One year later, ISIS overtakes al Qaeda: What’s next?

A year ago, the Islamic State (IS or ISIS) was on the rise but few expected them to travel such a rapid trajectory to the top of the global jihadi community.  The fighting (fitnato kick off 2014 between Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s arm in Syria, and ISIS seemed, at first, to be undermining the greatest jihadi foreign fighter mobilization in history.  But in June 2014, ISIS swept into northern Iraq simultaneously seizing Mosul and the minds of jihadi supporters worldwide by doing what al-Qaeda always discussed but never delivered–an Islamic State.  Through audacity, violence against Assad, Shia, the West, and slick social media packaging, ISIS now dominates the global jihadi scene.  Foreign fighters have flocked to ISIS ranks and when unable to travel, have sworn allegiance to ISIS (bayat) in groups across North Africa to Southeast Asia.

Building from the estimates and scenarios created last March 2014 (ISIS Rise From al Qaeda’s House of Cards), I’ve generated a new estimate of the fractures between ISIS and al-Qaeda seen here in Figure 9.  I’ve also pasted below this post the estimate of these fractures one year ago for comparison (Figure 4). 

A few notes on the ISIS versus as al-Qaeda chart in Figure 9. I generally don’t like organizational charts for describing jihadi terrorist groups because I’ve been to too many military briefings where these are misinterpreted as command and control diagrams. Al-Qaeda and its affiliates and now ISIS and its new pledges more represent swarming, informal relationships rather than a directed, top-down hierarchy.  Circle size represents an imperfect estimate of a group’s relative size compared to other groups.  Larger circles equal larger groups.  More overlap between circles represents my estimate of communication and coordination between the groups.  For emerging groups that have pledged bayat to ISIS, but ISIS has not officially recognized the pledge, I categorized them as “Lean ISIS.” For what I anticipate to be new ISIS affiliates that are emerging I’ve inserted dashed circles.  Thanks again this year to J.M Berger, Aaron Zelin and Will McCants for their feedback and insight on the graphics.  I’ve also included J.M. Berger’s latest link chart showing the same splits between ISIS and al Qaeda, which can be found in Figure 10 and downloaded at this link. 

ISIS has clearly dominated al-Qaeda over the past year. Al-Qaeda couldn’t even release a confirmation video in a timely fashion when handed a success as the Kouachi brothers announced al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was responsible for the Hebdo assassination.  Al-Qaeda is most certainly a distant number two in jihadi circles. A few observations of this year’s assessment (Figure 9) of the ISIS versus al Qaeda split as compared to last year’s evaluation (Figure 4). 

  • Proliferation, More circles, More groups: ISIS’s rise has created a break up of groups around the world into smaller clusters.  Some see this as a more dangerous world of terrorists, but more small groups can also lead to problems for both al-Qaeda and ISIS leading to a general jihadi burnout. A separate post will discuss this.
  • Diffusion: A year ago, the overlap between al-Qaeda affiliates was significant, but communication has broken down even further.  We’ve learned just a couple of weeks ago that al-Shabaab in Somalia hasn’t heard from al-Qaeda in a long time.  When there have been communiqués, they have come more from AQAP who appears to be the critical link with remaining al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb members and the remaining core of al-Qaeda globally.
  • Syria Shift: ISIS is the dominant player now in Syria, whereas last year, ISIS and Nusra were on a similar footing, and Ahrar al Sham was being courted by al-Qaeda.  This year, Ahrar al-Sham hardly exists. 
  • Reigniting the periphery: After 9/11, terrorism analysts went to great lengths to link all extremist groups from Southeast Asia to North Africa under al-Qaeda’s orbit.  Al-Qaeda’s connections to these peripheral groups faded with each passing year.  Today, ISIS receives pledges from groups of unknown guys around the world in all regions, and has ignited peripheral jihadi factions globally. 

Will al-Qaeda even make it the end of 2015?

Those who assessed that bin Laden’s death would be of no consequence for al-Qaeda have been proven wrong.  Bin Laden, along with a select few of his top lieutenants and protégés who’ve been eliminated by drones, provided the last bits of glue that held a declining al-Qaeda network together. As discussed in the 2012 post “What if there is no al-Qaeda?”, al-Qaeda for many years has provided little incentive in money or personnel for its affiliates and little inspiration for its global fan base.  Things have gotten so bad that rumors suggest Ayman al-Zawahiri may dissolve al-Qaeda entirely, that’s right, al-Qaeda might QUIT! I’ll address these rumors in a separate post next week.  Until then, here is what I see as the good and bad for al-Qaeda and ISIS this year. 

The Good News for al-Qaeda

  • Jabhat al-Nusra is rebounding in Syria: Pressure on ISIS from the international coalition combined with the failings of Western backed militias to seize the initiative in Syria have allowed the still well-funded and cohesive al-Qaeda arm Jabhat al-Nusra to resurge in Syria taking Idlib in the last couple of weeks.  To survive, al Qaeda needs its place in the Syrian jihad – Nusra remains its greatest hope. 
  • Yemen’s Turmoil Creates Operational Space for AQAP: Just when an emerging younger ISIS affiliate may have started to challenge AQAP in Yemen, the Houthi coup and ensuing Saudi response has ignited a sectarian war where AQAP has already regained ground once lost to the Yemeni government.  AQAP, since bin Laden’s death, has become al-Qaeda Central and with time, space and maybe the death or resignation of Zawahiri in Pakistan, they may be able charge forward and challenge ISIS. 

The Bad News for al-Qaeda

  • Jihadis don’t care about al-Qaeda:  More than any other factor, global jihadi members and supporters don’t talk much about al-Qaeda.  ISIS has coopted al-Qaeda’s most notable characters showcasing bin Laden, Zarqawi and even Anwar al-Awlaki in their propaganda and rhetoric. Even the youngest ISIS supporters are openly challenging Zawahiri. Al-Qaeda needs their own success to rally the troops. They haven’t really had that in years and should even a big attack occur it’s doubtful it would eclipse ISIS’s success. 
  • Jabhat al-Nusra might want to quit al-Qaeda: Nusra’s connections with al-Qaeda and loyalty to Zawahiri have hurt the group more than helped it.  Al-Qaeda’s Khorasan Group embedded in Nusra has brought U.S. airstrikes.  Al-Qaeda’s global focus distracts from Nusra’s local focus and doesn’t offer a viable alternative to the ISIS state which provides the only form of governance in parts of Sunni Iraq and Syria.  Why would Nusra stick with al-Qaeda at this point?
  • Al-Qaeda’s resources are limited: Compared to ISIS, al-Qaeda relies heavily on donations, which allowed it to survive while being hunted over the past decade.  Today, donor reliance is a liability for al-Qaeda.  ISIS coffers are full from oil money, licit and illicit schemes, and their successes have allowed them to push into al-Qaeda’s donor stream.  Al-Qaeda provides little incentive for donors to cough up their cash, and has no population to prey on for resources. 
  • Al-Qaeda has lost membership across all affiliates: Zawahiri’s creation of al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-Continent signals his vulnerability to the Taliban’s shifting allegiance to ISIS.  He feels threatened and all al-Qaeda affiliates globally are either shifting their allegiance or are finding splinters that support ISIS form in their ranks. 

