Why the US doesn't want to call ISIS' offshoots parts of ISIS at all

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Carol Hills: I’m Carol Hills in for Marco Werman and this is The World, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH in Boston. President Obama says, “We’re not losing the war with ISIS.” Senator John McCain calls the president’s comment “mind-boggling.” The truth is hard to gauge. The self-proclaimed Islamic State this week did manage to route the Iraqi army out of the city of Ramadi, and drive the Syrian army out of the strategic city of Palmyra. It now controls half of Syria’s territory. But ISIS is not just a military or territorial threat. It’s an idea. There are at least 33 extremist groups around the world that have now pledged allegiance to ISIS. But what does it mean to call yourself part of ISIS? Lara Jakes with Foreign Policy magazine has some thoughts on that in a new article. Lara, you look at the example of Libya, and there’s a group that’s called Ansar al-Sharia that’s pledged allegiance to ISIS; they’re taking and holding territory in Libya. How strong are they?


Lara Jakes: Well, Ansar al-Sharia is probably the largest jihadi group in Libya. It’s the group that was behind the 2012 killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Since then, however, their main leader has been killed and their spiritual leader has pledged “bayat,” or allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is the leader of ISIS. So, it’s thrown Ansar al-Sharia into a bit of a mix, and there are some intelligence agencies that believe Ansar al-Sharia is part of ISIS, there are some who do not. But what is undeniable is that this branch, in the name of ISIS, has been conducting suicide bombings, raids on military installations across Libya, they are seen as quite a large threat, especially on the coastal towns.


Hills: Do we know if there’s any ISIS personnel or funds going to Libya to support Ansar al-Sharia?


Jakes: Yes. US and European--and, in fact, Mid. East intelligence officials--all say that there have been at least some ISIS leaders going directly from Iraq, or Rakha, which is the ISIS base in Syria, down to Libya to help Ansar al-Sharia get more acclimated to how to fight, how to overcome its adversaries in Libya in the manner that the Islamic State does. So, there is definitely a connection between, according to intelligence officials, the Islamic State in its base and the Ansar al-Sharia militants in Libya.


Hills: Where does the Obama Administration stand on that? What’s going on internally around wrestling this issue to the ground? Because it has direct implications for what they should be doing to combat ISIS.


Jakes: So, the Obama Administration is very torn on what to do about this global spread of the Islamic State, and whether some of these outcroppings are, in fact, Islamic State. And one reason why they are so hesitant to start declaring some of these distant provinces is because that could potentially compel them to move in militarily against some of these outcroppings. For example, if the coalition decides that Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is, in fact, a recognized affiliate of the Islamic State, it could force the coalition, which is led by the United States, to then go in and use military force against these militants in Libya. Washington does not want to get involved in another war in yet another Mid. East country, especially at a time when it’s not really holding the front--its ally in Baghdad--is not really holding the front against the Islamic State in Iraq. And there is a school of thought, and it’s probably a very smart one, that in order to defeat the Islamic State, you really have to strike at its heart, you really have to defeat the caliphate in Iraq and in Syria before you can take on some of these affiliates. Having said that, the affiliates are starting to pose a greater threat to some of our allies, including Italy, including Egypt, and those partners who have contributed a lot to this anti-ISIS coalition are now saying, “Hey, we need to get something back for this investment that we have put into this coalition. Ergo, we need to start confronting this threat that is more of a problem for us than what’s happening in Iraq and in Syria.”


Hills: Lara Jakes is the deputy managing of editor of news for Foreign Policy. Lara, thanks for speaking with us.


Jakes: My pleasure.