Disclaimer: Matt McDaniel, the author of this piece is a candidate for the First District City Council Seat in Baltimore City. While this article may not touch or concern Mr. McDaniel’s race, in the interest of disclosure, this article is presented solely for discussion purposes and not for the endorsement of any policy or candidate. Mr. McDaniel’s campaign website can be found here.
Arguably for the first time since the 7/7/2005 London bombings, the irrational an indiscriminate evil of Islamic terrorism has shaken a Western nation to its core. While I in no way wish to minimize or diminish the mass murder and terrorism of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, that act of brutality was specifically targeted to convey the message that freedom of the press and freedom of speech were inconsistent with a barbarian worldview. While such an inference can also be drawn from Friday’s attacks, their clear goal was not to frighten people to silence, but rather to perpetrate a mass casualty event.
The oft-cited mantra of the intelligence community when discussing the imminence of a terrorist action is: “it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when.” As we are all aware, counterintelligence and counterterrorism forces must be 100% effective while the terrorists only need to be “successful” once.
In this post, I’d like to dive a bit deeper into some of the more disturbing elements surrounding Friday’s attack and then look ahead to what steps can and should be taken now from both a domestic and foreign policy standpoint in order to address the threats around the world.
Without going back to the sixth century and the rise of Islam and the First Caliphate, it’s important to understand that Islam remains an “unreformed” religious system. That is to say that both Christianity and Judaism went through periods of adaptation, change, and dialogue over the course of their development as world religions. While “fundamentalist” or “radical” Islam has existed in some form, arguably, since Caliph Ali, a confluence of 20th and 21st century factors has led to a distilled, political, worldview that is the common scourge of countries across the globe.
At the most basic level, the “Salafi” movement, that is, the theory of political Islam through jihad, can be understood as arising as a purist school of Sunni thought in the mid-to-late 1980s. Certainly, the usage of the term “Salafi,” literally “ancestors,” dates back to the eighth century and the debates among Islamic scholarship as to the appropriate weight to give to previous thoughts surrounding both the Quran and Hadith. Simply put, the “Salafist” notion is “fundamentalist” at its core. That is, the closest advisers and friends of the Prophet are the most authoritative voices concerning the interpretation of the Prophet. Thus, the “purist” notions asserted by the “Salafist school” would discount subsequent scholarship in light of any conflicts with earlier ways of thinking.
This manner of thinking, before we even jump from Salafism to Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, is clearly at odds with a notion of the growth and development of Islamic spirituality beyond its initial foundation. The obvious Sunni-Shiite divide within contemporary Islam dates back to the generation following the death of the Prophet. While it is easy to quickly and cleanly attribute problems in Islamic states today to this divide, even within each “branch,” there are sects with individualized beliefs.
The 18th century rise of Wahhabism (a derogatory but necessary distinction among Salafist thought) across the Arabian peninsula played a large role in the next century’s rise of the Saudi state. The proto-Kingdom of present-day Saudi Arabia arranged for a power sharing relationship between the “secular” state and the religious-clerical establishment. The Hanbali school of jurisprudence became the accepted form of “Islamic law” in the territory. This is the reality that has perpetuated to this day.
If there’s a “start date” for the “modern” jihadi Salafist movement, it is the mid-1980s and the Maktab al-Khidam, the forerunner of al-Qaeda financing the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets or the Algerian Armed Islamic Group present in the Algerian Civil War (1992-1998). This movement towards jihad generally grew with the interaction of a foreign dominant culture and purist Islamic traditions (the atheistic Soviet Union and the French presence in Algeria).
The growth an funding of jihadi organizations grew through the 1990s. In particular, the United States had a keen focus on Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda. The modus operandi of al-Qaeda, as the United States witnessed so graphically in the September 11 terrorist attacks, is a “large scale and symbolic attack” on institutions. Using 9/11 as an example, al-Qaeda chose its targets based on both the human toll as well as the philosophical impact of attacking the nation’s financial capitol as well as its military structure.
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States and the international community have taken steps to ramp up its attacks on al-Qaeda. Certainly, the ongoing conflict in Afghanistan as well as the unrestricted drone warfare undertaken by the United States has been aimed at reducing the operational capacity of al-Qaeda and its affiliated entities.
A group called Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, became one of the more prominent forces in Iraq following the Coalition invasion to depose Saddam Hussein. This group would later become “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and then, the “Islamic State of Iraq.” The principal goal, from the earliest days of AQI/ISI was the overthrow of Shiite and American influences in Iraq. The path to “victory” for the group was to establish a Caliphate that would draw Sunnis together under one banner to expel infidels.
