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September 02, 2014 3:28 PM Is ISIS Deterrable?

By Ed Kilgore

I do not claim any expertise whatsoever in Middle Eastern affairs, much less the intricacies of Salafi Islam. But given the hysterical talk about ISIS as sort of the ultimate terrorist organization that can be expected to blow up an American city any day now, I found this passage from a TNR profile of ISIS by Graeme Wood very interesting:

[S]lavish loyalty to historical example at least makes the beliefs and plans of ISIS a little more predictable than those of a spry, global-reach organization like Al Qaeda. We know, for example, that Baghdadi demands total allegiance and that the caliphal structure of ISIS does not lend itself to the cell-based activity that made the bin Laden network hard to eradicate. It also severely limits what ISIS can do, since any attack on a Western city would draw an immediate and devastating counterattack on Raqqa, and wouldn’t require the laborious fumigation of hundreds of mountain caves.

The very territorial base that makes ISIS such a magnet for terrorists, in other words, could also make it deterrable in a way that al Qaeda never has been. The kind of “second 9/11” a lot of people seem to be fearing at ISIS’ hands would without question provide political cover for a complete destruction of anything with a gun moving in the area controlled by the organization—an area without which, BTW, a credible “caliphate” would not be possible. So maybe this isn’t the ultimate nightmare after all, and maybe we don’t actually have to kill hundreds of thousands of people to protect our cities.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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