Why al Qaeda and Islamic State Threats To Attack The West Should Be Taken More Seriously Now

Much like other moments when al Qaeda seemed destined for defeat, an emerging force arises to breathe life into the ranks of global jihadists: this time, it was the election of Donald J. Trump as President of the United States. Trump’s foreign policy rhetoric for the last eighteen months has focused on being “tougher” on the Islamic State despite the group’s steady decline throughout the presidential campaign. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s leaders could not craft a more preferable American foreign policy for promoting global jihad if they tried. Trump has called for a ban on Muslim immigration, advocated the return of torture, suggested aligning with Russia and by extension the Assad regime against the Islamic State, vowed to fill the Guantanamo detention center with “bad dudes,” and rejected the idea of taking in Syrian refugees.

Each of these policy positions demonstrates a complete reversal of U.S. strategy and narrative going back to 2006 when first the Bush and later the Obama administrations sought to narrow the fight to core terror group members and extract America from nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Coming up on sixteen years since the 9/11 attacks, Team Trump seems committed to affirming al Qaeda’s original justifications for attacking the U.S. – i.e., defeat the “far enemy” they believe backs apostate regimes (“near enemy”) suppressing the Muslim world.

For terrorists with a globalist view, particularly members of al Qaeda and the Islamic State, the Trump administration is a dream come true. Jihadi globalists have argued for decades that the Muslim world was at war with the West. Trump’s top national security advisors agree. Bin Laden, if he were still alive, or Zawahiri today could not have picked an opposition team more perfect to their narratives and purpose than what will arrive in office on January 20. LTG (Ret) Michael Flynn, the incoming National Security Advisory, has called “Islam a Cancer,” and he routinely lumps a wide range of disparate adversaries into a grand evil alliance. His discussion of a broad war on an amorphous, largely undefined “Radical Islam” has been echoed by Trump advisors Sebastian Gorka, Clare Lopez, and Whalid Phares who collectively have alleged the creeping of Sharia law in the United States and the penetration of the U.S. government’s intelligence services by the Muslim Brotherhood. They also have advocated for allying with Russia and partnering with dictators to put down the Islamic State. These advisors and many of their harder line supporters in the U.S. government have advocated for years a hedgehog (“one big thing”) solution – ridding the world of “Radical Islam” (whatever that may be).

Scenario: Yeehaw vs. Jihad – The Self-fulfilling Prophecy of a Global Terrorist Showdown

Trump and his national security team must be tough moving forward or risk becoming a fraud in the face of adversity. This dynamic creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where aggressive clamping down on a broad jihadi conspiracy entices extremists to attack. Meanwhile, jihadists with a globalist view seek to drag the U.S. into war in a Muslim country, hoping to unite the followers of Islam under their banner in a global battle against the West. Each side gets the fight they seek; both sides ultimately prove themselves right through their aggression.

If Zawahiri wanted al Qaeda to be thrust back into the spotlight, regain steam during the Islamic State’s decline, pull the U.S. to over-commit again in the Middle East, bring the West to back apostate dictators, seal an alliance between Russia and the U.S., unify divisions between al Qaeda and the Islamic State, and convince Muslims worldwide that the West is, in fact, at war with Islam, now is the time to attack. The Islamic State is similarly motivated to strike. Any remaining Islamic State fighters with access to Western targets might have one last chance to revive a shrinking caliphate. A pinprick strike against a U.S. target in the homeland or even abroad might very well set off a Trump administration poised for a dramatic, over-sized response. Even further, Trump’s advisors and appointees appear dangerously out of sync for the start of a new administration.

Two years ago, al Qaeda’s leader Zawahiri told the Syrian franchise Jabhat al-Nusra to hold back on attacking the West. Curiously, Zawahiri appears no longer hesitant about striking the U.S. stating in his January 5 speech, “We invite our mujahid nation to make the jihad against the modern day false idol, America, and its allies, their first priority as much as they can afford.”

The question, today, for Zawahiri and jihadi globalists, isn’t “should we attack?” but “can we attack?” The U.S. and its allies have aggressively pursued external operations cells planning attacks in the West. Al Qaeda likely doesn’t have a 9/11-sized attack in its pipeline. But, they also don’t need such scale to provoke the U.S. The Islamic State or al Qaeda could execute gun runs and bombings reminiscent of the Islamic State’s recent Ramadan campaign hitting Westerners abroad. The abundance of Trump properties worldwide also provides an array of symbolic targets for jihadists to hit to further provoke a thin-skinned president. Al Qaeda and its affiliates might also target the oil and gas industry, a common economic target of past campaigns, or major multinational corporations noting the ties of Trump’s ultra wealthy appointees to multinational corporations. Some might see this targeting calculus as spit-balling, but we should remember al Qaeda once targeted the Lockheed Martin CEO as an asymmetric counter to the drone program that was decimating their ranks.

I have no insight into recent rumors of an inauguration timed terrorist attack. However, the stars do seem in line for a globalist jihadi comeback (AGAIN!). This is only one of several scenarios emerging from the Islamic State’s wake, and I would note that if the West doesn’t see a directed al Qaeda attack or Islamic State attack provoking the U.S. in the next six months, then it would suggest that globalists either don’t have the capability to strike the U.S. as thought and/or that Western counterterrorism has gotten very good at detecting and disrupting terrorists ability to strike the West. Only time will tell.

Author’s Note: In October 2016, I was preparing an updated terrorism forecast regarding al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and whatever comes next. But I got distracted by a more pressing issue. Two colleagues and I decided to publish our long study of Russian influence operations against the U.S. electorate, and this delayed completion of a longer forecast of what might come from the third foreign fighter glut after Syria. Any forecast I would have made in October would surely have been off the mark, failing to account on the unanticipated changes and uncertainty of U.S. and resulting Western foreign policy and counterterrorism strategy. Rather than do a linear sequence of posts leading up to my final foreign fighter and terrorism futures forecast, I moved this scenario forward in the series due to its immediate relevance post inauguration. The rest of “Countering Terrorism From The Third Foreign Fighter Glut” and additional scenarios will come out here at FPRI in the coming weeks.

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Putting the Battle for Mosul in Context

It has been over two years since the Islamic State sacked the Iraqi city of Mosul and captured much of the Sunni Arab regions in northern and western Iraq. The country remains mired in military conflict and political instability. This week Iraqi forces, with the backing of the American led coalition, are currently fighting to re-take Mosul. They hope that doing so will deliver a serious blow to the Islamic State. However, this battle, while extremely important, will not put an end to the crisis in Iraq or the threat of the Islamic State. To understand why, one must put the battle into its larger political context. In this post, I will try do just that and then attempt to provide a brief look ahead at the short, medium, and long term repercussions for the crisis in Iraq.

