Responding to a chronic terrorist threat
It is important to understand that, historically, the success al Qaeda has had in executing large attacks is not due to the professionalism of its operatives and attack planners
Editor’s Note: The following article by Scott Stewart originally appeared on Stratfor, and is republished with permission of Stratfor, a company that uses a unique, intel-based approach to analyze world affairs, and provide global awareness and guidance to individuals, governments, and businesses. Scott Stewart supervises the day-to-day operations of Stratfor’s intelligence team and plays a central role in coordinating the company’s analytical process with its business goals. Before joining Stratfor, Stewart was a special agent with the U.S. State Department for 10 years and was involved in hundreds of terrorism investigations.
Last Thursday I had the opportunity to speak at a Risk Management Society meeting in Cleveland, Ohio. During my presentation, I shared some of the points I made in last week’s Security Weekly — namely, that the jihadist movement, which includes groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda, is resilient and can recover from losses if allowed to. There is no military solution to the jihadist movement: It is an ideological problem and must be addressed on the ideological battlefield, and thus jihadists are a persistent threat.
In response to these points, an audience member asked me if I thought the United States was wasting its time and treasure in Iraq and Syria (and elsewhere) by going after jihadist groups. After answering the question in person, I decided it would make a good follow-on topic for this week’s Security Weekly.
First, it is important to understand that, historically, the success al Qaeda has had in executing large attacks is not due to the professionalism of its operatives and attack planners. Indeed, as I have previously noted, in addition to foiled attacks such as Operation Bojinka and the Millennium Bomb Plot, al Qaeda operatives were also nearly detected because of sloppy tradecraft and operational security mistakes in successful attacks such as the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, the 1998 East African embassy bombings, the 2000 attack on the USS Cole and even the 9/11 attacks.
These mistakes weren’t trivial. In the 1993 World Trade Center case, one of the two operational commanders whom al Qaeda sent to New York to assist in the plot, Ahmed Ajaj, was caught entering John F. Kennedy International Airport with a Swedish passport that had its photo replaced in a terribly obvious and amateurish manner. Authorities also found a suitcase full of bombmaking manuals with Ajaj. His partner, Abdel Basit (widely known as Ramzi Yousef), called Ajaj while he was in jail looking to recover the bombmaking instructions. Before the East Africa embassy bombings, authorities had identified the al Qaeda cell responsible and detected their sloppy preoperational surveillance of the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi. The leader of the group, Wadih el-Hage, was asked to leave Kenya, and he returned to his home in Dallas, where the group continued with its plans for attack in Africa. The perpetrators of the USS Cole bombing attempted to attack the USS The Sullivans in January 2000, but their boat was overloaded with explosives and foundered. Finally, among other mistakes the 9/11 attackers committed, Mohamed Atta had been cited for driving without a valid license and was the subject of an arrest warrant for failing to appear in court on those charges.
Al Qaeda was able to succeed in these attacks because terrorism had become a third-tier priority for the U.S. government in the 1990s, and very few resources were dedicated to fighting terrorism. Even fewer resources were dedicated specifically to the jihadist threat. Thus, significant leads were not followed in each of these cases.
The success of U.S. counterterrorism programs in the post 9/11 era cannot be attributed to the creation of the bloated and redundant bureaucracies of the Department of Homeland Security or the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. In fact, any achievements have come despite these organizations and the inefficiencies they have created. The real change is that terrorism is now identified as a significant threat, and countering the terrorist threat has been made the primary mission of every CIA station, FBI field office and NSA listening post on Earth. Indeed, all the tools of national counterterrorism power — intelligence, law enforcement, foreign policy, economics and the military — are now heavily focused on the counterterrorism mission.
Though the jihadist threat has persisted since 9/11, the intense pressure applied to jihadists by the combined force of myriad counterterrorism tools has made it difficult for the militants to project their terrorist power into the United States and Europe. These counterterrorism tools will not eradicate jihadism, but the threat jihadists pose regionally and transnationally can be contained and abated with their use. As I mentioned last week, jihadist operatives who possess advanced terrorist tradecraft are hard to replace, and arresting or killing such individuals hampers the ability of jihadist groups to project power regionally and transnationally. Ignoring the jihadist threat and allowing it to again become a third-tier issue will permit the jihadists to operate with relative impunity, as they did in the 1990s.
Ideological Change Is the Key
Another reason to maintain physical pressure on jihadist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State is that pressure works to counter the groups’ claims of divine blessing. That al Qaeda leaders claim to trust in God for protection and then hide as far underground as possible has caused many jihadists to criticize the group. Furthermore, though many jihadists treated the killing of Osama bin Laden as a joyous martyrdom, it caused other jihadists to question why the leader of al Qaeda was living in a comfortable home with his family while others were fighting on the front lines in his name.
When the Islamic State made impressive gains in Iraq and Syria in June, it boasted that it was being blessed by God, was therefore invincible and was going to continue until it conquered the world. It is quite common to hear such statements in Islamic State propaganda, including the following comments made in a video after the massacre of a group of Syrian soldiers who were taken captive after the siege of the Syrian 17th Division base near Raqqa on July 26: “We are your brothers, the soldiers of the Islamic State. God has favored us with His grace and victory by conquering the 17th Division — a victory and favor through God. We seek refuge in God from our might and power. We seek refuge in God from our weapons and our readiness.”
Such claims, when backed by dramatic battlefield successes, can have a discernible impact on many radical Muslims, who begin to wonder if the Islamic State is really becoming as inexorable as it claims to be. This illusion of divine support and invincibility has greatly assisted the group in its efforts to recruit local and foreign fighters, to raise funds and to garner support from regional allies.
Conversely, the blunting of the group’s offensive on the battlefield has tempered the Islamic State’s boasting. Though reports that U.S. and coalition aircraft missed key targets such as the Islamic State headquarters may reflect that the United States was a bit behind the intelligence curve, they also demonstrate that the Islamic State was abandoning the facilities, fearful of airstrikes. The sight of Islamic State fighters reacting fearfully to coalition aircraft will help slow recruitment efforts and should cause already skeptical jihadists to think twice before joining the group or swearing allegiance to it.
Doubts stemming from battlefield losses about whether God is blessing the Islamic State should also bolster efforts against the group on an ideological front. For example, on Sept. 19, a group of 126 Islamic scholars from across the globe published an open letter to the Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The scholars used the letter to address what they consider to be 24 points of error in the theology espoused by the Islamic State. These errors encompass a number of issues, including the nature of the caliphate; the authority to declare jihad; the practice of takfir, or proclaiming another Muslim to be a nonbeliever; the killing of innocents; the mutilation of corpses; and the taking of slaves.
The letter ends with a plea for al-Baghdadi and his followers: “Reconsider all your actions; desist from them; repent from them; cease harming others and return to the religion of mercy.” It is unlikely that many of the hardcore jihadists will do as requested, but as these theological arguments are circulated and discussed, they will help undercut the ideological base of the jihadists and make it harder for them to convince impressionable people to join their cause. The effects of these theological critiques will not just be confined to the Islamic State; they will apply equally to al Qaeda and other groups that hold similar doctrines and commit similar acts.
Moreover, mainstream Muslim theologians have not been the only ones critical of the group. Jihadist ideologues such as Abu Mohammed al-Maqdisi and Abu Qatada have also been critical of the Islamic State’s activities and pronouncements.
Fighting the ideological war will undoubtedly be a long process. In the interim, the United States and its allies will have to continue applying pressure to groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda in an effort to contain them and limit the chronic threat they pose.