In March of 2011, protests erupted across Syria and AQI formed an affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, or the “Al Nusra Front” tasked with the overthrow of the Assad regime. It’s important to remember here that Assad, a generally secular Islamic figure (akin to a Shiite Saddam Hussein), was nonetheless an ally of he Shiite regime in Iran. Clearly, a win for AQI would be another purist Sunni state in Damascus. During this time, AQI underwent another name change to the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” (that is, to nominally expand its borders to include Syria). This is the current nomenclature adopted by the United States Government despite the group’s later pronouncement that it was dropping the territorial aspect to its name to become simply the “Islamic State.”
The Islamic State is both functionally independent, and opposed to, al-Qaeda. This rivalry appears to stem from cross-recruitment and targeting the same pools of potential soldiers. The modus operandi of attacks perpetrated by the Islamic State are also distinct from those of al-Qaeda. As we have seen, the Islamic State’s development took place during a time of open warfare. The leaders of the Islamic State, rather than aim for the monumental, symbolic attacks like 9/11 or the 7/7 bombings, rather are keen on the psychological aspects of terrorism. Urban warfare, low-budget, low-manpower, mass-casualty events are a signature of the group. Typically, the group looks for soft targets and ones that are likely to generate a feeling of horror. Likewise, the Islamic State has a far more advanced public outreach arm than al-Qaeda and intends to influence the narrative surrounding attacks and events.
The Syrian Civil War has been raging now for five years and shows no signs of ending. The United States is committed to a strategy of arming “moderate” rebels while the Russian Federation has declared that it will back the Assad regime in Damascus. Thus, the situation in Syria effectively mirrors the wider problem in the Middle East and North Africa: the United States backing Sunni regimes, Russia and Iran backing Shiites, and the Islamic State/Daesh (the acronym in anglicized Arabic) providing a chaotic randomness to the struggle. (Certainly this is a vast over-simplification given the Yemeni conflict and the cooperation between the United States and Iran related to the fight against Daesh in Iraq, but, for the purposes of streamlining the situation, the US is “Team Sunni” and Russia is “Team Shiite.”)
To complicate matters, the majority of Russia’s ethnic Muslim population in the Caucasus and throughout the nation are Sunni. Russia’s involvement defending Assad’s Syria, long a foothold for Russian power in the Mediterranean, with the backing of Shiite Iran clearly does not play well with Russia’s Muslim population. Let’s also be aware that Russia has been dealing with radical Islamic terrorism for decades (focusing here on Salafist jihadis not going back to the Tsars). Remember that the Boston Bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, both hailed from Kyrgyzstan and were ethnic Chechens.
With regard to Chechnya, it’s important to remember that Vladimir V. Putin, the President of Russia’s first true test against Islamist rebels as President of Russia came with the 2002 Nord-Ost siege where Russian special forces retook a concert hall that was overrun by Chechen terrorists. Putin deployed massive force in retaking the theater. In the end, nearly 200 Russians died. However, the total number of hostages was over 800.
Ostensibly as a result or consequence of the war raging in Syria, hundreds of thousands of displaced persons are making their way from the Middle East towards Western Europe. This migratory pattern began in earnest in 2013 and has increased exponentially over the course of the past two years. The paths taken by the refugees generally follow one of three routes. The first is through Turkey and into the Balkans. This route has been the most publicized in the last several months because of the overwhelming numbers of persons coming into Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia. Unlike France, Germany and Great Britain that have complex and developed social welfare networks, the Balkan states are woefully under-prepared to deal with the influx. Consequently, the governments of these areas have been forcing migrants into Hungary or on into Western Europe. This, in turn has caused nations like Hungary to close border crossings with Balkan nations.
The second path followed by refugees has been to cut through North Africa and attempt to sail from Libya or Tunisia towards Italy. This crisis first erupted onto the world scene when Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa off the coasts of Malta and Sicily where migrants often faced extreme hardships and death crossing the Mediterranean in makeshift vessels. From Lampedusa, again, migrants were pushed north by Italian officials. While the Italian economy is stronger than its neighbors’ across the Adriatic, there is no interested in the Italian state of resettling displaced persons.
The third principal path of entry for migrants has been to come through either Turkey or Cyprus and then go up through Greece to Serbia or across the Adriatic to Italy.
The sheer volume of migrating people has completely overwhelmed the immigration and customs services in the Balkans, Greece, and Italy.
