What Poker Tells Us about ISIS’s Changing Strategy 

The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Discussions concerning the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) have lately shifted to when, rather than if, the group will ultimately be defeated. After being pushed out of longtime strongholds in places like Mosul and Raqqa, the group no longer appears to pose the kind of entrenched threat that prompted the intervention of global powers just a few short years ago. Surprisingly, the game of poker offers important lessons about the group’s changing strategy amid its current circumstances. One reason why poker is such a popular game is because it offers players with weak hands the opportunity to turn the tables on stronger opponents. While ISIS undoubtedly weakens with every passing day, the potential threat it poses remains at an all-time high. If the global community no longer takes this threat seriously, or shifts attention to other issues, ISIS could successfully reverse its fortunes.

The most important rule of thumb for poker players is to never place a bet when the odds of winning are smaller than the expected payoff. For instance, when the odds of winning a hand are 4 to 1, and the expected return on a bet is 3 to 1, experienced players know to avoid wagering their money. This is known as the “Strict Calculation Matrix” and it ensures that players only place bets when they are in a relatively strong position. But there is one important exception: the concept of “implied odds.” If additional cards are to be drawn, the future (implied) odds could change in a player’s favor, even if that player currently holds a losing hand. This is often the case in many popular variants of poker, such as Texas Hold ‘Em. Players with weak hands therefore continue to bet based solely on their expectations of the future.

All terrorist groups, including ISIS, hold weak hands. While ISIS finds itself in a particularly dire situation at the moment, the group has always been in a position of weakness relative to its enemies. Even at its strongest, such as when the group seized Mosul, ISIS anticipated a day when it would be strong enough for a large-scale fight against the governments of Syria, Iraq, and their allies. The most important clue to this anticipation of the future is their intense focus on apocalyptic prophecies. In fact, the title of the group’s former online publication, Dabiq, was named after the prophesied site of Armageddon. But today, with its military forces routed, ISIS’s apocalyptic visions seem more distant than ever, and the concept of implied odds especially relevant. 

With its conventional capabilities diminished and territorial control slipping away, ISIS is likely to refocus its energies on surviving until it can fight again in the future. To do this, its best chances lie in transitioning from an experiment in state-building to a low-level insurgency relying primarily on terrorism. But to successfully reverse its fortunes, it needs a “big hand” to get back in the game—an attack or set of attacks so shocking that it demonstrates the group’s resilience to both enemies and supporters. To accomplish this, the group is pursuing two important strategies. 

First, ISIS is accelerating its calls to the “soldiers of the caliphate” around the world, hoping to inspire individuals to commit brutal attacks. The group still maintains sophisticated media and communications operations which it is leveraging to encourage sympathizers to launch attacks, particularly in Western countries. This strategy has generated the few high-profile attacks for the group in recent months, such as December’s subway bombing in New York City. Expect such attacks to become more, rather than less, frequent in the coming months. 

Second, despite its declining operational capacity, the group is likely more focused than ever on planning a major, catastrophic terrorist attack. Just as the 9/11 attacks served to reinvigorate al-Qaeda, ISIS is undoubtedly hoping to pull off an attack so sensational and so barbaric that it would shore up support and re-brand the group as a growing, rather than declining, threat. We know that the group tried to access a nuclear power plant in Brussels, for instance, but a devastating, headline-grabbing attack could be carried out in a variety of ways.

These strategies are risky, of course, but they offer the best chances for the emergence of “ISIS 2.0.” And since the strategies rely on terrorist attacks to salvage the credibility of the organization and attract new supporters, the true demise of the organization cannot be achieved through military means alone. Like all terrorist organizations, the key to ISIS’s decisive defeat lies in comprehensive and sustained military, diplomatic, legal, and communications operations. This includes redressing the grievances of the populations in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere who are most attracted to the group’s messaging. If the U.S. and its allies turn their attention to other problems around the world, as lately seems to be the case, ISIS might launch that one attack that shifts the odds back in its favor. As Boko Haram has demonstrated in Nigeria, terrorist groups thought to be “defeated” may only grow more violent. The U.S. and its allies should make a sustained, long-term commitment to ensuring that ISIS’s weak hand never improves.

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Intra-GCC Rift Redux

Monday, June 5 marked the official re-ignition of the intra-Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) rift, centered once again on Qatari transgressions against the security of its neighbors. In fact, this time, unlike the spat from three years ago, the rift goes beyond GCC members Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, to include Egypt, Yemen, and even reportedly the Maldives—all of which announced they were cutting diplomatic ties and preventing travel (by land, air, and sea in varying degrees) to Qatar.

On what basis? Is it as some say that Saudi Arabia was emboldened by President’s Trump’s visit? Is it because of last week’s drama in which Qatar’s state-run news agency published comments by Qatari leader Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani praising Iran, criticizing Saudi Arabia, referencing good relations with Israel, and criticizing the Trump administration—a story that was quickly removed, refuted, and blamed on hacking? Or is it simply that Qatar violated its Saudi-imposed probationary period by once again providing material support to the Muslim Brotherhood, to the Houthis, and through indirect channels, to al-Qaeda and ISIS; and by using its media empire to defame and agitate against its neighbors. The answer is likely some combination of all of the above.

