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Is the U.S. Safer With the Islamic ‘State’ Gone?

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As ISIS accumulated territory, the Obama administration engaged in a wrenching debate about whether to again commit the American military to Iraq, a country it had quit just a few years before. The scale of the Islamic State’s abuses—the sex slavery, the violent enforcement of its interpretation of Islamic law, the mass executions—was growing clearer, but it was still obscure.

Meanwhile, there were also indications that the group could use its territory to plot attacks against Western targets, but that still didn’t necessarily mean it would succeed. Decades of debate before ISIS had brought no consensus on how important territory really is to terrorist groups. The deadliest terrorist attack in American history, on September 11, 2001, had been largely planned from a safe haven in Afghanistan; the second-most fatal, the Oklahoma City bombing, had been planned in the United States.

ISIS also wasn’t the first group to use terrorism and then control territory; the terrorism scholar Bruce Hoffman pointed out that many groups, from the Communists in China after World War II to the Vietcong in Vietnam to the FARC in Colombia, had operated along a spectrum of violence, from terrorist attacks on civilians, to massing forces for guerrilla-style attacks, to mass mobilization into an insurgent group that could hold territory. Where ISIS differed, Hoffman told me, was mainly in how quickly it moved through this process—even as it kept up its campaign of terrorism against civilians.

By the summer of 2014, ISIS was routing entire Iraqi army divisions, some of which simply “evaporated” rather than fighting, Allen says. The group had taken over one of Iraq’s largest cities, Mosul, where its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared a caliphate. The fall of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad to the militants seemed like a real possibility. “They seemed irresistible and invincible,” Allen says. And they were turning their attention toward Iraq’s northern Kurdish enclave. U.S. officials began to worry that the group could overrun the Kurds, who had been some of America’s best partners in Iraq. The officials were also horrified by the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding on Iraqi Kurdistan’s Mount Sinjar, where the group had besieged members of the Yazidi religious minority.

The territory ISIS had amassed, meanwhile, gave the group freedom of maneuver, access to financial resources, and a powerful recruitment tool for thousands of foreign fighters seeking a physical place to live and fight for their version of Islam. There was a growing sense within the administration that the more the group was allowed to expand, the harder it would be to dislodge.

ISIS had seized banks and oil refineries; it was also generating income by taxing the population in the areas under its control. By one estimate, these sources added up to revenues of more than $800 million for the group in 2015. Launching terrorist attacks is cheap—sometimes it’s just the cost of a car rental. And the more resources ISIS had, the more damage it could potentially inflict. Not just with guns and U-Hauls—Hoffman pointed out that early on, the group seized the University of Mosul, where it conducted research on chemical weapons. Al-Qaeda had done similar research at facilities in Afghanistan.

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