 

Iraq is currently divided into three distinct regions: Iraq proper, which is governed by Baghdad; the Kurdish autonomous zone; and the areas controlled by the Islamic State. Militarily, the Iraqi Armed Forces, with significant aid from popular mobilization forces (al-hashd al-sha‘bi), Kurdish Peshmerga, and American-led coalition forces, have been advancing steadily on the Islamic State’s positions. The Islamic State has been losing territory for over a year, and because of coalition air superiority, has not been able to mass forces for a counter-attack since the Spring of 2015. This success has often come at a steep price. While there has been some token Sunni Arab participation in the popular mobilization forces, they are dominated by sectarian, often Iranian-backed, Shi‘i militias. As these forces advance into Sunni Arab territory, they have clashed with the local populations. Human Rights Watch has “documented summary killings, enforced disappearances, torture, and the destruction of homes” by elements of the popular mobilization forces.[1]     

 

The current focus of the combined military operations in Iraq is to re-take the city of Mosul. Theoretically, a military operation to re-take the city is fairly straightforward. However, in practice, it has been delayed for some time because it needs to be carried out in a manner that is consistent with the long-term political goals of a unified Iraq. A military assault that defeats the Islamic State while alienating much of the population or creating a humanitarian crisis will ultimately prove counter-productive. Recent Iraqi campaigns to re-take Sunni Arab cities left them in ruins and displaced most of their populations. Those cities had, at most, a few hundred thousand residents each. Mosul has almost two million residents. Thus, if the Iraqi forces employ their previous tactics in Mosul, they will likely trigger an acute humanitarian crisis. There are also fears that disputed areas liberated by the Kurds will be forced into the Kurdish autonomous region against the will of Arabs and non-Kurdish minorities.

 

American and coalition forces clearly understand this dynamic. In July, U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter hosted a defense ministers summit and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hosted a parallel foreign ministers summit.[2] In both meetings, representatives of the anti-Islamic State coalition emphasized the importance of post-conflict stabilization and development in Sunni Arab sections of Iraq. By doing so, they hope to reassure Iraq’s Sunni Arabs that they have a place in a united Iraq. These efforts face difficult challenges. Atrocities carried out by Kurdish and Shi‘i militias have had a deep impact on Sunni Arabs in Iraq. Some of the Sunni Arab population in Iraq continues to see Shi‘i and Kurdish forces as greater evils than the Islamic State. It is difficult to determine the extent of this sentiment, but there are some troubling signs. A recent, un-scientific poll conducted by al-Jazeera found that “72 percent of respondents said they supported the Islamic State over the Shia militias in the battle of Fallujah; 84 percent said that the Iranian occupation posed a greater threat than the Islamic State; and 86 percent said the goal of the Fallujah campaign was to consolidate Iranian occupation of Iraq rather than to fight terrorism.”[3] As un-scientific as these numbers may be, if they bear even a passing resemblance to reality, they signal a difficult road ahead. If Iraq’s Sunni Arabs continue to view the Iraqi government as a greater threat than the Islamic State, then retaking Mosul will represent little more than a tactical victory. And the strategic landscape will be ripe for the reemergence of the Islamic State or a similar group in the near future. 

 

Over the long-term, the anti-Islamic State coalition’s goal of convincing Sunni Arabs to support the Iraqi government faces several structural political and economic problems. First, for several centuries, Sunni Arabs formed Iraq’s social, political, and economic elite. In 2003, the American-led invasion of Iraq disrupted the country’s system of rule, leaving Iraq’s Shi‘i majority in control. This created a disparity between the historical positions of Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and the possibilities they face under an even semi-democratic Iraq. As a result, they have been ambivalent at best about their prospects under the current regime in Baghdad. That situation will continue to provide openings for groups such as the Islamic State well into the future.

 

The two most widely discussed solutions to this problem are: (1) to de-centralize the government in Iraq, giving the Sunni Arab regions much more autonomy; and (2) to create a power-sharing system in Baghdad that would grant the Sunni Arabs more power. However, Iraq’s main oil fields are in the Shi‘i south and the Kurdish north. Thus, in a decentralized system, Baghdad would have to finance the Sunni Arab regions while agreeing to limit its political control over them. Such an arrangement is unlikely to be popular in non-Sunni Arab regions. Furthermore, since 2003, Iran has worked to install its allies in Baghdad. It has significant influence in many of the most important ministries, including the Ministry of Interior. Because Iran views Iraq as part of a broader regional struggle with Sunni Arab powers, particularly Saudi Arabia, it is likely to block policies that cede power to Sunni Arabs.

 

To put it succinctly, the crisis in Iraq is not going to disappear after the liberation of Mosul and as long as the political and military conflicts in Iraq remain unresolved, Iraq will continue to be a source for terrorism and mass migration. Retaking Mosul is a vital first step in alleviating these problems, but we should be under no illusions that it will end the crisis in Iraq, or that the U.S. can refocus its attention elsewhere.

 

NOTES

[1] https://www.hrw.org/news/2016/07/31/iraq-ban-abusive-militias-mosul-operation

[2] http://www.militarytimes.com/story/military/war-on-is/2016/07/20/defense-foreign-ministers-plan-next-steps-against-isis/87339754/

[3] http://carnegieendowment.org/syriaincrisis/63834

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Two-and-a-Half Years After ISIS’s Rise: Global Jihad Spreads And Morphs

Today, Islamic State foreign fighters bleeding out of Iraq and Syria power an unprecedented wave of directed attacks on three continents inspiring cascading waves of inspired violence from distant supporters scattered around the world. With that having been said, the good times for the Islamic State ended in 2016.  Their decline has come as fast as their rise and points to yet another shift in global jihad. The jihadi landscape, in only three years, has transformed from the unipolar world of al Qaeda to a bipolar competition between the al Qaeda and Islamic State networks to a multipolar jihadi ecosystem with dozens of groups holding varying degrees of allegiance and affinity for their extremist forefathers. Al Qaeda and the Islamic State now represent two big players in a sea of militancy filled with many competing currents. As seen in Figure 10 below, the world of jihad has never been so vast, dispersed, and diluted.

As always, there are a few notes on the al Qaeda versus Islamic State chart as of September 2016 (see Figure 10). I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups. I’ve been to too many military briefings where organizational charts have been pushed as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their affiliates largely represent swarming collaborative relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy synonymous of Western military constructs. 

