As the U.S. and its allies build an international coalition to confront the Islamic State, the Obama Administration is trumpeting a strategy similar to the one it has employed against Al Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. But observers should be wary. An approach that simply treats the Islamic State as another offshoot of Al Qaeda suggests that American policymakers may not appreciate the potentially lasting impact of the would-be caliphate — which extends well beyond Iraq and Syria.
Despite parallels in ideology and tactics, the Islamic State diverges from its former benefactors in Al Qaeda in several important ways. As a loose network of criminal cells operating mostly underground, Al Qaeda continues to prefer sensationalist violence to military gains, and appears much more interested in resistance than governance. The Islamic State, on the other hand, has been engaged in an extensive, if brutal, process of building a functioning state — securing access to natural resources, training a disciplined military force, installing health clinics, maintaining law and order, and developing a rudimentary public administration. There is a distinct logic to how the group employs violence. Terror has been used not as an end within itself, but as a means to discourage potential rivals, project resolve, and reinforce authority over its territories.
Thus for all its bombastic rhetoric, the Islamic State does not seem that interested in launching terror attacks against Western cities. Its members are much more focused on building their own version of a quasi-state. While Al Qaeda has long appealed for radical social and political change, it has struggled to give its adherents a place to go. In its calls for challenging the authority of existing governments around the world, it has provided no blueprint for erecting a viable, alternative mode of social and political organization.
This is not to suggest that the Islamic State poses little danger within its current territories. But the group’s capabilities are limited. Its global influence will spread not through military conquest, but by proxy, igniting or sustaining low-level provincial or cross-border conflicts, giving rise to pockets of contested sovereignty scattered across multiple countries and regions. The threat posed by the Islamic State, then, is one that stands to outlast the organization itself.