Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The ISIS Threat to U.S.: More Virtual Than Physical

     Despite the “conclusion” of two of America’s longest wars, top administration officials maintain that the U.S. is still at war and engaged in active hostilities.  These efforts, namely in Afghanistan, are aimed at preventing a collapse of the central government or reemergence of an insurgency vis-à-vis Iraq.  Aside from this preventative mission – which has seen the resumption of night raids by U.S. forces and still very much looks like operations of war despite the new moniker Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (U.S. mission) and Operation Resolute Support (NATO mission) – the U.S. has reengaged militarily in Iraq, begun a new incursion in Syria, continued drone strikes in Yemen despite the exit of all U.S. personnel and the internationally recognized government from the poor Arab nation, and carried out a recent operation in Libya

     Fourteen years of war, while having a marginal effect against some groups, has done little to stem the tide against global terrorism due to several factors both outside and within U.S. control.  Global terrorism sees no signs of slowing down and the emergence of the Islamic State (IS) group’s adept online presence to inspire attacks outside its physical reach poses a much more significant threat to the U.S. than IS’s military prowess.  The next generation of the war on terror will likely be much more of a psychological war than the previous 14 years and officials should recognize and adjust current strategic trajectories. 

     Several administration officials have stated in the past that there are no credible threats from IS toward the U.S. homeland.  This is because, unlike other groups in the past such as al-Qaeda, IS is intensely focused on consolidating and maintaining its current territory while also exploiting security vacuums where it can activate sleeper cells in regions where it can exploit and divide populations, such as Saudi Arabia.  The Islamic State is not as capable of achieving such a feat in the U.S.  Additionally, the reforms within the intelligence community since 9/11 have improved U.S. defenses guarding against the types of spectacular attacks groups like al-Qaeda can achieve in the continental U.S. – which is not to say these types of attacks are impossible from succeeding – remember the underwear bomber’s device malfunctioned from wearing it for so long after security personnel failed to detect it prior to his boarding the commercial aircraft. 

     The real threat IS poses, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is its ideology; what some have coined “crowdsourced jihad.”  “Wired Magazine editors Jeff Howe and Mark Robinson coined the term ‘crowdsourcing’ to describe how businesses were using the Internet to outsource work to individuals. This is what ISIS is doing—taking work traditionally performed by ‘employees’ (aka card-carrying members of ISIS) and issuing an open call for individuals outside the organization to carry it out,” wrote Mitchell D. Silber, Executive Managing Director at K2 Intelligence and former Director of Intelligence Analysis for the NYPD.  Silber pointed to the recent attacks that took place on three separate continents carried out by individuals in the name of IS.  “For years, [al-Qaeda] and other terrorist groups have urged their followers to conduct lone wolf attacks. This latest terrorist call to arms isn’t new. What’s new is how this message is transmitted—and retransmitted—through the echo chamber of social media.”

     To that point, FBI director James Comey warned lawmakers on Capitol Hill recently that the government has its work cut out for it with the advent of easy to access social media and IS’s ploy to exploit this universal messaging board.  “The terrorism today is very different.  Al-Qaeda before 9/11 and in the years after 9/11 was focused on the national landmark, multi-prong, sophisticated, attack where they would carefully select operatives, put them in place, train, surveil over many many months or years.  ISIL is totally different,” he said.  “ISIL is reaching out primarily through Twitter to about 21,000 now English-language followers…and their message is two-pronged: come to the so-called caliphate…and if you can’t come, kill somebody where you are...[ISIL] is pushing this through Twitter so it’s no longer the case that someone who’s troubled needs to go find this propaganda and this motivation, it buzzes in their pocket.  So there is a device, almost a devil on their shoulder all day long saying ‘kill, kill, kill, kill.’”  Comey also warned that IS recruiters then point these individuals to mobile secure encrypted messaging boards to evade law enforcement.   

     Foreign Policy magazine provided a similar anecdote of an individual in Saudi Arabia.  “He contacted jihadis online who he hoped could help him join the Islamic State…his Islamic State contacts had something else in mind. ‘He was told to stay home, and carry out something inside the kingdom.’”  The Saudi government has also noticed that this could be the new norm from IS.  “ISIS is now conveying a message saying, ‘We don’t need you to come [to Iraq or Syria]. Stay where you are and carry out jihad in your own country,’” Foreign Policy quoted Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman, Maj. Gen. Mansour Sultan Al Turki.  The U.S. Justice Department has arrested several individuals who either planned to move to Syria or carry out plots within the U.S.  According to the Washington Post, “the FBI has investigations into possible homegrown violent extremists – not all of them linked to the Islamic State – in all 50 states.”  

