Is ISIS trying to start World War III?

Radical Islamic leaders have suggested that killing Americans and their allies, whether civilian or military, is an obligation of every Muslim. The Islamic State is driven by an ideology of hatred and destruction and its actions suggest that it wants a third world war between infidelity and Islam. To this end, it appears that ISIS is trying to lure the U.S. into deploying a large ground force in Syria and Iraq — so it can kill more Americans.

The United States cannot ignore the ISIS threat. Nor should it deploy a large ground force, and risk getting caught in quagmire. Washington needs a counter-terrorism strategy, which is based on a better understanding of the Islamic State's ideology, goals, and history.

ISIS is comprised of religious fanatics and zealots. They have a warped and wrong interpretation of the Quran, which they use to justify sensational violence. ISIS members are bound together by hatred of the West and the shared goal of martyrdom.

ISIS fighters on parade
ISIS fighters on parade

ISIS also includes former members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Ex-Iraqi military participated in an insurgency against the U.S. occupation. They saw America's invasion and occupation of Iraq as part of an imperial strategy to control the country's oil wealth and occupy Muslim lands. They rejected U.S. support for democracy as a Trojan horse for toppling governments hostile to U.S. interests.

The Bush administration thought the Iraq War would catalyze democracy and human rights in the Middle East. Instead, it had the unintended consequence of bolstering radical Islam and emboldening America's enemies. It inspired a new generation of holy warriors, many of whom have joined ISIS.

Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the self-declared caliph of the Islamic State, was imprisoned at Baghdad's Camp Bucca. When he was released in 2009, Baghdadi warned his American jailers: "I'll see you in New York."

Radical leaders like Baghdadi hate the U.S. for destroying Iraq. They also deeply resent America's support for corrupt, tyrannical, and, in their eyes, impious regimes in the Persian Gulf. The United States is the "far enemy." They despise Arab leaders who collaborate with the West, particularly in the exploitation of natural resources, as the "near enemy."

Shiites are also prominent on the hate list of these radical leaders. To them, Shiites are vile and despicable heretics. They see the Iraqi government, headed by Haider al-Abadi of the Shiite Dawa Party, as traitorous. ISIS also despises Iran, so the U.S. nuclear deal with Iran just adds fuel to the fire. America's perceived tilt to Shiism provides further justification for hating and killing Americans.

The Obama administration cannot ignore the ISIS threat. The status quo is intolerable. However, the U.S. cannot destroy ISIS with rhetoric or by bombing alone. Containing ISIS is not a strategy.

ISIS is a cancer that must be eradicated. Its ideology already has a devastating and destabilizing effect in the region. The Islamic State has also become a base of operations for attacks in Europe and the United States.

More can be done. Supporting local fighters in Iraq and Syria is an effective alternative to launching a large U.S. ground force. The Kurds of Iraq and Syria are capable and committed to fighting ISIS. Some Sunni tribes are also reliable. Local fighters can act as boots on the ground. However, the tepid support they have received so far will not solve the ISIS crisis. Kurds and other local fighters need the tools to do the job.

The U.S. should provide sophisticated weapons and ammunition. It should intensify its training efforts. Local fighters need support from a larger number of U.S. Special Forces, including spotters to identify targets. A more intense air campaign would ratchet up the pressure on ISIS.

Washington must be wary of ISIS propaganda. Directly engaging ISIS on the battlefield would be construed as honoring the organization. Declaring war on ISIS would be manipulated to elevate the terror group's status. ISIS propaganda would be used to recruit fighters from around the world who want to kill Americans.

The Iraq War's protracted insurgency left a deep wound. The American people support more aggressive measures to eradicate ISIS, but they have no patience for another major commitment in the Middle East.

Commentary by David L. Phillips, director of the Program on Peace-building and Human Rights at Columbia University's Institute for the Study of Human Rights. He served as a senior adviser and foreign- affairs experts to the State Department. His recently published book is "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map for the Middle East."