The United States Should Think Twice Before Intervening Against ISIL

Territory currently controlled by ISIL, Wikimedia Commons

By Mitchel Hochberg, Columnist

Capitalizing on instability and poor governance in the region, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has employed hybrid military-insurgent tactics to gain control of large swaths of territory. While the group poses a considerable danger to local and regional governments, US leaders have failed to clearly underline the specific threat the group poses to American strategic interests in the region. Prominent reasons include ISIL’s threat to the region, humanitarian transgressions, and potential to launch terrorist attacks against the United States.[1] Terrorism is the most repeated of those dangers. Leaders consistently warn that the existence of a safe haven or potential return of foreign fighters could result in terror attacks against the United States. The existence of this threat is dubious, but what does increases the chance of a strike on the homeland is American participation in air strikes and support for local fighters.

ISIL has not shown the ability or interest to mount an attack against the United States. Indeed, top officials have concluded in recent months that there is no credible information that ISIL is preparing future attacks against the US homeland.[2] The group does not have the time, space, or inclination to attack the United States, and is too preoccupied with fighting opposing governments and local rivals to protect its holdings in Iraq and Syria. Vague statements by ISIL figureheads also neglect to mention terrorism and have not convinced the United States Intelligence Community (IC) of a likely threat.[3]

Even if ISIL did have firm control of territory, it is unclear that the group would be able to use it as a “safe haven” to launch a successful attack against the United States. With a vast array of intelligence and military assets devoted to counter-terrorism, it is extremely difficult to execute an attack like 9/11.[4] The dangers of attribution would also outweigh ISIL’s gains from attempting an attack. In response to a strike, the United States would retaliate and jeopardize ISIL’s theoretical political control. In any case, territorial control is not essential to executing an attack; the 9/11 attacks were planned out of Hamburg, not Afghanistan.[5]

Foreign fighters returning to the United States after being trained and hardened in battle are another example of a limited threat to US national security. Fighters from the United States who have fought in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia rarely have returned home and attempted attacks.[6] Instead, they are likely to die in the jihad, join other militias to continue the fight, or return disillusioned and uninterested in terrorism. Fighters who do return home with nefarious intent are likely to receive ample attention from law enforcement and be prevented from taking action.[7] One or two terrorists can always slip through, but taking military action in Iraq and Syria does not reduce that risk.

While ISIL may not currently threaten US security interests directly, continued intervention in the region increases the chances of ISIL terrorism directed against America. Research by Robert Pape and Ivan Eland shows that groups like ISIL use terrorism against occupying countries to force them to end military interventions. The United States was not a target of terrorist groups in Lebanon and Somalia until it had assets on the ground. Osama bin Laden used American military presence in Saudi Arabia to urge action.[8] Former intelligence officials echo these concerns, cautioning that US involvement can be likened to alliances with the Iraqi government and particular militias. This makes the United States a threat to other groups’ interests and increases the recruitment and propaganda benefits of successful terror attacks.[9]

Though the United States will continue to position military forces in the Middle East, inserting air strikes, weapons, and US-trained militants into the fight against ISIL will increase the likelihood of an attack on the homeland or US assets abroad. If the goal of intervention is to prevent terrorism, then there should not be an intervention. Although ISIL would still find it very difficult to strike the United States, military involvement only increases its incentives to make an effort.

Past experience in Afghanistan and Iraq demonstrate that training and equipping local militias can prolong conflict and create conditions inimical to US policy goals. Intervention lengthens conflict and heightens the level of violence. Further, US military involvement is not tied to a particular political end, and previous experience prove democracy promotion is too costly for the American public. Instead, intervention will create increased refugees flows, inject more money, foot soldiers, and weapons into the conflict, and raise the stakes for other regional actors. It will just make matters worse.

Beyond rolling back ISIL, there is no solution that important players including the United States, Iran, Turkey, Russia, and Qatar could find mutually agreeable.[10] By seeking to control the conflict, the US will cause each of these actors to feel pressure to advance their own interests. The results will be poor. In the 1980s, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Iran all attempted to influence the outcome of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. They established madrassa networks for refugee populations along each of Afghanistan’s borders to fund, recruit, and train militant proxies to fight the war. After the Soviets left, former proxies created lingering instability in Afghanistan, which enabled Taliban fighters educated in those madrassas to take over the country.[11] This only further elucidates the dangers of well-funded proxy fighters combined with ripe conditions for terrorism.

