A Major Consequence of the War on Terror: The Growth of ISIS

Lyndsey Mros

“Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists and every government that supports them. Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” declared President George W. Bush on September 20, 2001 to the American people during a presidential address. Proclaiming this war on al Qaeda and terrorism was the United States’ first step to avenging the tragic attack on September 11th, 2001 that took thousands of American lives. This war would be brutal and would batter the Middle East, ruffling the feathers of many people around the world who would take sides on the matter, some of which were extremists ready to start their own war against the world. President George W. Bush, and many people for that matter, did not know declaring war on al Qaeda and anyone or any country who supported them would allow a new breed of terrorism to strengthen in the background. The War on Terror has created this new breed of terrorism because it caused Iraqi citizens economic hardships, made the United States more enemies from around the world, and fueled Islamophobia.
It’s 1300 on a Sunday and my platoon is sitting out on the drill pad outside our barracks at Fort Jackson, South Carolina while Senior Drill Sergeant is telling us stories about his time serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. He was infantry so the stories were about his time in the Middle East, the convoys he was a part of, the places he went, and the people he saw. One story that resonates with me is about a village that had been demolished by United States bombs. Senior Drill Sergeant’s team was moving through the barren village to get to a supply unit that had set up a fuel point to restock their resources and get fuel. Some of the debris was still burning, those who did not survive were covered with sheets on the side of the road and the air smelled like burning flesh and death. Most of the survivors, shaking and crying in fear, hid behind sections of walls and houses that were still standing, hoping and praying they would not be attacked again. Others were telling Senior Drill Sergeant and the other troops things they could not understand but assumed were well wishes because those survivors were putting up peace signs with their fingers, smiling, and waving. When he finished his story, he told us we were lucky and should be thankful we were not fighting in the War on Terror because we will never have to witness first-hand the destruction the United States caused in the Middle East like he did. The military tactics will not be focused on hand-to-hand combat or close range fighting like past wars because the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria do not fight that way. ISIS attacks are usually carried out by a small group or by bombs, planted or suicide, so there are not any shootouts or combat fighting like the United States military did with al Qaeda. They are completely different from al Qaeda and past terrorist groups; thanks to the War on Terror, they are spread out all around the world making it impossible to pinpoint their location.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is a successful terrorist group unlike any other. Traditionally, terrorist organizations reign over a region or country and are made up of men and women born around that area. ISIS has a strong hold over the Middle East, particularly Iraq and Syria, and has connections all over the world, making their attacks even more unpredictable. Something many people overlook is that its members of the group come from all walks of life from all over the world, not just the Middle East like al Qaeda. ISIS is much harder to fight because they are spread out and are made up of many nationalities which causes all countries to fear a potential assault. Al Qaeda, a terrorist organization that was a fraction of the size ISIS is now, was successful in producing an attack that would traumatize many Americans, which makes some wonder what large attack ISIS is capable of.
The United States acted swiftly to fight back against a terrorist organization causing pain and suffering for American citizens, triggering many to question if the strategy was right or wrong. The main focus and goal of al Qaeda was destroying the United States and killing as many American citizens as they could. The leader, Osama bin Laden, made it known to everybody and their brother that the group hated the United States for everything it was and he was not going to stop fighting until he reached his goal. After many failed attempts of attacks on United States soil, al Qaeda took down the World Trade Centers in New York killing thousands of Americans. With the world in shock, President George W. Bush created the War on Terror to take down this group and anyone who supported them. Osama bin Laden, leader of al Qaeda, was on the governments radar so he went into hiding which unleashed anger towards the country suspected of harboring him: Iraq. The United States military was in Afghanistan first but later turned its focus to Iraq because the Iraqi government and the leader, Saddam Hussein, were believed to have Weapons of Mass Destruction, or WMDs, and allegedly supported al Qaeda (Weisman). In 2003, Hussein was the first to be taken out of power in the raging war against terror after going into hiding two years earlier. There are many different opinions on if that was the right move to take Hussein out of power or not but it was too late because the United States government had made its move.
