Despite the enthusiasm of those media purveyors of horror stories about potential terrorist threats that could match the events of 9/11, it is unlikely, at least for the short term, that ISIS is capable of matching al-Qaeda’s bloody success. That said, there are innumerable ways in which its leaders will attempt to create mayhem, disorder, and paranoia in the developed world and the United States in particular. First, a number of “warriors” from the murderous proceedings in the Middle East will inevitably return to their home countries. Accompanying that threat will be copycat fanatics here in the United States.
In terms of the first group, Europe appears more vulnerable than North America because of both its accessibility to those leaving the Middle East, and its larger pockets of unassimilated Muslims in major European cities. Moreover, the Europeans have added to the threat they confront by allowing large numbers of refugees to pour across their frontiers. The irony here lies in the fact that if European and American statesmen had had the moral courage to step in and squash the Syrian civil war before it really got started, the problem would never have arisen. But there is every possibility that small groups of fundamentalist fanatics among the refugees could and will execute widespread terrorist attacks that could wreck the political stability of a number of European countries.
As for the United States, that threat has already surfaced in a number of attacks, launched by largely incompetent terrorists in the United States. Ironically though, the homegrown mass murderers, such as the attacker on the Virginia Tech campus, who have no connection with the Islamic world, have had far greater success than the recruits ISIS has supposedly enlisted in the United States, largely through the internet. In the largest sense, such attacks do not represent a threat to the physical stability of the United States. After all, for decades we Americans have been killing tens of thousands every year on our highways without blinking an eyelid and without really cracking down on drunk or irresponsible drivers.
No, the real danger is twofold. First, hackers in the employ of ISIS could create massive disruption in our communication and energy networks and do more damage to the global economy as well as that of the United States than isolated violent attacks by its supporters that kill even substantial numbers of people. Given the general unpreparedness of federal and local government, industry, business, and electrical grids to protect their cyber infrastructure, the danger is high. So far those elements of government and the economy seem more interested in protecting their vulnerable infrastructures and data by shutting the barn door after the horse has escaped than by taking serious measures.
But in the long term, the danger lies in the unwillingness of American political and military leaders in their gated community, which is North America, to recognize that the continued existence of ISIS and other movements similar to it represent an extraordinary strategic danger to the stability of the whole Middle East, and not just the Arab world. Exacerbating the threat is the fact that the longer ISIS continues to exist, the more it gains a form of legitimacy that will allow it access to or the ability to develop biological or nuclear weapons. In the largest sense, the problem is that the ignorance of Western political and military leaders of foreign cultures, history, languages other than their own, and their general unwillingness to recognize the external world for what it is, has created a situation in which they are incapable of “calling things by their proper name,” as Clausewitz noted about Machiavelli’s unpopularity.
Perhaps the most terrifying possibility, remote as it may seem, is that ISIS’s operatives could destabilize Pakistan to the point that fragile state collapses. And in the fallout those committed to the murderous beliefs of these religious fanatics would gain access to a nuclear weapon. It is doubtful that even then they would be able to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States, but instead of attempting that difficult task, they might simply use it against the near enemy, India, which is, after all, populated by Hindus and Buddhists, none of whom are People of the Book. And India would undoubtedly reply with a strike that would make Hiroshima look like child’s play.
The long-term damage to the world by the use of nuclear weapons by anyone is suggested by the fact that salvage divers are diving 400 feet and below in Scapa Flow to pull off the armored plating from the German battleships scuttled in 1919 because it is the only source of steel uncontaminated by the use and tests of nuclear weapons from 1945 through 1963. Therefore, that steel is priceless for use in highly calibrated medical machinery.