by James Emery
The Convoluted Coalition Against ISIS
ISIS Desire to Surpass Al Qaeda
The two recent strikes attributed to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, (ISIS, also referred to as ISIL, IS, and Daesh) – downing a Russian passenger jet October 31 and the complex attack in Paris, November 13,, 2015 – provided the organization with significant media coverage and elevated status. Among the many battles that ISIS is waging one of their primary objectives is to soundly eclipse the legacy of al Qaeda as the most powerful and acclaimed terrorist organization in the world. ISIS broke away from al Qaeda in 2014 striving to become a powerful independent force instead of a second-tier affiliate.
While the insatiable ego and ambition of ISIS leadership are drivers, there is much more at stake. ISIS wants to attract additional aligned and nonaligned terrorist and insurgent cells including some that are affiliated with al Qaeda. Adding affiliate insurgent groups in Asia, Africa, and other locations significantly increases the geographic coverage, influence, and prestige of ISIS. Some affiliates join ISIS for the enhanced power and fear-driven respect they’ll garner in their local operations including degenerate criminal gangs such as the Philippines’ Abu Sayyaf which switched to ISIS to increase the ransoms they can demand for kidnapping Westerners. Internal schisms and personality rifts within al Qaeda, Taliban and other groups will provide ISIS with additional affiliates and commanders. Some previously nonaligned groups will also be encouraged to join.
ISIS wants increased funding, recruits, supporters and publicity. This is one of the reasons why ISIS has carried out so many sensational executions – countless beheadings along with burning, drowning, or blowing up victims. ISIS quickly became media whores by waging a perverse reality television style of terrorism on the Internet. They will do anything to heighten their profile and prestige among extremists and the unsavory masses that fund, participate in or support terrorism.
ISIS has committed an incalculable number of crimes against Muslims, Christians and others. Generally, the more radical and outspoken jihadi leaders are the more their actions and directives go against the Qur’an and Hadith, sullying Islam. Most terrorists and insurgents use religion and nationalism as convenient covers that conceal their primary motives – power and greed.
ISIS wants a larger share of the millions of dollars coming from wealthy supporters of terrorism in the Middle East and around the globe ranging from individuals and Islamic charities to state sponsors. For some states terrorists, insurgents and criminals are viewed as tools that can be used to attack enemies and support geopolitical ambitions,
While the obvious motivation of state sponsors is to encourage terrorist and military operations against a specific enemy, such as the United States or Afghanistan, the second and third order effects have multilayered economic and political ramifications that augment or diminish the influence and capacity of secondary targets and objectives. For example, Pakistan’s ongoing support of radical Islamists in Afghanistan – from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the Taliban and Haqqani Network – are designed to strengthen their influence, while diminishing that of India. Pakistan’s obsession with India is the primary driver influencing their foreign policy, especially the activities carried out by Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and other intelligence and military sectors.
Opportunity for a Super Power Coalition Against ISIS
During a two week period, October 31 to November 13, 2015, terrorist operations attributed to ISIS significantly elevated their status and their potential rewards. However, it also created a unique opportunity in which global powers were motivated to form strategic alliances to attack ISIS. The United States, Russia, France and China advocated a coalition to counter ISIS and other terrorists groups. Many other states, including North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members, were poised to join. However, conflicting agendas undermined meaningful alliances.
Previous alliances have been formed to counter ISIS, but they lacked the unrestricted and comprehensive participation of the three primary super powers – United States, Russia, and China. They also lacked meaningful objectives and follow-through.
Many U.S. or U.N. alliances focus on enlisting lots of members – most of whom contribute little or nothing to the cause. For example, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), forged to fight insurgents in Afghanistan, consisted of 51 NATO and partner nations. However, three countries, the U.S., U.K. and Canada accounted for 85 percent of the fatalities and the majority of the troops.
Weak alliances undermine mission objectives when unqualified and unmotivated allies are given responsibility for specific activities or geographic areas. On paper it appears that their respective Area of Operation (AO) is covered even when their AO is an unchallenged staging, transit and operations area for insurgents, terrorists and criminals.
The war with ISIS will be a protracted conflict that requires a strong coalition that has the uncompromising commitment and tenacity to wage “Total War” across a broad spectrum including military, cyber, funding and income sources, recruiting and support.
