ISIS: Parsing Barack Obama's Definition of 'Contained'

In an interview with President Obama on November 12, 2015, ABC This Week host George Stephanopoulos suggested that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was gaining strength.  The president pushed back against the notion and remarked that ISIS had been "contained."  The full response

Well, no, I don't think they're gaining strength. What is true is that from the start, our goal has been first to contain, and we have contained them. They have not gained ground in Iraq. And in Syria they'll come in, they'll leave. But you don't see this systematic march by ISIL across the terrain.

Since the president's comments, the Iraqi Army has undertaken the task of retaking Ramadi in Anbar Province from ISIS, capturing about seventy percent of the city.  The BBC has reported that, as of January 1, 2016, ISIS has begun an effort to halt the Iraqi offense in the still contested city.

The following regions are where ISIS is known to operate.

Let's look at Libya first.  After all the jubilation at the fall of Moammar Gaddafi, the country has descended into utter chaos.  There are two opposing governments vying for control, as well as multiple militant groups and tribes.  Who else is there?  ISIS.  As the U.S.-backed Libyan Parliament and the Islamist New General National Congress work to come to terms with each other, the Islamic State is busy growing its state in the North African nation.  From its Libyan coastal base at Sirte, ISIS, with nearly 3,000 fighters, has carved out a territory in north central Libya and has gained the allegiance of the militant group Ansar al-Sharia.

The United States is currently engaged in combat operations against the least known instance of ISIS expansion, the Philippines.  As many as six thousand United States soldiers, including a large contingent of Special Forces, are assisting the Filipino government in pushing back against a revitalized militant insurgency.  Isnilon Totoni Hapilon, the leader of Abu Sayyaf, a terrorist group that had been fighting the Filipino government since the '90s, has sworn allegiance to ISIS.  ISIS continues to fight U.S. and Filipino forces.  Reuters has reported that just this past New Year's Eve 2015, U.S.-backed Filipino troops engaged in a battle on Jolo Island with nearly 300 ISIS militants, leading to 25 militant casualties and eight Filipino casualties.

We all remember the first lady and numerous officials and celebrities holding signs with the logo #BringBackOurGirls and the subsequent Twitter phenomenon that called for the return of the nearly three hundred Nigerian schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram in April of 2014.  Twenty-one months later, more than 200 girls remain captives.  For some reason, Boko Haram wasn't persuaded by our social media pleas.  Meanwhile, it was reported by CNN's Hamdi Alkhshali and Steve Almasy that on March 7, 2015, Abubakar Shekau, the leader of Boko Haram, swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State.  Boko Haram is now the Islamic State West Africa Province and is currently engaged in combat operations with U.S. and African Union supported nations such as Nigeria, Cameroon, Niger, Chad, and Benin.

In 2014, militants from the Sinai-based terrorist group Ansar Bait al Maqdis sent representatives to ISIS in Syria requesting weapons, fighters, and money in exchange for their allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  In July of 2015, nearly 300 militants attacked several Egyptian Army checkpoints, leading to the deaths of 21 Egyptian soldiers and more than 200 militants.  ISIS also took responsibility for the downing of Russian Flight 9268 on October 31, 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew onboard.  Time Magazine's Jared Malsin reported that Egypt has struggled to deal with ISIS in the Sinai Peninsula, and sporadic bombings and clashes between militants and security forces continue.

In September of 2014, ISIS sent a group of fighters to Afghanistan and Pakistan and began recruiting militants from factions aligned with the Taliban, forming the Islamic State Khorasan Province.  Nearly two thousand militants have pledged their allegiance to al-Baghdadi.  ISIS now operates in Western Pakistan and numerous regions in Afghanistan, most notably in Nangarhar Province.  Priyanka Boghani of PBS has reported that many young children are being recruited by ISIS militants in Afghanistan and trained in schools to fight coalition forces.  Ms. Boghani also reported that ISIS is actually collecting taxes and providing basic services in many villages in Afghanistan.  Additionally, ISIS in Afghanistan has received the support and allegiance of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, leading to potentially greater chaos.

The Islamic State has taken advantage of the nine-month-old civil war in Yemen, challenging al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) for hegemony.  Ever since the Iranian-backed Revolutionary Committee, along with the Houthi faction, overthrew the U.S.- and Saudi-backed Hadi government, ISIS has begun recruiting militants from Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, who were originally aligned with AQAP.  CNN's Brian Todd reported, back in January 2015, that Yemen has been a major source of militant fighters who have fought in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.  The Saudi-led intervention is now bogged down in a stalemate with the Houthis and the Islamic State.

ISIS is known to operate, at differing capacities, in three other countries/regions: Algeria, Somalia, and the Caucasus.  The Algerian militant group Jund al-Khalifah fi Ard al-Jazayer swore allegiance to the Islamic State in 2014, and in September of 2014, its members beheaded French tourist Hervé Gourdel, his body being discovered four months later by Algerian security forces, as reported by the BBC.  In Somalia, ISIS has called on Al-Shabaab to switch their allegiance from al-Qaeda to al-Baghdadi, and the Islamic State is beginning to have a strong base of support among many militants in the country.  The Caucasus Emirate, a militant group in southwestern Russia, has now seen many commanders begin swearing allegiance to al-Baghdadi.

New Jersey Governor and 2016 GOP presidential candidate Chris Christie was correct when he said during an interview on CBS's This Morning on December 16, 2015 that we are already engaged in a third world war:

You see, the problem for folks like Sen. Paul is that they don't realize we're already in World War III.  The fact is this is a new world war and one that won't look like the last two.  And this is one where it's radical Islamic jihadists every day are trying to kill Americans and disrupt and destroy our way of life.

It might be fair to say that the world has never seen such a multi-front war since Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo tried to take over the world.  Governor Christie is on point.  This is a world war.  A new one.

The Islamic State is very adept at manipulating political instability, almost Machiavellian.  They know that civil wars, tribal rivalries, and weak central governments (Yemen, Somalia, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Syria, etc.) are the perfect opportunities to expand their caliphate.  And make no mistake: they are succeeding in expanding.

In hindsight, was it a good idea to get rid of secular dictators?  I would say no.  As horrible and undemocratic as they were, Moammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and Hosni Mubarak maintained the fight against extremism.  Now Libya and Iraq are in turmoil and fragmented.  We lucked out that General Abdel el-Sisi was able to overthrow Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood regime, but Egypt still faces uncertainty.

Let's be careful about who will replace Syria's Bashar al-Assad.

The simple fact remains: ISIS is not contained.  ISIS is constantly looking for new regions to conquer.  Chaotic situations, like those we see in Iraq, Syria, and Somalia, prove too tempting for ISIS to turn a blind eye.

The United States and its allies must not turn a blind eye, because ISIS is not contained.