In the chart, circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal bigger groups, smaller circles denote lesser-sized groups, and I can only make circles down to a certain size before the writing becomes illegible.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of greater communication and coordination between the groups. Sometimes I couldn’t overlap groups as much as I’d like due to space limitations and this being a two- rather than a preferred three-dimensional rendering. I’ve inserted dashed circles for what I anticipate to be emerging Islamic State affiliates or new jihadi groups of no particular leaning. I could probably list a dozen other names in the chart but to prevent excessive cluttering I’ve stopped with these names. (Many thanks go to Will McCants for insights on ISIS affiliates, J.M Berger as always for his social media prowess and Aaron Zelin, particularly this year, for further refining my perspective on the emergence of fractures.) For past estimates of  al Qaeda versus the Islamic State, see depictions from February 2014, March 2014, and April 2015.

estimate-4-sep-2016 aq vs ISIS

 
What’s changed in two-and-a-half years? What should we think of jihad’s winding path?

Remarkable Speed Of Change. The most remarkable aspect of jihad’s last five years has been the speed with which things have changed. The end of the Afghan Mujahideen to al Qaeda’s zenith on September 11, 2001 took a decade. Al Qaeda’s downward spiral in Iraq began in 2008 and the Islamic State’s rise began in 2013 –i.e., half the time of the previous generation. ISIS broke from al Qaeda and overtook them in roughly eighteen months and has now receded dramatically in nearly the same amount of time–a rise and fall occurring in a little over three years. Each foreign fighter mobilization and outflow over the last thirty years has been larger and faster than the one before it. Advances in communication and transportation have made each generation’s radicalization, recruitment and mobilization easier and subsequently faster. This trend, should it continue, points to a new wave of jihad arising fairly quickly.

Volume Of Fighters And Groups. The Syrian conflict generated the largest foreign fighter wave in history. Despite the Islamic State’s reckless consumption of its foreign manpower, today and through the near-term, there will be more jihadi foreign fighters scattered around the world than at any point in history. Compared to previous generations of jihadis, survivors of Syria and Iraq’s battlefields will be better trained, more experienced, better connected physically and virtually, and have greater opportunities amongst numerous weak and failing states. The world should prepare for, and expect, years of jihadi violence emanating from this most recent foreign fighter mobilization.

Don’t mistake dispersion for strength. Scary maps showing the spread of jihad have been a favorite scare tactic of governments and the counterterrorism punditry for a decade. Similar to al Qaeda’s transition to affiliates beginning around 2004, the Islamic State’s members, supporters and re-branded followers have now spread from Morocco to the Philippines. Unmet jihadi dispersion can equate to resilience, but should not be confused with strength. With the exception of a declining emirate in Libya and challenged affiliates in Yemen and Afghanistan, the Islamic State’s affiliates operate largely as small terrorist groups working to establish their base of operations and local popular support. Likewise, al Qaeda’s affiliates have yet to regain their previous heights–e.g., al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) of 2011, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) of 2012, and al Shabaab of 2013. Affiliates of either stripe, as of yet, lack the projection power and global appeal of their headquarters. Don’t make what are mostly molehills into mountains just yet; this is particularly the case when there remain sufficient unconventional warfare methods to encourage their destructive competition.

Scale of jihad matters more than it’s spread. Dispersion should bring concern when one or more affiliates begin to scale in size. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) during al Qaeda Central’s decline (2009 – 2012) and the Islamic State since taking Mosul demonstrate what Clauset and Gleditsch revealed in their study “The Developmental Dynamics of Terrorist Organizations” that the larger a terrorist group grows the greater number, pace and size of terrorist attacks they can execute.

Al Qaeda’s growth from 1993 to 2001 allowed them to increase the pace, complexity, and lethality of their plots. The swelling of the Islamic State’s ranks and the grabbing of turf in Syria and Iraq enabled the creation of operational space for developing external operations branches and the manpower to reach Western targets. Their growth brought the recent unprecedented violence of their Ramadan offensive–i.e., directed and networked attacks every day in a new country creating a wave of cascading terrorism perpetrated by inspired followers. The lesson for the West: ignoring jihadi group growth will lead to a terrorism cancer nearly impossible to rein in.

Fracturing and Competition. Despite recent fear mongering over the Islamic State’s rise or al Qaeda’s comeback, the global jihad as a whole has more fracturing and infighting than any time in its history. The Islamic State versus al Qaeda rivalry remains but is likely secondary to the generational and resource competition occurring across many affiliates. Splinters have erupted in Jabhat al-Nusra/Fateh al-Sham (Syria), Boko Haram (Nigeria), al Shabaab (Somalia), and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU – AFPAK) in just the past few months. Characterizations of global jihad as unipolar or even bipolar should be met with skepticism–the sands have never shifted so much or so quickly. Remember, jihadis are violent young men, routinely narcissistic, highly egotistical, often jealous of each other, and particularly rash. Analysts should beware imprinting order on what is largely chaos.

 
What might we think of today’s jihadi terrorism landscape moving forward? 

The al Qaeda versus Islamic State debate is nothing more than a silly DC Beltway sideshow. Three years ago, pundits and analysts widely refuted the notion of an al Qaeda break up. Two years ago, I participated in a debate regarding “al Qaeda’s grand strategy” while the Islamic State was overtaking their terrorist forefathers by seizing Mosul and declaring a caliphate. Despite these analytical surprises, similar prophesying about jihad’s future direction has returned. Some analysts again trumpet a resurgent al Qaeda, a claim made by an analyst every year since the 9/11 attacks, or they have begun parallel theorizing about the Islamic State’s grand strategy. Luckily for pundits, no one keeps score in the counterterrorism fear factory where production is rewarded over performance.

The “al Qaeda versus Islamic State” dichotomy is a hollow paradigm, reflective of analytical status quo bias from those unable or unwilling to envision a future of jihadism different from what has been seen in the past. While “al Qaeda” or “ISIS” may be convenient for communicating media narratives, today’s vast jihadi landscape cannot be accurately characterized by the names of two groups who are past their primes and that have, at best, limited ability to control their adherents. However, this paradigm will continue in the near term because….

Right now, we know less, proportionally, about what’s going on in jihad than anytime since September 11, 2001. Never have counterterrorism analysts and pundits had so much to cover and so little time and ability to do so. Today, jihadi ranks have expanded widely across three continents and they communicate in dozens of languages. With the exception of a couple of open source outlets and academic think tanks, no one can track the endless string of al Qaeda and Islamic State “Number 2’s” killed by airstrikes. The rapid, successive deaths of leaders in nearly all jihadi groups worldwide has created a chaotic jihadi stew where younger, more violent emerging leaders strike out seeking to raise both their own stature and that of their group locally.

Successfully anticipating jihad’s divergence will require tens or even hundreds of analysts equipped with advanced degrees, language skills, and field experience tapped into a blend of human and technical sources. Luckily, we have that! It’s called the U.S. intelligence community. Moving forward, Western intelligence services will be positioned to put together the global picture.

Jihadis have gone local and academics and analysts should as well. To understand jihad’s local flavor moving forward, look to journalists (like here and here) and academics (here’s one) doing true field research, in-person interviews and reporting rather than those relying heavily on social media personas of dubious access and reliability.