In addition to waging war against the military wing of ISIS and disrupting their websites and social media networks aggressive steps should be taken to eliminate their allies and facilitators. Arms traffickers, financial contributors, black-market oil dealers, money launderers and other despicable individuals and cells that support ISIS and other terrorists and insurgent groups should be identified and eliminated regardless of their nationality and location. Individuals and groups that support terrorism are knowing accomplices to the murder, mayhem and destruction wrought by the unsavory organizations they support.
The only way to contain and deter terrorism is through a policy of total and sustained war against everyone that participates in it or supports it including pseudo-allies and state sponsors. Effectively fighting terrorism is no place for weak political alliances forged by ego-centric, incompetent, ethically compromised, or willfully obtuse politicians and policymakers, who focus more on personal agendas and poll numbers, than on strategic objectives and significant results.
Egos and Agendas Destroy Prospect for Powerful Alliance
The opportunity to build a powerful anti-ISIS coalition anchored by the United States, Russia, United Kingdom, France and other states was disrupted before it could be forged. The clash of egos, secondary agendas and an implicit lack of trust doomed the opportunity to form a superpower alliance that could have significantly devastated ISIS and other terrorists’ organizations.
The first problem was that the United States, Russia and Turkey had conflicting objectives which could have been negotiated and neutralized. The United States and Turkey insisted upon the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Russians wanted him to stay.
Syria had been a client state of the USSR from 1955 to 1991, often receiving over $2 billion per year in military aid in addition to economic aid and political support. Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000, was the most important asset the Russians had in the Middle East prior to the breakup of the Soviet Union. Hafez al-Assad, known as “The Fox” for his cunning and double-dealing treachery, selectively supported terrorists and Soviet operations when they coincided with his own objectives.
Hafez al-Assad’s prestige and influence began to wane during the Gorbachev era and again following the break-up of the Soviet Union in December 1991. The Russian economic, military, and political relationship with Syria continued at varying levels from 1991 through 2015 increasing in support under the reign of President Bashar al-Assad.
Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia, has aggressively sought to restore Russia to its prior status as a global superpower. Russia has more than doubled their military spending during the last ten years, though it is still less than 15 percent of the U.S. military budget. Putin significantly strengthened the economy and restored nationalistic and global prestige. He is supported by many Russians, especially those who suffered through the international embarrassment and economic hardships that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Putin is a strong supporter of Basher al-Assad, in part due to the long established ties to the former Soviet client state, but also due to the Putin policy not to relinquish territory or influence. Ego, pride and an ingrained sense of purpose compel Putin to consistently elevate the stature and global positioning of Russia. Putin was reportedly upset by the violent death of Muammar Gaddafi and does not want to see Assad suffer the same fate for personal and political reasons.
Putin is using the war in Syria to flex his muscles, showcasing advanced Soviet weapons, including Tupolev Tu-160 strategic bombers, Sukhoi Su-34 strike fighters, T-90A tanks and submarine launched cruise missiles. The Russians are proudly reclaiming their role as a political and military force to be reckoned with through significant military operations, combined with Vladimir Putin’s strategic positioning and negotiations.
Unfortunately, many Russian weapons have been used against anti-Assad forces that have also been waging a war against ISIS. Russian attacks against anti-Assad rebels can be significantly reduced or eliminated through negotiations that focus on shared concerns and a similarity of purpose. The United States and Russian objectives – to decimate ISIS and other terrorists groups that are a threat to both countries – should be a pressing priority that trumps less important considerations.
Putin is proving to be a skilled negotiator and compelling orator who excels at public appearances at the U.N. and other political and media events. It appears that many U.S. politicians and policymakers do not understand Putin nor the Russian psyche that makes Putin so appealing to his supporters. Some U.S. politicians fail to grasp the significance of the opportunity to forge a long-term, strategic, results-oriented super-power alliance to counter ISIS and other terrorists and criminal groups.
Misguided politicians who continue to demonize Putin and Russia are putting the United States and everyone else in the world more at risk from terrorist’s attacks and costly counterinsurgency operations. Some Western politicians may want to project that they are standing strong against Russia through their inflammatory rhetoric and policies but they are acting like reckless fools in the war on terror.