     The U.S. has struggled to combat IS’s messaging online.  The State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications – established to “coordinate, orient, and inform government-wide foreign communications activities targeted against terrorism and violent extremism, particularly al-Qaida and its affiliates and adherents” – has received a great deal of criticism not only for its failures in its stated message but the controversial tactics it has used.  One being a video titled, “Welcome to ISIS Land” in which the CSCC attempted to use IS’s own propaganda against it to dissuade individuals from emigrating to the region by highlighting brutal images of daily life in the so-called caliphate.  The project was subject to intense criticism.  “I think we’re losing the messaging because we’re not out there on social media in the way that ISIL is,” said former California congresswoman and president and CEO of the Woodrow Wilson Center, Jane Harman.  “How embarrassing is this? I mean in the country that invented the internet and all of these cutting edge firms can’t find a way to get ahead of the messages by a small number of people that are causing many people in all countries including ours to leave educated households and become part of the foreign fighter corps.”   

     The ideological presence and fear IS has instilled was evident both in the two recent events that took place at Naval institutions in the Washington, DC area where police responded aggressively to false alarms of active shooters and the prolific warnings of potential attacks on the Fourth of July.  “While both incidents in Washington, D.C. were false alarms, they highlight an unexamined consequence of a society living with a persistent and growing fear of terrorism,” an intelligence brief from the Soufan Group, a private geopolitical risk assessment company, read.  However, the attack in Chattanooga, TN that saw the death of several service members is a reminder of the homegrown threat, though the investigation into the perpetrator's motive is still pending.    

     Officials are usually careful to warn the public of attacks during the Fourth of July every year despite no credible threats present, as J.M. Berger, terrorism expert and co-author of “ISIS: The State of Terror,” wrote.  “The week leading up to Independence Day was filled with dire warnings about how this year represented the worst ‘threat environment’ since September 11th,” wrote Berger, who also noted that this year the 4th fell during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, a period the Islamic State has used to intensify attacks.      

     “[In] the era of social media, a phenomenon like ISIL, unlike al-Qaeda of the old days, there doesn't have to be and won't necessarily be a command-and-control relationship between somebody who instigates an incident and ISIL as an organization,” Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter stated at a recent press briefing responding to a question asking if “ISIS has actually become more of a threat to the American homeland now, if not kinetically, psychologically, to America than al-Qaeda ever could be” given its use of crowd sourced jihad to borrow Silber’s term.  “They are self-radicalized, self-organized people on social media,” Carter continued regarding potential sympathizers.

     The overall threat environment from global terrorist actors could become worse given that IS has risen to prominence overtaking the global jihad banner from other groups.  These other organizations such as al-Qaeda will continue to compete with IS to out-do them.  While the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, perpetrated by two supposed lone attackers acting on behalf of al-Qaeda, was long a target for al-Qaeda prior to the meteoric rise of IS, these types of attacks by small groups or lone actors will likely be the continued course especially in Europe.  According to a study titled "The Modus Operandi of Jihadi Terrorists in Europe,” “[terrorist] weapons and tactics are becoming more diverse. In the 1990s and early 2000s, jihadis in Europe operated in groups and planned bomb attacks with certain types of explosives. In recent years, more terrorists have worked alone and they used a broader repertoire of weapons...but [] an increasing number resort to single actor terrorism and crude weapons to avoid detection.”   

     There is a military angle to this challenge, however.  The so-called Islamic State has gained, maintained, and held territory in a way al-Qaeda never did – even declaring a caliphate, something al-Qaeda has always aspired to achieve though in a much more careful way according to documents retrieved from bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan.  The Islamic State group’s territorial control provides it with greater legitimacy.  “As an institution within Islamic history, the caliphate is the prestige, the sort of paradigmatic way in which Muslims in the past have organized their societies and looked to leadership ... as a result in sort of an aspirational way today [Muslims] will often seek to [reestablish it],” Christian Sahner, author and Middle Eastern historian stated. The notion of the caliphate, Sahner contended, is shared by many Muslims and has bound them behind its idea. 

     As such, rolling back IS’s territory is critical for de-legitimizing their messaging.  “Beating the Islamic State requires demonstrating that its expansion has reached a natural limit…The Islamic State must be made ordinary — just another failed effort to deliver on its promises,” wrote Aaron David Miller, former State Department official and vice president for new initiatives and a distinguished scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.    

     The U.S. is unlikely to cease kinetic operations against extremist groups abroad.  Technology and social media pose a previously unknown avenue toward coordination and radicalization that military operations cannot combat alone. 

     It is the position of this administration and much of the military’s top brass, many of whom served top roles during Operation Iraqi Freedom, that the focus against IS in the region should be led by local forces. “If U.S. forces were to be used against ISIL…the battle would probably be over quickly. But the underlying problems that cause such extremist groups to flourish would remain, and troops would be needed again later to battle a different set of terrorists,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated.

     Many have grown tired of the notion of ongoing U.S. military operations all over the world with no end in sight aimed at curbing extremism – in essence, perpetual war. Terrorism has continued to grow despite military efforts. Officials will continue to reevaluate tactics but on the surface at least, there seems to be a disconnect between the military element and the true threat landscape.

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