The Good News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS: The pace of pledges coming into ISIS is unprecedented and unexpected.  When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared the Islamic State and named himself as the new caliph, one might have expected more backlash for his arrogance.  Instead, jihadis have seen ISIS’s success and generally gone with his pronouncements and fallen in line.  ISIS ranks have swollen in Iraq and Syria over the past year with the pace of foreign fighter recruitment likely peaking in the late summer and fall of 2014 before the push of the international coalition. ISIS, until the loss of Tikrit, is winning, and jihadis love them for it. 
  • Affiliates (Emirates) are popping up all over: Just as pressure mounts on ISIS in Iraq and Syria and they begin to lose ground, other new affiliates continue to pop up in safe havens of promise.  Libya and Yemen provide two new genuine opportunities for ISIS to anchor and homes for foreign fighters to nest in as they are pushed from the Levant.  ISIS affiliated attacks in Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen show the potential of this new global jihadi network.
  • Resources still in tact: Despite a sustained aerial campaign, ISIS remains able to sustain itself logistically. 

The Bad News for ISIS

  • Everyone wants to be ISIS:  A letter from Zawahiri to bin Laden, found amidst the Abbottabad documents, described al- Qaeda’s concerns about the growing number of inspired members claiming to be al-Qaeda that had no actual connection to the group.  ISIS’s rapid growth faces a similar challenge.  How might the misplaced violence of inspired supporters hurt the group’s global appeal?  Baghdadi has affirmed the pledge of some affiliates but also ignored the pledge of other upstart groups signaling he may not even know of these emerging groups, or he doesn’t trust that they are committed and in-line with ISIS goals.  ISIS’s rapid rise and growth while being under pressure from an international coalition suggests that there will be emerging command and control problems as young boys execute their violence with limited or no guidance. 
  • Taking losses in Iraq and Syria: As opposed to al-Qaeda, which has existed as a stateless, cellular network, ISIS’s unity of command and cohesiveness depends on the centralization provided in their pursuit of a state. They are now taking losses and fractures appear to be emerging as defections increase and ISIS has allegedly killed off doubters in their own ranks.  Pressure on ISIS continues to mount, on-the-ground, in-the-air and online, Baghdadi and his inner circle face a substantial challenge in 2015. 
  • Declining foreign fighter flow: Thousands of fighters have been killed in recent months and these losses will be difficult to regenerate as it becomes more difficult for fighters to get to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. 

The next year for both al-Qaeda and ISIS will likely be as dynamic as this past year.  Both groups remain under pressure. Arab countries have joined in the fight against ISIS in ways they never did against al-Qaeda and the growing sectarian conflict between Shia and Sunnis across the Middle East will likely grow and impact ISIS and al-Qaeda in unexpected ways. This growing sectarian battle has also, ironically, removed some pressure on the U.S.  ISIS and al-Qaeda have so much to pursue locally from North Africa to South Asia, the U.S. has really become a peripheral issue to both groups.  Both groups will likely take almost any opportunity to attack the West, but in reality, the opportunities and challenges in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, and other places likely don’t allow either group to expend sufficient time to conduct an external operations attack on par with 9/11.  As for future scenarios for both groups, I’ll follow up in separate posts over the next couple of weeks. 

Here is J.M. Berger’s link chart showing al Qaeda versus ISIS splits and for a better understanding of ISIS, check out his new book with Jessica Stern here: “ISIS: The State of Terror.” 

 

 

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ISIS Gets Kicked Off Twitter: Will they evolve or devolve on the Internet?

Thousands of ISIS member Twitter accounts have been shutdown over the past two weeks by Twitter. The implications are apparently dire for ISIS.  While they continued to recreate accounts to re-establish their audiences in social media, some members of ISIS and their supporters posted death threats against Twitter employees including co-founder Jack Dorsey. “Your virtual war on us will cause a real war on you…we told you from the beginning it’s not your war but you didn’t get it and kept closing our accounts on Twitter, but we always come back.” Social media and Twitter in particular has been key lifeblood for ISIS, and apparently losing this communication platform has significant consequences for the group.  A tip for ISIS – threatening to kill Twitter’s corporate leadership will not likely get your account reinstated. 

I once believed that social media shutdowns were a waste of time, a game of whack-a-mole where terrorists could just constantly reopen new accounts and continue on.  Research from J.M. Berger (@intelwire) shows that social media account suspensions seriously cripple terror groups’ ability to communicate their message and rally their followers.  (If you haven’t checked out his “The ISIS Twitter Census” you are absolutely missing out.)

Imagine you follow a television company on channel #2.  One day it goes out, and then the company begins broadcasting on channel #17 a few days later.  After a day or two, channel #17 goes out and the company’s broadcasts resurface on channel #37.  By that time, you may find it to hard to find the channel or may not even be aware of how to access it.  More importantly, your trust and confidence in the channel will likely be diminished. 

That is exactly what happens to terror groups when Twitter repeatedly suspends their accounts.  The audience becomes frustrated, uncertain where the content will arise and unsure whether the new account is authentic.  The terror group doesn’t vanish completely from social media but its effectiveness diminishes significantly.  Al Shabaab, the first terror group to prolifically use Twitter during the 2012 to 2013 timeframe has been effectively squelched over the past two years through account shutdowns that have paralleled the group’s decline.

Twitter and peer social media companies will never be able to entirely eliminate extremists like ISIS from their platforms.  But social media account closures across all channels will severely impact their ability to reach a wide audience likely degrading their ability to recruit and resource.  Counterterrrorists should begin examining now what ISIS and other extremist groups will do to get out their message and reach their audience if social media remains unavailable.  Will it be devolution or evolution for ISIS?

Extremist groups like ISIS could devolve back to the forum systems of al Qaeda. Prior to the advent of social media, al Qaeda proliferated its message and guidance through password protected forums where supporters were granted access in a semi-closed, content controlled environment.  Under this system, whose access was more difficult than social media, content could get out, but forum administrators controlled membership and discussion.  Counterterrorists and watchers of all things jihadi penetrated forums.  Forums were also disrupted from time to time through denial of service attacks.  But, the younger generation of ISIS fanboys will likely loathe moving to such a system.  First, they are difficult to access compared to social media.  Second and more importantly, controversial topics, such as the defection of Omar Hammami from Shabaab or the challenging of al Qaeda’s strategic direction, were squelched and incentivized young jihadis to move to social media.  For ISIS’s egomaniacal “Me” generation members, a shift back to forums’ censorship and authentication will likely be unpalatable.

ISIS, unlike its predecessors and peers, has demonstrated technical capability suggesting they might be able to evolve rather than devolve in their communications.  As described in J.M. Berger’s Twitter census, ISIS has employed bots to proliferate its messages on Twitter.  ISIS also became the first to develop its own application for direct access to the group’s content and enable messaging.  The app failed in its first incarnation, but the availability of tech savvie youngsters in ISIS and amongst its fan base might bring about a new wave of terror group innovation; the development of content hosting and dissemination technology more out of reach from Western counterterrorism efforts. 

The important point for Western counterterrorism efforts is to quickly anticipate what the consequences will be for finally pushing extremists off of social media. Terror groups, and ISIS more than many others, must communicate with its popular support base to survive.  The West should look now to see if ISIS evolves and develops its own tech or devolves back to older ways. Prepare to disrupt the next preferred communication channel now rather than waiting for terrorists to again get the upper hand as we’ve witnessed with social media.

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The White House CVE Summit: What should we expect? More of the same or a new direction to counter ISIS?

Yesterday, Vice President Joseph Biden kicked off the much anticipated White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism (CVE). He noted the need to,

“engage our communities and engage those who might be susceptible to being radicalized because they are marginalized….societies have to provide an affirmative alternative for immigrant communities, a sense of opportunity, a sense of belonging that discredits the terrorist’s appeal to fear, isolation, hatred, resentment.” 

This seems like a long and large task list to keep three guys with guns from killing people in the streets of Paris.