Qatar was engaged in all of these same activities in the wake of the Arab Uprisings and it was only through strong Saudi coercion, and not a little bit of American coaxing, that Qatar receded from the public stage and tamped down on its “subversive behavior.” Regional observers are unsurprised by this recent turn of events. It is no secret that Qatari loyalties have long lied with the Islamists of the region and that the Al-Thanis have long bridled under the Saudi yoke, but engaging in and funding activities that blatantly destabilize the region in an era when competition with the Iranians is at an all-time high seems to have been inviting disaster on Doha’s head.

Just from a practical standpoint, closing Qatar off in varying degrees by land, air, and sea will have ripple effects that will be felt in every corner of this small Gulf sheikhdom. For example, 40 percent of Qatar’s food supply arrives in the country via land transport from Saudi Arabia. There have already been reports of runs on supermarkets and ATMs. Qatar’s stock market index sank 7.5 percent thus far, and the cancellation of flights just from within the Gulf will have serious financial implications. And of course, there is also the related financial fall-out from interrupting the 2022 World Cup preparation timeline.

The Americans are not likely to be as involved in rapprochement efforts this time around. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson commented on the development saying, “We certainly would encourage the parties to sit down together and address these differences, and we – if there’s any role that we can play in terms of helping them address those, we think it is important that the GCC remain unified.” However, crafted diplomatic statements aside, observers of the region don’t see the Trump administration doing much beyond encouraging the Saudis to get their regional ducks in a row, so to speak. In fact, just hours ago, President Trump patted the Saudis on the back for their tough stance against Qatar writing:

With comments like this one from the U.S. Commander-in-Chief, one wonders if American basing arrangements in Qatar are going to be rethought in the near future.

For its part, Qatar is blaming this current rift on a terrible misunderstanding stemming from the news agency “hack.” Accordingly, the Qatari foreign ministry said in its statement yesterday, “The campaign of incitement is based on lies that had reached the level of complete fabrications.” This attempt to underplay and divert attention away from this negative press is par for the course, and anyone who is expecting a public mea culpa may be waiting for a long time.

Three years ago when Qatar fell out with its Gulf neighbors, the most extreme public diplomatic stick was the recalling of the Saudi, Emirati, and Bahraini ambassadors. This time around, the situation is much more serious and will be much more difficult to resolve. In some sense, the Saudis and others are likely to abide by the “Fool me once, shame on you…” proverb. What’s more, the consequences of the ongoing proxy war with Iran and the chaos wrought by ISIS are known factors this time around. Leniency will no longer prevail—especially with Mohammad bin Salman holding the Saudi reins and Donald Trump in the White House. Qatar may be one of the richest countries in the world, but it’s not likely to buy its way out of this pickle.

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Comments on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here?

On May 18, 2017, FPRI hosted a Main Line Briefing on Iraq: Where Do We Go From Here. The discussion by Denise Natali and Nada Bakos, and moderated by Samuel Helfont, provided an outstanding overview of the challenges facing Iraq after ISIS ceases to be a “state.” However, possibly because of the time constraint, the panelists were unable to discuss two issues in greater depth.

First, both panelists made it clear that the U.S. was not interested in nation building—that the days of the neoconservatives attempting to build Iraq into a reasonably peaceful, reasonably democratic, reasonably prosperous U.S. ally in the Middle East were over. This pronouncement led to an audience question that if the U.S. was not interested in building a new Iraq, then why are we engaged at all? Of course, there are many policy options besides full engagement in Iraq and abandonment. But three options might illustrate the choices.

Full engagement (aka nation building): The U.S. and its allies provide substantial ground forces to defeat ISIS and other insurgent groups as well as help to maintain Iraq’s political and geographic integrity. The U.S. government provides the current Iraqi government with substantial political and diplomatic support. And the U.S. and its allies commit to providing the massive financial support necessary for the reconstruction of post-ISIS Iraq.

Essential interests: The U.S. limits itself to certain essential regional interests. These might include three commitments. First, the U.S. 5th Fleet will keep the Persian Gulf open to peaceful transit. Second, Israel’s security will be guaranteed. Finally, because of the threat of terrorism to the West, the U.S. and its allies will support the anti-ISIS effort with intelligence, communications, training, and special operations forces, but not substantial ground forces. Beyond defending these essential interests, the U.S. disengages from Iraq and the region.

Walk away: In a world where North America is almost energy independent and there is an expectation that oil prices will remain at $60 a barrel or less for the next decade, the U.S. doesn’t “need” Iraq or the rest of the Middle East. Since they still need ME oil, let Asia and Europe deal with its problems.  

Bakos and Natali favored a version of the second option, Essential Interests (listen to conversation beginning at about minute 35:19). In other words, the days of Bush-era full engagement nation building were over. But this raises the question of whether nation building was abandoned because it was impossible or whether the benefit of a democratic and prosperous Iraq who is a strong ally of the U.S. was perceived to be greater than the costs? An argument can be made that by 2008, after a great expenditure of Iraqi and U.S. blood and treasure, Iraq had made substantial progress towards a peaceful democratic future. I was in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009 and was surprised at the changes from three years before. Violence was down sharply, Sunnis and Shi’a were working together to pass legislation in the Council of Representatives, and there was a strong business revival led by the construction industry. However, political, security, and economic progress was stalled by bad policy decisions made by President Obama and Prime Minister Maliki.