A declassified 2012 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report warned that the major driving forces behind the insurgency in Syria were al Qaeda, Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic extremists. The DIA report said that support for the insurgents may cause the formation of a radical Islamic State being formed in Syria and Iraq that unified the jihad among Sunni Muslims throughout the Arab world. The report noted that Turkey and the Gulf States were supporting the insurgents in their effort to create a Sunni Islamic Caliphate. The reference to the formation of an Islamic State predates the actual formation of ISIS, which had previously been an affiliate group aligned with al Qaeda.
The Obama administration and other U.S. policymakers repeatedly ignored these warnings, along with additional intelligence reports and briefings, effectively setting the stage for the formation of ISIS, and the ongoing conflict in the region. The rise of the U.S.-Sunni supported insurgency in Syria led to a revival and empowerment of al Qaeda and other extremist groups operating in Iraq. This is why wars should be planned and waged by the military, not inept misguided or ethically challenged politicians.
Bashar al-Assad had previously helped the United States in countering al Qaeda, the Muslim Brotherhood and other radical groups. He continued to provide assistance to the U.S. even after he was demonized by the Bush and Obama administrations.
Removing al-Assad from power in Syria as the United States, and its Sunni allies are insisting, will create a power vacuum. This will likely result in replacing Assad’s secular government with anti-American Islamic extremists such as ISIS or a destabilizing dysfunctional collection of adversarial insurgent groups.
What happens to al-Assad is a secondary issue, not a deal breaker. There are several dozen other world leaders aligned to the West that are as bad as or worse than al-Assad. Besides, the United States’ recent legacy of removing leaders – including Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya – created disastrous, complex problems. The United States may want to steer clear of orchestrating “Regime Changes” for a while and focus on building relationships and forging alliances.
Double-Dealing Turkey and Associates
Turkey, a NATO member and U.S. ally, has proven to be a tremendous asset to ISIS. Turkey has been bombing Kurdish groups in Syria due to their ongoing internal conflict with the Kurds. However, the Syrian-based Kurds have been an effective group fighting ISIS, so in attacking the Kurds Turkey is helping to sustain ISIS in addition to undermining Ankara’s own desire to drive out President Bashar al-Assad of Syria.
Turkey has expressed concern about alleged Russian attacks on Syrian Turkmen, who are ethnic Turks, fighting to overthrow al-Assad. This may have given Turkey additional motivation to target Russian aircraft. Critics, including Putin, claim that Turkey’s attack was initiated to protect their illegal industrial-scale black-market smuggling operations of ISIS controlled oil. Russia has been attacking convoys of ISIS oil tankers headed for Turkey.
Turkey’s questionable action in shooting down a Russian SU-24 military aircraft that allegedly crossed into a small extended sliver of Turkey dealt a serious blow to an anti-ISIS alliance between the United States and Russia. This U.S.-Russian centered alliance, that would have included United Kingdom, France and many other countries, could have been devastating to ISIS, but Turkey came to their rescue.
Ankara claims that the Russian aircraft had traveled into Turkey for a mere 17 seconds, and received numerous warnings before it was shot it down. Russia counters that no warnings were issued and that the aircraft never entered Turkish air space.
Regardless of its location, a 17 second violation by an aircraft that is posing no threat should not be a capital offense, especially when it’s known that NATO and Russian bombing runs are taking place just across the border in Syria. If Turkey’s neighbors carried out a similar policy the Turkish Air Force would be decimated after reportedly violating Greek air space over 2,200 times in 2014 in addition to other border violations.
The timing and predictable ramifications of Turkey’s aggressive action against Russia raises concerns that it was previously planned and approved by higher authorities. The profiles and associates of the Turkish pilot who shot down the Russian aircraft, along with the Turkish military and civilian chain of command that authorized it should be reviewed. Perhaps associations with ISIS and other radical groups might turn up.
Turkey is reportedly buying and transporting Syrian and Iraqi oil from ISIS, a clear violation of U.S. and NATO policy. The Russians reported thousands of trucks carrying ISIS controlled oil traveling into Turkey from both Syria and Iraq. Russia, the U.S. and NATO have destroyed some of these trucks but need to do more. ISIS is earning over one billion dollars a year from illicit oil sales.
The son of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Bilal Erdoğan, part-owner of BMZ Ltd., is reaping huge profits from the black market sale of ISIS oil. Turkey denies these accusations. BMZ is a maritime company and an Erdoğan family business. Bilal Erdoğan has been photographed dining and socializing with leaders of ISIS and other jihadi groups.
