HAT TIP: SAM
Identifying the Threat: What Senior Officials Still Don’t Understand
“Two European foreign fighters were killed on the same day in recent U.S. airstrikes, a Pentagon spokesman announced Thursday.” Thus begins yet another article addressing the killing of foreign fighters in Iraq or Syria. Published on 7 April, 2016, it continues stating, “Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the coalition against ISIS, identified the two as Abu al-Zubair al-Bosni and Khaled Othman Al Timawi. Al-Bosni was a Swedish national of Bosnian decent who was killed in Bajar, Iraq, and Al Timawi was a Swedish-born foreign fighter, described by Warren as ISIS’s deputy emir of the Anwar al Awlaki brigade.”
In order to fix any problem, a fundamental rule of management is that you have to first isolate and identify it. Using root cause analysis insures you are addressing the actual basis of the problem and not just the symptoms. Terrorism, be it suicide bombings, beheadings, destruction of antiquities, or attempts to acquire and hold territory, is a symptom, not the cause. Yet, we continually focus on fighting these obvious abominations, and fail to correctly identify the real basis of the problem. Following the egregious attacks of 9/11 the U.S. declared war on terror even though many experts realized that terrorism was a means to an end, not an object that could be defeated.
The situation has not gotten much better. Since the inception of al Qaeda, most Defense and Intelligence Community officials have attempted to objectify both al Qaeda and ISIS/ISIL using geographic parameters. As in the referenced article, the location at happenstance of birth often is used as a defining factor for identity. That is an error, which, until rectified will prevent more serious efforts in substantially diminishing or eliminating that threat. Simply put, Islamic fundamentalist terrorism is a concept not a place or a thing; a notion I addressed about a year ago. The conflict’s name changed several times but our lack of a coherent and viable objective remains problematic.
As if to emphasis the non-territorial aspect of the issue, Admiral Mike Rogers, commander of the latest combatant command, U.S. Cyber Command, stated “that ISIS could start to view cyber as a weapon system” to attack critical infrastructure in the U.S. In fact, those associated with information warfare often struggle when attempting to finger the geographical location of an attacker. It is even more complicated when trying to formally associate any specific hacker with their government. On occasions the linkage can be made, but often not.
All of the responses to Islamic terrorism appear to be tactical rather than strategic in nature, aka whack-a-mole. While these seem like logical steps when you don’t know what to do, those efforts fail consistently. After more than a year of constant bombing, while there have been some territorial losses for ISIS in Syria and Iraq, their strength remains about constant and they have made territorial gains in other areas, especially North Africa. The leadership decapitation tactics against them have not worked. Week after week there are announcements pertaining to the demise of one ISIS or al Qaeda leader after another. In reality, these targeting killings do little more than provide career opportunities for those ascending through the ranks behind them.
The reality is that ISIS could have been eliminated in Iraq and Syria months ago, and it would not have required ever-increasing numbers of American forces. The solution required realignment of coalition forces. Instead, Turkey is now engaging most our effective anti-ISIS allies, the Kurds, who in turn have allowed retaliation with attacks in Istanbul. Iran has fought ISIS; but with Russia, supports the Assad regime in Syria. Saudi Arabia battles Yemeni Houthi rebels who are supported by Iran. There, however, the bombing missions have raise serious issues about collateral damage and some observers called them possible war crimes. American interests come into play as U.S. Central Command supported the Saudi actions by indicating that the laws of war are being observed. Meanwhile the media focuses on the American origin of the bombs and aircraft attacking Yemen.
All of these actions have helped facilitate ISIS, and other related terrorist groups, recruitment efforts. For ISIS members who are ideologically drive, death is anticipated, a desired outcome, and not to be avoided. Seemingly forgotten are the tenants articulated in the prescient article in The Atlantic by Graeme Wood titled What ISIS Really Wants. Specifically he noted that ISIS wanted to hold territory (a vulnerability) yet anticipates decimation and near extinction in order to precipitate Armageddon, the final days.