Disregarding the progress that had been made, Obama kept his campaign promise of withdrawing all U.S. forces. This premature withdrawal greatly weakened Iraqi security forces and was justified by the failure to negotiate a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Natali mentioned this lack of a SOFA (39:55) as a reason that future U.S. involvement in Iraq must be limited. However, the lack of a SOFA didn’t prevent Obama from sending hundreds of U.S. troops back to Iraq to aid in the fight against ISIS near the end of his second term, nor did it prevent President Trump from increasing these numbers to over 5,000. Is the failure to agree on a SOFA the true cause of the U.S. withdrawal or just an excuse? Maliki also contributed to the reversal of security progress. He broke his public promises to provide army or police jobs to young Sunnis who had fought al-Qaeda. In addition, he replaced combat tested commanders with persons distinguished only by their personal loyalty to Maliki and their corruption. Just like the cliché, Obama and Maliki snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

Second, even if nation building on the scale of post WWII Germany and Japan is possible in Iraq, is it a smart policy? Is the game worth the candle? The panelists predicted that just as al-Qaeda 1.0 was followed by al-Qaeda 2.0 (ISIS), there would be an al-Qaeda 3.0, 4.0, etc. This possibility may shift the advantage from the second option, Essential Interests, to the first option, Full Engagement (aka nation building). Ideally, U.S. full engagement in Iraq would drain the swamp; change the Iraqi political, social, and economic environment so that it will become less likely that another terrorist or insurgent group will arise to threaten the nation and region’s stability. In other words, the U.S. faces a choice. We can choose to accept an enormous short-term expenditure of blood and treasure that will provide a long-term solution to the Iraq crisis or we can choose many decades of dealing with a succession of terrorist or insurgent groups with possibly a greater capacity for attacking our vital interests. And the second choice leads to the possibility that one of these terrorist groups will eventually become capable of hitting Tel Aviv, London, or New York with a weapon of mass destruction. Domestic politics seems to favor the second choice and President Trump is expected to withdraw most/all of U.S. forces from Iraq as soon as ISIS ceases to be a “state.” But the U.S. may be better off in the long term with continued full engagement in that troubled land.

I learned a great deal from the presentations and discussions of Samuel Helfont, Denise Natali, and Nada Bakos. But like many FPRI events, one wishes that the speakers had more time.


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Donald Trump on ISIS: Being Wrong, and Saying It Wrong, Too

Is it the nature of things that action should partake of exact truth less than speech?

-Socrates, The Republic

Language can perform several functions: it can be informative but also expressive and vocative.[1] It is true that Donald Trump more often than not uses language in a manner that is expressive and especially, vocative. He rarely speaks to inform his audiences, instead using emotional appeals to change (or reinforce) our preferences, i.e., to him. Mr. Trump’s admirers seem intuitively to get that, while his detractors do not. The latter demand his words function solely to inform.

Mr. Trump appears to put great stock in ambiguity, as Rich Lowry wrote several weeks ago:

“Trump favors strategic ambiguity—on everything. He says he doesn’t want to be too explicit about his foreign policy because it will tip off our adversaries about our intentions. He apparently doesn’t want to tip anyone off at home, either.”[2]

Ambiguous, however, is not synonymous with imprecise. Ambiguous language generates two different meanings. Put another way, ambiguous language can be understood in two different ways. One meaning is often incompatible with the other. So his admirers hear him one way and his detractors another. Neither meaning was intended to inform. And each is heard to express something different and thus dissonant.

This is not an apologia for Mr. Trump. Something must condition and control political deliberation—that is, after all, language’s informative function, something too often missing in Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric.

When he fails to inform, Mr. Trump leaves no guideposts to determine which, between two possible meanings, he intended. Invariably, admirers choose the favorable one and detractors the other. Precision in political rhetoric—here the speaker is Protagoras, in Plato’s eponymous dialogue—encourages citizens to listen to persons whose relevant knowledge of a matter can inform them. So informed, we ground our political judgments in shared experiences. Informative language by necessity precedes expressive and vocative language—restated, knowledge grounds the appeal to our sensibility. If politics indeed is an art, then the art of politics is the ability to inform first, and then persuade.

It is here Mr. Trump’s political rhetoric falters—it is all emotion and evocative appeals ungrounded by information. This does not mean Mr. Trump himself is uninformed or ignorant. But it does leave him looking intemperate and lacking an informed grasp of the matter at hand. His admirers claim to “get” his meaning while his detractors find that fanciful. Those still undecided are simply left puzzled. Neither his admirers nor his detractors understand what the other does (or does not) understand about whatever it is Mr. Trump said.

Mr. Trump’s usual defense is that he is a businessperson who lives in a practical world of action. But that does not, to paraphrase Socrates, excuse imprecise language in his case anymore than it does in anyone else’s.

Take what Mr. Trump said recently about President Obama. “He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder of ISIS. He’s the founder. He founded ISIS,” he said, adding for effect, “I would say the co-founder would be crooked Hillary Clinton.”[3] He later explained his remarks this this way: “All I do is tell the truth, I am a truth teller.”[4]

Perhaps. But if so, he is one who elides large parts of the backstory. However, if his point was that the Obama Administration watched ISIS emerge—and that is very different than his preposterous claim—then he has ample evidence on which to make an informed case to the American electorate. Of course his own views on whether the U.S. should have remained in Iraq in the late 2000s also then should be fair game.

