The barbaric murder this week of the American journalist James Foley by a British jihadist has served as a tragic reminder of the gravity of the global threat posed by the Salafi jihad movement. For the first time in years, the Western public, seeing the horrific images of Foley’s butchering, has been confronted with the reality of our enemy. Those who thought the death of Osama bin Laden three years ago signaled the beginning of the end of his vile cause, a view championed by the Obama administration, were naively mistaken. Bin Laden’s demise was, as Churchill said of British victory at El Alamein, “the end of the beginning” of the struggle against the Salafi jihad movement.
And a movement it is, rather than an organization; those who apply Western, military-style organizational charts to it, in the manner beloved by intelligence analysts everywhere, are and have always been wrong. It shares an ideology but operates differently depending where it goes: there is tactical flexibility nested in severe ideological rigidity. Al-Qa’ida (AQ) never had a monopoly on the global jihad movement, and its slow, predictable decline under the uninspired leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri has opened the door to the even more extreme jihadists of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS). While AQ is far from dead — its Yemen-based franchise in particular, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), remains very dangerous — it’s evident that the center of gravity in the global jihad movement has shifted to the fanatics of the Islamic State and their self-proclaimed Caliphate.
The struggle between AQ and the group now calling itself IS goes back a decade in Iraq, beginning with Sunni resistance to the U.S. invasion in 2003, and, given the gradual decline of bin Laden’s faction, it was perhaps inevitable that the even more murderous IS would win out. Its message of uncompromising holy war against all enemies, from “infidels” outside the Muslim world to the many “apostates” within it, appeals to the basest human instincts and is intoxicating to angry young men who pine for murder, martyrdom, and glory. IS embraces the extreme Salafi vision — they are takfiris to use the proper term — of jihad for jihad’s sake, a fanatical fantasy of “pure” Islam that invariably kills more Muslims than “infidels.” The takfiri tendency lies in the DNA of the Salafi jihad movement, and has burst forth murderously on many occasions, most horrifically in Algeria in the 1990s, where the local AQ affiliate, the Armed islamic Group (GIA), was expelled from the “official” movement for its indiscriminate killing, just as IS was recently. The only difference now is that the world has noticed, with horror, the mass killings of innocents perpetrated by IS murderers in Iraq. True “shock and awe” in Iraq has been delivered by masked fanatics rallied around a black flag, not the U.S. military.
I’ve watched the global jihad movement closely for years, both as a security practitioner and a scholar, and I’ve analyzed its metastasis as it’s moved from region to region. I’ve written books about its strategy and operations as well as its growth in the 1990s into a worldwide phenomenon. Since 9/11, I’ve witnessed two American presidents wage war against the global jihad movement in a rather similar manner, contrary to much public fuss about the differences between Bush and Obama-style counterterrorism, and from the outset I’ve maintained that the U.S. approach is deeply flawed and doomed to fail. My sharper critiques of American counterterrorism strategy have been largely confined to secret and off-record discussions inside the government, within the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Intelligence Community (IC), as well as with key Allies. As I am now leaving government employ, I am free to speak my mind. This is a start.
Let me state unambiguously that this is a war that the West must win. Our Salafi jihadist enemy is a threat to virtually every country on earth, including Western ones. Their vision is fanatical and uncompromising. They are a foe who must be killed off through attrition. There is no room for negotiation or dialogue. We must face the reality that our struggle against these fanatics will last decades, not years; everybody currently waging this war will retire before the job is done.
Winning the war will require the full effort of Western governments, working with each other and partners across the Muslim world. This is a two-front war, against Salafi jihadists who struggle against the Muslim world, and also against the fanatics in our midst who reside inside the West itself. For years, we’ve heard facile statements that America embraces a (bad) military-focused approach to counterterrorism while Europeans stick to a (good) law enforcement model. This view was arguably true a decade ago but is wholly false today, with all Western governments now employing police, militaries, and above all intelligence to combat the Salafi jihad wherever it finds sanctuary.