America trots out CVE every three years or so in response to the latest atrocity perpetrated in the West by a confused young man inspired by whichever terrorist group has recently grabbed headlines.  As the Vice President noted above, CVE proponents as a whole will likely propose eliminating extremism by solving all the problems of disenfranchised communities-–something no government in history has been able to achieve to date. This general theme will ultimately settle on pushing two feel-good programs as the mechanisms for CVE: (1) community engagement through law enforcement and NGOs and (2) countering the ideology of the latest terrorist group through the promotion of Mulsim “Moderate Voices”.  These programs, on the surface, seem great.  Who wouldn’t want to engage at risk communities and tell the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) they stink?  Despite their merits on paper though, these programs will have almost no impact on extremism aside from interdicting an occasional fence sitter who was likely torn between whether he should go to Syria, hang out with his friends, or play video games.  I’ll spare the reader my issues with CVE but for a longer critique see this article I wrote with Will McCants and my opening remarks at The Washington Institute a couple of weeks back. 

Properly conducting CVE today requires a simple, narrowly focused strategy that answers three questions: “Where?”, “Who?” and “How?”

Where do you want to counter violent extremism?

Today, jihadi extremism, labeled al Qaeda, ISIS or some other name, occurs in both physical and virtual worlds.  In the physical world, extremist recruits primarilly emerge from three separate theaters: (1) North Africa through the Middle East to South Asia (known hereafter as MENASA), (2) Europe to include the Caucuses and the Balkans, and (3) North America.  Each of these theaters hosts a mixture of virtual and physical radicalization and recruitment.  

On the ground in extremist environments now known for propelling three decades of militancy, young recruits physically encounter jihadist recruiters in mosques, apartments, and prisons where the disenfranchised congregate to share their lives’ misfortunes and collectively embrace jihadism and violence as an answer.  Online, virtual radicalization and recruitment occurs throughout nearly every social media platform and a few password protected Internet forums.  Online extremist content predominately comes in the form of Arabic, but can be found broadcast in any language for which there is a vulnerable community.   

The ratio of physical to virtual radicalization and recruitment generally decreases across all of these theaters the further one gets geographically from Syria and Iraq.  Of course, there are exceptions to this rule in certain extremist hotspots in Europe.  The chart below (Figure 1) shows my overall ballpark estimate of the breakdown of physical to virtual recruitment across each of these theaters and each theater’s total contribution of fighters to the Syria/Iraq jihad. 

Today, extremism is Europe’s problem more than America’s.  From a temporal perspective, the rate of American extremists recruited to Somalia may in fact outpace the rate at which American extremists have been recruited to Syria.  Meanwhile, Europe watched thousands of its citizens and immigrants stream into Syria over the past three years and are now feeling the pain of what was bound to come. Hint: It’s a little late for preemptive CVE, intelligence and law enforcement operations should be the main effort.  Overall, if one wants to counter the most extremists via physical engagement programs; MENASA is the place to do it.  If one wants to focus on virtual CVE programs, North America and Europe should be the focus–that’s right, those places most creeped out about governments playing around with peoples minds on the Internet–thank you Ed Snowden!

For the most part, CVE proponents recommend their pet strategy be applied everywhere to combat extremism.  But this is unwise.  Community engagement should be applied in locations where there is significant physical recruitment such as MENASA.  Instead, community engagement will probably be discussed more in the permissible environments of North America where physical recruitment to extremism is far less likely to occur and difficult to detect. 

Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter?

Extremism as a term lacks a clear definition.  As Will McCants noted in this excellent piece, there are many people referred to as extremists ranging from the vulnerable community of disenfranchised youth suspectible to extremist messages to the committed, law-abiding supporter of a terrorist group.  Different CVE approaches should be applied against different characters on this spectrum.  Rarely, however, is this the case. Instead programs seek to target extremists as a whole without clearly identifying where the extremists are and where they reside on this spectrum. 

How do you want to counter extremists?

Today’s general CVE approach involves a milieu of efforts, some tackling virtual aspects of extremist radicalization and others focusing on mitigating physical recruitment.  In whole, these efforts may achieve limited success where they are applied but lack the needed synchronization and appropriate tailoring for how today’s ISIS recruit becomes radicalized.  Last decade’s CVE measures are tired and have been proven ineffective.  We have more extremists today than we did ten years ago.  Why would we continue using these same failed approaches?

Moving forward, CVE needs to recalibrate the message, messenger, medium and method by which they counter extremism.  CVE efforts should begin in the virtual environment where discussions can illuminate physical hotspots of extremism for the nimble application of traditional CVE programs.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s recruitment message (“come to Syria and Iraq and create an Islamic State”), messenger (“a foreign fighter like you waging battle against the infidel”), medium (high quality video showing violence and administration of state), and method (through tailored social media mechanisms) is being countered through messages and messengers misaligned to the group’s success. 

Moving forward, conducting CVE to counter ISIS’s appeal should begin by engaging in the virtual space as a way to illuminate extremists hotspots where physical interactions such as community engagement and “Moderate Voices” can be effectively and efficiently applied. As seen in Figure 2, the message should focus not on convincing ideological novices that jihadi ideology is “bad”, but that when they travel to be a foreign fighter, they will be participating in something quite different than what they expected.  The best messenger for this message isn’t an elderly imam, but instead a disenfranchised foreign fighter that can relay their experience back to those with jihadi dreams that don’t match reality.  Defector videos should be coupled with well-produced dramatic video narratives that connect with vulnerable audiences.  Videos should be deliberately inserted into online audiences and discussion facilitated by non-governmental organizations that can then facilitate phsycial interventions. 

I could go write more, but I’ll instead end with a question.  Is the West really serious about CVE?  If so, Western governments should stop focusing on what ‘sounds’ or ‘feels’ good and re-examine what is likely to be most effective at curbing radicalization and recruitment.  The proposal I briefly outlined above doesn’t require a summit, but merely creativity, a credit card, and some film students.

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Who attacked Charlie Hebdo in Paris? Assessing a Jihadi Attack in The West, ISIS vs al Qaeda

Today’s terrorist attack in Paris killed 12 people at the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine; presumably for their perceived insults to Islam and/or ISIS’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.  As expected, media outlets, governments and their citizens want to know who is responsible for the attack.  In years past, arriving at a conclusion regarding culpability occurred rather quickly.  Attacks were either command directed by al Qaeda or perpetrated by an inspired adherent to al Qaeda’s ideology and justifications for violence.  Today, in an era where ISIS has grown to overtake al Qaeda in stature globally, the perpetrator of today’s attack at Charlie Hebdo appears far murkier.  Analysts and journalists should assess four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  1. 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)
  2. An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq
  3. An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West
  4. 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 attack Charlie Hebdo (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. 