II. Current State of Affairs
In the past weeks, two major incidents have taken place that paint a stark picture of the potential road ahead. In the morning of October 31, Metrojet Flight 9268 crashed in the northern part of Sinai in Egypt. While the cause of the crash was not immediately known, Russian, Egyptian and other officials immediately had cause to believe that the plane was either shot down or that a bomb was detonated on board. This fear was confirmed when an Islamic State affiliate took credit for the incident
With 224 fatalities, this disaster was the worst ever suffered in the history of Russian aviation. 219 of the dead were Russians. While there has been international shock and outrage over the event, because there has been no definitive statement that terrorists definitely perpetrated the act, the story did not generate the ongoing attention of the world media. However, given its immense impact on Russia, the later outpouring of the world’s support towards Paris has created an awkward situation for some Russians looking to show solidarity with the French.
On November 13, seven terrorists in three groups carried out a series of coordinated attacks across Paris. Supported by a dozen or more affiliates in France and Belgium, the group procured weapons and bombs and set off on a rampage that would leave approximately 129 people dead and another nearly 400 wounded. Obviously, the investigation is ongoing. The targets chosen were all “soft” targets (that is, targets without protection or military/administrative significance). Following the attacks, French President Francois Hollande ordered that the borders of France be closed (with an amendment later to allow significantly curtailed passage) and that France would be enacting emergency measures to hunt down terrorists.
The investigation so far has netted numerous arrests in and around Paris and stretching north to Belgium. It should be noted that this year’s Charlie Hebdo attack (where Islamic gunmen killed cartoonists who they claim had insulted Muhammad as well as several other police and civilians) was also seemingly planned from outside of France in Belgium and the Middle East.
While the coming days and months will unravel much of the planning that went into the attack on November 13, what remains painfully clear is that the social welfare state model adopted by France, Belgium, England, and Germany allowed for terrorists to enter the country and plan significant attacks.
The frightening reality of the Paris attacks isn’t so much that an attack took place. Despite the tragedy of an attack, the West, as well as Russia, have been targeted for reprisal for their ongoing operations in the Middle East. While counterintelligence and counterterrorism forces have been doing an excellent job at preventing large-scale attacks, it is an unfortunate, but predictable, reality that “lone wolf” style attacks would take place. By this, we can imagine that one person gets the notion in his head to kill innocent people, buys or is given a suicide vest or an AK47 and runs into a McDonalds at lunch time. While we can try to stop him from getting the equipment, it is extremely difficult to prevent a lone wolf attack from taking place. While it provides no comfort to the grieving, lone wolf attacks are typically limited in scope, duration, and casualties.
The concern with the Paris attacks is that they were not “lone wolf” in nature. Rather, there was a coordinated and executed plan that was followed by groups working in concert. This is a significant tactical step forward for the enemy and points to a growing sophistication in planning. Certainly, this is the goal of the Islamic State. However, pulling off this kind of attack is far easier in Syria or Iraq where the manpower and resources are readily available. Perpetrating a coordinated attack of seven terrorists requires numerous accomplices and dozens of informants in a network that likely spiderwebs across Europe. The other distressing take-away from the attack is that counterintelligence and counterterrorism forces were not able to disrupt communication between the terrorists or break up the attack. While this may just be, in a dark sense, “the one that slipped through the cracks,” the situation points to an overwhelmed intelligence community in Western Europe. The two possibilities are that, first, the intelligence community is inundated with reports that one would inevitably slip through, or, second, that the volume of reports caused a degree of desensitization as to the urgency of the report.
Either way, whether the community just lost track of this potential threat or failed to take it seriously, we should prefer either to a situation where the intelligence community was completely blindsided by the attack. If this were the case, that would point to a whole new layer of sophistication being drawn on by the Islamic State. It would also mean that, in the event the intelligence community does not immediately break whatever system is being used by the terrorists, that the terrorists will have an open line of communication to plot and plan attacks with impunity.
The current state of affairs is uncertain. On one hand, this is the time for arrests and investigation. On the other, it would be the smart bet to assume that time is of the essence and that another attack is in its final planning stages. As we have seen from the behavior of the Islamic State in its actions in the Middle East, we should expect to see attempts at repeats and escalations of the Paris attacks at soft targets around the world. What we do know is that at least one, but likely more, of the terrorists from Friday’s attack as well as some of the operators, were in groups of persons who left Syria mere weeks ago.
