A report released last week by two Washington, D.C., based think tanks concludes there is a jihadist group more dangerous to the United States in the long term than ISIS.
The report, published by the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the American Enterprise Institute, was authored by a group of experts, some of whom were involved in planning the 2007 troop surge in Iraq.
The report finds al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, poses “one of the most significant long-term threats” of any jihadist group.
“This al Qaeda affiliate has established an expansive network of partnerships with local opposition groups that have grown either dependent on or fiercely loyal to the organization,” the report said. “Its defeat and destruction must be one of the highest priorities of any strategy to defend the United States and Europe from al Qaeda attacks.”
As the U.S. strategy and assets have been focused on defeating ISIS in Syria, it has allowed al-Nusra to gain in strength. “Jabhat al-Nusra has weakened the moderate opposition and penetrated other Sunni opposition groups in Syria so thoroughly that it is poised to benefit the most from the destruction of ISIS and the fall or transition of the Assad regime,” the report said.
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“The likeliest outcome of the current strategy in Syria, if it succeeds, is the de facto establishment and ultimate declaration of a Jabhat al-Nusra emirate in Syria that has the backing of a wide range of non-al-Qaeda fighting forces and population groups,” according to the report.
“We are so focused on ISIS that we are not looking at the second threat,” Kimberly Kagan, a former adviser to Gen. David Patraeus and president of ISW, told Business Insider.
Still, Kagan warns that groups like al-Nusra intend to attack the West whether they are acting like ISIS right now or not.
“U.S. policymakers are underestimating Jabhat al-Nusra because Jabhat al-Nusra wishes to be underestimated,” Kagan said.
“ISIS is, in fact, overt about its presence and Nusra is covert about its presence,” she added.
“Defeating ISIS inside of Syria is likely to increase the capability and strength of Jabhat al-Nusra,” Kagan said. “It’s waiting in the wings for ISIS’ demise in order to establish itself more firmly in key terrain and to present itself as the only reliable ally for the Sunni population.”
The report concludes both groups must be targeted and offers a clear shot across the bow of President Obama’s current strategy:
The argument for caution, passivity, and delay is easy to make. The desire to turn away from so vexing and complicated a problem is strong. Nothing about the situation in Syria, Iraq, or in the Middle East generally inspires optimism. But inaction is also action, and refusal to choose among bad options is a form of decision.
Drifting along the current path in order to avoid dangerous and unpleasant action will almost certainly fail to achieve vital American national security interests and will put the safety of the American people and their allies in greater danger.