For lost in Mr. Trump’s rhetorical sloppiness is this: the Obama Administration was indeed warned about the emergence of what became ISIS. We know this from information pried out of the Obama Administration by Judicial Watch. Consider this from a heavily redacted August 2012 Defense Department Information Report marked “Secret” (since declassified):

“D. The deterioration of the situation has dire consequences on the Iraqi situation and are as follows:

                1. This creates the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi, and will provide a renewed momentum under the presumption of unifying the jihad among Sunni Iraq and Syria, and the rest of the Sunnis in the Arab world against what it considers one enemy, the dissenters, ISI could also declare an Islamic state though its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria, which will create grave danger in regards to unifying Iraq and the protection of its territory.”[5]

In August 2012, Hillary Clinton was the Secretary of State, and her office is listed on the distribution roster.

The referenced ISI is an acronym for Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq. In January 2014—eighteen months after the report was written—ISI leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced that ISI and Jabhat al-Nusra (aka al-Nusra Front) would henceforth be known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant or “ISIL”. The document’s final un-redacted line of text warns of “the renewing facilitation of terrorist elements from all over the Arab world entering into Iraqi arena” [sic].

There is another now-declassified secret Defense Department Information Report obtained by Judicial Watch, this one dated October 2012 and covering the period 1 May-1 September 2012. Its anonymous author states “weapons from the former Libya military stockpiles located in Benghazi, Libya were shipped from the port there to the ports of Banias and the Port of Borj Islam, Syria.”[6] The heavily redacted document goes on to identify the type and number of weapons “shipped from Libya to Syria in late August 2012.” That of course is the same month in which the Obama Administration was warned the Islamic State of Iraq aka al-Qaeda in Iraq might “declare an Islamic state.”

To repeat, this is no defense or Mr. Trump. He chose his words and bears responsibility for allowing himself to appear ill informed. How much different, though, might the week have been had Mr. Trump taken care to point out what we know from these formerly secret reports: that in August 2012, the Obama Administration including Secretary Clinton was warned about the emergence of what became ISIS—fully a year and a half before it ultimately happened—during the same month in which weapons were shipped to the region from Libya? Someone should have cautioned the Obama Administration at the time that the enemy of my enemy is not necessarily my friend.

“Truth is always strange; stranger than fiction,” wrote Lord Byron. But truth in the everyday sense of facts is not so strange, though facts may indeed tell a strange tale. Here, that strange tale is why warnings went unheeded while arms were brought in from Libya. That tale, however, is not the one Mr. Trump chose to tell. The documents cited here do not require interpretation: their plain meaning is quickly apparent.

If language is indeed code as Ferdinand de Saussure insisted, then we must wonder about a tendency to evade the informative in favor of raw emotional appeals. We heard one uncoded answer to that question from 50 senior Republican national security officials. It was not favorable to Mr. Trump. Mr. Trump would do himself—and all of us—a great service by sticking to the truth, no matter how strange, and rejecting fiction, no matter how enticing.


[1] Karl Bühler identified these functions in his 1934 book Sprachtheorie: Die Darstellungsfunktion der Sprache.

[2] Rich Lowry (2016). “Trump Wants to Make a Deal.” National Review [published online 13 May 2016]. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435338/donald-trump-foreign-policy-everything-else-ambiguous-design. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[3] ” Donald Trump Calls Obama ‘Founder of ISIS’ and Says It Honors Him.” The New York Times [published online 10 August 2016]. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/08/11/us/politics/trump-rally.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[4] CNBC transcript 11 August 2016. http://www.realclearpolitics.com/video/2016/08/11/trump_obamas_failed_policies_make_him_founder_of_isis.html. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[5] See: https://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

[6] http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pgs.-1-3-2-3-from-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version1.pdf. Last accessed 12 August 2016.

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Why the US doesn’t have a Muslim problem, and Europe does

I’m first generation American, with a Pakistani-born father. My dad and his older brother both left Pakistan at the same time, but that is where their similarities end. My uncle, an engineer working for the German Space Agency, never felt German. His son avoided mandatory German military service and struggled with finding his identity. My father, on the other hand, came to the United States on a Fulbright scholarship, ran a successful business, raised two sons (one of whom joined the United States Navy), and proudly votes in every election be it local, state or federal. The contrast between these two brothers is why Europe has a Muslim problem. It’s not the influx of Muslims; rather, it’s Europe’s inability to welcome and assimilate immigrants. The resulting racial tension creates a perfect recipe for ISIS recruitment among disenfranchised young men. America is doing it right, and we cannot repeat the European model.

Officials believe that over 5,000 Western Europeans have made their way to Syria to support ISIS. However, the actual number is considerably higher according to the Soufan Group, with several European countries contributing a disturbing number of fighters to ISIS: France (1700), Russia (2400), UK (760) and Belgium (470)[1]. For a country like Belgium with only 11 million citizens, having almost 500 citizens join ISIS is a shockingly high number. Furthermore, large pockets of Muslims are concentrated in cities like Brussels where more than a quarter of Belgium’s Muslim population resides. These heavily concentrated Muslim enclaves, according to a 2007 report from the Centre of European Policy Studies, are more likely, than the EU general population, to be poor, segregated and crime-prone neighborhoods[2].  But the question remains, why is this trend of European Muslims joining ISIS happening now?