III. What the Terrorists Want
The question running through the media is “what do the terrorists want?” This is either a very easy question to answer or one that is impossibly complex. On the “easy answer” we can quickly say that they desire a Caliphate that stretches across the world. The rule of law in this Islamic Empire would be based on their particularist, fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
That easy answer aside, the strategic and complicated answer is actually more concerning. Let’s be abundantly clear: no, the Islamic State will not have a worldwide Caliphate. Yes, terrorism is an effective means of striking fear into the hearts of civilian populations, but the reality is that terrorism is the recourse of rebels and persons without the actual ability to conquer and control. As we have seen, the Islamic State, geographically, can only hold the cities that it takes in a lightning rush and fortifies. The rest of the territory is either tribal desert or patrolled roadways. While the Islamic State’s supporters do number in the tens-of-thousands, they are a loose conglomeration of affiliated local militias with a core group of battle-hardened fighters and organizational leaders. Outside of geographical proximity, there should be no fear of a horde of Islamic State fighters establishing any form of workable state. This is not to say that Daesh cannot wield its “government through terror” in cities, but any degree of expansion is checked by the actual size of the army and the sophistication of its organizational structure.
So, if we are not to be afraid of the Islamic State flag flying over New York and Washington, DC, what is the plan being put forward by the Islamic State that should concern us?
Let’s start from the presumption that not all terrorists are stupid. For every elementary-school educated terrorist who detonates a suicide vest, there is usually one very-much-still-alive terrorist who put him up to it. Certainly their warped worldview and skewed interpretation of Islam makes them well-outside the mainstream of civilized society. However, if we come from the perspective that these radicals may also be strategic in their manipulation of world events, we should be far more concerned about their potential “successes.”
The confluence of the migrant crisis in Western Europe with a surge in potential terrorism creates an immediate powder keg in both France and Germany (and to a lesser extent, Great Britain). The refugees and migrants flowing in to both of those nations are primarily from Syria and North Africa and are overwhelmingly Muslim. Let’s also be clear, despite the rhetoric, the persons entering Western Europe are almost exclusively doing so to escape the tragedies in Syria. However, it is clear that sprinkled (more or less heavily depending on who you listen to) among these people are would-be terrorists.
IV. How the Terrorists Win
As we looked at, above, it is extremely difficult for the Islamic State to expand its Caliphate without huge influxes of manpower and money. While the organization is, arguably, the best financed terrorist network of all time, its economy is extremely fragile and relies on the black market sale of both oil and human resources. With the Syrian Civil War dragging on, and now that Russia has begun to attack Islamic State targets, the Islamic State’s growth has stagnated. After suffering a strong of defeats at the hands of the Iraqi Security Forces (backed by both the United States and Iran), Washington’s rhetoric of “containment” is not totally misplaced.
However, unlike a nation fighting a war against another nation, the politics of containment cannot apply to a “border-less” foe. It appears that some in Washington were lulled into the sense of USA v. IS as a battle between states. To the contrary, since the Islamic State is more than pleased to use non-state actors to perpetrate mass murder on civilian populations behind national boundaries, there can be no reasonable sense of containment.
A victory for the Islamic State in the near term comes from the recruitment of local individuals who will act as an “advance” insurgent army. This situation is fairly predictable. The Islamic State is hoping for a crackdown on local Muslim populations in Western Europe as well as reprisals by civilians against refugees. Again, we need to remember that the Islamic State has proved adept at being able to spin a narrative that is attractive to young, typically under-educated, and poor men. Inevitable images of police and security forces arresting Muslim women and detaining children will be selling features for Daesh’s recruiting.
This reality is unavoidable. In order to protect national interests and civilian populations from future or imminent attacks, state security forces must take steps to investigate, detain, or arrest suspects. Imagining a world where France and the international community shrugs off the mass-murder of over one hundred people denies how humans think. Also, failure to take immediate and decisive steps will be seen both as weakness and perpetuation of the status quo that allowed for a sophisticated terrorist infrastructure to take hold.
A “successful” attack will necessarily bring more recruits to the enemy. Through whatever series of perverse logical fallacies that allows one to become a terrorist, the growth of a terrorist organization’s “portfolio” will make it more alluring.
Realistically, the terrorists will likely win in he short term. A successful attack creates a catch-22 between increased security measures causing an increase in extremism or a failure to crackdown creating an increase in extremism. As we have seen across the globe, nations inevitably opt for the short term security increase with long-term reforms rather than opting for any other alternative (without going too far afield, the French response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre was the closest the world has seen in a while to a non-response from a state that suffered a “successful” terrorist attack. While arrests were made, the ultimate change in France’s security posture was minuscule. This is not to imply that the 11/13 attacks were a predictable consequence of an accomodationist mindset, but rather to show that, whatever the response to a “successful” attack, the odds of preventing future attacks is not guaranteed.).