First, the external front. Here there is some good news. In the first place, the very fanaticism of IS and its make-believe Caliphate will ultimately undo it. Without exception, Salafi jihadists who embrace takfiri methods sooner or later wind up alienating the great majority of Muslims around them. While Iraqi Sunnis have allowed IS to play a vanguard role in their broad-based uprising against the Shia-run regime in Baghdad which they hate, eventually mainstream Sunnis will sour on IS butchery visited on co-religionists. Yet this should not overly comfort us, as it will be years, not months, before most Iraqi Sunnis realize they fear IS fanatics more than Shia.
Yet the war against IS in Iraq will be aided by the fact that we have many allies and partners in the struggle who are eager to put the “boots on the ground” that we do not wish to. Kurdish militias are fighting for their lives and Shia militias may be able to show the stamina in battle that the U.S-raised and trained Iraqi military so humiliatingly failed to against IS. We are already assisting Kurds, and more help is needed, with the proviso that DoD should supply weapons, logistics, and some intelligence — and no more: let locals fight in the manner they know how to. The collapse of the Iraqi military in the face of lightly armed fanatics, with whole divisions fleeing before an IS battalion, illustrates that the U.S. military, having wasted years and billions of dollars on Baghdad’s security forces, is thoroughly incompetent at building Middle Eastern militaries. We need to stop pretending otherwise and let the Iraqis, who are quite competent at killing, get on with fighting the fanatics.
Here U.S. and Allied airpower will be decisive, as long as it is applied properly. For years, I dined out on my oft-stated belief that if the Salafi jihadists wanted to destroy their cause, all they had to do was 1. embrace takfirism as a strategy, and 2. set up physical sanctuary somewhere, the Caliphate they pine for. Which is exactly what the Islamic State has done. I believed this because takfiri views are rejected by the vast majority of Muslims, who find them repugnant and barbaric, moreover setting up shop in any place for very long would be an open invitation to be crushed mercilessly by American airpower. I had assumed, naively, that no U.S. president would hesitate to dispatch AC-130 gunships to annihilate any jihadists foolish enough to control large swaths of territory.
Let me be clear: Attriting IS out of existence in Iraq — and Syria too — where they have erased the Allied-drawn state boundaries of the post-World War One settlement, will not be quick but it can be done through proper application of Western airpower tied to proxy forces on the ground. Indeed, this is the sort of fight the U.S. military today is ideally suited for. Since 9/11, the DoD and IC have honed their terrorist-killing acumen, with secret warriors of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), guided by time-sensitive intelligence, becoming the bane of jihadists in many countries. They have no equal at what they do in secret. The JSOC-IC combination will be critical to destroying IS, one deadly raid at a time.
Just as important will be airpower, delivered through both manned and unmanned platforms. As yet, IS has only rudimentary air defenses, and U.S. and Allied air forces can deliver hammer blows to their battalions without serious losses on our side. Contrary to what activists tell you, the U.S. military goes to great lengths to avoid civilian deaths, what we euphemistically term “collateral damage,” in its use of airpower. We must understand that IS will use civilians as shields, as HAMAS has done in Gaza. This must not deter us. IS leaders (high-value targets or “HVTs” in the trade) must be killed wherever they are, regardless of whose house they are hiding in. After enough airstrikes, Sunnis will seek to expel IS from their midst for fear of our lethal reach.
The virulent extremism of the Islamic State — they represent to the Salafi cause roughly what the Khmer Rouge did to Marxism-Leninism — means that nearly everybody will want to partner with the West to some degree in fighting it. Once they see the seriousness of our intent, certain Gulf states whose support for IS has been important to their growth will quickly reconsider their position. Even Russia could be a valuable partner in the fight against IS, while Putin’s friends in Damascus are very eager to eliminate this existential threat to the Assad regime. Iran must be handled carefully, as Tehran will be an enemy of the West as long as it is ruled by the mullahs, but they are deadly serious about destroying the Islamic State in both Iraq and Syria. To wax Churchillian again, the British prime minister famously said that if Hitler invaded Hell he would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons, and that nicely sums up Iran’s place in the loose anti-IS coalition too.