Those risks are evident in Syria. Reports claim that the United States goes through warlords to find and vet recruits. Warlords are able to refer and vouch for their men, who subsequently receive training and support from the United States. Ensuring their loyalty can be difficult.[12] ISIL itself is the product of prolonged conflict; individuals and militias fighting for ISIL have often fought for multiple sides since the 2003 United States invasion of Iraq and the civil war in Syria. Arming new groups will not solve the underlying problem; rather, it will address the symptom while blatantly ignoring the root cause..

Ignoring this conflict would indeed be foolish, but US policymakers need to exercise great caution about how they intervene. If stopping ISIL terrorism is the priority, policymakers should severely limit presence in Iraq and Syria while reintegrating and monitoring returning Western militants and using intelligence assets to disrupt plots coming from the region.[13] If fighting ISIL political control is most important, policymakers could deal with the conditions that allowed ISIL to emerge with grassroots political development. The United States’ track record in Iraq makes success seem unlikely. Air strikes and proxies alone will simply worsen the threat of terrorism. The current campaign against ISIL is inadequate to its purported goal. Policymakers owe the public a better solution or more honesty about the threat.


Mitchel is a first year in the Security Studies Program and a senior in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown concentrating in international security. He is especially interested in security dynamics in the Middle East, East Asia, and South Asia. Currently, he is interning in the Office of the Secretary of Defense for Policy-Middle East. He previously interned at the Council on Foreign Relations, United States Embassy London, and the Woodrow Wilson Center.


[1] “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.” US Department of State. <;.

[2] Mazzetti, Mark, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler. “Struggling to Gauge ISIS Threat, Even as US Prepares to Act.” The New York Times. N.p., 10 Sept. 2014. Web. <;.

[3] Weinstein, Jamie. “ISIS Threatens America: ‘We Will Raise The Flag Of Allah In The White House’.” The Daily Caller. 8 Aug. 2014. <;.

[4] Mueller, John. “Iraq Syndrome Redux.” Foreign Affairs, 18 June 2014. Web. <;.

[5] Walt, Stephen. “The “Safe Haven” Myth.” Foreign Policy. 18 Aug. 2009. <;.

[6] Byman, Daniel, and Jeremy Shapiro. “Homeward Bound?” Foreign Affairs. Nov.-Dec. 2014. <;.

[7] Byman, Daniel, and Jeremy Shapiro. “Homeward Bound?” Foreign Affairs. Nov.-Dec. 2014. <;; Bergen, Peter, and David Stermen. “ISIS Threat to US Mostly Hype.” CNN. N.p., 5 Sept. 2014. Web. <;.

[8] Eland, Ivan. “Does US Intervention Overseas Breed Terrorism?” Foreign Policy Briefing 50: CATO Institute. 17 Dec. 1998. <;; Pape, Robert. “The Logic of Suicide Terrorism.” The American Conservative. 18 July 2005. <;.

[9] Mazzetti, Mark, Eric Schmitt, and Mark Landler. “Struggling to Gauge ISIS Threat, Even as US Prepares to Act.” The New York Times. N.p., 10 Sept. 2014. Web. <;; Kaplan, Rebecca. “ISIS a Bigger Threat than Pre-9/11 Al Qaeda?” CBSNews. 11 Aug. 2014. <;.

[10] Miller, Aaron. “The Coalition of Convenience.” Foreign Policy. 18 Sept. 2014. <;.

[11] Fair, Christine. “Ten Fictions That Pakistani Defense Officials Love to Peddle.” War on the Rocks. 31 Jan. 2014. <;.

[12] Stein, Jeff. “Inside the CIA’s Syrian Rebels Vetting Machine.” Newsweek. 10 Nov. 2014. <;.

[13] Byman, Daniel, and Jeremy Shapiro. “Homeward Bound?” Foreign Affairs. Nov.-Dec. 2014. <;.

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