The latest ISIS attacks in Paris this past week have revealed fault lines among academics, policymakers, security experts, and media commentators regarding whether ISIS is truly a threat to U.S national interests, and how best to effectively respond to the group and its activities. The attacks have also laid bare the weaknesses of the CIA, as well as the U.S. intelligence community, writ large, in its fight against ISIS, and the Obama administration’s strategy to contain the Syria-based group.
According to multiple reports, the Paris attacks appear to have been carried out by ISIS external operatives based in France and Belgium. The group has also claimed responsibility for the attacks in a public statement.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—the lead actor in U.S. counterterrorism operations in the form of the Counterterrorism Center (CTC)—has reportedly suffered from weak intelligence on ISIS, according to some of those familiar with CIA operations against the group.
The CIA’s intelligence collection against ISIS is reportedly fueled by a worrying amount of speculation and assumptions, underscored by initial assumptions within the intelligence community that ISIS primarily presented a “lone wolf” threat. In other words, at its worst, the group was thought to be inspiring attacks across the West, but was ultimately assessed to be unlikely involved in directing them.
This false assumption is clearly illustrated in a commentary printed in The Week magazine in July 2015, in which John Mueller wrote that the “ISIS threat is totally overblown.” Part of his rationale was, “the main fear was that foreign militants who had gone to fight with ISIS would be trained and then sent back to do damage in their own countries. However, there has been scarcely any of that.” Until now, that is.
Mueller, like many academics, commentators, and security experts, was, of course, wrong. ISIS is carrying out planned external operations like those seen in Paris this past week, Beirut on November 12, and against a Russian charter jet over the Sinai on October 31. In other words, initial assumptions were false, and ISIS looks as though it is set to pick up where al-Qa’ida left off, targeting the “far enemy” where it lives. It should be noted that al-Qa’ida has been significantly degraded in its ability to carry out these external operations largely due to the relentless decimation of its core leadership over the past 14 years.
Those familiar with CIA operations against ISIS, conversely, fear that there has been a strategic failure to invest in human collection against the group, and instead, the CIA has relied upon ad hoc responses to various crises as they arise. In other words, the CIA is “putting out fires” but failing to degrade ISIS’s central leadership in Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria, in the same manner in which al-Qa’ida core leadership was destroyed in the tribal areas of Pakistan.
To get closer to the root problem, one must examine the Obama administration’s strategy against ISIS, under which the CIA’s operations fall, and ask why it has failed to advocate an attack against ISIS in Mosul, Ramadi, or Raqqa in any meaningful way. Why has the U.S. allowed ISIS to operate its own city-states in these locations? What is the strategy here? Unfortunately, this author does not have the answers to those questions. It seems inexplicable to leave these city-states alone, bases in which ISIS can plan and support attacks abroad. It’s especially inexplicable in the wake of yet more attacks directed against Western, or even Middle Eastern, cities.
To claim that ISIS is “contained,” as President Obama recently did, besides being politically maladroit, is empirically false if you accept as data the attacks on Paris, Beirut, and the Russian charter jet. Yes, ISIS might be contained in its ability to make further progress on the Syrian battlefield, but the group is far from contained in its ability to carry out operations on the international stage. Therein lies the problem with the current strategy.
Another worrying piece of the larger puzzle is the failure of some in the media, the security establishment, and the government, to acknowledge that ISIS even presents a threat at all. These individuals would have you believe that you are scared of bogeymen, or that reacting to ISIS only plays into their hands since they want an all-out war with the West. These same individuals would have you believe that ISIS is just an idea, a movement, a “ghost,” or an illegitimate actor.
These claims fail to acknowledge the ways in which 14 years of Western counterterrorism operations have taught ISIS valuable lessons. A large element of the group is made up of former Baathists, from the intelligence services and the military, such that ISIS has a higher intelligence and counterintelligence awareness than other like-minded groups. ISIS knows how to evade Western intelligence agencies, and how to play “look over here” as it produces slick beheading and homosexual-murder videos while simultaneously planning sophisticated operations out of view of the captivated (and horrified) audience.
To downplay the threat of the group, as various authors from The Daily Caller, The Huffington Post, The Nation, The Week, and other left-leaning outlets have done, is as dangerous as over-hyping them to the point that they appear larger than life, as some on the right have done. There are those in both the right- and left-leaning commentariat who are guilty of promulgating these mirror-image fallacies. Instead, ISIS should be treated with the same strategic focus as al-Qa’ida was, post-9/11, even if not necessarily all of the same tactics are used to combat them.
ISIS presents a physical threat to America and its allies, and it is a destabilizing regional force in the Middle East. It cannot be ignored, as doing so would undermine the U.S.-led world order and make American leadership in the region and the wider world appear feckless. If America and its allies cannot protect themselves against ISIS attacks, and prevent the group from running a pseudo-state in Syria and Iraq, then how potent is our power? Not very.
As was pointed out here on SOFREP, world powers need to come together to solve the Syria problem and crush ISIS there, as a first step. The West, along with Russia, needs to attack the group where it lives—in Iraq and Syria—while also relentlessly fighting its external operations cells in order to stop attacks on the West and the rest of the world. It is time to stop downplaying the ISIS threat and to crush them where they live.
(Featured image: SOFREP, all rights reserved.)