I have been a frequent critic of post-9/11 American beliefs that there is a military solution to every problem, a viewpoint that has caused much heartache for the United States and many foreigners in recent years. In the long run, the wave of Salafi radicalism that has shaken the Muslim world in recent decades will burn itself out. Islam has seen similar waves before. But we would be naive to expect it to recede anytime soon, and the wave may not have crested yet. Moreover, political problems across the Middle East that have assisted the rise of extremism, for instance the sectarian stupidity of the Baghdad government that emerged under U.S. tutelage, leading to a Sunni rebellion with IS at its head, are largely beyond the West’s control to repair or even ameliorate. A Bosnian-style partition of Iraq into Sunni, Shia, and Kurdish entities, devolving power on ethno-sectarian lines while maintaining a notional Iraqi state, looks like an even better idea now than when Vice President (then Senator) Joe Biden proposed it in 2006 (whatever my criticisms of Bosnian dysfunction, that country looks like Switzerland compared to Iraq now), but we ought not believe that politico-economic reform in the Muslim world, however welcome and necessary it may be, offers any short term solutions to the problem of Salafi jihadism. Right now the sole remedy to the challenge presented by the Islamic State is crushing it with brutal force.
The issue, then, is intent. We have it in our power to destroy IS in Iraq and Syria, and although that attrition-based strategy will not achieve success quickly, ultimate victory over at least this part of the Salafi jihad movement is assured as long as we pursue the struggle with patience and vigor. Will, not way, is our problem. President Obama’s take on the jihadist enemy has never inspired confidence in the counterterrorism community, and his reaction to the rise of the Islamic State does not reflect the seriousness of the threat we now face. While none can fault Obama for a lack of ardor for certain aspects of the war that he refuses to call a war, as the death of Osama bin Laden and hundreds of lethal drone strikes during his presidency attest, his unwillingness to confront the ideological aspects of the struggle has been troubling to many who wage that war. Obvious White House squeamishness about the “I-word,” coupled with idiocies like terming the massacre of thirteen U.S. soldiers by Nidal Hasan, Army psychiatrist turned self-styled jihadist, an incident of “workplace violence,” bespeak a fundamental lack of seriousness about the struggle we are in. While we must always be careful about delineating Islam from Islamism, and I have been sharply critical of those who do not, pretending that Salafi jihadism is not what it actually is only helps the enemy.
President Obama’s penchant for golf, particularly at inopportune moments, has received much criticism of late, with even what might be termed the court press reporting frankly on its negative impact on public perception, including scathing op-eds. It is difficult to escape the suspicion that the president is tired of the hard job of being Commander-in-Chief. Certainly his public comments on the Islamic State lack the dire tone emanating from some senior administration officials. This week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel spoke of IS in alarming terms as a threat “beyond anything that we’ve seen…They’re beyond just a terrorist group.” General Martin Dempsey, DoD’s military head, stated that IS possesses an “apocalyptic, end-of-days strategic vision” and the group “will eventually have to be defeated.” It’s an open secret in the Pentagon that such blunt statements reflect widespread concerns in DoD and the IC that President Obama is not taking the current threat seriously enough. At a minimum, the president must inject his national security staff, which I’ve never found talented or inspired, with purpose and seriousness, while antics such as disclosing failed top secret counterterrorism operations to score political points are unworthy of the presidency and must cease at once.
It is hoped that, confronted by the rising madness and violence of IS in Iraq and Syria, Obama will find the ability to pursue the war against Salafi jihadism with the required vigor, as well as to communicate to the public the nature of the threat we face, including the reality that the struggle will be long and difficult. The Islamic State can be crushed in what remains of Obama’s second term, while defeating Salafi jihadism itself is a generational enterprise, but refusing to use the time between now and January 2017 to fight IS with all the means at our disposal will not only give the enemy time to grow and metastasize further, it would amount to presidential dereliction of duty. If President Obama does not possess the will to wage this war that has been forced upon us, he should consider devoting himself to golf full time and stepping aside in favor of Joe Biden, who has demonstrated some quite sensible views on terrorism over the years.
