Attacks should be wake-up call for leaders

The recent Islamic State group attacks across the Muslim world, punctuating the end of Ramadan with bloodshed, and creating speculation about what these attacks mean for the campaign against the Islamic State group.

Perhaps more importantly, the attacks also highlighted a key discrepancy: even a weakened Islamic State group poses a far larger threat to Middle Eastern states than it does to the United States or to Europe, yet these states have been at best marginal contributors to the U.S.-led campaign against the Islamic State group, while their policies inside Syria have fostered the group’s growth.

These attacks should serve as a wake-up call for Middle Eastern leaders who have repeatedly prioritized other concerns.

Since June 27, there have been at least five suspected Islamic State group attacks—though not all have been formally claimed by the group — including car bombings in Yemen, a triple suicide bombing at Istanbul’s Ataturk International Airport, attempted suicide bombings in three Saudi cities, and a hostage-taking and massacre in Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Another suicide bombing in a crowded shopping district became Baghdad’s worst terrorist attack since 2003, killing more than 200 people. While some attacks were aimed at typical the Islamic State group targets, such as Shi’a worshippers or the Saudi security services, they also killed substantial numbers of Sunni Muslims, highlighting once again the group’s willingness to kill indiscriminately.

Unlike U.S.-based attacks in Orlando, Florida, and San Bernardino, California, where perpetrators were inspired by the Islamic State group but had no explicit ties to the group, these attacks appear to have been directed by the Islamic State group, or by affiliated groups.

It is far easier to conduct such direct attacks in the Middle East. Not only do law enforcement and intelligence services there typically have lower capacity, but governments must contend with the thorny problem of identifying and tracking returning fighters from Syria and Iraq.

The scale of the problem is daunting: while fewer than 300 Islamic State group fighters in Syria and Iraq are estimated to have come from North America, more than 2,500 came from Saudi Arabia, 2,100 from Turkey and 2,000 from Jordan.

With a few exceptions, however, regional states have committed relatively little to the fight against the Islamic State group. Certainly, there have been many overt promises of aid, including an eye-catching PR stunt by Jordan’s King Abdullah dressed in his fighter pilot uniform, and a Saudi commitment to create an Islamic alliance to fight terrorism.

Yet few of these promises have come to fruition. Regional states have contributed space for training of anti-ISIS groups, and provided some other non-military aid, but the U.S. has consistently carried out more than 70 percent of overall airstrikes against the Islamic State group, and much of the remaining 30 percent has been borne by European nations.

This is particularly true in recent months. As of December, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were conducting only about one airstrike per month, while both Jordan and Bahrain had effectively ended airstrikes.

In part, this ambivalence toward the campaign against the Islamic State group reflects rational fears that an increased profile could increase the likelihood of terrorist attacks.

Turkish leaders — who only agreed to allow the anti-ISIS coalition to use Incirlik airbase in July 2015 — have focused their attention (and bombing) on their long-running conflict with Kurdish factions, a counterintuitive approach to the conflict given that Kurdish forces are among the most effective anti-ISIS fighters. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, on the other hand, have chosen to focus their efforts not on ISIS, but on their unsuccessful war in Yemen and regional contestation with Iran.

The insistence of regional states on support for rebels inside Syria also impedes the campaign. Hoping to overthrow the Assad regime, many of these states provided weapons and funding to rebel groups in Syria throughout the early years of the civil war, at least some of which inadvertently ended up in the hands of the Islamic State group.

In short, despite many promises, regional states have largely avoided making hard choices on Syria. Though they remain far more vulnerable to the Islamic State group attacks than the U.S. or even Europe, states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey have been content to let Western states bear the burden of the anti-ISIS campaign.

Indeed, this is not an easy choice; it requires these states to shift away from other perceived threats towards the larger threat posed by the Islamic State group. This weekend’s attacks show that leaders cannot avoid this decision any longer.

Emma Ashford is a research fellow at the Cato Institute. Send comments to