While it remains too early to assess responsibility and events continue to transpire in Paris surrounding the attack, there are some factors and supporting evidence coming in to begin distinguishing between different scenarios.  While I DO NOT know who perpetrated the attack, I am building my own chart to track the possible scenarios and evidence that is leading me to one perpetrator over another.  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

Here are the factors I’m looking for:

  • Reconnaissance: Based on the success of the attack, killing 12 people and the Editor possibly during a morning meeting, I assume a significant reconnaissance was conducted which suggests a well-planned operation more consistent with a directed plot.
  • Targeting Mass/Random vs. Specific: The attackers went after specific people in a specific location, and this is more indicative of a directed plot.
  • Attack Locations – Single vs. Multiple: As of now, there appears to be only one attack location but this might change, or lead to a deliberate standoff. 
  • Weaponry – Advanced vs. Self Provided: The automatic weaponry used suggests access to a sponsor and a deliberate directed plot.  Inspired plots more often involve attackers providing and using their own lower capability weapons.
  • Sponsored Organized Media Release: This will be important in the coming hours. Both ISIS and AQ might try to take credit for the attack, but the timing of responsibility matters.  And, this could be an inspired attack, so maybe a media release will never come. 
  • Propaganda Citing Motive For Attack: While Charlie Hebdo did insult Islam which would be offensive to both groups, they directly insulted ISIS leader Bagdadi, although this may have been too soon before the attack.
  • Suicide Mission/Fight To The Death (FTD) vs. Planned Withdrawal: Generally, inspired attackers seek media attention and want to drag out the incident.  These guys withdrew professionally suggesting a command directed plot. 
  • Size of Attacking Element – Lone Wolf vs Small Cell: Inspired attacks are more often lone wolf plots.  This attack involved at least three perpetrators which suggests an ISIS or AQ directed action.
  • Symbols Present at Scene or Statements of Perpetrators: Little is known at this point, however, some news has trickled out that one of the perpetrators said that “al Qaeda in Yemen” was responsible.  I’m uncertain about the credibility of that claim.
  • Professional vs. Amateur: These guys look professional.  From the video, they handled their weapons well and look experienced, possibly suggesting the presence of a former foreign fighter being involved and leaning towards a directed plot rather than one that was inspired.
  • Foreign Fighter Origin: Very recent reports suggest one of the attackers was speaking Russian!  I am not sure of the credibility of the report, but with the vast number of foreign fighters in ISIS ranks, and the presence of so many Chechens and Caucasuses fighters in ISIS, this leans towards an ISIS command directed attack.

Here is my quick and dirty ACH chart as of 1030.  Note, I provide my assessment of each scenario and what I would expect in black text.  My assessment should definitely be challenged and debated.  I then, in red, pasted #JeSuisCharlie where I’ve seen evidence or potential evidence supporting each assessed factor in the scenario.  I thought this might be a useful tool for those to debate who the perpetrators might be.  More to follow…….

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Al Qaeda versus ISIS: In the campaign for jihad’s top slot, Yemen is a swing state.

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria’s (ISIS) rise began in the summer of 2013 but became fully evident this past spring.  Ayman al-Zawahiri’s retaliatory plan to punish an indignant and unruly affiliate backfired. Open conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda’s lead arm in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, and their associated partners in the Islamic Front not only empowered ISIS in the eyes of global jihadi supporters but further diminished the allure of jihad’s original vanguard al Qaeda (AQ).  In March 2013, I posed three scenarios for what a future terrorism landscape might look like after a period of enduring jihadi civil war.  These scenarios, outlined in the article “ISIS Rise After al Qaeda’s House of Cards” from March 20, 2014, were the following:

Scenario #1: ISIS Replaces al Qaeda as the Global Leader of Jihad

  • Summary: ISIS overtakes al Qaeda as the leader of global jihad

Scenario #2: Sustained Competition – ‘Old Guard’ al Qaeda vs. Team ISIS

  • Jihadi civil war in Syria spreading to Iraq and Lebanon

Scenario #3: Dissolving Into Regional Nodes

  • Regional jihadi groups, unsure of whether to side with ISIS or AQ, diverge maintaining loose connections but operating independently

Six months after developing these scenarios, jihadi support for ISIS across all regions has surged dramatically. See Figure 1 for my unscientific, estimated breakdown for each region of jihadi popular support between al Qaeda, ISIS, or independent/undeclared groups and supporters. 

  • North Africa & Sahel – As discussed this past spring, Tunisia and Libya were key audiences for ISIS support in North Africa.  Libyan and Tunisian foreign fighter networks to Iraq during the 2003 – 2008 time period greatly empower ISIS today.  Just this week, Derna’s Shoura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY) pledged allegiance to ISIS while Abu Sleem Martyrs’ Brigade chose not to declare allegiance to either AQ or ISIS. (Hypothesis: SCIY hosts many foreign fighters returning from ISIS in Syria and Abu Saleem may have some old AQ members in their midst that are unsure which way to go…just a theory.) Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel, conversely, remains loyal to al Qaeda publishing a joint call for unity with al al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen.   Al Murabitin, led by Mokhtar Bel Mokhtar, remains committed to AQ as well.  I imagine much shifting of allegiances between AQ and ISIS in this region in the coming months with many groups possibly opting out of declaring their support either way. 
  • Levant & Arabian Peninsula – This region remains the battleground for jihadi hearts and minds.  ISIS captures the majority of foreign fighters into Syria but Jabhat al- Nusra remains an important force in the fight against Asad.  For jihadis in the region, the decision now becomes, “which is more important, fighting Asad in Western Syria or the U.S. led coalition in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq?”  I estimate the majority of jihadis feel more inclined to join ISIS fighting a host of enemies rather than solely focusing on Asad. 

More important is the battle between ISIS and AQAP.  ISIS has gained significant backing from Saudi foreign fighters and had plots disrupted in the Kingdom. It’s likely donor flows to ISIS from the Arabian peninsula now eclipse those to al Qaeda – traditionally the resource lifeline of a Bin Laden-led al Qaeda.  This leaves Yemen. AQAP remains the strongest affiliate of al Qaeda and, as will be discussed below, serves as the counterweight to ISIS taking nearly absolute control of global jihadi support. 

  • South Asia – Al Qaeda’s remaining senior leadership now may only hold a slight edge in South Asia.  Protected for more than a decade by the Taliban, Zawahiri’s foothold in the hills of Pakistan may be eroding.  Alleged Taliban members calling for support of ISIS and reports of ISIS recruiting in Peshawar likely drive Zawahiri’s latest calls for establishing an al Qaeda affiliate in India – a ploy aimed at securing al Qaeda’s relevance and sustaining Taliban protection by engaging in a local issue that re-incentivizes AQ connections in Pakistan at a time when they are being outpaced by the glory of ISIS.
  • Southeast Asia – After initial concerns and flurries of counterterrorism activity post-9/11, jihadi groups in Southeast Asia loosely tied to al Qaeda largely went dormant by the 2006 – 2008 time period.  Jihadis in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Phillipines have awakened from their slumber; inspired by ISIS pursuit of a state and high levels of violence.  Kidnappings of Westerners in the Phillipines and recruiting in Indonesia for ISIS has risen to significant levels.  Southeast Asia is decidedly pro-ISIS.  
  • Balkans/Caucasus – The Syrian conflict, more than previous, recent jihadi campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has mobilized jihadi elements throughout the Balkans and Caucasus sending a swarm of foreign fighters into the ranks of ISIS.  While Nusra initially drew some contingents from this region, I’d estimate the vast majority of support from this region goes to ISIS.
  • North America, Europe & Australia – Small numbers of Western recruits to al Qaeda have popped up over the past decade.  Today, al Qaeda is a distant second for Western jihadi support.  European foreign fighters fill the ranks of ISIS and Australia has seen a disproportionate number of ISIS recruits as well.  Americans, still only a trickle of the foreign fighter flow, have mobilized more for ISIS than Nusra (AQ) with the notable exception of the first U.S. suicide bomber in Syria surfacing in Nusra/AQ ranks.
  • East Africa – East African social media accounts often praise the efforts of ISIS but al Shabaab’s tight control on local jihadis in Somalia and their affiliates in Kenya has sustained loyalty to al Qaeda.  The group recently reconfirmed their loyalty after the death of their emir Ahmed Godane.  Al Shabaab’s commitment to al Qaeda may possibly be enforced via their close connections to AQAP in Yemen who remains the anchor of al Qaeda allegiance. 

