Conservative headlines might lead one to believe that we are at war. We have been attacked by individuals tangentially tied to ISIS in Orlando, San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and Garland, leaving 69 Americans dead since 2015. That’s 69 too many, to be sure, but our endeavor to fight the very concept of Islamic terrorism as though it will be a finite war with a definitive victory is a quixotic one, reminiscent of the vague Cold War on communism that the West fought against Moscow during the last century.
According to law enforcement officials, the perpetrator of the Orlando attack had no direct relationship with the Islamic State, despite pledging allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS. Similarly, the closest relationship that attackers had with ISIS in San Bernardino, Chattanooga, and Garland were various pledges, though the Chattanooga attacker had in fact called ISIS a “stupid group.”
Other non-state armies have done the same. Boko Haram, the Pakistani Taliban splinter group Jundullah, and the Egyptian Ansar Beit al-Maqdis (aka Islamic State—Sinai Province [IS-IP]) have all pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Where are those groups today? US intelligence officials have indicated that Boko Haram has had no meaningful coordination with ISIS. While news sources regularly paint Jundullah and ISIS with the same brush, intelligence sources have claimed that Jundullah does not receive funding from ISIS. And though Ansar Beit al-Maqdis may have received some financial support from ISIS, individual IS-IP cells have maintained loyalties to al-Qaeda, an ISIS rival, indicating an ambivalent relationship with ISIS.
Anyone can join ISIS—the group itself has stated that the only requirement is a pledge before the attack. But such pledges hold extraordinary influence, as they create the illusion of phantom limbs of the group, infiltrating all across the Middle East and the West. By taking such pledges at face value, the media has ironically empowered ISIS by painting Islamic terrorism as a global struggle with low barriers to entry.
The fear of global and seemingly anti-American ideologies has tarnished our national security in the past. McCarthyism’s House Un-American Activities Committee punished thousands of individuals, including Robert J. Oppenheimer, the leader of the Manhattan project, regardless of whether they were in fact loyal public servants. Enormous amounts of blood and funds were sunk in conflicts associated with communism willy-nilly in Vietnam and Nicaragua despite the lack of an existential threat.
The American defense and intelligence industries operated under the illusion that all communist threats were part of the bipolar struggle of the Cold War and emanated from Moscow alone, when in reality, the indigenous nature of these movements made our intervention more or less unnecessary. The benefits were debatable at best and the blowback, as exhibited by the human rights violations under the Nicaraguan Contras that we assisted, was certain.
We cannot afford to treat terrorism as though it is a unique form of violence perpetrated by the single enemy of “radical Islam”. Violence perpetrated by Muslims, along with individuals of all other religions, will continue so long as humanity continues to exist. Because every single ISIS-affiliated attack in the United States has had no concrete ties to ISIS beyond merely symbolic pledges, they are no different from lone wolf rightwing attacks in Charleston and Colorado Springs and the planned attack by James Howell in Los Angeles.
Eliminating ISIS will not lead to the same results as discussions on homophobia, mental health, accessibility to weapons, and regionally focused strategies against groups like Jundullah will. Instead of playing identity politics, it’s time we viewed domestic “terrorism” through the same lens we use on the crimes of other mass murderers unless a relationship with a foreign army can be unequivocally proven.