Competing social media programs have played interesting roles in the geography-free Netherlands of cyberspace. While techniques morph over time, media-savvy ISIS members adroitly entice a constant stream of vulnerable and willing recruits. Recently coalition elements have begun to engage in competitive messaging in an attempt to assuage would-be volunteers from venturing forth. There is debate about the attraction of ISIS. Some analysts hold radicle Islamic ideology plays a central role. Others suggest that enticement is more like the recruiting methods of gangs. That is they appeal as a chance for valor, belonging, and an opportunity to do something of meaningful. While you can argue about the apparently misguided virtues of the end-states proffered by ISIS, these values are potent in the minds of restless or estranged youth.
Less clear is the acceptance of these values by the highly educated people who have joined the radical Islamic cause and committed horrific acts. Consider the case of Tareq Kemleh, an Australian medical doctor, who made a video attempting to recruit other Western doctors to join ISIS. Not an isolated case, Bilal Abdullah, a British doctor, attempted a suicide attack at Glasgow International Airport. And then there is Major Nidal Hassan, M.D., who killed 13 soldiers and wounded more than 30 others in an attack at Ft Hood, Texas. Clearly, the attraction is more than to just the alienated, or adventure-seeking youth. However, lacking an overall strategy, the coalition resorts to tactical counter-recruitment techniques.
Similarly, ISIS logistics and finance have targeted by coalition forces. It is hard to determine just how effective these efforts have been. What is known is that ISIS continues to function and wage attacks suggesting that they do have adequate resources to carry the fight forward. The continued bombing campaign has had a deleterious effect on U.S. Air Force readiness. To offset stress on the B-1 fleet, recently added to the effort is the venerable B-52 (sometimes known unkindly as the BUFF). While the B-52 can carry a lot of ordnance, even with new sensor systems, precision is not its strong suit. There has got to be more done to countering logistics and finance than simply attacking the oil under ISIS control and intercepting international banking transactions.
What is needed is a new, comprehensive strategy that acknowledges the realities of the global totality of the situation. First, we must recognize that the threat is a concept not an object. There are deep underlying issues that cannot be bombed or killed out of existence. While ISIS, with its horrific behavior, grabs most of the current headlines, there are a host of philosophically aligned organizations that act similarly. Al Qaeda, Boko Harem, al Shabaab, are a few of the better known ones. However, we can be sure that even if those elements are annihilated, without addressing the root causes, new groups will emerge and take their place.
Second, concepts transcend all borders, and thus there are no foreign fighters. Except for legal purposes we should stop addressing combatants based on their geographic location at birth.
Third, to counter a concept a more attractive alternative is required. Given the history of American intervention in the developing world, it would be nearly impossible for a U.S. led conceptual effort to succeed. Invading Iraq to establish a shining example of democracy; a notion espoused by some neocons, was simply specious and did an inestimable amount of damage to our international credibility.
Since Islamic fundamentalism is an integral part of the problem, it is essential that more moderate Muslim leaders of the world develop the alternative solution. The strategy must be global, encompassing more than the Middle East. The alternative concept must be inclusive of competing beliefs and values, yet demonstrate abhorrence for violent behavior to accomplish political means (terrorism will not be tolerated or condoned).
It will be extremely difficult to accomplish. Confounding factors include the long-existing Sunni-Shia conflagrations and counterfactual attitudes exacerbated by information technology. Unfortunately we have entered an information age in which facts are irrelevant to large segments of societies. Even well educated people often abandon facts and reason to advance their emotionally-driven positions.
There will be geographic realignments as the antiquated Eurocentric artificial subdivisions of areas continue to dissolve. As with prior decolonization, devolution is likely to be a painful process, albeit a necessary one. Success in countering terrorist’s behavior will only come when the vast majority of the world’s population believes that they have a reasonable and equitable chance at personal advancement. We are a long way from that at the moment, and possibly regressing rather than making improvements.
Terroristic behavior will not stop in the near future. How, we need to reset the stage and move to a strategic approach to identifying and resolving the problems. Whack-a-mole is not working.