Yemen: The Swing State in the battle between al Qaeda and ISIS

If al Qaeda and ISIS held an election, Yemen would be the American equivalent of the swing state of Florida.  Zawahiri smartly designated Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the leader of AQAP, as his global deputy last summer; a wise strategic move that provided an anchor of AQ support as ISIS surged.  AQAP’s loyalty to al Qaeda represents the remaining barrier to ISIS completely overtaking al Qaeda as the global leader of jihad.  AQAP acts as a key interlocutor with AQIM in the Sahel and essentially commands its own affiliate, al Shabaab, in Somalia.  Should AQAP shift allegiance from Zawahiri or remove itself from the dispute all together, al Qaeda would consist of nothing more than a few veteran envoys spread around the globe and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria – a group likely questioning why it remains loyal to Zawahiri as it is overtaken by ISIS.  I do not expect a shift by AQAP anytime soon, nor do I think Wuhayshi, a long-time al Qaeda man, will break his oath to Zawahiri.  However, for ISIS to fully rise without competitors, AQAP in Yemen must change its stance.  Another scenario to watch for is whether Wuhayshi, similar to the recent joint AQAP-AQIM call for unity, makes a decisive move to unify the ranks of AQ and ISIS should the situation become particularly dire for both groups. 

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“Why Don’t We Go After Assad in Syria First?” – Thoughts on Countering ISIS Part 4

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

Two years ago, amidst a long U.S. presidential campaign, both political parties largely avoided the Syrian conflict as a foreign policy issue.  The Obama campaign still had not shaken off the sting of helping topple the Qaddafi regime in Libya only to see the country crumble into chaos leading to the Benghazi fiasco.  On the other side, debate on the Syrian civil war would remind voters of Iraq, the Bush administration, the Republican party, and thus by association the Romney campaign would suffer.  Thus, war-weary Americans and their European allies avoided the Syrian conflict hoping that good outcomes would arise naturally.  More than two years later, the West continues to tip toe around the Syrian civil war despite the rise of new adversaries spawned by the West’s collective policy of inaction. 

The latest jihadi threat known as ISIS has infected the Middle East for one reason above all others – the perpetuation of the Syrian civil war.  Two years ago, institution of a No-Fly-Zone would have muted Syria’s air force and leveled the playing field but the U.S. settled instead for limited small arms for the Free Syrian Army fearing the potential blowback of more useful heavy weapons or air defense missiles falling into the hands of al Qaeda linked militants.  The cautious American approach achieved nothing as hordes of more extreme militants backed by Gulf donors swallowed the FSA leading to two unfortunate consequences; the sustainment of the Assad regime in western Syria and the rise of ISIS in eastern Syria. 

The Obama administration and the media have wrongly labeled ISIS a cancer, but it is only a symptom of the real cancer, which is the Assad regime.  ISIS cannot be defeated without addressing the Syrian civil war and the safe haven it has produced for extremists.  Here are many reasons why the U.S., if it truly wants to destroy ISIS, should pursue an end to the Assad regime and the Syria Civil War as a first step in defeating ISIS.

  • Assad: Aren’t WMDs a red line? – In 2003, the U.S. invaded Iraq based in large part on the belief that Saddam Hussein might be producing chemical weapons.  In 2013, Assad’s Syrian regime actually used chemical weapons on civilian populations.  The American presumption that Saddam’s Iraq had chemical weapons ultimately brought al Qaeda to Iraq and created a safe haven where the U.S. today pursues al Qaeda’s spawn ISIS, a group that rose to power for appearing to fight an Assad regime in Syria that actually used chemical weapons.  It’s madness folks!
  • Foreign fighter recruitment – Never in world history has a conflict generated such a migration of foreign fighters. As long as the Syrian civil war persists, the ranks of ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra will fill with jihadi recruits.  The U.S. can bomb indefinitely, but the flow of fighters will remain.
  • Assad is an Iranian ally – Iran poses a very real nuclear and cyber threat to the U.S., one far greater than ISIS. Iran is desperately straining to keep a foothold in the Levant.  By attacking ISIS first, the U.S. strengthens Assad’s hand and by extension Iran. 
  • Confirms the al Qaeda narrative of ‘Far Enemy’ (U.S.) propping up ‘Near Enemy’ regimes (Syria) – As I noted this past weekend in an article at Politico, the U.S. pursuit of al Qaeda and ISIS in Syria while ignoring Assad further confirms the jihadi narrative that America is the ‘Far Enemy’ propping up ‘Near Enemy’ apostates.   
  • Double Standard on Atrocities – Americans showed great alarm at ISIS beheading two journalists, while turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands of Syrians killed by gruesome bombings and torture. The world sees the atrocities promoted by ISIS social media, but due to the lack of journalism inside Syria, the world has ignored an equally heinous slaughter committed by Assad.
  • Plays to Assad’s double game – Assad knows the U.S. fears jihadi black flags and scary ISIS YouTube videos.  Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war, Assad has argued the world should support him to prevent the rise of al Qaeda. Some indications suggest either Assad or Iran actually supported ISIS’s growth. Max Fisher at Vox wrote a great article detailing the Assad strategy with regards to ISIS.

As airstrikes continue, the U.S. and the West as a whole must realize there will be no enduring successful outcome for defeating ISIS and al Qaeda without ending the Syrian civil war – something that requires the confrontation of Assad.  The U.S. seems unlikely to take this action, in fear of riling Iran and their ally of exceptional aggression, Russia.  Maybe the Obama administration has included toppling Assad in their long-run strategy, but I’m skeptical. 

For other parts of the “Thoughts on Countering ISIS” series see Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

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Seven Flaws In the U.S. Strategy to Counter ISIS

(Editor’s Note: This blog post is derived from Clint Watts’ Ginsburg Lecture delivered at the National Liberty Museum on September 16, 2014.)

The past week’s debate on how to counter ISIS has proven just how effective terrorism is as a tactic for extremist groups.  Two videos showing the beheading of American hostages have provoked the largest U.S. response since the attacks of 9/11, compelling President Obama to hastily gather up a strategy to counter ISIS. Aside from the general confusion over what to call the group, there is even greater disagreement over what to do.  Overall, I don’t disagree with most of the actions the U.S. is taking to counter ISIS, but I am baffled why ISIS, America’s third or fourth most pressing national security concern right now, requires such a reaction.  The lesson for other extremist groups scattered from Morocco to Malaysia is clear – fly a black flag, film an atrocity and post it on the Internet and you too can capture the American media cycle and provoke a U.S. response. 

Aside from my quibbling over the U.S. need to be out front in countering ISIS, it is clear that something needs to be done to counter the rise of the group.  The U.S. actions to counter ISIS to date are not necessarily wrong.  Building up rebels, airstrikes to protect key allies, and working with partners all represent sound actions the U.S. will need to take at one point or another.  As a comprehensive strategy, however, the plan will likely fail from seven fatal flaws presented by the current situation in Iraq and Syria. The U.S. can do whatever it wants to militarily, and probably will, but these apparent weaknesses will prevent any meaningful defeat of ISIS and, in the process of being the global leader to counter ISIS, the U.S. has confirmed the jihadist narrative it so desperately sought to escape in the past decade – the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostates. (See my post from two weeks ago “Why Does The U.S. Want To Be ISIS ‘Far Enemy’?” for a larger discussion on this issue.)

