ISIS and the Future of Counter-Terrorism

19 November 2015, 1257 EST

[I’ve been debating whether to post this…it’s a “transcript” of a talk I gave yesterday here at the University of Puget Sound. It’s a bit basic as it was intended for a general audience of, primarily, undergraduate students. I wrote this up for friends who wanted to hear the talk but were unable to attend. It’s a bit disorganized too. So be warned it’s kind of ramble-y and general. Also, I haven’t provided source information or links. If you want any, please ask!]

It’s been a few days since the Paris bombings, and we have some more information about what happened, which has prompted me to reflect on what the attacks—along with those in Ankara, Beirut, and the Sinai—tell us about what ISIS is doing and why, and what these attacks mean for counter-terrorism efforts.

First, it’s important to note that these attacks are occurring in the context of an increase in mass casualty attacks (defined as terrorist attacks causing more than 100 deaths). Between 1978 and 2013, there was an average of 4.6 mass casualty attacks per year. In 2014, there were 26 while to date in 2015 there have been 15. While this is indeed a small n in terms of both number of events and time, it’s interesting to note that there might be a trend among terrorists towards soft target mass casualty attacks.

While we still don’t know for sure the degree to which the ISIS leadership in Syria was involved in any of these attacks, it’s looking increasingly likely that they played a role in at least three of the attacks (the Sinai bombing is the most likely to have been done by some other organization, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula being the leading candidate). But, if we assume that ISIS is responsible for these attacks, it would represent a shift in their tactics and overturn many of the analytic assumptions about the group’s strategy.

The primary difference between al Qaeda and ISIS is not their ultimate goal; rather, they both want the establishment of the caliphate, a transnational political entity that unites the Muslim world under their radical interpretation of Islamic law. Instead, the groups have differed on the sequencing. Al Qaeda insists that the caliphate can’t be brought about until the “far enemy” stops propping up corrupt secular Arab/Muslim regimes in places like Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Egypt, and so on. Thus, their attacks against the U.S. and other countries are designed to undermine their willingness to remain involved with the Middle East. ISIS, on the other hand, has, perhaps as a result of their origins in the collapse of the Iraqi and Syrian states, preferred to focus on conquering and holding territory to create the caliphate in the here and now. Because of that, most analysts have assumed that ISIS would not be particularly interested in attacking the “far enemy” for fear of being invaded and losing their physical infrastructure and territory (as happened to al Qaeda in Afghanistan).

So, why would ISIS then carry out attacks against Russia and France that very well might provoke those states to increase their military operations in Syria? I can imagine several possible reasons, which will non-exclusionary, have greater or lesser likelihoods in my estimation. Least likely is a kind of teleological explanation: ISIS has always sought to attack the west, but has only recently developed the ability and so is now fulfilling its aspirations. But this doesn’t seem to mesh with their goals and behavior in Syria. Next would see the attacks as an outbidding strategy against al Qaeda. The one thing al Qaeda has been able to do that ISIS hadn’t is carry out a sophisticated, large-scale attack in the west. Perhaps the Paris and Sinai attacks are a way to steal al Qaeda’s thunder? Perhaps, but ISIS has already been crushing al Qaeda in recruiting and financing.

Perhaps the goal of the attack was to “spoil” the mass exodus of refugees from Syria? ISIS hates the refugees for two reasons: They undermine the narrative of the caliphate (if your caliphate is so great, why is everyone leaving?) and they are failing in their duties as “real” Muslims to carry out jihad and help build the caliphate. ISIS has released several videos both cajoling refugees to stay and threatening them if they leave. Regardless of whether the Syrian passport was real, its finding was not accidental, but rather predictably led to questions about whether Europe and, more pathetically, the U.S. should continue admitting refugees. I find this a plausible, but not likely a primary reason.

More likely in my eyes are a combination of provocation and deterrence strategies. A provocation strategy is when an attack is intended to produce a response that furthers the interests of the attacks. There are two ways ISIS could seek to provoke a reaction from the west. One is to provoke an invasion of Syria, which could not only bring the “crusader” forces under attack but could help bring about the apocalyptic battle in the Syrian town of Dabiq that is supposed to usher in the end-of-times. The other is to provoke harsh domestic measures against Muslims who live in the west. ISIS refers to these Muslims as “the gray zone” and tries to recruit them with messages that focus on their alienation and inability to be accepted by their secular, non-Muslims neighbors and governments. In the wake of an attack like the one in Paris, governments will, ISIS believes, crack down on Muslims and anti-Islamic sentiments will emerge, both of which will increase the alienation of the gray zone and make them more susceptible to radicalization. I see the latter reason as a powerful motivation behind the attacks, but not the former. Why not?

Because the U.S., France, and most other countries have made it abundantly clear that they will not be deploying significant numbers of ground forces into Syria. ISIS is very smart, media-savvy, and aware of what goes on in the west. They know that President Obama is resistant to a large-scale invasion. So, if the U.S. and the west won’t invade, and if ISIS probably doesn’t want them to invade anyway (as an aside, if the U.S. did decide to go into Syria, it would easily be able to dismantle the “state” apparatus that ISIS has constructed. That doesn’t mean that the U.S. would be able to solve the mess of the Syrian civil war; think about the distinction between destroying the Iraqi state and rebuilding it afterwards.) the attacks would be an attempt to provoke an invasion.

