Rep. Brian Higgins was among a delegation which recently traveled to the Middle East to meet with other leaders concerned about the rising influence of the group that calls itself Islamic State .
Higgins, who sits on the House committees of Foreign Affairs and Homeland Security, says it's a problem within Iraq that the US cannot take a lead role in tearing down. In an informal chat with members of local media, Higgins said the Iraqi government made a critical mistake which has left a population alienated and has given ISIS the opportunity to gain influence, and members.
That mistake by the regime which replaced Saddam Hussein was to not unify Shiite and Sunni factions.
"The Shia militias, which are more aligned with the government... in addition to being an effective fighting force, they're also perpetrating atrocities against the Sunni population," said Higgins.
"The Sunni population, even if you're moderate, you're going to gravitate to a group like Islamic State because at least they're Sunnis and are protecting your interests."
The delegation with which Higgins traveled made stops in Kuwait, Iraq and Turkey. Among the visits in Iraq was Kurdish-held territory. In Turkey, the visits included a United Nations refugee camp. It is that nation, Higgins said, that is better realizing its need to hold back any would-be ISIS infiltration and recruiters. In Kuwait, the congressman says there was a sign of hope that Shiites and Sunnis can and are finding opportunities to foster peace and reconciliation. On the eve of their arrival in Kuwait City, a Shia mosque was bombed, killing 27 people. The prayer service and memorial for the dead the following day, he pointed out, was hosted in a Sunni mosque. "There were demonstrators against the violence, saying that Shia and Sunni are brothers," Higgins said. As for the threat of ISIS on the homefront, including the lure of would-be sympathizers who may be inspired to commit "lone wolf" acts, Higgins encouraged continued communication and sharing of intelligence among law enforcement agencies and the public. He also encouraged the local Muslim community to play a role, countering a group which uses Islam to advance its violent agenda. "We have an Islamic community here in Buffalo that's well organized, that seeks to promote cultural and other understanding of what Islam is really about," said Higgins. "Moderate interpretations of Islam are very, very important because we find individuals who hijack a religion and take it out of context to justify terrorist activity."