Well, sort of. Granted, any 8-year-old could have set up this photo. But it was tweeted as a taunt from ISIS, in the Twitter stream of a user going by the name of @Sunna_rev, whose Tweets are usually in Arabic. Sunna_rev’s user image is ISIS’s stylized ar-raya flag (the “black flag of jihad.” The white flag of the political caliphate is the al-liwaa. Scroll down at this link for discussion).
The Tweet’s thesis:
We are in your state
We are in your cities
We are in your streets
You are our goals anywhere
— قهر الطواغيت (@Sunna_rev) August 9, 2014
The other image in the Tweet is one that circulated on the web back in June, after it was apparently taken on the 20th. A number of sites reported the photo as having been snapped at Grand Central Station in New York, but a group of amateur sleuths commissioned by Ross Elder determined that the background is actually the Old Republic Building on Michigan Avenue in Chicago. The hand-written card has a date of 20 June 2014 on it – and, continuing Elder’s thorough spadework, I can report confirming at the Weather Underground history archive that Michigan Ave. in Chicago should have looked pretty much like what you see in the photo on 20 June. It was cloudy with a high of 85 that day, which is consonant with the light quality and the attire of the pedestrians.
Elder was able to have the message on the card translated:
The army of the Islamic country of Iraq will pass by here soon.
The lord said, God give [sic] his light even though hated the sinners.
The coming threat
Something to keep in mind, however, is that it’s not clear what tactics ISIS will use to get at America. Our minds go naturally to the specter of a 9/11-type attack. But ISIS is an army of conquest, and a 9/11-style attack – especially if mounted as a one-off – isn’t a useful action to bring about political submission from the United States. A collapse of American will can’t be leveraged by that means.
ISIS underestimates us morally, as a people, but that doesn’t mean ISIS will operate based on mistaken strategic premises. Even though Barack Obama would fail to respond vigorously or effectively to a 9/11-style attack, such an attack would still fall short of achieving any meaningful political goal. ISIS won’t eschew such attacks for that reason, but it will look beyond them. We should be concerned about ISIS actually being focused on bigger objectives. Those silly movies from the last couple of years about bad guys capturing the White House (White House Down, Olympus Has Fallen) are one place to start pondering the scope of what ISIS could have in mind.
Another point to consider is America’s exposure overseas. When we are strong, our presence abroad is one of the pillars of that strength. When we’re weak, it’s a vulnerability.
Something I see in Iran’s decision to switch horses in Iraq – to drop the long-time Iranian support for Nouri al-Maliki – is a vision for making the new government of Iraq America’s problem, and thus ensuring that the face-off between that government and ISIS is a face-off with the U.S. and not with Iran.
It is a misreading of ISIS to imagine that the group itself is in bed with any part-time patron, whether Iran or Turkey. But both Iran and Turkey are guaranteed to want to play the events precipitated by ISIS to their advantage. Iran doesn’t mind to promote events that will confound the U.S., by whatever means available. It would be positively delightful for Iran, if ISIS were to run America’s client government in Baghdad – and by extension, run Washington, D.C. – through the wringer. Does anyone doubt that ISIS is capable of doing that to a shaky, increasingly landless Iraqi regime, and to the Obama administration?
If I had to bet, I would bet that ISIS’s near-term sights are set on inflicting the most useful defeat possible on America in Iraq. The best way to do that harks back not to April 1975 and the roof of the embassy in Saigon, but to November of 1979 and the U.S. embassy in Tehran. ISIS would probably acquire the greatest leverage by taking a sizable number of American hostages and holding them for many torturous months.
We can assume that longer-term visions have crossed the minds in the ISIS brain trust as well, like acquiring weapons of mass destruction and concocting ways to use them in a broad-scale attack on the United States (and presumably on other nations as well). What our analysis should keep in mind is that ISIS doesn’t just want to blow things up and kill people. It wants to rule. It will not behave like al Qaeda. It’s trying to achieve more than that – and to achieve the ultimate vision of the “grand jihad” kinetically, through territorial conquest, and faster. For a U.S. leadership with any knowledge of history or capacity for strategic thinking, those features of ISIS actually make the guerrilla-terrorist group more vulnerable to conventional countermeasures. Too bad that’s not the kind of leadership we have today.