Hundreds of wounded ISIS soldiers have reportedly been transferred in Turkish military trucks to hospitals for treatment. Several reports state that Sümeyye Erdoğan, the daughter of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, was involved in overseeing one of the Turkish hospitals providing medical care for ISIS fighters. It appears that the support of ISIS is an economic and politically rewarding Erdoğan family affair.
Numerous reports, including statements from both active and captured ISIS fighters, claim that Turkey has been running military training camps and staging centers for the Islamic State. These Turkish based operations are part of the ongoing support for the Islamic State’s war against two of Turkey’s enemies – the Kurds and al-Assad.
Multiple sources and news reports have said that weapons are being delivered to Turkey, including some on foreign airlines. Turkey’s military and national intelligence service (MIT) are accused of escorting shipments of weapons, ammunition and other contraband to ISIS. Credible reports state that some weapons shipments have been intercepted by government officials but Turkey’s MIT with assistance from national political leaders had the shipments released so they could be delivered to ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Initially, Turkey was delivering weapons to the rebels that were purchased by the U.S. and Sunni state supporters. When the U.S. changed their policy on arms shipments the Turks kept it going.
Upon arrival in Syria many of the weapons are transferred to automobiles or loaded onto trucks under layers of produce or similar coverage to hide the weapons and ammunition from NATO and Russian jets patrolling the area. Vehicles smuggling weapons and supplies will often travel at night driving with their lights off in an effort to avoid detection.
Turkey has provided a porous border that knowingly allows ISIS fighters, recruits, weapons and supplies to easily move back and forth between Syria, Iraq and Turkey. Turkish newspapers reported that over 100,000 thousand Turkish passports have been given to ISIS fighters to facilitate their movement between countries. Turkish passports have also been used by jihadists traveling from China and other countries as they make their way to Turkey and Syria to join ISIS. Reports of Turkish weapons transfers, passports and other support to ISIS have been corroborated through interviews, intelligence reports and by local and regional publications.
While Turkey allows the flow of weapons and recruits that help ISIS they have severely restricted the flow of weapons and supplies to the U.S.-allied Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq who are fighting ISIS. Turkey has repeatedly bombed the Kurdish groups fighting ISIS. The Turkish military has threatened to invade Syria not to take on ISIS but to weaken the Kurdish forces that are fighting the Islamic State.
Erdogan has publically stated that he will not allow a Kurdish state to form in Northern Syria. The Turks fear that any Kurdish state – in Syria, Iraq, or Iran – would empower the Kurds in Turkey who have been forcibly stripped of their language and culture since the formation of modern Turkey in 1923. The Kurds, who total more than 35 million in the region, make up the largest stateless ethnic group in the world. European powers were negligent in their failure to establish a Kurdish state following WWI and the breakup of the Ottoman Empire.
The Kurds were, and are, loyal and dependable allies of the United States during U.S. conflicts in Iraq from 1991 to date. They bravely served as linguist, advisors and fighters who took on the enemies of the Unites States. Many Kurds continued to provide assistance to U.S. troops during their pre-deployment training in the United States.
The U.S. and U.N. should take a more active role in supporting and protecting Kurdish groups in the region. They should also help forge a peace agreement between Turkey and the Kurds as this would also help reduce tensions and conflict in Iraq and Syria. The previous two ceasefire agreements with the Kurdish Workers Party of Turkey (PKK) were allegedly sullied by Prime Minister and then President Erdoğan in order to stir up nationalistic feelings among Turks to support his election and regime. The Turks deny this accusation.
It appears that Erdogan and many Turkish government, military and intelligence officers prefer to empower ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and other radical groups if that will help prevent a Kurdish state from forming in Syria or Iraq.
Turkey’s support of ISIS due in part to their hatred of the Kurds is similar to Pakistan’s support for the Taliban and other insurgent groups in Afghanistan due to their hatred and fear of India. This makes Turkey an unreliable and untrustworthy ally in the war against ISIS. U.S. policymakers need to be smart enough to grasp this and to craft political and military actions against ISIS – and political and economic consequences to Turkey – that will neutralize Erdogan’s disruptive activities.
A suicide bomber detonated himself in the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul on Tuesday, January 12, 2016, killing ten German tourists and wounding others. The Sultanahmet area is the location of many of Istanbul’s primary tourist attractions including the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. It also contains hundreds of hotels, restaurants, and shops that cater to traveling foreigners.