The United States was not pleased with the Ba’ath Party in Iraq so the government took matters into its own hands and created a plan they believed would help push the country towards a better political system. Retired Staff Sergeant Daniel D. Anderson, Active Army from 1979 to 1983 and Army National Guard Reservist from 1990 to 2015, made it known he was not a supporter of taking Hussein out of power or messing with the Ba’ath party during our interview. He blurted out, “As much of a thug as Hussein was, he kept al Qaeda from forming in the country; Hussein had control,” the United States messed it up when we poked our nose into Iraq and Iran’s business, disrupting the power balance between the two countries. Going back to the Gulf War, the United States government had ample opportunities to strike a deal under the table with Saddam Hussein to get him out of power but instead the United States tried years later to take on a man who does not give up in a fight by singling his country out in the War on Terror (Anderson; Milne). After Hussein was out of power, Paul Bremer and Paul Wolfowitz came up with the idea and plan to remove the Ba’ath party from the Iraqi government, which to some was one of the worst decisions that could have been made at that time. The Ba’ath party was one of the only viable options Iraqi citizens had to choose for work that would put food on the table for their family, whether they agreed with the party’s ideas or not (Anderson). Interviewed in 2008, Bremer exclaimed they pushed Iraq in the right direction with putting in new political leaders and creating many new laws during De-Ba’athification, or the removal of the Ba’ath party and their influence in Iraqi politics (Baroody). Many disagree with Bremer because taking away the jobs of the innocent Iraqi citizens who were trying to make a living in an area with few well-paying jobs, pushed them towards the next best paying employer: al Qaeda. The same thing happened with ISIS when the al Qaeda leader, bin Laden, went into hiding and was then killed in Pakistan, not Iraq like the United States government had assumed, on May 2, 2011. The people who were in al Qaeda for the money ran to ISIS for employment (AFP; Anderson; Brown 7). The Iraqi citizens who were taking jobs with the Ba’ath party were not bad people; they needed money to support their families. When Bremer and Wolfowitz fired as many Ba’ath employees as they could for being a part of the controversial political party instead of going after those who were the problem, innocent people paid the price for the top leader’s mistakes. Firing the people who did nothing wrong likely pushed them towards ISIS because the organization would be able to use De-Ba’athification against the United States.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria has a more advanced network than al Qaeda did for recruiting members from around the world, a network that the United States is struggling to crack. Some, like myself, believe ISIS wants to accumulate members to wreak havoc on anyone who does not follow their beliefs while others believe they are expanding to try to obtain land in the Middle East to have as their own governing state (Brown 4). The latter makes more sense for al Qaeda since they were centrally located in the Middle East and did not have many, if any, members worldwide. They focused on recruiting smaller terrorist groups or individuals with similar ideas who were looking to expand (Hoffman 2). Like al Qaeda, ISIS recruits in the Middle East by playing off the War on Terror’s mistakes and by accepting people who have lost their jobs, their homes, and their respect for the United States after they lost everything in bombing attacks. Staff Sergeant Cory Desrosier, who has spent the last 15 years in the Army and has two deployments overseas under his belt, does not believe the War on Terror was a significant factor on the growth of ISIS but explained, “…when the U.S. made the downfall of al Qaeda then pulled out, it left an opening for another organization to take over…” which brings us to the ISIS takeover and recruitment of the Middle Eastern people. Removing al Qaeda and getting rid of Saddam Hussein allowed ISIS to swoop in and take control of the region, and exposed them to new people to train and brainwash. ISIS does not just stop at recruitment in the Middle East though, they have taken advantage of the ever-expanding social media platforms to brainwash individuals who are mentally unwell or have expressed their deep hatred for the United States online. The United States government has not been able to keep ISIS off social media because they take possible recruits to websites created on the dark side of the internet that a normal person cannot reach. There they do not have to worry about the United States government reading the exchanges or canceling their many accounts (Johnson). Shockingly, the United States has always been one step behind ISIS on the internet even though the government should have the resources and people to crack down on the dark websites. It seems as though the United States government is not just falling behind technologically but also militarily.
