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The Permanent War on Terror: Only As Old As It Feels

This week marks the one-year anniversary of the declaration of the Islamic State. The most infamous cult of ultra-violent millenarian revolutionists since the Khmer Rouge celebrated the event in characteristic style: by murdering some people. On Friday, terrorist attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait, and France occurred with a disturbing synchronicity, leading to speculation that IS had some connection to each of them. In the first two cases, that appears to be true. In the French attack, there are suggestions of a workplace dispute gone murderous, with an IS member providing a helpful nudge (the killer beheaded his boss and then sent a photo to a IS fighter on WhatsApp).

The vigorous IS media presence has allowed anyone with a gun and a smartphone to claim to be acting in tribute, if not cooperation, with the Islamic State. Lone wolf attacks may be celebrated or retroactively sanctioned by IS, depending on the circumstances. The organization has also been far more ready to embrace affiliates than Al Qaeda, which under Osama Bin Laden used to vigorously vet potential leaders. All of this contributes to the impression that, despite recently losing ground in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State remains a serious threat to the West.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has leapt to the vanguard of IS hawks. He recently called the fight against IS “the struggle of our generation.” Reacting to the beachside attack in Tunisia, in which as many as thirty Britons died, he wrote, “The man who did this, the smiling gunman with a Kalashnikov hidden in a parasol, demonstrates the level of evil we are dealing with. It’s an evil we’ve seen on Mount Sinjar in Iraq and in shopping malls in Kenya; at magazine offices in Paris and in schools in Pakistan.”

In hyping the IS threat, Cameron has succumbed to the dim Manichaeism that afflicted men like Bush, Blair, and Abbott before him. Here’s Cameron describing the IS ideology: “It says that the West is bad and freedom is wrong.”

Cameron chose his examples of “evil” carefully. They reflect a bleak reality: that the global war on terror buffoonishly launched by the George W. Bush administration hasn’t diminished in the slightest. Instead, it’s metastasized and become the establishment consensus. The covert strikes favored by President Obama and Vice President Biden can go on indefinitely, as new enemies continue to appear. Government officials have long claimed that the 2001 AUMF authorized the president to go after “Al Qaeda and associated forces,” a convenient ambiguity that eventually brought the Afghan Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, the Haqqani network, and a host of other militant groups onto the targeting list.

The effect goes both ways: fighters who might be confined to local political disputes gain prestige and recruits once the United States deems them international terrorists. In Dirty Wars, the counter-terrorism analyst Daveed Gartenstein-Ross tells Jeremy Scahill, “If there’s one lesson in terms of military operations of the past ten years, it’s that the US is a very effective insurgent force.”

The United States can now claim responsibility for the growth of assorted insurgent and terrorist groups in Pakistan, Yemen, Nigeria, Somalia, North Africa, Syria, and Iraq. In every one of these countries, corruption and violence have worsened since U.S. intervention began. It’s by now common knowledge that U.S. actions in Iraq contributed to the rise of Al Qaeda and then the Islamic State. Indeed, this kind of blowback is one of the war’s bloody ironies. The Islamic State is a product of our own making, of the U.S. invasion, the disbanding of the Iraqi army, Shiite death squads, and brutal coalition-run prisons that acted as jihadist finishing schools, graduating men like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

From Bush to Obama, only the names and death tolls change. Torture has been proscribed in favor of assassinations. Having whiffed on the opportunity presented by the Arab Spring, the United States continues to back strongmen and illiberal client states throughout the Middle East. Meanwhile, the rapprochement with Iran has been hobbled by Saudi Arabia, who roped the United States into supporting a disastrous bombing campaign in Yemen. (The resulting exodus of refugees has since overwhelmed Djibouti, home to a key JSOC base.)

The Islamic State is no doubt capable of extreme brutality and spectacular acts of violence, but it’s surrounded by (and can claim to oppose) a host of brutal regimes. Bashar al-Assad has killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed his country. Iran sponsors Hezbollah, Hamas, and Shiite death squads in Iraq. Saudi Arabia is IS with an AmEx card. Turkey, Qatar, Egypt, and others all support various jihadist groups in the region, some of them allied with the Islamic State.

In this awful mix, the Islamic State is just one competing power. It has few allies or resources, its leader is incapacitated by a U.S. airstrike, and its holdings are vast but, except for a few large towns, mostly unoccupied desert. But its graphic videos and occasional claims of responsibility for lone wolf terrorist attacks ensure that it will continue to be an object of obsession for a western public that, despite thirteen years of failure and loss, still sees terrorism as a problem to be solved militarily. For the leaders of IS, that should be welcome news. Without the United States, that great furnisher of weapons and raisons d’etre to insurgencies the world over, the Islamic State wouldn’t be where it is today.