The bomber allegedly had ties to ISIS and Syria which would make the Western tourist hub of Sultanahmet a desirable target. Perhaps the attack was an independent act meant to target Westerners on Turkish soil. However, given the pressure that Turkey is receiving for their support of ISIS and the strong desire that ISIS and Turkey has to maintain their mutually supportive relationship the suicide bomber may have played an unknowing role in a larger game. ISIS, with or without the direction from Turkish MIT agents, may have initiated the attack solely for the appearance of an escalating Turkish-ISIS conflict. These types of staged and False Flag operations have gone on for centuries to justify wars or misdirect attention from underlying alliances.
NATO’s Self-Inflicted Wounds
About a week after Turkey shot down the Russian jet NATO added to the tension with Russia by inviting the tiny country of Montenegro, which only has about 2,000 combined active military members, to join NATO. This first expansion of NATO in six years could not have been more ill-timed.
Jens Stoltenberg, the NATO chief, said that the addition had nothing to do with Russia, ignoring the fact that NATO was established in 1949 to counter the Soviet Union. Other NATO officials said they wanted to send a clear message to Russia by letting Putin know that he cannot stop the eastward expansion of NATO. This type of reckless bravado and provocation should be reexamined, especially since the primary enemy is ISIS and other terrorist groups along with their sponsors and supporters.
The Montenegro addition shows how out of touch and short-sighted some U.S. and NATO policymakers are. Continuing to take in former Soviet satellites and Warsaw Pact countries into NATO is deliberately provoking and threatening Russia. The timing is nuts, unless the objective is to undermine efforts towards a NATO-Russian coalition against ISIS and other terrorist and criminal groups.
The Brussels-based NATO, with strong support from both the Bush and Obama administrations, has pushed for the aggressive acquisition of former Soviet territories and states. In their rush to add new members NATO has disregarded their own polices for inclusion, ignoring corruption, intimidation and other illegal and unethical activities carried out by political leaders, and their cronies in Montenegro and other former Soviet applicants.
Taking in additional members, including Georgia which has asked to join NATO and Ukraine which is considering it, creates a costly pre-WWI type of entangling, defense pact that can lead to war between NATO and Russia. Article 5 of the NATO charter states that an attack on one Ally shall be considered an attack on all Allies requiring members to provide assistance. A Russian attack against a belligerent Georgia or one of the other former Soviet members who feels empowered by their association with NATO could quickly escalate.
NATO was created to counter a full scale Soviet attack against Germany, France and other European countries. It should not risk being drawn into a conventional or nuclear conflict over the reckless provocations of a belligerent recruit. Why deliberately provoke Russian pride and security by continuing to admit former Soviet states to NATO, especially when the potential consequences of reckless members are so great?
Russia blames the United States and European Union for the military conflict and political schisms within Ukraine. A NATO moratorium on adding additional members would likely deescalate the unstable situation in the Ukraine. The primary motivation for Putin’s actions in Ukraine, from annexing the Crimean peninsula to supporting separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine, is the fear that it will continue leaning to the West and eventually becoming a member of NATO. That would cross a geographic, political and psychological “Red Line,” in which the perceived enemy – an aggressive, expansive NATO – would be perched on the Russian border, a mere 306 miles (490 kilometers) from Moscow.
This threat would be too much for the Russian psyche, which has already relinquished non-European military bases and client states and lost virtually all of the former Warsaw Pact territory that provided a defensive buffer. Putin has referred to Ukrainian military as a proxy army of NATO and called the appearance of NATO on Russia’s borders a direct threat. Tensions are high and so are the risks and the consequences.
The United States was named as a threat to Russia in a document - “About the Strategy of National Security of Russian Federation” - that was signed by Putin on December 31, 2015. The eastward expansion of NATO was listed as a threat. This latest version replaces the 2009 edition which made no mention of the United States or NATO.
The United States and Russia need each other’s help in combating terrorism, nuclear proliferation and other mutual concerns. Politically grounded, bi-partisan visionaries – in the U.S. and Russia – should lead the way, forging a superpower alliance that will begin dismantling and destroying the real enemies – ISIS, al Qaeda and other terrorist and criminal groups. U.S.-Russian cooperation against terrorists could strengthen ties and improve trust, creating the contextual framework for many more mutually beneficial projects.