Seven Flaws in the U.S. Strategy To Counter ISIS

My thesis remains that the “U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS”, but neither my proposal nor the current U.S. plan being put forth, “Airstrikes and Allies” (or maybe “Mitigate and Pray” might be more appropriate), can achieve its goals without addressing seven obvious challenges present in Iraq and Syria (See Figure 1). 

  1. Syrian Civil War – Two years of Syrian civil conflict has created a gapping wound in the Middle East exploiting many religious, regional and international friction points.  A wound left untreated turns into an infection, an infection today known as ISIS.  Fearful of blowback after Qaddafi’s collapse in Libya and mired in the 2012 reelection campaign, the Obama administration accompanied by the West has avoided the Syrian conflict for years allowing ISIS to fester and grow amongst the chaos. The U.S. will be unlikely to defeat ISIS in a meaningful way without developing a strategy for resolving the Syrian conflict.
  2. Turkish Border – Foreign fighters and resources pour into Syria and ultimately ISIS through Turkey.  A strategy of containment and annihilation will not work when there is a gapping hole in the perimeter.  Recent news suggests that the Turks may be deploying up to 50,000 police to seal the border.  But how effective will this be when Turks compromise a large base of support for ISIS and a steady supply of foreign fighters?  
  3. The Double-Edged Sword of Saudi Arabia – Saudi Arabia quickly signed up as a partner in the U.S. coalition to counter ISIS – a logical and smart move for the Saudis who may be most threatened by hundreds of their citizens helping power ISIS. Saudi Arabia was one of the first to arrest ISIS operatives in their country back in May and is a natural terrorist target for the group. Of course, partnering up with Saudi Arabia affirms al Qaeda’s old narrative for attacking the U.S. – the “Far Enemy (US)” is propping up “Near Enemy (Saudi)” apostates. The current U.S. plan includes sending military trainers to Saudi Arabia , another justification used by Bin Laden for attacking the U.S. dating back to the 1990s.  More importantly, the U.S. plan re-opens the 13-year debate about the tradeoffs encountered with counterterrorism partners. How can the U.S. promote democracy to counter a terror group that beheads people and observes Shari’a law, while partnering with a government that just beheaded dozens of people “according to Shari’a” for offenses that include drug trafficking and sorcery?
  4. Arab Partner Nations – Defeating ISIS will not come without a wide base of support from Arab partners.  However, most Arab countries, to include what might be the United States’ most important ally Jordan, seem reluctant to join forcefully into the coalition for two reasons.  First, these countries have disenfranchised communities that sympathize and even support ISIS with fighters and money.  By joining the U.S. coalition, they are putting themselves at risk domestically.  Second, ISIS’s campaign to date has largely focused on killing Shi’a and countering the Assad regime.  Thus ISIS has become a convenient proxy army for Sunni nations wanting to meet what they see as Iranian (Shi’a) expansion in the region. 
  5. Iran is a bigger adversary to the U.S. than ISIS – By engaging ISIS, the U.S. is simultaneously 1) acting as a proxy air force for Iran whose IRGC has become a line of defense for the Shi’a dominated Iraqi government and 2) becoming the savior for Iran’s regional ally; the Assad regime in Syria.  By destroying ISIS without addressing the Syrian Civil War, the U.S. is rewarding its adversary Iran who bloodied American noses the past decade in Iraq. 
  6. Sunni partners in Iraq – The U.S. must create some lasting stability in the Western and Northern Sunni areas of Iraq if it wants to permanently root out ISIS.  ISIS gains correlate with Sunni disenfranchisement in the so-called democratic system left by the U.S.  The U.S. has noted the need for a more inclusive and representative Iraqi government, but the plan to counter ISIS must go further and regain the buy-in of Sunni leaders in Iraq.
  7. Shi’a Dominated Iraqi Government – The Iraqi government looks to Iran for direction and the U.S. for support, while undermining the country’s new democracy by reinforcing ethnic divisions. Meanwhile, Shi’a divisions of the Iraqi army, despite being numerically superior, refused to fight for Sunni areas of Iraq instead turning tail and retreating only to be executed in mass by ISIS.  The U.S. must address the challenges of the past decade and explore new possibilities for how to stabilize Iraq in terms of both governance and security.

Two Fronts For Defeating ISIS: On-The-Ground and Online

Along with these seven challenges, the U.S. media has made ISIS’s success difficult to understand.  Defeating ISIS requires the U.S. to meet and defeat ISIS both “On-The-Ground” and “Online.”  These two fronts of ISIS aggression though are symbiotic. ISIS’s success building an Islamic state and conducting widespread violence on the ground in Syria and Iraq has empowered their well planned and technically sound media strategy on the Internet.  As seen in Figure 2, ISIS’s increased success leads to greater online support.  Greater online support equals more recruits and more resources for ISIS from their international base of support.  Thus, the U.S. can’t really defeat ISIS online, without degrading ISIS on the ground.  Fortunately, foreign fighter recruits are a fickle bunch. In general, when a terror group begins to fail, recruits tend to decrease and donors start to dry up.  Everyone likes a winner, even terror group supporters. 

ISIS’s two fronts also speak to U.S. interests with regards to defeating ISIS and should shape the amount of effort the U.S. puts into its counterterrorism actions.  ISIS’s on-the-ground success threatens the security of the Middle East and American allies in the region.  ISIS’s online success threatens the U.S. homeland and U.S. personnel abroad.  The U.S. strategy against ISIS will ultimately have two campaigns and countering ISIS online will depend on U.S. success defeating ISIS on-the-ground. 

My next several posts will be a series called “Thoughts On Countering ISIS.” The first in this series actually came out last week – the “Let Them Rot” strategy — which I still contend is the more appropriate approach for defeating ISIS, although it appears the U.S. lacks the patience to execute it.  In the upcoming posts, I’ll try to provide some perspective on how the U.S. can fight the two campaigns against ISIS’s two fronts while addressing the seven challenges I noted above.   

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China and the Islamic State

The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria might seem far removed from China.  But the spread of its sort of Islamic militancy knows few boundaries.  On Monday, Indonesian authorities arrested seven men who had sought to meet Indonesia’s most-wanted Islamic terrorist.  Four of them, travelling on forged Turkish passports, turned out to be Chinese Uighurs.  Jakarta is now investigating whether the men are linked to the Islamic State.  That follows comments made this summer by the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, that a number of Chinese fill his ranks, and images that surfaced two weeks ago of a Chinese national who was captured while fighting for the Islamic State.

To be sure, Beijing has long been concerned about Islamic militants, particularly those in its far western province of Xinjiang.  Over the last two decades, there have been periodic episodes of violence by the province’s Muslim Uighur ethnic group against local Han Chinese (often followed by equally violent reprisals by the latter against the former).  Historically, however, those episodes have been mainly driven by specific grievances rather than jihadist fervor.  Most cases of unrest occurred after some perceived injustice, such as the detention of an imam or other local leader.  But in recent years, Uighur attacks have become more frequent and ranged far beyond the borders of Xinjiang.  Three major attacks occurred so far this year.  In March, knife-wielding assailants attacked a train station in Kunming, in central China, leaving 31 dead and 140 wounded.  Then in May and August, two more attacks occurred in Xinjiang.  Those attacks left another 127 dead and scores of wounded.

For years, Chinese authorities have tried to prevent such unrest with a three-pronged approach: boost the economic development of Xinjiang; encourage Han Chinese to migrate there; and tighten security across the province.  They largely succeeded on all three counts, but failed to end the unrest.  The biggest beneficiaries of Xinjiang’s economic growth turned out to be the Han Chinese migrants, not the native Uighurs.  That left the Uighurs feeling not only relatively poorer, but also brushed aside by the influx of Han Chinese.  Meanwhile, tighter security meant that Chinese police and security forces had been set on a hair trigger to react to any suspicion of Uighur unrest.  That led to routine security sweeps which have alienated even more Uighurs.