Connections Mean Less, Intentions Mean More. A decade ago, and even in recent years, al Qaeda connections were used to characterize perpetrators or groups. But terrorist connections mean little in the wake of the Islamic State’s rise and the unending battle in Syria. Tens of thousands of foreign fighters from Africa through Asia have fought with al Qaeda last decade or the Islamic State this decade. Every Arab male between 18 and 26 years of age is now more likely than not to have a connection in some form to a person that fought with either or both terrorist group. Even recent inspired terrorist plots lacking any physical connection to al Qaeda or the Islamic State have surfaced links to both groups (here and here). Moving forward, analyses must wade past connections to examine the intentions of jihadis and their groups. Do they seek to target the West? If not, then add them to the long list of those needing monitoring but too numerous to thoroughly vet simply because “they are connected to a guy on Twitter who is connected to a guy who might be in the Islamic State”.

The next five years of jihad will look more like the 1990s than the 2000s. Figure 10 demonstrates the diffusion of jihad. I can’t properly account for all of the groups rising and falling, shifting between networks while paving their own local agendas. With the Islamic State’s decline, and al Qaeda’s limited reach, emerging groups powered by returning foreign fighters will converge and diverge largely based on regional and local forces. Instead of the al Qaeda versus Islamic State paradigm currently being put forth, the multipolar jihadi landscape of the 1990s leading to al Qaeda’s rise provides a more appropriate historical framework for anticipating future jihadi manifestations.

Prior to the September 11 attacks, many different Sunni terrorist groups with or without connections to al Qaeda pursued their own agendas competing for recruits, resources and influence amongst many different countries. This setting appears more reflective of the diffuse set of jihadis pursuing a range of ideological positions and local agendas in the near-term. Those groups that scale the largest and the quickest amongst this chaotic stew will be of the greatest concern moving forward.

 
Final Note

Unless something changes, Figure 10, will be my last al Qaeda versus Islamic State bubble chart. Surely my comments above have pointed to my own hypocrisy and underlying belief–there are too many actors, locations and competing interests to characterize jihad in a simple bipolar chart. Last decades’ theorizing should remind us how unlikely anyone will be to accurately estimate where, when, and how jihad’s next wave will emerge. Rather than focus on groups and fighters, it will be long-run forces that forge where jihad will revive and thrive next. Rest assured, after the Islamic State’s foreign fighter mobilization their surviving legions will unleash violence again somewhere soon.

Al Qaeda versus the Islamic State: a short video

Watch this short movie to see how the al Qaeda versus Islamic State estimates have changed in the past two-and-a-half years.

 

 

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What Should We Make Of The Islamic State’s Ramadan Wave Of Violence?

The Islamic State has taken the final week of Ramadan to make a big statement: “We will not go quietly.” In the last seven days the terror group has shown that a “wounded Islamic State is a dangerous Islamic State” lashing out in an unprecedented wave of suicide bombings and other attacks around the Middle East, South and Southeast Asia.

smoke

The Islamic State’s gradual decline in Syria and Iraq has finally brought a long expected shift in the group’s tactics from conventional military operations back towards insurgencies paired with regional and international terror attacks. The Islamic State overtook al Qaeda by declaring a caliphate and has since surpassed their forefathers as a terror group by executing a daily string of directed and networked attacks in six countries while narrowly missing in a seventh.

Here’s a quick recap of the Islamic State’s Ramadan Campaign. (For an explanation of the directed versus networked taxonomy see “Directed, Networked and Inspired: The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo.” I’m estimating whether these attacks are directed or networked based upon available open source information. These classifications may change as further information arises.)

June 27 to July 5: The Islamic State’s Cascading Terrorism

Success breeds success for the Islamic State and their directed suicide assaults seek to amplify their image, rally their base during a down time, and inspire their supporters to undertake further violence in their name. Here’s what the Islamic State has perpetrated in short order.

Interestingly, only two of the above attacks do not involve a suicide operation – Bangladesh and Malaysia. Jama’at ul Mujahideen Bangladesh, a group connected with the Islamic State, but not a formal wilayat, had until recently only perpetrated targeted sectarian assassinations and this attack appears to not only be a major, violent step forward for the group but also seems more reminiscent of the Paris attacks and other international hostage seizures. Association of the Malaysian grenade attack with the Islamic State would also be a new trend regionally. In both cases, these peripheral attacks in South and Southeast Asia show the lesser capability of these distant Islamic State associates. It’s difficult to tell at this point whether they don’t have the capability to perpetrate suicide bombings or the personnel willing to execute such attacks.

Ultimately, the Islamic State has cascaded its terror attacks striking one target in a different country each day. Will it inspire attacks globally? Only time will tell, but possibly not. Western media has paid short attention to these attacks with the exception of the Istanbul airport. As al Murabitoon and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb learned with its Western African terror campaign post Paris, Western media coverage endures when Westerners are killed in the West, all other attacks have less value.

Here are some other items of note from this past week’s terror campaign.

The Islamic State against all enemies – Muslim, Christian, Shi’a, Sunni, Arab, Western

Some have incorrectly suggested that the Islamic State nimbly focuses its attacks predominately against Westerners or certain audiences. This week’s Islamic State attacks and resulting deaths point to the opposite conclusion: all enemies of the Islamic State are targets and Muslims have suffered the worst. In Saudi Arabia alone, the Islamic State hit near a Western consulate, a Shi’a mosque and a Sunni holy site. Lebanon saw targeting of Christians. Bangladesh brought a focus on Westerners. The Istanbul attack killed mostly Muslims. Yemen and Saudi Arabia saw the Islamic State concentrating on security forces. Each Islamic State affiliate may pick and choose certain targets for local reasons but as an aggregate, no one faith or ethnicity is spared from the Islamic State’s wanton violence.

Islamic State’s Remaining Fighters: Die In Place Or Go Out With A Bang?

The Islamic State lost Fallujah last week and some of its members that tried to escape were pulverized in massive airstrikes. Many Islamic State foreign fighters can’t return home or have no Islamic State affiliate to drift back to. For those homeless foreign fighters, the choice is simple: they can either die in place fighting for a crumbling caliphate or they can go out as martyrs striking their homelands or a regional or international targets. The Islamic State owns the largest number of homeless foreign fighters in history. As the group loses turf, they’ll likely become part of the largest human missile arsenal in history and be directed against any and all soft targets they can reach. This campaign is likely not the end of the Islamic State’s suicide campaign, but only the beginning.