Which brings me to what I see as the most likely and powerful explanation: the attacks were designed to punish foreign states for their role in attacking ISIS and, perhaps, deter them from continuing to do so. All the attacks targeted actors conducting operations against ISIS in Syria: Turkey, Hezbollah, Russia (which was mainly focusing on non-ISIS Syrian rebels but probably would have eventually gotten around to fighting ISIS anyway), and France. Since France, Russia, and the U.S. were already conducting air strikes but would be unlikely to introduce ground forces, at best the attacks could rouse domestic sentiment against the air campaigns, as happened to the U.S. after the “Black Hawk Down” debacle in Somalia. At worst, those states escalate their air campaigns, which, while problematic for ISIS, also create positive narratives of cowardly infidels attacking from the air while brave jihadi martyrs fight in person. Also, air strikes create dead babies, a recurring theme in ISIS propaganda videos.

So, if I’m right about why ISIS has changed its tactics and/or strategies, what does that mean for counter-terror efforts? The question that we need to ask is: Do these attacks mean that our threat assessment of ISIS has changed? The costs of dealing with ISIS are exactly the same as they were before the attacks, what might have changed is the benefits of doing so, which are determined by our threat assessments. The problem is that it’s difficult to do a serious threat assessment in the wake of an attack like that in Paris. Low-probability/high-cost events resonate more powerfully with our minds than do high-probability/low –cost ones (think about why we get more upset and pay more attention to plane crashes than car accidents, even though air travel is significantly safer than driving).

For example, it’s entirely possible that the U.S. and France and Russia have the appropriate amount of counter-terrorism policies in place, but that ISIS just got lucky. Short of being a police state, no state can completely eliminate the possibility of a terrorist attack; rather they try to balance cost of mitigation against likelihood of occurrence and assessment of threat. This is what President Obama is doing—agree with him or not—by insisting the U.S. won’t alter its strategy of containment. To his mind, the threat from ISIS is low, the Paris attacks do not change that threat, and containment is the appropriate and cost-effective way of dealing with that threat.

Finally, in determining how to respond, governments are incentivized to focus on the easiest and most visible kind of responses, regardless of their efficacy. Bruce Schneier calls this “security theater” and the focus on the refugees by American governors and presidential candidates is exactly this kind of response. It’s easy to deal with the Syrian refugees—just don’t let them in—and it a solid political move, given the current climate surrounding immigrants more broadly. Never mind that if ISIS wants to infiltrate someone into the U.S., they’re not going to pick the most rigorously screened and longest process, which is the refugee system. Rather, they’ll come on student visas or, given the number of French citizens they seem to be able to mobilize, on a regular tourist visa. (On another aside: There are of course legitimate security questions to be asked about the screening process for refugees and whether we can accurately vet those seeking admission to the U.S. But, as I mentioned earlier, security is never 100% and to insist on it in this case but not, for example, with the absurd waste-of-money that is the Transportation Security Administration is absurd and little more than a cover for racism and religious bigotry.)

So, what responses are we likely to see in the aftermath of these attacks? There are three strategies I see as most probable: the U.S. and other states can choose to contain, degrade, or eradicate ISIS. Containment would keep ISIS bottled up and, so long as it doesn’t threaten to conquer new territory or take Baghdad or a similar major city, leave the fighting to local forces. Over time, containment would erode the group’s capabilities by weakening recruiting and denying ISIS the revenues it gets from expropriations and bank robberies when it seizes new land. Degradation would try more seriously to use airpower and possibly ground forces to weaken ISIS’s operational capability. Eradication would be just that. It would likely require a significant commitment of ground forces into Syria to rip up the ISIS infrastructure and bureaucracy by hand. Each option comes with its pros and cons. Containment is relatively low-cost, but is a long term strategy. But actors, like states and terrorist groups, often get more aggressive as they see themselves losing. So, if containment is successful, we should expect to see more large scale attacks as ISIS seeks to forestall its destruction and each attack makes it harder to believe that containment is indeed working and to stay the course. It also doesn’t do well in the political realm, where politicians prefer strong action to slow patience.

Degradation would require the U.S., coalition forces, and Russia to more aggressively target ISIS capabilities, which will inevitably increase civilian casualties. As a quasi- or proto-state, ISIS is well-integrated into urban populations and rooting them out will be difficult, bloody work. Another target for degrading ISIS would be its oil fields and distribution and sales organization. Until recently, the U.S. has avoided doing significant damage to the oil system for fear of destroying a resource Syria will badly need whenever the civil war ends. However, it is estimated that ISIS earns $1-2 million a day from oil sale (some to Assad!), and serious degradation strategy will have to end that source of revenue, regardless of the cost to the Syrian people sometime down the road.

An eradication strategy bears the highest cost: getting immersed in the Syrian civil war. It’s hard to see the U.S. or France being willing to do that after the long wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It might be possible to pursue eradication solely through supporting local forces, but doing that would likely require cooperating with groups like Hezbollah and even al-Nusra which are the strongest fighters on the ground. It would also exacerbate tensions with Turkey as the Kurds would surely benefit from any increased support to local ground forces. Turkey has spent much of its time bombing the Kurds and would likely be resistant to option that strengthened the possibility of a transnational autonomous Kurdish region.

It’s often said that foreign policy isn’t about picking the one obviously good option out of a host of obviously bad ones, but rather about picking the least shitty option out of a host of nearly equally shitty options. And that is indeed the case here. To my mind, containment and degradation are the only options here; there’s just no stomach for another occupation and reconstruction project. I’d prefer degradation, but I see the merits of a containment approach and don’t think it’s a terrible choice.