But whatever the internal situation, Beijing has always been quick to accuse exile Uighur groups for fomenting or supporting acts of terror within Xinjiang, particularly the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM).  While that may be true in some cases, most exile Uighur organizations were in no position to foment or support much of anything in Xinjiang.  Indeed, the activities of the ETIM have likely been exaggerated by not only Chinese authorities, but also the ETIM to aggrandize itself.  The well-funded Islamic State would be a far bigger danger should it ever reach China’s door.

But even before the Islamic State’s rise, China had begun to seek ways to keep militant Islam as far away as possible.  That was one of the key reasons behind why it, Russia, and four Central Asian countries created the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in 2001.  Today, China sees its support for the SCO as a bulwark against the advance of militant Islam towards its borders and the Islamic State should it try to establish itself in Central Asia.  Last Friday, Chinese President Xi Jinping attended this year’s SCO conference in Tajikistan.  There, he urged SCO’s other leaders to do their utmost to prevent Islamic extremism.  He also elevated China’s ties with Tajikistan to that of a “strategic partner” and promoted China’s “New Silk Road” concept.  Earlier this summer, the SCO held its largest military exercise since the early 2000s.  About 7,000 troops participated in the exercise, with China providing the majority of them.

The advent of the Islamic State in areas where China has commercial interests had already endangered Chinese citizens.  Beijing evacuated over a thousand Chinese workers from Iraq in June, when Islamic State forces marched on Baghdad.  That evacuation followed others from Libya and Syria after conflicts consumed those countries.  While China has been so far unwilling to directly confront Islamic militants, China did agree to deploy a 700-man infantry battalion to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in South Sudan in September.  The battalion will be used to protect oilfields that are operated by China National Petroleum Corporation and threatened by civil strife.

All this may sound like the common concern over the Islamic State might have given China an incentive to work with the West, if only to protect itself and its economic interests in the Middle East.  But that is not quite the case.  Just because they agree on who is a threat does not mean they can agree on what to do about it.  The two sides still hold different visions of how the world should work.  That much was clear in China’s official response to U.S. President Barack Obama’s call for an international coalition to fight the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.  Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson agreed that “The international community should jointly combat terrorism.”  But, she added, China would want to ensure the respect of the “relevant countries’ sovereignty, independence and territorial integrity in the international fight against terrorism.”  So, unless Syrian President Bashar al-Assad—a leader reviled in the West—approves of American-led air strikes against the Islamic State in Syria, China would not support such actions there.  (Russia holds the same position.)

For now, China can afford to walk that fine line.  It can expect that the United States and its allies will do their best to defeat the Islamic State or, at least, prevent its expansion.  But other dangers still lurk.  Already, China is concerned about the ramifications of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Could Afghanistan or Pakistan’s tribal regions produce new Islamic militants who might incite even greater unrest in Xinjiang?  Hence, China continues to bolster its relationships with its Central Asian neighbors, in part, to create a buffer zone between it and whatever dangers lay beyond.  China’s “New Silk Road” fits nicely into that strategy.  Its economic benefits should help to cement the commitment of the elites from Central Asia’s countries as well as enable them to contain Islamic militancy in their countries.  But China should take care that its “New Silk Road” does not benefit those elites too much.  Not doing so could breed resentment against China among the rest of their populations.  Were that to happen, Beijing’s “New Silk Road” might also become a new path for Islamic militants to China.

 

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The U.S. Can’t Destroy ISIS, Only ISIS Can Destroy ISIS – The Unfortunate Merits of the “Let Them Rot” Strategy

During the early 1990s the Algerian government fought one of the nastiest civil wars in recent history against a broad-based Islamist insurgency.  The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) conducted a brutal insurgent campaign employing vicious terrorist tactics on par with today’s modern menace the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (known by the acronyms ISIS, ISIL or IS for Islamic State – you pick the one you like).  GIA attacks were often indiscriminate and violent; involving large civilian massacres – quite ISIS like. While I always reserve extreme caution in endorsing any counterinsurgency or counterterrorism tactic utilized by the Algerian government, there may be one instructive lesson from Algeria’s strategy that we in the West and particularly the U.S. might examine for designing a plan to counter ISIS.

The Algerian government, having already tried extreme brutality and overwhelming force, recognized the need to employ smarter tactics.  Rather than tracking every GIA member to ground and in so doing causing harm to locals and further bolstering GIA’s popular support, the Algerians selectively employed what Luis Martinez, author of The Algerian Civil War 1990-1998, describes as the “Let Them Rot” strategy. The Algerian government, Martinez explains,“sought to avoid human losses for non-strategic zones, but also to lessen the demoralizing effects of the ‘dirty job’ on the troops.” (See pg. 150.) Algerian security services isolated districts with Islamist sympathies leaving the GIA emirs to govern via Islamist law and principles.  Contained by the Algerian security services, GIA emirs employed their extreme practices and quickly alienated the local populace as the district, walled off from the rest of society, crumbled economically.  Over time, the districts and the GIA emirs that ruled them, slowly “rotted” creating conditions favorable for the development of local militias to combat the GIA.  Local businessmen and disillusioned Islamists were re-engaged over time by the Algerian government who offered employment through security positions and opportunities through economic development plans.  In the end, the Algerian government didn’t destroy the GIA in these selected districts, they instead let the GIA defeat itself. 

The last two-week’s of U.S. discussion on ISIS has returned to last decade’s tough talk with calls for “destroying ISIS” and being “stronger” against an ISIS that is wrongly being equated with al Qaeda. ISIS, far more than al Qaeda, seeks the formation of an Islamic state and pursues many enemies of which only one is the U.S. As I discussed last week, the American quest to “destroy” ISIS is misguided.  Western Iraq and Eastern Syria are of lesser strategic value to the U.S. than what is currently transpiring in Ukraine with regards to Russian aggression.  By again plunging head first militarily into Iraq, the U.S. will not only re-confirm the narrative of al Qaeda that we’ve so desperately sought to shake the last ten years, but we will also be providing credibility to ISIS as the next leader of global jihad.  Excessive military engagement will certainly weaken ISIS in the near term, but will likely only guarantee the strengthening of jihadi aggression towards the U.S. in one form or another for the longer term. If the U.S. insists on destroying ISIS, ISIS’s remnants will later become something else, much in the way al Qaeda’s death spiral has spawned ISIS.  But if the U.S. can help ISIS destroy itself, it will be the best chance that jihadi violence can go away in our lifetimes.  If the U.S. truly believes ISIS’s violent ideology to be bankrupt, then why not “Let Them Rot” through a more sophisticated strategy designed to disillusion yet another wave of jihadi foreign fighters to Iraq. 

In conflict, the better force will develop a deliberate strategy around specified objectives and exhibit patience in execution.  (Russia’s recent several-month march into Ukraine might be emblematic of this.) To allow ISIS to defeat itself, the U.S. must show restraint when taunted, not infer defeat from an individual loss (e.g., beheading videos) and instead use its lauded smart power to avoid replaying the same strategic mistakes of the last decade’s regime building efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To execute a “Let Them Rot” strategy against ISIS, the U.S. must answer two important questions. 

1. How does the U.S. effectively isolate ISIS to prevent ISIS from gathering its necessary resources for survival and the inevitable exfiltration of foreign fighters conducting international terrorist attacks?