 Foreign Fighters Go As Far As Their Passports Will Take Them

 Last winter, the West suffered from the Islamic State’s decision to allegedly dispatch hundreds of European foreign fighters back to their homelands. Paris and Brussels burned and operatives across a host of European countries were arrested. Western passport holders and those hidden in refugee flows pushed as far as they could to hit high profile soft targets. Turkey struggled for years with foreign fighters passing easily through their borders into Syria and fighters from the Caucasus and Central Asia found the country quite permissible, likely facilitating this past week’s Russian-speaking suicide bombers. Richard Engel reported that as many as 35 operatives were recently dispatched into Turkey alone. The Yemeni and Saudi attacks focused more heavily on security forces and were likely perpetrated by Islamic State pledges from their respective countries and possibly a Pakistani. The bottom line: the Islamic State is sending its bombers to the locations where they can achieve the biggest results. They are not in short supply of Western, Middle Eastern, Central Asian, or Russian operatives – expect more suicide attacks in places that al Qaeda only dreamed of reaching.

Strong Counterterrorism Matters: The Islamic State Preys On The Weak

Those countries with stronger counterterrorism and security apparatuses have fared the best this past week. The Saudis, long known for squelching terrorists in their midst, sustained far fewer deaths than other countries hit this week. Iraq, despite years of investment, seems unable to protect itself from suicide attacks with yet another massive suicide bombing. Lebanon and Bangladesh, two locations of rising promise for the Islamic State (see Figure 1), have weaker security environments and local conditions ripe for extremism. The Islamic State will likely learn from this past week and exploit those places where they got the greatest return on their investment.

Is The Islamic State Looking For An Exit Strategy?

In conclusion, the Islamic State’s rapid pace of violence may come at a time when they need to find a new home for the brand. Their caliphate revenues and oil production continue to dry up. They will need to shift to illicit schemes and donations to survive. Successful attacks attract investors: will this latest string of violence bring money? Probably not, but what this rampant violence can do is signal to Islamic State’s central leadership which affiliates are still committed to the Islamic State brand. Affiliates, existing or emerging, may want to carry on the Islamic State’s vision outside of Syria and Iraq. Much like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was for the al Qaeda Central during their downturn, Islamic State Central will need an affiliate to carry the black banner forward or their caliphate experiment will crumble as fast as it was created.

ISIS affiliates Figure 1

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How To Break Up With Al Qaeda & Date ISIS

A year ago I began building a graphic to describe the recent history of the al Qaeda and Islamic State split and the currents created by foreign fighter migrations to conflict zones in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Syria.  The infographic here doesn’t cover everything, but it is what I use for my five minute brief on al Qaeda and the Islamic State.  This was also what I used to develop my research and resulting articles for 2016. (The bottom right hand corner is the “Third Foreign Fighter Glut”– you can read part 1, “Foreign Fighters”, and part 2,“ISIS Affiliates”.)

I offer this as another Sunday morning infographic to read as you wake up. If the graphic is helpful to anyone, have at it!  And in the coming weeks I’ll be updating it with another segment at the bottom entitled “2016 and beyond.”  

Break up AQ Date ISIS
 

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After Orlando: What is different about the current Islamic State-inspired attacks?

Omar Mateen’s violent rampage that killed 49 people at an Orlando nightclub on June 12, 2016 solidified a dangerous new trend of cascading terrorist attacks in the West.  Successful directed attacks both encourage networked terrorist attacks and mobilize inspired supporters to commit violence in their homelands. Dating back more than a year ago to the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris, tracing responsibility for terrorist attacks to either the Islamic State or al Qaeda has become increasingly challenging.[1] Some attacks demonstrate direct linkages back to top terror leaders. But most attacks have differing degrees of connection to either terror group’s central headquarters. As of today, the two most recent mass shootings in San Bernardino and Orlando show no direct connection between Islamic State and its inspired supporters.[2] In some cases, inspired attacks show an affinity for the terror group’s online propaganda and/or leaders. But the greater the distance between the attack location and Syria or Iraq, the more muddled the linkages become between attackers and terror groups.

System Vulnerability

The Islamic State’s successful direction of the Paris attack sparked a rapid increase in networked attacks – attacks committed by terror group affiliates and former foreign fighters operating in cells acting largely on their own initiative, but relying on support from their chosen groups network. In the weeks after the Paris attacks, Islamic State affiliates perpetrated a suicide bombing in Tunisia, a car bombing and assaults in al Arish and Giza, Egypt, a car bombing in Yemen, a suicide bombing in Istanbul, Turkey, and a multi-prong attack in Jakarta, Indonesia.[3]

Relatively dormant al Qaeda affiliates mobilized in the wake of the Islamic State’s Paris success. Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s splinter al Murabitoon allegedly reunited with their former overlords al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) conducting raids in Mali, Burkina Faso, and Ivory Coast along with many other smaller attacks.[4] Al Qaeda affiliates likely feel compelled to launch attacks. In the Sahel, a strong Islamic State affiliate in Libya pressures the once dominant AQIM. Launching successful operations in Mali and Burkina Faso provides motivation for local members to stay with the brand rather than leave for the more popular Islamic State.[5]  Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has long been al Qaeda’s strongest affiliate, but over the last year it has seen rise of a Yemeni Islamic State challenger. AQAP, like AQIM, must demonstrate success to prevent being overtaken by the more fashionable younger generation of the Islamic State.

The most curious outcome of the Islamic State’s Paris attacks leading up to the more recent Orlando assault has been a rash of inspired attacks – attacks committed by lone individuals or small groups with no demonstrable connection to jihadi terror groups and motivated simply by propaganda calls for violence. Examples are plentiful: an attempted knife attack in the London subway, a vehicular attack in Valence, France, a Paris police station assault in Paris, a machete attack in Marseilles, a police shooting in Philadelphia. All of these attacks along with many other disrupted plots have been inspired by the Islamic State.[6] Only after the Islamic State’s brazen Paris attacks did these perpetrators choose to launch deadly strikes.

At any given time around the Western world, lone individuals or small groups sit primed to undertake violence inspired by a jihadi group. These inspired terrorists, whether they opine for al Qaeda or the Islamic State, come in two varieties. The more dangerous and operationally effective inspired extremists are those persistently committed to jihadi ideology, slowly radicalized over extended periods reaching their resolve for violence over many years. These individuals or groups deliberately plan and plot their attacks. They link local frustrations with broad jihadi grievances common to both al Qaeda and the Islamic State. As seen with Nidal Hasan of the Fort Hood shooting, Amedy Coulibaly in Paris, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik in San Bernardino and now Omar Mateen in Orlando, justifications for violence blend propaganda from both terror groups, but the tipping point for action likely came from observing successful jihadi violence elsewhere.

