ISIS claiming responsibility for attack on church in France. July 26, 2016. (CBS Miami)
The so-called Islamic State claims to be the defender of the Muslim world, but ISIS is a far greater menace to Muslims than to any other group. That's the conclusion of a new report by the University of Maryland finding that ISIS and its allies have killed some 33,000 people and wounded or captured tens of thousands more around the world since 2002, the vast majority of them fellow Muslims. The findings underscore everything we know about ISIS' brutal methods and harsh governance in the areas of Syria and Iraq it controls. But it also suggests the group may be sowing the seeds of its own destruction by its reckless misrule.
While Western officials are on high alert to prevent ISIS fighters from infiltrating Europe and the U.S., Westerners so far have accounted for only a tiny sliver of the group's victims, most of whom have been Muslims living in the conflict zones of the Middle East, North Africa and parts of Asia, where the collapse of weak national governments has created a power vacuum allowing radical groups to operate. Such failed states are fertile breeding grounds for terrorists, and their first targets invariably are anyone who opposes or even questions their rule. But terrorism is not a strategy for governing, and sooner or later its victims are likely to turn on their tormentors.
Currently, ISIS is believed to have a significant military presence in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Yemen. In addition, ISIS-linked groups are said to operate in Algeria, Pakistan and the Philippines. Estimates of ISIS' strength vary wildly, ranging from fewer than 10,000 fighters to more than 100,000, with the discrepancy due to uncertainty over how to count militants belonging to affiliated groups who have pledged allegiance to ISIS. The group's leadership includes many former Iraqi military officers loyal to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and much of the group's weaponry was seized from Iraqi army arsenals in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003.
Most ISIS' fighters are thought to be based in Syria and Iraq to defend the group's self-styled Islamic "caliphate," but the group also boasts legions of sympathizers worldwide poised to carry out attacks. Those fighters are said to include armed cells directly controlled by ISIS headquarters as well as imitators and "lone wolf" operatives recruited by the group's online propaganda who are inspired to carry out terrorist attacks on their own. These are the people of greatest concern to Western security officials, but despite the horrific destruction they are capable of causing, they're likely only comprise a relatively small fraction of the group's total manpower.
In addition to the 33,000 dead, the UM researchers believe some 41,000 people have been wounded in ISIS attacks and another 11,000 taken hostage by the group or its affiliates — and these figures may still underestimate the scale of the problem. Almost all of these victims were Muslims, including the more than 200 schoolgirls taken hostage in Nigeria by the ISIS-affiliate Boko Haram in 2014. Over the years the group has killed hundreds of students and forced thousands of others to stop going to school for fear of being attacked. In fact, Boko Haram was responsible for some 6,600 deaths in Nigeria in 2014, more than ISIS killed in Syria and Iraq that year.
In an increasingly interconnected world, ISIS has shown that even a relatively small but well-organized group can create havoc on a global scale. That's why fighting terrorism can't be the job of just one or two countries alone. Terrorism is a global threat that demands a global response, and combating it successfully requires a concerted diplomatic effort to engage the predominantly Muslim countries of the Middle East, North Africa and Western Asia in the fight as well as the U.S. and its European allies. Now is not the time to push away the Muslim world with bigotry and fear but to recognize that we have a common enemy.
Even if ISIS' ability to stage attacks is limited to sporadic and geographically scattered acts of terror, the effects can demoralize whole populations and terrorize vulnerable communities. Indeed, their very unpredictability — coupled with people's awareness that they can happen any time and anywhere — destabilizes and disrupts normal life, leaving people to live in constant fear. Whenever that happens, the terrorists win.