I assume this weekend’s announcement of a nine member coalition represents the first step in isolating ISIS. But a strategy involving isolation won’t work when there is a giant gapping hole in the perimeter called Syria.  The U.S. and the West have avoided the Syrian conflict for two years, essentially permitting the conditions that spawned ISIS.  I’ll be interested to hear how they collectively decide to “degrade” ISIS without truly addressing Syria’s civil war. 

2. How does the U.S. lead a coalition to re-engage disaffected Iraqi and Syrian communities and their leading defectors that are willing to repel ISIS?

The U.S. gave itself great compliments during the 2007 “Surge” for winning the hearts and minds of Sunni tribesmen in areas today dominated by ISIS. To defeat ISIS, the U.S. and its coalition must be prepared to effectively entice defectors in these regions.  Luckily, a current for rejecting ISIS may have already begun to emerge in Mosul

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Why would the U.S. want to be ISIS’s ‘Far Enemy’?

For Osama Bin Laden, the calculation to attack the U.S. seemed simple. To topple apostate regimes throughout the Middle East and North Africa (the “Near Enemy”) that were preventing puritanical Sharia governance and the development of an Islamic state, al Qaeda needed to instead attack the United States and its Western allies (the “Far Enemy”), exhaust them in far flung battles and eliminate Western support for corrupt dictators (“Near Enemy”) suppressing al Qaeda’s vision.  Bin Laden and al Qaeda’s attacks did drag the U.S. into extended conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq.  However, these conflicts did little to erode U.S. support for what al Qaeda deemed the “Near Enemy”.  Instead, al Qaeda’s attacks on the U.S. created a lethal counterterrorism force that destroyed most of al Qaeda’s senior leadership and isolated surviving al Qaeda senior leaders, like Ayman al-Zawahiri, from local bases of popular support nestled amongst al Qaeda affiliates in Yemen, the Sahel, Somalia and now Syria. 

While the U.S. and al Qaeda toiled away, “Near Enemy” apostate regimes fell one after another succumbing to local uprisings devoid of any jihadist inspiration.  Throughout most of these Arab Spring uprisings, the U.S. sat idly by, not stepping in to be the “Far Enemy” propping up apostate dictators.  Ironically, the Arab Spring’s overthrow of apostate dictators and the resulting set of security vacuums created across North Africa and the Middle East have upended the narratives of both the U.S. and al Qaeda.  For the U.S., the spread of democracy has not created peace and stability throughout the Arab world.  For al Qaeda, attacking the “Far Enemy” did not bring about the fall of apostate regimes.  The U.S. and al Qaeda’s fixation on each other has left both flat-footed and peripheral in today’s most significant terrorism and counterterrorism development: the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS, or ISIL or IS, please pick whichever you like).

ISIS’s rise in Syria and later Iraq comes from both U.S. inaction in Syria and al Qaeda Central’s failed action since Bin Laden’s death.  ISIS’s objectives and direction are inspired more by the group’s first leader Abu Musab al- Zarqawi rather than from al Qaeda under Bin Laden and Zawahiri. ISIS under the leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has pursued an audacious and pragmatic plan to develop an Islamic State in Iraq and Syria taking control of Sunni regions suppressed by the Assad regime to the west and shunned by the Maliki government in the east.  For ISIS, attacking the U.S. may be a long-term objective but their base of support is mobilized by its delivery on objectives that al Qaeda touted but never moved on-–e.g., establishment of an Islamic State, governance by Sharia law, and widespread violence against all enemies of jihadi interpretations of Islam.

In response to ISIS aggression and their beheading of American Jason Foley, the calls for U.S. direct military action have begun to mount with many equating ISIS with al Qaeda. ISIS will remain a problem for years to come, but there is little reason for the U.S. to act so strongly. The very notion of deploying 10,000 to 15,000 U.S. soldiers to flush out ISIS reflects several things:

  • American loss aversion from last decade’s experience in Iraq. For many there is a strong psychological urge to pour more into Iraq so as not to “lose” what was invested in blood and treasure since 2003.  But, the very existence of ISIS in Iraq today only confirms that the U.S. investment of the past decade has been lost; don’t chase a bad investment with more blood and treasure.
  • American misconceptions that it remains central to the stability of the Middle East.  A failed intervention in Iraq, meddling in Libya, absence after the Arab Spring, and avoidance of the Syrian conflict have pushed the U.S. to the periphery.  The U.S. has not been the center of ISIS thinking in their push to Baghdad.
  • A lack of American consensus on its national interests in the Middle East.  With each call for direct military intervention, I’ve seen no clear articulation of what U.S. interests need to be met through the “rolling up” of ISIS.  Yes, ISIS will likely attack the U.S. if given the opportunity, but over aggression towards ISIS will only strengthen their resolve to attack the U.S. rather than lessen it. (Brian Fishman wrote a great piece at War on the Rocks touching on this.)

Broad-based, direct U.S. military action against ISIS will ultimately recreate a narrative that the U.S. has worked vigorously to move past over the last decade-–the “Far Enemy” propping up “Near Enemy” apostate regimes, in this case, two regimes, Assad in Syria and Maliki in Iraq, working in direct opposition to American wishes.  Instead, the U.S. should continue its limited, measured engagement of ISIS for several reasons:

  • ISIS battling against the Iraqi government represents the latest installment of a battle between Sunni and Shia elements in the Middle East. The U.S. should avoid it.
  • By suppressing ISIS, the U.S. is empowering an Iranian government that has spread its tentacles widely throughout the Maliki regime.  Iran had no problem helping the U.S. bleed in Iraq, it’s time for the U.S. to return the favor by letting Maliki’s legacy in Iraq–if unchanged–and Assad in Syria feel the pain for choosing a declared enemy of the U.S., Iran, as its primary ally.
  • The U.S. has been touting the need to use “Smart Power” for years.  There has never been a more appropriate time to apply “Smart Power” against an ISIS adversary that has so few friends.  ISIS is widely hated; build a coalition and use other levers of U.S. national power in combination with military action to bring about ISIS’s demise.
  • ISIS’s biggest enemy is ISIS. When young boys so zealously pursue violence in the name of an ideology not condoned by the local population, they are far more likely to defeat themselves rather than be defeated by an outside force.  Rather than providing ISIS credibility by over committing militarily, give ISIS some time to hang themselves. 
  • ISIS foreign fighters, I believe, are more likely to pursue external, terrorist attacks outside Iraq on Saudi Arabia, Turkey and to some extent Western Europe.  Direct U.S. military engagement will only turn those interested in attacking places like Saudi Arabia, the number one exporter of foreign fighters and home to many of jihad’s top financiers, toward America’s shores.  Why not let countries like Saudi Arabia suffer some of the blowback for what they helped create?
  • ISIS has been smart thus far in challenging the U.S. more with rhetoric than action.  If the U.S. is limited in its approach, maybe Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will get the message, “you mess with the U.S. and you’ll go the way of Bin Laden.”  If ISIS’s primary goal is an Islamic State, they’ll be antagonistic but well short of delivering another 9/11-scale attack.

Overall, I like the U.S. approach thus far: protecting the Kurds, assisting in re-taking control of key locations like the Mosul Dam, etc.  Yes, I’m quite certain that there will be ISIS members or ISIS supporters who kill Americans. But there are many other groups, to include al Qaeda’s “Old Guard,” that will be pursuing terrorist attacks against the U.S. moving forward.  In conclusion, don’t give ISIS its “Far Enemy.”

Enough for now, in my next couple of posts I’ll write about what might be some instructive strategies for countering ISIS moving forward. 

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