The less effective and more common inspired terrorists appear mobilized more by headlines than ideology. Edward Archer in Philadelphia, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau’s attack on the Canadian parliament, and dozens of other perpetrators with a mix of psychological issues and egomaniacal motivations rapidly mobilize in response to successful Islamic State attacks hoping to join the band wagon. Headline-inspired attacks come in reactionary waves and feature a mix of bumbled plots and unforeseeable terrorist successes. These attacks target randomly and despite their wide range of success often times generate additional headline-inspired attacks in the name of the Islamic State.

What’s different about the Islamic State’s inspired attacks?

In the Islamic State-era, the pace of terrorist attacks, whether directed or inspired, has proven more rapid in pace, greater in number, and as a result are more difficult to detect. Al Qaeda throughout its history sought operational control over its directed attacks and those of its networked affiliates which resulted in slow and less frequent successes. This in turn likely influenced its decline. The Islamic State, in contrast to al Qaeda, cares less about potential failures or collateral damage. They allow affiliates, former foreign fighters and inspired supporters to plan, resource, and execute attacks with greater independence often learning of attacks in their name only after they’ve happened. Al Qaeda would conduct rounds of communication between affiliates and its headquarters finely tuning the application of violence, this oftentimes created communication signatures tipping off counterterrorists to upcoming plots.[7] The Islamic State, however, has developed a loose system allowing for lots of plots and few signatures putting counterterrorists at a significant disadvantage. Unlike al Qaeda, who sought spectacular attacks on symbolic targets, the Islamic State’s message has been to attack soft targets and large gatherings of people anywhere and everywhere.[8]

What does Orlando mean for the future of terrorism?

Al Qaeda’s calls for inspired attacks during the Anwar al-Awlaki-era found some support in the U.S., but the plots never achieved the terror group’s vision. The assumption since September 11, 2001 has been that the most deadly attacks would come from directed plots perpetrated by operatives trained, resourced, and promoted by the headquarters of terror group .

Mateen in Orlando and Farook and Malik in San Bernardino have turned this assumption on its head. Inspired, homegrown extremists have perpetrated the most deadly attacks in the U.S. since September 11, 2001 by simply hitting soft targets they know well with gun assaults that could be executed by anyone almost regardless of skill. The Islamic State and al Qaeda no longer need to direct attacks when their inspired plotters achieve equal body counts and media attention.

Today, there are no barriers to another extremist replicating the techniques of Orlando and San Bernardino. All terrorist groups and their supporters, whether international or domestic, directed or inspired, have watched and learned from the Islamic State’s successes in Europe and the U.S. and will follow their model in the future: soft targets, gun runs, encrypted communication, and openly available assault weapons.

NOTES

[1] Clint Watts. (12 January 2015) Inspired, Networked, Directed – The Muddled Jihad of ISIS and al Qaeda Post Hebdo. War On The Rocks. Available at: http://warontherocks.com/2015/01/inspired-networked-directed-the-muddled-jihad-of-isis-al-qaeda-post-hebdo/

[2] Dina Temple-Raston. (16 February 2016) Analysts Parse Differences Between San Bernardino, Paris Attacks. National Public Radio. Available at: http://www.npr.org/2016/02/16/466898543/analysts-parse-differences-between-san-bernardino-paris-attacks

[3] (29 April 2016) ISIS Goes Global: 90 Attacks in 21 Countries Have Killed nearly 1,400 People. CNN. Available at: http://www.cnn.com/2015/12/17/world/mapping-isis-attacks-around-the-world/index.html

[4] Caleb Weiss. (8 June 2016) al Qaeda has launched more than 100 attacks in West Africa in 2016. Long War Journal. Available at: http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2016/06/over-100-al-qaeda-attacks-in-west-africa-since-beginning-of-the-year.php

[5] Andrew Lebovich. (16 January 2016) The Hotel Attacks and Militant Realignment in the Sahara-Sahel Region. Combating Terrorism Center Sentinel. Available at: https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/the-hotel-attacks-and-militant-realignment-in-the-sahara-sahel-region

[6] Karen Yourish, Derek Watkins and Tom Giratikanon. (22 March 2016) Where ISIS Has Directed And Inspired Attacks Around The World. New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2015/06/17/world/middleeast/map-isis-attacks-around-the-world.html.

[7] Clint Watts. (4 April 2016) Why ISIS Beats Al Qaeda In Europe. Foreign Affairs. Available at: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/2016-04-04/why-isis-beats-al-qaeda-europe

[8] Clint Watts. (23 March 2016) A Wounded Islamic State Is A Dangerous Islamic State. Foreign Policy. Available at: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/03/23/a-wounded-islamic-state-is-a-dangerous-islamic-state-brussels-attacks/

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Brussels’ Big Terrorism Problem: Is This the Islamic State?

On this morning of March 22, 2016, the long tail of terrorism once again struck Europe. Less than a week after Belgian authorities arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the Paris attackers, explosions have shaken multiple transportation hubs in Brussels, Belgium. At the time of this writing, two bombs have detonated at the Brussels airport and a separate bombing has occurred at the Maelbeek subway station. While the dust has yet to settle in Brussels, it appears more than two dozen have died from multiple blasts. The Brussels bombings, a major attack coming only months after Paris and days after the arrest of Abdeslam in the Molenbeek district of Brussels, confirms that Europe has a major terrorist problem in its midst.

 

2016-Brussels-Bombings-OpenStreetMap


Timing and Techniques: Is this the work of the Islamic State?

Few facts have emerged since the bombings. But the timing and techniques utilized in today’s attacks suggest that the same network that perpetrated the Paris attacks in November likely orchestrated this massacre. Last week, Belgian authorities arrested Abdeslam in the neighborhood where he grew up. He was the only surviving perpetrator of the Paris attacks and he eluded authorities for more than four months.  Two other suspects allegedly escaped when Abdelslam was caught.

Logically, one might assume this attack occurred in response to the Abdelslam arrest. Abdelslam’s terrorist facilitation network, having watched the arrest of their comrade, likely assumed law enforcement would continue rapidly pursuing any additional leads produced by intelligence gained during last week’s arrest. The choice for those still at-large in the network is to either go-to-ground and elude authorities or immediately accelerate any potential plot or plots currently being prepared. The speed at which this attack occurred suggests that the network had likely been preparing for this attack in some manner for many weeks or months prior to Abdelslam’s arrest.  The similarity of the attack to Paris, using suicide operations against soft targets, and the speed at which it was executed in relation to a Paris connected arrest suggest the Islamic State, either directly or through its network, is involved. The social media app Telegram is already littered with Islamic State propaganda stemming from the attack.


Capacity and Competency: Europe has a two-fold counterterrorism problem

The failure to detect and interdict the Paris attacks in November seemed to point to a problem of capacity. European countries, having stood by and watched for years as their angry boys were radicalized and recruited into the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, seemed to have far too many terrorism suspects and resulting leads to manage. The volume of potential terrorists to cover seemingly exceeded the capacity of European authorities. In November, I discussed the “Iceberg Theory” of terrorist plots, where for the eight to ten Paris attackers, “we should look for two, three, or possibly four dozen extremist facilitators and supporters between Syria and France.”  Today I suspect we are seeing more of Europe’s terrorism iceberg.