Taking on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria using the War on Terror tactics would be completely ineffective and unrealistic. Bombing areas with suspected ties to terrorism was how the United States went through the Middle East during the War on Terror; the attacks were brutal and killed many innocent people. Figure 1 below shows the overwhelming number of civilian casualties that were overlooked by the United States government during the war. Even with people objecting to this treatment to that region, it continued because the government thought it was the right thing to do to eradicate al Qaeda and eliminate the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Those violent attacks on villages and cities cannot happen in today’s fight with ISIS because they are a worldwide organization. The United States military would be bombing areas all around the world, including Minnesota, which would not go over very well with other countries as well as the people of the United States. The number of civilian casualties shown in Figure 1 would skyrocket if the same tactics used in the Middle East were used against ISIS. This war can be fought technologically by trying to slow recruitment. Asked if the United States can take down ISIS, SSG Desrosier commented, “…The US and the world are handling them the only way we honestly can,” and terrorism will never go extinct because “…when you squash one, another one pops up…,” ready to take over. I agree terrorism will never go away because greed and religion will always be around but I think the United States and the world can do more to stop ISIS.
For instance, if resources are focused on ending recruitment or at least slowing it online, that would take away a huge chunk of possible terrorists and threats. I’m not saying people would not still want to join ISIS but it may prevent people from even thinking about joining or getting in contact with them. Retired SSG Anderson made a good point when questioned as to whether the United States and the world are doing enough to take down ISIS. He believes the Middle Eastern people who leave to gain an education, whom he calls “moderates”, need to return to the region and help start a movement to resist ISIS and terrorism. The educated Middle Eastern population that has been exposed to more than just the Middle East leave and become citizens in other Westernized countries which leaves the non-educated Middle Eastern population defenseless. Anderson strongly believes the moderates can use the ideas they have seen and learned from people and places around the world to help make government plans and military tactics to defend the innocent citizens. The United States and any other country that is willing to help can work with the moderates to slow down ISIS. Terrorism will never be exterminated but it might be able to be controlled if everyone else is willing to work together and develop realistic strategies.

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Fig. 1 Direct War Casualties
Being on the same side, military veterans believe and fight for the same cause but some disagree on the strategies and tactics the government decides to use when handling foreign affairs. I interviewed two veterans who have been deployed and fought in the Middle East to see how they feel about the War on Terror and the effects. SSG Desrosier was adamant when describing his views on the War on Terror and the United States involvement in the Middle East. He does not think the War on Terror was a significant factor in the growth and success of ISIS because the people who lived there were more afraid of the terrorist organizations than the United States soldiers. Realizing they were fighting for their freedom, the Middle Eastern people supported the effort to rid the region of terrorists. Desrosier also made it clear ISIS would have become successful even if the War on Terror did not happen because terrorist organizations will do everything they can to succeed. The second interviewee, Retired SSG Anderson, holds a completely opposite opinion. Anderson insists the War on Terror was a huge factor in ISIS growing because the United States involvement and actions in the Middle East caused the people living there to despise the United States. The military went through and destroyed so many homes and killed so many civilians that ISIS was able to capitalize off of it, so if the War on Terror never happened, ISIS would not have gained so many members. Both Anderson and Desrosier were in the same branch of the military, the Army, but have two completely different views on the War on Terror, which demonstrates how controversial United States involvement in the Middle East was and still is.