Making Enemies and Rethinking the Iranian Policy
Why does the United States deliberately alienate people and states with whom it is in their best interest to work with? For example, the U.S. repeatedly insulted Iran by referring to this collectivist, shame culture as a member of the “Axis of Evil” along with Iraq and North Korea, beginning with President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address.
After the attack of 9/11, Iran provided assistance to the United States government in identifying and capturing al Qaeda members and in fighting the Taliban. Iran was interested in establishing better relations with the United States but was rebuffed by a Bush Administration that was coddling up to Iran’s enemies – Saudi Arabia and Pakistan - the two leading sponsors of radical jihadists. Iran’s generous cooperation with the United States ended after Bush’s Axis of Evil speech. Foolish, short-sighted rants and posturing should have no place in foreign policy.
After the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 Iran again attempted to improve their relationship with the United States by offering a package of concessions that included assistance in stabilizing Iraq, countering terrorism, making their nuclear program more transparent and eliminating their support for Hezbollah and other militant groups to facilitate a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Key aids, who were working with Secretary of State Colin Powell, were upbeat about the offer and the positive benefits it provided. Iran was strategically located between Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries in which U.S. combat troops were fighting protracted wars. Iran was in a pivotal position to significantly help or hinder U.S. military and political objectives in the region.
The timing and content of Iran’s offer was extremely beneficial to the United States. However, Iran’s peaceful overtures were quickly denounced and ignored when they got to Vice-President Dick Cheney’s office. Cheney, who navigated five deferments to avoid military service during the Vietnam War, was the primary person responsible for manipulating intelligence reports that led to the war in Iraq, which empowered al Qaeda, destabilized the region and ultimately led to the formation of ISIS. Cheney’s hostile reaction to Iran’s overtures scurried the opportunity to significantly reduce U.S. and NATO casualties and the massive financial drain of waging two protracted wars.
Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Kuwait and other Sunni countries have reportedly provided weapons, money and other support to ISIS. They want to overthrow al-Assad, a member of the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, in their quest to promote Sunni dominance across the Middle East and around the world. Many of the accusations against Iran are supplied by Saudi Arabia and other Sunni states who would like to see Iran destroyed and all Shiites, whom they consider heretics, eliminated. Sunni Saudi Arabia considers Shia Iran as its primary enemy.
Many terrorism analysts and experts consider Saudi Arabia to be the number one sponsor of terrorism in the world. The Saudis have funded radical Islamic groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS and the Taliban in addition to massive, global funding of Wahhabi madrassas that produce countless terrorists, insurgents and suicide bombers. Most terrorists and insurgent groups are Sunni Muslims including al Qaeda, ISIS, Boko Haram, the Taliban, PLO and Hamas, Al-Shabaab and many more.
Iran, which supports Hezbollah and other terrorists groups, is an island of Persians surrounded by an ocean of Arabs, most of whom they distrust. The radical elements within Iran could have been marginalized and negated, along with the hawks in the United States, by playing to the moderate middle. A mature approach to foreign policy - patiently and properly guiding both Iran and the United States - could lead to a mutually beneficial long-term relationship that would pay dividends for many years to come.
Under the Shah, Iran had been one of the United States’ strongest allies in the Middle East from 1953 to 1979. Many Iranians have favorable opinions of the United States and would like to improve cultural, economic and political relationships. Having interviewed hundreds of Iranians while working abroad over a thirty year period I found most of them to have positive feelings about the United States. The “Axis of Evil” rhetoric and harsh sanctions were unpopular but most Iranians blamed hard-line political leaders – in Iran and the United States – for the sanctions and failure to resolve differences.
In addition to the devastating currency and economic problems that Iran has faced in recent years they have also suffered from the plague of drug addiction. The “Bleed Effect,” spillage of Afghan drugs transited through Iran, evolved into making Iran a primary destination for heroin, opium, hashish and methamphetamine. Several years ago Iran had the highest per capita usage of heroin in the world – nine times the global average in addition to three million Iranians abusing hashish and opium. The influx of methamphetamine in recent years has added to the problem as has a weak economy, free-falling currency, high unemployment and disenchanted youth.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) have played pivotal roles in the region. The DEA could establish ties with Iranian officials to combat narcotics trafficking within Iran and the region. The DEA and UNODC excel at building relationships across complex, political and ideological boundaries. Their role in Iran could encourage additional mutually beneficial projects with the United States and other Western and regional countries.