With the crisis in Syria, Europe has received a massive influx of Muslim refugees. However, with 19 million Muslims in Europe, have the refugee numbers contributed to ISIS’ recruiting efforts? The short answer is no. Of the UN reported 4.2 million Muslim refugees, only 850,000 have fled to Europe. While this is a large number of refugees a large number are women and children, with only 62% being men[3]. The reality is that the Muslim migration started long before the crisis in Syria. In fact it grew as a result of an influx of foreign workers taking advantage of lax guest worker programs after the Second World War. Originally meant to be temporary, these workers became permanent and brought with them waves of descendants. Once settled these immigrants did what first generations immigrants do: they had babies. As a result the Muslim population has been steadily growing, not from immigration but by births. The increase in the number of Muslims is a pattern that is expected to continue through 2030, when they are projected to make up 8% of Europe’s population.  Even though the population has been steadily growing the consistent poverty has contributed to racial tensions between Muslims and Europeans even well before the Paris attacks.

Unlike Europe, the US has a very different track record with Muslim immigrants. According to the Pew Research Center there are 3.3 million (or 1% of the population) Muslims living in the US. Furthermore, in the US Muslims make up 10% of US physicians, are the 2nd most educated group after the Jewish population, are as likely as other American households to report an income of $100,000 or more, and over 6,000 serve in the military[4].  The report found that Muslim Americans are “highly assimilated into American society and . . . largely content with their lives.” Unlike European Muslims the report also found that 80 percent of US Muslims were happy with life in America, and 63 percent said they felt no conflict “between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society.”[5] Furthermore, this integration into American culture and society, according to the report, is evident in the rates they participate in various everyday activities such as following local sports teams or watching entertainment TV — all similar to those of the American public generally. Lastly, most telling of their loyalty and sense of inclusion, according to the Pew report, is that half of all Muslim immigrants display the US flag at home, in the office, or on their car.[6] It is this sense of inclusion that in large parts contributes to the fact that only an estimated 250 Americans have joined ISIS – a number far less than the number of Belgium citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq.

My uncle was one of the immigrants who came to Europe under the guest worker program. Unlike current refugees, neither her nor my father were fleeing war; instead they left to pursue professional careers. My uncle was an educated and a skilled worker who climbed the ranks of German’s fledgling space agency to hold a senior scientist post. While he was professionally successful, his children, who were both born in Germany, struggled. They still feel they are outsiders, not quite German but definitely not Pakistani — a feeling that is repeated as they have children of their own. This experience juxtaposed with that of my father shows a clear difference. Even though I was raised in a predominantly white New York City suburb, I was never considered anything other than American. It is treatment that is extended to my children who, like the subsequent descendants of immigrants, are only aware of the ethnic roots as a distant fact. This is the fundamental difference between European and American Muslims: the ability for American Muslims to assimilate. It is an ability that is key to winning the battle with ISIS, which relies on a steady stream of volunteers. As such, as long as Europe continues to make it difficult for Muslims to integrate and assimilate, ISIS will have a pool of disenfranchised and angry young Europeans from which to recruit.

Naveed Jamali is a Senior Fellow in the Program on National Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and an author of How to Catch a Russian Spy: The True Story of an American Civilian Turned Double Agent.


[1]The Soufan Group, “Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, http://soufangroup.com/wpcontent/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate_FINAL3.pdf, (December 8, 2015).

[2]Richard Youngs and Michael Emerson, “Political Islam and European Foreign Policy: Perspectives from Muslim Democrats of the Mediterranean”, https://www.ceps.eu/publications/political-islam-and-european-foreign-policy-perspectives-muslim-democrats-mediterranean,  (28 November 2007).

[3] FactCheck.org, “Facts about the Syrian Refugees”, http://www.factcheck.org/2015/11/facts-about-the-syrian-refugees/, (Posted on November 23, 2015).

[4] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”, http://www.pewresearch.org/files/old-assets/pdf/muslim-americans.pdf, (May 22, 2007).

[5] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

[6] Pew Research Center, “Muslim Americans: Middleclass and Mostly Mainstream”.

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President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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Who Conducted the Paris Attacks & Stormed the Bataclan Theater? ISIS? Al Qaeda?

*Posted on 13 November 2015, 1900 hours EST*

Information regarding the Paris Attacks on Friday night November 13th remain limited at this point.  While we should remain open to almost any possiblity, this would presumably appear the work of jihadists. I’ve returned to my framework for “Assessing Jihadist Plots In The West” which I created after the Charlie Hebdo attack this past January. I’ve updated my evidence matrix that I utilize for assessing the likelihood of responsibility for different types of plots. I generally look for four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  • An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point);
  • An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq;
  • An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West; or
  • An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to conduct an attack (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. ISIS is the likely candidate right now, even based on the limited information that we have as seen in my chart below.  