Last week’s arrest of Abdelslam and today’s failure to detect and disrupt a major terrorist attack similar to that of Paris suggests a far more ominous counterterrorism problem in Europe — incompetence. Belgian authorities arrested Abdelslam in Molenbeek, an area swept repeatedly by counterterrorism authorities in recent months. The arrest of Abdelslam should have immediately triggered an intense buildup in law enforcement activity to disrupt a likely retaliatory attack. Additionally, today’s attacks at the airport and in the subway system used suicide missions armed with explosives. The use of explosives suggests that a significant terrorist facilitation network likely remains in Europe empowering attacks al Qaeda always dreamed of executing but for which they lacked the operational support capability.

Belgium, a smaller European country, appears to have both a capacity and competency problem with regards to counterterrorism. Other small European countries, such as Denmark and the Netherlands, have also been home to large concentrations of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria and Iraq. Do they have the same counterterrorism capacity and competency problems as Belgium?


Safe Harbor and Bleed Out: Last decade’s al Qaeda fears have come to fruition with the Islamic State

Ten years ago following the London subway bombings, analysts feared the potentially deadly consequences of disaffected European diaspora communities providing safe harbor to returning terrorist foreign fighters (Bleed Out)  and inspired young boys. Al Qaeda never successfully mobilized these disaffected young boys to execute a string of attacks on Western targets. Today, the Islamic State’s current and former foreign fighters have come from these disaffected communities on a scale several fold larger than the numbers produced during al Qaeda’s heyday. In the coming months, the Belgian and European response to the wave of Islamic State networked and inspired attacks will likely influence the future of the Islamic State as it loses ground in Syria and Iraq. Will these attacks provoke a heavy backlash against already disaffected diaspora communities further empowering the Islamic State’s message? Will they further push European countries to resolve the Syrian conflict to stem refugee flows and apply increased pressure on the Islamic State? Will they finally bring about needed intelligence sharing and counterterrorism cooperation between European countries? The Paris attacks were treated as an investigation, one pursuing a network associated with a single plot. Brussels on top of Paris demonstrates that this as a Europe-wide issue requiring a unified and coordinated response.

As the smoke still rises over Brussels, counterterrorists around the world must again pick up their intensity. The Paris attacks triggered a wave of Islamic State affiliate and networked attacks on three continents, provoked competitive attacks from al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and inspired lone wolves and small cells in Philadelphia and San Bernardino. Brussels, like Paris before it, may likely create the same phenomena. Any plot(s) in either the Islamic State or al Qaeda’s network may very well be accelerated. Any inspired wannabe from afar may see today’s media attention as the final motivation to undertake violence. For the Islamic State success breeds success. Can the world’s counterterrorists stop this trend?


Clint Watts is a Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

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U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a few dozen Special Forces soldiers to Syria. After more than a year of operations and a promise not to put soldiers in harm’s way, the U.S. would seemingly be pushing troops directly into Islamic State (IS) territory.  The announcement comes just days after the U.S. saw its first foreign advisor perish during a raid on an IS prison in Northern Iraq

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. convened its “Counter ISIL Coalition” and in short, when all was said and done, more has been said than done.   The U.S. State Department and the President’s Special Envoy retired General John Allen have spent more than a year reciting five “lines of effort” for countering the Islamic State, which they continue to refer to as Daesh–a name that hasn’t really caught on the way they hoped it would. Last year, I identified seven obvious flaws that would plague this strategy.  A couple of these flaws have been remedied, but the toughest challenges still remain.  Here’s my short assessment (grade) of progress on these five strategy pillars and those massive hurdles that still remain for defeating IS (See also Figure 1):

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

The toughest challenge and most obvious weakness remains the building and deployment of a Sunni force capable of countering IS in Sunni territory. Never has the world witnessed such commitment to a bad Pentagon PowerPoint bullet than the tripling down on creating militias to fight terrorists. The U.S. has tried for a third time in a third country to train and equip an indigenous force. A year of training Syrians yielded roughly one infantry company of troops (100-200) to fight IS who has possibly recruited thousands of foreign fighters in the same time. Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra quickly displaced this force, referred to as Division 30. If the U.S. were to pursue a  train-and-equip mission again in a fourth country, we will most assuredly know our policy makers to be absolutely mad. 

Since the U.S. can’t build militias to counter IS, they’ll instead have to reinforce existing forces, and this is where things become problematic. The Iraqi Army and its supporting Shiite militias have made intermittent progress against IS, but seem unlikely to make a full recovery of Sunni areas of Iraq. U.S. Special Forces deploying to Syria will back the only element truly capable of gaining ground against IS–the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.).  The Y.P.G. seems capable, but will be seen as occupiers should they invade Arab areas such as IS’s heartland of Raqqa.  U.S. alliance with Y.P.G. also chafes Turkey, an American ally, who fears the rise of Kurdish forces as much or more than IS.  The Arab Syrian Democratic Coalition in Syria represents nothing more than a briefing point–incapable, disorganized remnants of forces previously routed by IS.

Bottom line:  Only Sunni Arabs will want to fight and die for Sunni Arab land in Syria. Kurds and Shia will never be fully invested, and should they win, they’ll be resisted by locals.  Until there are Arab forces capable of countering IS in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, there is no viable U.S. strategy to counter IS. An alternative approach and potentially the only viable solution may be to starve and splinter IS into Sunni Arab sub-groups over time, similar to the method used against al Shabaab in Somalia.  This will take years to achieve.

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

Turkey hasn’t sealed its border entirely, but it has somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Analysts continue amplifying talk of foreign fighter flows heading into Syria.  Many of these fighters have expired in fighting, and many others have begun to defect from IS ranks. 

My current assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters to IS has passed its peak.  The costs associated with getting to Syria have become too high for many potential recruits. Regional affiliates allying with IS in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have created other opportunities for recruits to join an IS affiliate closer to home. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, there have been infrequent, but successful attacks coupled with the arrests of IS supporters.  Online, IS networking on social media has been blunted and the fervor amongst its fanboys has reached a steady state.  Surely there will continue to be a trickle of foreign fighters sliding across borders into IS’s ranks, but the flow of fresh extremists no longer appears to be the fire hose it was two years ago. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

Cutting off ISIL/Daesh’s access to financing and fundingGrade C

The U.S. coalition apparently put the brakes on IS external donor funding placing pressure both on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Banking instructions for wiring funds into IS coffers appear less frequently on social media.  But, slashing IS external funding addresses only a small part of the problem.  IS predominately funds itself through taxation, oil revenues, and black market activities.  Only military defeat and the rolling back of IS territory will undermine their internal resourcing.  Thus line of effort number 1, “supporting military operations” is clearly intertwined with this line of effort number 3.  Luckily, even if the U.S. coalition only sustains its current efforts, IS appears poised to collapse economically according to Jamie Hansen-Lewis and Jacob Shapiro in their recent analysis “Understanding the Daesh Economy”.   