Encouraging cultural exchanges and economic and political ties would be beneficial to the United States and Iran. Both are powerbrokers in the region, and while they have each carried out operations that undermine the other, including Iran’s support of insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, they have many shared interests, from which mutually beneficial alliances could be formed.
The Next Strikes
ISIS will continue to encourage attacks by lone wolves and small cells operating in North America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East in order to keep their name in the headlines, securing additional donations and recruits. ISIS is also working towards carrying out large scale 9/11 type of attacks on the United States and other Western countries. Their motivation is to convincingly surpass al Qaeda, as the most dominate terrorist organization in the world.
ISIS’s adept use of social media makes them more successful in carrying out lone wolf and small scale attacks which will likely intensify – in frequency and the diversity of global locations – in an effort to elevate their stature and reach. Al Qaeda, which has a greater capacity to carry out large scale operations, is probably planning several sensational attacks on the United States, Europe and other countries in an effort to reestablish their top ranking. They want the increased donations, affiliates, recruits and other support that come with sensational strikes and the prestige of being the number one terrorist group in the world.
ISIS and al Qaeda will continue to plan attacks that will include explosive material, and potentially, chemical and biological agents. In addition to traditional terrorist’s methods they are likely looking for soft targets and devising unique ways to strike with the assistance of Western recruits, complicit state intelligence organizations and a global network of affiliates and supporters. Much is at stake as ISIS and al Qaeda compete for top ranking. These jihadi leaders have a tabloid mentality that craves massive casualties and sensational headlines. Their version of “Shock and Awe” will garner “Rock Star” prestige among their supporters along with substantial donations and numerous other benefits.
ISIS lacks the maturity and grounding of al Qaeda and would be more likely to implode from within if the appropriate external and internal drivers are initiated. It is rare that a terrorist group has a defined geographic area, but that is the case with ISIS. Generally, tracking terrorists is like chasing smoke – elusive and unpredictable. ISIS’s geographic base provides numerous targets and territory that can be destroyed and captured.
The psychological profile of the upstart, unstable ISIS leadership, makes it more likely they will turn upon themselves when they start losing territory, power and prestige. ISIS leaders will increasingly kill their own soldiers for retreating or failing to fight with sufficient gusto.
During the 19th century formation of the Zulu state Shaka used similar tactics requiring his commanders to kill and impale some of their own fighters, if they failed to fight bravely. He wanted his army to fear his wrath more than the enemies they fought. While this worked for Shaka it would likely increase dissention within ISIS.
In addition to killing each other, ISIS will increase the carnage leveled against civilian populations. This sordid, predictable behavior will create numerous deserters and refugees that provide useful information to the United States and other coalition members on ISIS and their supporters.
Creating detailed profiles of ISIS leadership and commanders, from current files and ongoing sources, will uncover a variety of personality disorders, feuds and psychological trigger points that can be exploited to encourage internal rivalries, suspicions, jealousies, treachery and intrigue. Some of these self-absorbed, power-crazed terrorists are hardwired to implode. It is simply a matter of identifying the fault lines within the organization and between individuals and sub-groups and applying the appropriate pressure while seeding suspicions.
At the least, this will undermine their cohesiveness and effectiveness. At best, they will begin killing each other, and deserting – individually and in groups. The U.S.-led coalition can exploit and expand fractures and schisms within and between cells. Some jihadi commanders will pull out, seeking a neutral corner or begin actively fighting other ISIS groups. At this point several ISIS commanders can be encouraged to switch sides, providing valuable intelligence and information on all aspects of ISIS operations and their supporters.
The so-called Islamic Caliphate of ISIS will degenerate into sporadic cells and oil slicks if the proper alliances, tactics and military operations are in place and supported by aggressive and finely tuned PSYOP and Information Operations that activate the trigger points within ISIS and their affiliates along with the populations within their respective areas of operation.
The idea of defeating or destroying ISIS, al Qaeda and similar groups is not realistic, since jihadi idealism can spread and morph into different cells in addition to the remnants of the original organizations. However, they can be soundly thrashed and decimated – militarily, politically and psychologically – to the point that their status and capacity are significantly diminished.