil for extremists.
COMMANDER OF THE FAITHFUL
Touting the title Commander of the Faithful and ruling Afghanistan from 1996–2001, Omar commanded more authority and legitimacy in the Taliban than any other leader. Notoriously reclusive and unhurried in his deliberations, his style played to his image as a pious man who reluctantly rose to the occasion to combat post-Soviet instability. He was not, the Taliban and Islamabad tried to show, yet another warlord campaigning with Pakistani backing. Beyond that, most of what we know about him relies on the same two tired photos and fuzzy biography. According to U.S. documents, Omar was extraordinary and yet wholly unimpressive at the same time. He was reportedly uncharismatic and astonishingly ignorant in matters of global affairs, but the United States could not ignore—or defeat—his Taliban.
The pro-Islamic State hacking group IS Hacking Division defaced a website and used it to leak the alleged personal information of U.S. military and government personnel. On Aug. 11, the group’s Twitter account posted a link to a mirror of a defaced website where the information was posted. The link was then retweeted multiple times by Junaid Hussein on his Twitter user name. Photo: SITE Intelligence Group
U.S. and British officials decided earlier this year that a hacker needed to die.
Junaid Hussain, a British citizen in his early 20s, had risen fast to become a chief in Islamic State’s electronic army. One person familiar with the matter said he hacked dozens of U.S. military personnel and published personal and financial details online, including those of a general, for others to exploit.
He helped sharpen the terror group’s defense against Western surveillance and built hacking tools to penetrate computer systems, said people familiar with the matter.
Mr. Hussain was killed by a U.S. drone strike on Tuesday while he was in a car in Raqqa, Syria, U.S. officials said. That he was targeted directly shows the extent to which digital warfare has upset the balance of power on the modern battlefield.
Islamic State didn’t build a large cyber force like the U.S.’s National Security Agency or China’s People’s Liberation Army. Instead, it had people like Mr. Hussain, a convicted hacker whose suite of inexpensive digital tools threatened to wreak havoc on even the world’s most-powerful country. Islamic State communications described him as one of the group’s secret weapons, said one person who has seen them.
U.S. officials said they believe Mr. Hussain played an important role in recruiting two American Muslims to open fire in Garland, Texas, this spring on a contest for cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad. He also frequently hacked into U.S. service members’ Facebook accounts to determine personal details and future targets, one of the people familiar with the probe said.
“If you don’t have anybody who is kind of fluent in computer operations, you’ve got a problem,” said Michael Sulmeyer, a former cyberpolicy expert for the Pentagon now at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “The ballgame is pretty much the coder or the individual.”
Mr. Hussain drew attention from U.S. and British intelligence and military agencies in part because of his efforts to recruit and incite violence, said one U.S. official. His importance to Islamic State made him a legitimate target, the official said. “Leadership: That is what gets our attention.”