Assessing the Islamic State Threat

Part of Rocky Harbors: Taking Stock of the Middle East in 2015

In Chapter 5 of Rocky Harbors: Taking Stock of the Middle East in 2015, Stephen D. Biddle assesses the perceived and actual threats that the Islamic State group (ISG) poses to U.S. and other Western interests.

In early June 2014, ISG militants conquered the Iraqi city of Mosul, put to flight four Iraqi Army divisions, and continued south to within a few miles of Baghdad. In the process, the ISG wrested control of a contiguous territory comprising much of northwestern Iraq and eastern Syria. These developments understandably focused intense attention on the group and its potential threat to Western interests.

To date, assessments of that threat have mostly been dire. The ISG does indeed pose a threat to important Western interests. But the severity of that threat is smaller than one might suppose given the tenor of public debate to date. The fact is that the ISG threat to the West, while real, falls into an awkward middle ground between the vital and the negligible.

STEPHEN D. BIDDLE is professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University (GWU). He is also adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations where he was previously the Roger Hertog Senior Fellow for Defense Policy. He has served on the Defense Policy Board, on General David Petraeus's Joint Strategic Assessment Team in Baghdad in 2007, on General Stanley McChrystal's Initial Strategic Assessment Team in Kabul in 2009, and as a senior advisor to General Petraeus's Central Command Assessment Team in Washington in 2008-2009. Biddle has lectured and written extensively on national security policy, military strategy, and technology in modern warfare, including the award winning book Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton University Press, 2004). He earned his Ph.D. in public policy from Harvard University.