Here are some things I’m looking for right now:

  • Planning – This appears to be one of the more well planned attacks. Were there reports of reconnaisance before these attacks?  
  • Targets Not Symbolic – The restaurant and the theater attacked don’t appear to be particularly symbolic. Al Qaeda directed plots tend to go for spectacular targets, these are not. So I lean ISIS and I wonder, did any of these perpetrators work at these locations or frequent these spots? Is that how they got the idea to hit these locations?
  • A Suicide Bombing? And Several Armed Assaults? – This would be a significant advancement. We would be talking about explosives in the country, assault weapons, lots of planning. The French have a serious problem on their hands.  
  • Weapons Training – Early reports suggest these shooters were calm and calculating. That would suggest weapons training and preparation, leading one to look for former foreign fighters from Syria or other theaters. 
  • Communications – Al Qaeda did tight control of targeting of attacks with affiliates. I don’t believe this is the case with ISIS. In the case of the ISIS Sinai affiliate, I don’t have any evidence that ISIS Central in Iraq and Syria directed the airline bombing. Instead, I get the feeling the situation is the reverse, an affiliate or some global supporters and former foreign fighters execute an attack and then communicate back to central command (Baghdadi and top aides) what happened. Will we see that in this case, post attack reports of chatter back to Iraq and Syria?
  • Media Reporting Is Making ISIS Into ONE BIG THING! – I’ve been really frustrated the past few weeks as news reporting continues to push the theory, without evidence, that ISIS in Iraq and Syria, all affiliates that have pledged to ISIS and all global fanboys of ISIS act in unison under a central command. This was more the case with al Qaeda, but we don’t know this to be true of ISIS. Thus, the public is becoming crazed with fears of an all powerful ISIS which is both untrue and unhelpful.  

Below I’ve posted my latest assessment matrix and I’ve noted where there appears to be evidence to support one scenario over another with the marker #ParisAttacks. Here are my notes on this method, known as Analysis of Competing Hypothesis:

When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here. In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information. Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected. I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here. In a vetted ACH approach, the evidence would be noted as consistent or inconsistent. I’m just posting red #ParisAttacks markers where I’ve heard news reporting that supports that hypothesis.

Here’s my first cut at an ACH chart for this round of Paris Attacks and I’ll be tweeting evidence (@selectedwisdom) that should be included in the chart as the night and next day progresses. 


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Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS

June 15, 2015

Scary ISIS headlines have saturated media outlets in recent months.  They usually come in three varieties: a) ISIS does incredibly awful thing(s) in Syria/Iraq, b) ISIS is unstoppable because of (fill in the blank), or c) the U.S. and the West must do (fill in the blank with every conceivable government option) to defeat ISIS. The international coalition seems unlikely to deploy overwhelming military force to rid the world of the latest awful jihadi group. All coalition partners are up for airstrikes, but no one seeks the dirty work of ridding Syria and Iraq of ISIS in direct military engagement.  Likewise, at least in the West, there remains a complete lack of strategic consensus on what should be done to defeat ISIS. 

A few months back, I offered up an alternative option to boots-on-the-ground; the “Let Them Rot” strategy–i.e., using containment to establish conditions by which ISIS destroys itself from within.  (NB: A forthcoming paper will discuss this in greater depth.)  To this point, it appears that the U.S.-led coalition, either by choice or more by default, is pursuing a modified “Let Them Rot” strategy.  But officials and the public grow impatient while the media reinforces the belief ISIS is the next al Qaeda–a misguided one in my view.  The headlines will lead you to believe that ISIS can only be defeated by a major military campaign. And counterinsurgency proponents are likely drooling for another opportunity to employ their beloved Field Manual 3-24.  But defeating ISIS via external force will be a long battle, and one that perpetuates the jihadi belief that the West denies their vision.  The U.S. should seek to destroy the idea of an Islamic State altogether, and to do that ISIS must fail by its own doings, not from outside forces. The recipe of the the “Let Them Rot” strategy should be followed: contain ISIS advances, starve them of resources, fracture their ranks, and exploit through alternative security arrangements

Analysis of the key drivers pushing forth the advance of ISIS reveals several key points at which the U.S.-led coalition can focus to degrade ISIS over time.  Figure 1 below provides a causal flow diagram showing the relationship of key drivers powering ISIS operations.  Note in the diagram that there are two relationships between entities.  Blue arrows represent direct relationships where an increase in one factor leads to an increase in the subsequent factor.  Red arrows represent where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in a subsequent factor.  (Bottom Line Up Front: Blue and Red show relationships, not good or bad, plusses or minuses.)  In the diagram, clearly the most important factor is ISIS’s territorial expansion (see circle #1); their ability to sustain the offensive, and the initiative.  The diagram also illustrates multiple feedback loops arising from their territorial expansion to include increases in their global popular support, financing through taxation and global donations, recruitment through social media, and their levels of military resources through the seizure of equipment. Containment of ISIS’s advance should remain the main effort, and I doubt that they can continue to expand much further. 

Second, starving ISIS comes from disrupting one factor more than any other: elimination of oil revenues (see circle #2).  ISIS, as compared to other jihadi groups that have tried to form emirates, developed the capacity to resource themselves years ago.  Their self-resourcing is not only strong, but also diversified.  Oil and taxation provide a dual-pronged financial power base complimented by global donations and illicit revenue schemes which have combined to buoy ISIS over time.  Three of these financial resource streams, however, result in large part from ISIS’s ability to expand and sustain territory. If expansion was halted, these three streams would be constrained.