V. Domestic Policy Objectives to Counter ISIS
The short-term optics of closing borders and denying refugees a place of settlement is disconcerting. However, the reality is that the intake of refugees in Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the Balkans provide little, if any, hindrance to would-be terrorists entering Western Europe.
Already many Governors across the United States have decided to take executive actions to prevent the resettlement of refugees in their states. This decision is, at best, rhetorically pleasing to activists. While no immigration plan is foolproof, the United States’ porous border is not the easy invitation of the open Schengen region in Europe. Certainly there is some potential of a refugee making it through American vetting and being placed in or near an American city. However, unlike his counterpart moving through the path to Western Europe, the United States would be actively placing this individual rather than merely issuing an emergency visa and sending him on his way.
The bigger concern for American security interests would be the fact that Canada is still on course to accept 2.5x the number of refugees as the United States. While we trust that the Canadian vetting will be as comprehensive as the American system, the United States’ border with Canada is enormous and ill-patrolled.
One of the disturbing developments of the refugee crisis is the number of young and apparently healthy men fleeing the fight from the combat zone. While, at some point, one can empathize with the desire to leave and seek a better life elsewhere, when most of the persons perpetrating attacks are young men, it does raise even the most rational person’s skepticism. There may arise the “happy middle-ground” in the refugee crisis wherein women and children are given priority over men. The rationale for this will be twofold: first, when America is fighting to retake Syria, Syrians should also be fighting. Second, it will prevent the demographic group most likely to perpetrate attacks from entering the country.
VI. Foreign Policy Objectives to Counter ISIS
The foreign policy objectives meant to counter the Islamic State are being hotly debated. The current administration policy is one of geographic containment and targeting. While this has yielded the death of important Islamic State targets and has weakened some of the stronghold fortifications around key Islamic State holdings, the reality is that the situation on the ground is desperate. The solutions to this vary between a multinational coalition invading and driving out the Islamic State (a la Afghanistan in 2001) to the current Russian model of preserving the status quo ante.
The most likely outcome for the next year (at least until there is a foreign policy shift in Washington) will be maintenance of the current balanced-imbalance in the region. The United States will not engage in another significant foreign war nor will it take provocative steps to upset Russia. The region has been smashed to pieces, but the current Administration is convinced that the best way to wait out the storm is to play a support and advisory role.
In one sense, the best path forward is one where the United States does not need to be involved in Middle Eastern affairs. In a world where the United States is a major producer of oil and has a achieved a state of near-independence from imported oil, the United States will no longer have to hold all of the competing interests of the Middle East in balance in order to preserve an increasingly fragile economy. Not only will this allow the United States to give Israel a free hand in its dealings, but it also will mean that the United States will no longer have to play favorites regarding regional hegemony.
In the interim between now and an energy-independent America, the question becomes what kind of solutions can the United States offer to Syria? It becomes readily apparent that the United States is missing a critical opportunity to work with Russia in attacking the Islamic State. A treaty that effectively mediates the Syrian Civil War to either the status quo ante or a transitional council will allow some degree of movement towards joint strike operations between the United States and the Russian Federation.
If this solution is unpalatable, the United States must avoid the rhetoric of calling in “our Arab partners” to settle the issue. Let’s again remember that partners that the United States will call into the fight are the predominantly Sunni nations. This will create even more of the proxy war that is already existing in Syria to intensify. Certainly Sunni nations should be doing more to fight against Salafist jihadis in their territories, but, in the end, the thought of a pan-Arabic coalition will only raise the hackles of Tehran and exacerbate a difficult situation.
Of course all of these thoughts would change in the event of a large-scale terrorist attack on American soil. While France may still call a NATO Article 4 consultation (the precursor to the invocation of the mutual defense language of Article 5), the likelihood of an American-led coalition going back into the Middle East for the third time in a decade will not be received well by the American electorate.
In the end, there is no easy path forward. The “it’s a matter of when not a matter of if” mentality still should prevail in our approach to both domestic security and our projection of power abroad. We have already seen the cracks in the Pax Americana. It is essential that we do all we can to keep Americans safe even if it means making potentially unpalatable decisions with regard to refugees and continued actions abroad.