After September 11th, 2001 and the War on Terror, Islamophobia, an irrational fear of those who practice Islam, increased dramatically, endangering Muslims who are not connected to terrorism in any way, shape, or form. Al Qaeda was seen as an organization made up of Muslims working out of the Middle East, and after ISIS took over, many assumed the groups were the same. During the War on Terror, the United States went to the Middle East, a region typically associated with Islam, to fight al Qaeda but did not reassure the public all Muslims are not terrorists. That mistake led to people from different religions and areas around the world associating Muslims with terrorists. Since al Qaeda and ISIS are often mistaken for groups with the same fundamental beliefs and people, Muslims are still blamed for terrorism. If people really took time to research and learn about ISIS, they would know that ISIS operates all around the world and is made up of so many different nationalities and ethnicities. They are an extremist group that does not represent all of Islam or Muslims, just a tiny percentage that are using their religion as an excuse to hurt and kill people. Figure 2 below shows the worldwide Muslim population and how many are terrorists. The number is extremely low considering there are over 1.5 billion followers, so grouping them all together as terrorists is completely and utterly invalid. Muslims all around the world and even in the United States are being discriminated against by ignorant people who are not educated about who and what ISIS or terrorism really is. Additionally, the Muslim Ban and talk about a Muslim Registry has caused an outrage from many people. If President Donald Trump continues this discrimination against innocent Muslim people, ISIS will use that to recruit more young, vulnerable teens and mentally unstable adults (Anderson). The public needs to learn that being Muslim does not mean that people are terrorists. Muslims are being used as the scapegoat for the anger the world has towards terrorism and it needs to stop. The blame needs to be placed on the sorry excuses for human beings who are causing this pain and fear, who are bombing cities and villages filled with innocent bystanders, who are terrorizing the world with violence, not the innocent Muslim men and women who are good people trying to live a normal life like you and me.

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Fig. 2 Muslim Population Worldwide
No one ever imagined there would be a terrorist attack like the one on September 11th, 2001 on United States soil. With the evolution of terrorism and the way ISIS recruits and attacks, the odds of another attack happening somewhere in the United States is increasing. It may not affect you personally but it may affect someone you know. I doubt the men and women who went to work at the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11th, 2001, thought they would die in those buildings or the more than 400 firemen and rescue workers who died that tragic day knew they would not make it home to their families as they braved the flights of stairs in the collapsing buildings to save as many lives as they could. The chef at Windows on The World, Moises Rivas, did not wake up that morning knowing he was going to die in the Twin Towers and would have to make one last phone call to his stepdaughter to tell her he loved her or that a lawyer, Jonathan Judd, thought going to work that day would almost leave his wife a widow and baby without a father (Cooper). No one leaves their home thinking they are going to die that day, whether it be in an accident or a terrorist attack. Attacks that may have ties to terrorism are happening more frequently around the world. The stories are plastered on the front page of every news source for a day or two, but then dwindle and are replaced by ‘news’ about the Kardashians or the newest Instagram trend. As a society, we are more interested in who is dating whom or what celebrity power couple broke up than we are about things that actually matter like the people who are being killed in ruthless attacks orchestrated by brainwashed radicals. If the London attack happened in the United States, we would be more concerned. Since the attack happened across the pond and no United States citizens were injured or killed, we care for a day and then go back to our normal lives. We need to care when human beings are murdered, whether it happens on United States soil or on a different continent altogether. Terrorist groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria are showing the world what they are capable of and it’s only a matter of time before the United States and the world are blindsided by another September 11th.
The dust is settling after the final bomb has dropped. Survivors are crying out for loved ones while rummaging through the debris that was once their homes. Innocent men, women, and children lay injured or dead in the streets after United States armed forces hammered their villages with missiles and bombs, hoping to have killed al Qaeda members or supporters. This scene leads to one critical moment: Survivors can choose to rebuild and hope their government will be replaced with better politicians who will protect them or survivors can choose to turn to the open arms of the radicals and extremists waiting to brainwash them into terrorists who think they are avenging their dead loved ones and fighting for what’s ‘right.’ The fighting tactics used in the War on Terror pushed so many people to that critical moment all because the United States wanted to prove a point that they could stop al Qaeda and anyone who was standing in their way. The Islamic State took advantage of the opportunity to gain many more followers and supporters while President George W. Bush and the United States military had tunnel vision focused solely on al Qaeda. There are many reasons ISIS has become such a big threat, like recruiting through social media and becoming a worldwide organization, but there is no doubt President George W. Bush’s War on Terror played a major role in their growth. Creating a vacancy in the Middle East ready for the taking, removing a prominent leader who was keeping terrorism at bay in Iraq, and fueling the sick and disturbing ideas of Islamophobia are only a few of the negative impacts the War on Terror had that propelled the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria to be the front runners in the race to be the top terrorist powerhouse today.

Works Cited
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