Starving ISIS of resources thus requires the elimination or degradation of ISIS capitalizing on oil fields in Eastern Syria.  This will put pressure on ISIS to extract more revenues from the local population through taxation and illicit schemes preying on local populations at a time when expansion is no longer viable due to containment.  The U.S. raid on Abu Sayyaf last month has apparently yielded some gains against ISIS and will hopefully be a first step in the elimination of this vital oil resource for ISIS.  How does the U.S. disable the oil fields without destroying the infrastructure and creating an environmental disaster?  Maybe a raid to facilitate a cyber attack, placing malware into the closed network to disable the oil pumping systems. Or maybe a series of raids to disable the equipment of several oil platforms, although this would be tough. Lastly, the coalition could send a militia deep into Eastern Syria to capture the oil fields, but in so doing will be anointing one group as king over all of the others. 

Airstrikes, partner pressure, containment and starvation will ideally bring stress on ISIS disrupting the feedback loops previously created form territorial gains.  Fearful of spies and infiltrators directing airstrikes and providing intelligence for Special Forces raids, ISIS will tighten its security, slowing their operations while further alienating the population.  At the same time, ISIS will ideally become more predatory on the local population and increasingly self-doubting.  At this point, two key fractures may become available for fracturing ISIS.  First, in Iraq, internal starvation of resources paired with a slow and steady advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hopefully incentivize former Baathists and Iraqi Sunnis to break ranks with ISIS to secure their local stake in Sunni territories of Western Iraq (see circle #3).  A representative example of this dynamic was seen with the collapse of Shabaab from clan-oriented defections over the past three years. 

The second important fracture for exploitation is the potential rift between ISIS Iraqi leadership and the global foreign fighter legions that power their ranks (see point #4). To date, young ISIS foreign fighters have had much to celebrate; winning on the battlefield, taking ground and rapidly becoming administrators of governance.  But when battlefield advances end and resources become tight, local ISIS members will compromise their ideological principles to maintain their grip on power.  Resource starvation, much as was seen in Somalia, will cause tensions between the heavily Iraqi-dominated leadership and the global ranks of foreign fighters. 

Examining what is currently underway in the fight against ISIS, it appears that the U.S. is essentially pursuing this strategy.  Despite the media ramping up the American public with a relentless barrage of scary ISIS stories, on the surface it appears the U.S., at least, is pursuing this strategy–they are doing most of what I just outlined.  The trick will be whether they can exploit the fractures described above.  Exploitation will be the hardest step, offering alternatives that fill the void and spread the rifts across Syria and Iraq. 


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Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? The Problems in Countering Jihadi Narratives and How to Fix Them

Two weeks back, the Washington Post published the most insightful article to date on the challenges the U.S. government has encountered battling al Qaeda, the Islamic State and jihadis writ large in social media.  The U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has been charged with a mission impossible: countering jihadi sympathies online while also pleasing all critics inside the U.S. government and in the mainstream media. 

Ten years ago, countering al Qaeda’s narrative largely rested in the hands of the Department of Defense (DoD).  Gobs of money were thrown at efforts to discredit Bin Laden and crew.  Having supported a few of these programs, I can attest firsthand that they were largely a giant waste of time; their focus was more about pleasing military commanders than actually undermining al Qaeda’s message.  The CSCC on the other hand, in concept, remains the correct approach.  What more could the U.S. ask for than culturally-informed counterterrorism experts armed with social media, building from lessons learned gained in more than a decade of observing jihadi propaganda? Apparently the system must have zero defects as well. 

The Washington Post article illustrates the strange position the CSCC remains in.  The article discusses how one of the CSCC’s videos gathered more than 800,000 views.  This should have been seen as a major success, simply gaining an audience in jihadi online circles is a major first step, but instead those inside government prone to fearful bureaucratic survival immediately started undermining the effort. The CSCC played by the enemy’s rules and lost, not to the enemy, but to their own team. 

As we approach the fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. should ask itself whether it seriously has the stomach to counter jihadis on the Internet.  For the CSCC or any government effort to be successful in the online space, they must have initiative, flexibility, capacity, autonomy and space for experimentation.  Bureaucrats, media critics, and counterterrorism pundits are unlikely to provide these things to an operation like the CSCC. 

Two months ago, I questioned the renewed White House calls for countering violent extremism (CVE) against jihadis.  The U.S. government sends out these calls every few years when jihadis do bad things and little really happens afterwards beyond some conferences with nice photo ops.  My three essential questions two months back for conducting CVE were:

  1. Where do you want to counter violent extremism? There are three fronts in countering jihadis flowing into ISIS: 1) The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) 2) Europe 3) North America.  These three fronts, in order, provide different percentages of fighters into ISIS ranks and depending on where they are located, are brought into ISIS through differing combinations of on-the-ground and online recruitment efforts. 
  2. Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter? Extremists supporting ISIS come in many different shapes and sizes.  Will McCants provides the best spectrum for identifying where to focus CVE efforts.  I would recommend focusing on those already “radicalizing” to join ISIS. 
  3. How do you want to counter extremists? As I argued at length in past Geopoliticus posts, the U.S. has largely used the wrong messages, messengers, medium, and method to counter the bulk of those radicalizing to join ISIS (i.e., moderate voices and community engagement).  Instead, I proposed using a different message more effective for the radicalizing target audience and in particular a more effective messenger: defectors from ISIS ranks.

Having read about the struggles of the CSCC, I would like to take these questions a step further today and describe how I would recommend doing a more effective counternarrative program. As I discussed previously, CVE efforts should start online rather than on-the-ground.  Online efforts cut across all three theaters of foreign fighters being recruited to ISIS (MENASA, Europe & North America) and when done properly will illuminate the hotspots where on-the-ground CVE efforts such as community engagement and promoting moderate voices can be applied more effectively. 

