Is ISIS the worst threat facing America — or just the newsiest?

The dangers of "chasing the soccer ball"

ISIS news
(Image credit: (Richard Levine/Demotix/Corbis))

Last Tuesday, President Obama made what was, for many, a surprising announcement. Not only had the United States conducted the first air strikes on the Islamic State of Iray and Syria's forces in Syria, it also "took strikes to disrupt plotting against the United States and our allies by seasoned al Qaeda operatives in Syria who are known as the Khorasan Group," he said.

President Obama never mentioned the Khorasan group when he laid out his strategy for destroying ISIS on Sept. 10. Nor did he mention Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate.

The administration's focus on ISIS and lack of discussion of other groups appears to demonstrate what New America International Security Program Fellow and Foreign Policy columnist Rosa Brooks has called "chasing the soccer ball" — what happens when analysts and security resources are focused on the threat dominating the news cycle rather than on actual threats. Is that what happened here — and should that concern us?

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In this case, it's possible that President Obama needed to keep the Khorasan strike plans under wraps in order to successfully execute the strikes and prevent imminent threats. But now that the president has announced the air strikes using the name Khorasan group, it is time — if it wasn't already — for a deeper public discussion of the many groups in Syria that may threaten U.S. interests.

We need a Syria strategy — not just an Islamic State of Iraq and Syria strategy — because the other groups in Syria could pose a greater threat to U.S. interests.

First, some background on those other groups. American officials have suspected for a while that the Khorasan group, which is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a senior al Qaeda figure who had close ties to Bin Laden, may pose a more direct threat to the United States than ISIS. The Khorasan group has ties to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which is known for its master-bomb maker, Ibrahim al-Asiri, who has demonstrated a knack for getting explosives through airport security. The ties between the Khorasan group and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula led to increased security in July of this year.

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is the al Qaeda affiliate that poses perhaps the most immediate threat to the United States. On September 10th, as the president focused on the threat from ISIS, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence tweeted: "We continue to assess that AQAP remains the al-Qa'ida affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United States."

Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate, could also pose a significant threat to American interests in the region. It has taken territory along the Syrian border with Israel and, while it has so far focused on confronting the Syrian regime, it is not out of the question that the group will soon turn their sights on Israel. As we noted in an assessment of the Jihadist terrorist threat for the Bipartisan Policy Center, the potential for jihadist movements to merge their struggle with the Israeli Palestinian and Arab Israeli conflicts presents a wild card that could have wide-ranging, systemic consequences.

The president has been far from alone in focusing on ISIS rather than the Syrian civil war with its multitude of dangerous actors. Policymakers from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to Senator John McCain, have at times referenced the 100 Americans that have travelled to fight with ISIS. But what they don't mention is that those Americans travelled to fight in Syria with any group, not just ISIS. That effectively erased the threat from groups other than ISIS in the minds of many Americans — and other policymakers.

Indeed, the case that is often cited to demonstrate the threat from returning fighters — and presented as evidence for the need to confront IS — is that of Moner Abu Salha. He received training in Syria and returned to the United States undetected before returning to Syria to conduct a suicide bombing. But he was involved with Jabhat al Nusra and not the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.

Why does it matter if the public discussion of the president's strategy on ISIS has, until now, left these groups out? In short, it could be dangerous. The president's current strategy against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could end up aiding these groups. Many of the "moderate" rebels who the president seeks to arm have fought alongside Jabhat al Nusra and arms have moved between them.

This dynamic is compounded by the challenges posed by Shi'a militias that have strengthened their positions and played important roles confronting ISIS in Iraq. As the Bipartisan Policy Center threat assessment notes, increasing sectarian divisions and violence is another wild card that could radically reshape the nature of the jihadist movement regionally.

This week's air strikes may be evidence that the administration is well aware of the range of threats and already has a strategy to confront the crisis as a whole, but one can't help but question why it was not publicly addressed beforehand, so as to ensure public support for the strategy being adopted. As New America's Brian Fishman argues, "the most important strategic lesson from Iraq" is not to lead the American public into wars with shifting objectives without forthrightly informing them of what the commitment entails, "because they will not put up with that commitment long enough for those goals to be achieved."

Now that the strikes have been announced, it is time for a public debate on all the threat actors and not just the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Whatever tools or actions best serve American interests in Syria, those tools need to be used as part of a Syria strategy — not simply an ISIS strategy.

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