That said, the war against IS inside the Muslim world is only part of the struggle we now face, and in many ways it’s the easy part. That James Foley’s killer is British (his identity has been established by British intelligence but not yet released to the public) has focused attention on the painful fact that a considerable number of IS fighters in Iraq and Syria are from the West. British citizens are estimated to represent a quarter of the roughly 2,000 Europeans fighting with IS at present. Numbers of Westerners in IS ranks are difficult to estimate and the true figure is likely 3,000 or more. Additionally, since many jihadists go to Syria or Iraq for a few months and return home, leading to a high turnover rate, the number of Westerners who have fought with IS in the Middle East exceeds 5,000 and is rising fast.
Going to Syria or Iraq to join IS is very much in vogue among radical Salafis across the West. Getting there is easy, especially for Europeans: Turkey’s looking the other way about the movement of thousands of foreign fighters through the country en route to the jihad is a key factor here. The fanatical IS message resonates among an alarming number of European youths: in a recent poll, sixteen percent of French had a “favorable” view of IS while three percent admitted to having a “very favorable” view of the Islamic State. Warnings from dissenting experts that extremism among European Muslims is considerably more commonplace than it’s politic to admit fell on deaf ears on grounds of political correctness, but have been proved wholly correct. It’s fashionable among hardline European Salafis to go to Syria or Iraq to fight, though in reality most of them spend far more time hanging out than actually engaging in combat. Many of their rest centers, safely away from the front, are surprisingly lavish, leading to the Syrian war being memorably termed a “five-star jihad” in extremist circles.
Historically, only five to ten percent of foreign fighters engage directly in terrorism when they return home, but that figure is cold comfort given the unprecedently vast numbers of Westerners who are going to Iraq and Syria. Some returnees have already engaged in terrorism in Europe, while it is obvious that even effective European security services are overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadists coming back. French intelligence is monitoring some 300 persons, one-third of them women, with links to the Syrian jihad; as they require 24/7 surveillance, this is a daunting task for even the best resourced and most technically capable security services. Some European intelligence agencies, seeing “huge growth” in jihadist numbers, admit to being deluged by potential terrorists. Britain’s security services are likewise overwhelmed by the numbers of jihadist targets they must monitor, a situation that was hardly helped by the massive leaks by Edward Snowden, which the head of MI5, Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, scathingly called a “gift” to terrorists.
Moreover, for every returning jihadist who plots terrorism, ten or twenty more veterans engage in furthering the cause through proselytizing, preaching, fund-raising, and generally radicalizing and preparing the next generation of angry youths for jihad. Those who have actually gone to Syria or Iraq, where they have learned to butcher innocents, have enormous cachet among the wannabes back in Europe, who find their message of vitriolic hate toxically enticing. I have been warning for a decade that the West, particularly Europe, functions as a de facto safe haven for many Salafi jihadists who make up what I call the Sixth Column. We have seemingly forgotten that the 9/11 plot was hashed out more in Hamburg, Germany than in any Muslim country. It is long past time for the West to deal with this threat seriously.
There is no single profile for who abandons life in the postmodern West to join the Salafi jihad, particularly its most virulent brand. Some are rabidly pious Muslims, but many lack a firm foundation in matters Islamic, and a surprisingly large number of Western jihadists seem to have scant interest in anything theological: many join for the hate and the camaraderie, a need to belong, not the belief. They are consumed by rage and frustration and seek out a belief system that justifies acting out their evil urges — not the other way around. Many are ne’er-do-wells who have spent time in prison and possess unstable family backgrounds, but the son of privilege who abandons a life of comfort to wage jihad abroad is a Salafi cliche for a reason. Many are born Muslims who revert to a faith they never seriously practiced in their youth, while others are converts. Most are young, with many still in their teens, but the nearly middle-aged are not unknown in jihadist ranks either. Their psychology in many cases resembles that of a spree killer more than any popular conception of an arch-terrorist, while their ideology — a cut-and-paste version of Qutbism, dumbed-down for the online generation, that thrives on hate — is astonishingly consistent worldwide. Women often play an important role behind the scenes in radicalizing their men and keeping them that way.