Engaging videos, mirroring the production format and quality of ISIS and describing the horrors experienced by ISIS defectors provide the ideal vector for engaging those in the ‘Radicalizing’ stage of ISIS recruitment.  I’d call the program “Make Villains, Not Martyrs” with the goal of exposing ISIS members for the power hungry, political criminals they are rather than the devout martyrs they claim to be.  The effort would move through four phases:

  • Pinpoint Vulnerable Audiences: Identify those radicalizing online communities of ISIS enthusiasts most attracted to ISIS content.  Folks like J.M. Berger have already done the lion share of this work (just watch his Twitter feed and read his book). Social media companies who’ve finally conducted waves of shut-downs on ISIS accounts should be able to provide even greater fidelity on where those ISIS digital enclaves reside and further describe the proclivity that these accounts have for ISIS material.  This refined data would further enable the crafting of a precise counter narrative.
  • Develop engaging “telenovela” style defector video content: Defector accounts, I believe, remain the most effective counter narrative, but simply filming a defector interview and then broadcasting it won’t work.  Instead, the ISIS defector content must be able to engage the radicalizing individual and sustain their attention.  I would alternatively propose the development of three dramatic retellings of actual defectors and foreign fighters lost amongst different jihadi conflicts, illuminating ISIS and al Qaeda’s betrayal of their own principles and troops.  I would script out three, “telenovela” style videos that would initially stand-alone but would later be networked together.  It’s important to note, these videos would not be fiction, but instead dramatic retellings of actual debacles involving foreign fighters.  I’d recommend the three movies, as seen in Figure 1, describe the treachery of three fratricidal jihadi campaigns:
    • Tentative Title: “Fitna” – Jabhat al Nusra & ISIS foreign fighters killing each other in Syria
    • Tentative Title: “Bandit” – AQIM’s fracturing, infighting and criminality as they are overrun by French forces in Mali.
    • Tentative Title: “Ansaris & Muhajirs” – al Shabaab’s killing off of their own foreign fighters and clan based infighting inside the group. 

Each of these movies would be provided in different languages to more directly appeal to specific radicalizing audiences and they would illuminate several themes of folly and despair encountered by actual foreign fighters embroiled in these jihads. 

The scripts for these three videos would not be propaganda as the content is already written by jihadis who’ve spilled their betrayals online (Omar Hammami’s biography writes its own screenplay).  Each movie would be roughly 60 – 80 minutes in length, but told in chapters of  5 – 10 minutes suitable for dissemination in a serial trough YouTube and other video hosting sites. 

Each of the videos would follow a similar build up as well (See Figure 2).  The videos would need to appear, in at least the first three episodes, to be somewhat sympathetic to joining a jihad – tracing the introduction, immersion and initial reception of a foreign fighter.  After three episodes, dreams of jihad glory would fade as softer themes undermining ISIS enter the storyline–foreign fighters participating in criminal activity for example.  As the story continues, the video would shift to real stories of horrid ISIS behavior–barbaric torture, sexual enslavement, killing of innocent women and children.  The video series would conclude with a foreign fighter watching the fratricidal killing of a fellow foreign fighter at the hands of a corrupt jihadi leader.  The foreign fighter would manage to defect from ISIS to return home, finding he had shamed his family.

  • Host and disseminate the videos: The video chapters would be released one per week.  After release of the tenth episode, the entire movie would be hosted in multiple locations in the jihadi online environment (i.e. YouTube, etc.).  The videos would then also link to the actual documentary interviews of real foreign fighters that have traveled the journey of the foreign fighters described in the telenovela serial.  The internal documents of al Qaeda, ISIS, AQIM and other terror groups detailing internal conflict and deceit (i.e., Harmony Documents, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, etc.) would also be linked to these videos so that those on the radicalization path can see for themselves the disingenuous nature of all these jihadi campaigns.  The hosting locations would allow for comments and debate, further refining the application of other CVE programs.  These online debates along with standard social media viewer metrics would provide the basis for true measurement of online CVE efforts.
  • Follow up with on-the-ground CVE efforts: Effectively engaging in the online space with these videos would reveal hot spots where other CVE efforts can be employed more effectively.  Those jihadi digital enclaves most engaged on ideological issues would be ideal for a “Moderate Voices” CVE efforts and some physical communities might also surface appropriate for the application of CVE community outreach programs.  Essentially, the videos will act as blood in the water for jihadi sharks. Engagement, regardless of whether its positive or negative, will illuminate what we currently cannot see–the fault lines in ISIS popular support that we need to exploit. 

Ultimately, this type of a program will likely not make it out of the concept phase.  It will be plagued by interagency infighting and will take so long to produce through the U.S. bureaucracy it will be available right about the time ISIS collapses. 

In actuality, an online defector video series like this would not take that much time or resources to execute.  The scripts are practically written and the production will be more effective and efficient if done in the Middle East or North Africa. (Off the cuff, I’d recommend looking first at Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon for video production–they’ve got some good capacity.) The online analytics, hosting, and dissemination can all be done from a few laptops armed with a couple credit cards.  So again I ask, do we really want to do online CVE?  It seems the CSCC can do it, but will we let them? 

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