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

The refugee crisis continues to grow.  A year ago, refugee discussions focused largely on the displacement of civilians to camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Today, Syrian refugees flood the Mediterranean Sea and land routes across Europe. Those who’ve decided the Syrian conflict may never end, have given up hope of returning home and now seek other opportunities.  Syrian emigration threatens Europe as droves of refugees resettling in their countries have strained resources and have created isolated immigrant communities that in future years may breed crime and violent extremism.  The conferences and associated working groups for stemming this refugee crisis have begun.  But much like the Syrian civil war, no solution appears available or palatable for an increasingly fractious coalition. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

Exposing ISIL/Daesh’s true nature (ideological delegitimization) – Grade D

Social media campaigns refuting IS have begun.  The United States, United Kingdom, France and others in the future will continue to cast counter IS programming into the social media abyss. IS’s near constant stream of content still drowns out these counternarratives. On the ground in recruitment hotbeds, there seems little success in stemming militancy.  The same failed approaches used to counter al Qaeda extremism last decade are being trotted out against IS.  I guess the logic goes like this: Why invent a new failed approach when the old failed approach works just fine? 

Luckily, disillusioned foreign fighters are fleeing from IS in ways never seen during al Qaeda’s boom years.  Their departure provides a valuable new weapon for creating counter-narratives to IS.  Whether the U.S.-led coalition can take full advantage of these gifts remains to be seen. 

In the U.S., critics have pounded the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria and Iraq. The administration deserves some of this. At times, the U.S. has wanted to lead the charge against IS and then at other times been completely reticent to get involved. The Obama administrations delay to act in many ways may be justified. No one in the U.S. political system, either Republican or Democrat, has clearly identified U.S. interests in Syria or with regards to IS over the longer term. 

The central goal for any IS strategy should be to end the Syrian conflict, but doing so requires bartering with two other adversaries – Russia and Iran.  Simultaneously countering IS and the Assad Regime without deploying overwhelming military force has put the U.S. at odds with all of its allies.  For the U.S. in Syria, there are no good options, and any chosen ‘bad option’ will either anger an ally or enrage an adversary.  Thus the U.S. by default may end up pursuing a strategy I’ve endorsed from the start: “Let Them Rot”.  When you are unsure what to do, it’s often better to do nothing at all or pursue only a limited set of actions.  The U.S. may appear weak from inaction in Syria, but at least we haven’t plunged calamitously into unending conflicts like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.  General Colin Powell once applied the Pottery Barn rule to Iraq noting, “You break it, you own it.” The U.S. has been negligent in Syria, but not entirely responsible for the conflict.  We didn’t break it, and we don’t own it.  

***Note in this discussion, I, like the U.S. strategy to counter IS, haven’t addressed any of the conflicting nation-state interests that limit any effective and comprehensive strategy. That would require an entirely separate post. 

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Russia returns as al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ‘Far Enemy’

The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift.  Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda.  With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes.  This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans. 

Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group.  In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings.  Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history.  U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  

Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia.  For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.  Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up.  The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise.  Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition.  Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’

More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.”  I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S.  First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda.  Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts?  Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative).  If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years.  Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.  Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?

Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary.  Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda.  Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact.  U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program.  Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict.  Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability.  Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage. 

Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia.  Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S.  Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages.  The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression.  Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.

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The Islamic State Online: Countering the Symptom Rather Than The Disease May Only Make Them Stronger

The 2016 Presidential campaigns have swung into full gear and tough talk about countering the Islamic State grows by the day.  All of the candidates seem to embrace calls for kicking the Islamic State off of social media.  Hillary Clinton was one of the first to endorse this tactic back in July noting, “we have got to shut down their Internet presence, which is posing the principal threat to us.”  And who wouldn’t want to kick the Islamic State off the Internet?  Here are a couple things to consider.

First, fighting the Islamic State online will be the easiest policy for candidates to get behind–a position with almost no costs and some marginal benefits.  Fighting jihadists online is far more preferable to fighting jihadists on the ground and allows a candidate to call for action without actually having to put any Americans in harm’s way. Battling extremists on social media plays well with American audiences, too. Most Americans understand Facebook and Twitter far better than they do the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Lastly, American policy makers can actually create action on this policy since Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media companies predominately reside in the U.S. and can feel discomfort from government tough talk.  As a policy position, “Kicking The Islamic State Of Twitter!” sells.

A second point to consider, however, is fighting the Islamic State online but not on the ground represents nothing more than contending with a symptom while ignoring the disease. Long before the rise of the Islamic State, al Shabaab in Somalia became the first prolific and successful jihadi group to leverage social media.  As J.M. Berger noted, repeated Twitter shutdowns of Al Shabaab did diminish the group’s online prowess.  But these shutdowns occurred concurrently with Shabaab’s decline in Somalia.  Shabaab supporters not only lost access to Shabaab’s propaganda, they lost interest in a group clearly on the wane. 

Undermining access to the Islamic State without eroding affinity for the group’s successes will lead online supporters to innovate and evolve online rather than recede–a dangerous consequence of a tactic that seems so straight forward on the surface.  The Islamic State’s innovation online has been a critical component of their success and a large reason for their overtaking an al Qaeda who failed to adapt to and harness mainstream social media. The Islamic State’s persistent incorporation of new media methods has attracted a band of tech savvy followers.  Resistance from the West on social media has likely led these Islamic State fanboys with computer skills to innovate even further to get out the message and retaliate on the cyber battlefield. 

Today, Islamic State supporters often employ automated bots on Twitter to sidestep attempts to curb their reach.  As they’ve been pushed from mainstream social media sites, the Islamic State has developed and deployed their own apps that provide downloads to their supporters as a way to avoid Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.  Growing support online has also led to the emergence of Islamic State affiliated hackers who during last week’s September 11 Anniversary threatened attacks on the financial system and government websites. Islamic State affiliated hackers have allegedly posted personal information of U.S. military members as well.

Countering the Islamic State’s presence online rather than undermining affinity for the group’s success and resulting message may ultimately lead to policies that make the group temporarily weaker and yet ultimately more resilient.  Kicking extremists off Twitter is fine, but it should not be the first, nor will it be the most essential part of the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State.  We should be asking for a lot more from our Presidential candidates who will likely continue to put forth the easiest and least controversial counterterrorism proposals. 

 

 

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