One trend that is clearly visible among Western jihadists is the prominence of online recruiting and propaganda. Most young Salafis today enter the movement virtually, becoming markedly radical before ever meeting another extremist in the flesh. The time required to become dangerously extreme has shortened noticeably, no doubt due to the prevalence of online jihadism, the digihad, if you like. Back in the 1990s, most Westerners who “joined the caravan” (to use the movement term) were radicalized gradually, over months and even years, slowly turning their backs on their old life, while it is now commonplace to see young men who decide to abandon normalcy in favor of the jihad after only a few months of radicalization, and sometimes only a few weeks. All this makes it increasingly difficult for Western security services to track would-be terrorists, or to differentiate the merely extreme from the positively dangerous.
While the United States has been fortunate in many ways compared to Europe, possessing a Muslim community that is proportionately smaller and far less radicalized than in much of the European Union (EU), there is no reason to think that this will last forever. Americans are fighting with IS abroad too and some will return home with jihad still on their minds. The FBI, with the Intelligence Community, has done a commendable job since 9/11 keeping the domestic terrorism threat largely under wraps, aided by the fact that most of America’s homegrown jihadists to date have been frankly inept, some of them almost comically so. That, too, is a trend that is unlikely to continue indefinitely.
America has no room for comfort as it confronts the Salafi jihadist threat. The enemy’s desire to strike the United States directly remains as great as it ever was, while the fact that we functionally do not have border security means that any terrorists who seek to enter the country illegally will have no more difficulty than the millions of Latin Americans who have infiltrated without detection. Moreover, the large numbers of extremists possessing EU passports (and Canadian too: about 130 Canadians are currently fighting in Syria and Iraq), who are able to enter the USA without a visa, mean that attacks on the country can be handled by foreigners easily.
What, then, is to be done? Legal changes are in order if we are serious about defeating this enemy. Some European countries have recently criminalized going abroad as a foreign fighter, or facilitating that, and this is something that all Western countries should adopt promptly. While this will not cease jihad tourism, it will certainly complicate matters for would-be holy warriors. Westerners who do engage in jihad abroad should be deprived of citizenship and told to not come home, ever. While free speech is to be defended, it should at least be asked if engaging in jihadist propaganda ought to be criminalized (as, say, Holocaust denial has been in much of the EU). At a minimum, those who engage in material support of any Salafi jihad-related activity should face severe legal penalty.
In the United States, this also means we must end our security-theater act and get serious about stopping terrorism. The terrorist threat to our airlines is as great as it has ever been, as Attorney General Eric Holder recently admitted, citing his “extreme, extreme concern” about the threat emanating from Syria. The TSA is equal parts laughingstock and nuisance and needs to be wholly revamped into a serious security agency, relying on profiling rather than making life difficult for countless innocent people every day. “America doesn’t have an airline security system, America has a system for bothering people,” said the former head of security for El Al, Israel’s national airline, and seldom have truer words been spoken.
Yet the long-term way to defeat, rather than merely deter, Salafi jihadism, is through intelligence and covert action, not war in any conventional sense. While pummeling IS kinetically in Iraq and Syria is a necessary first step, it is only the beginning. The military defeat of the Islamic State by Western airpower and commandos, aided by local proxies, will set the stage for the strategic defeat of their movement. What must follow is a version of what I term Special War, tailored for counterterrorism, combining offensive counterintelligence, denial and deception, and long-term manipulation of the jihadists leading to their collapse and self-immolation.
That strategy is the topic of a forthcoming blog post ….