ISIL Sends 'A Message to America'

For well over a year now, we’ve been watching and learning about who the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) really is – first while just in Syria, then in Iraq, particularly over the past several months.  Again and again, we’ve listened to their vengeful rants and watched as they brutally slaughtered, Christians, Kurds, and Yazidi, beheading and crucifying men, women, and young boys, as well as raping and enslaving women and young girls.

(I am referring to them as ISIL, because that is what their charter states and what reflects their intent.  I will not call them the Islamic State [IS], which they refer to as the Islamic Caliphate, as I do not want to give them recognition, nor do I want the world to do so.)

On Tuesday, ISIL exposed Americans to the cold-blooded, brutal, and bloodthirsty execution-style beheading of an American, James Wright Foley, an independent journalist who had been covering the Middle East for about five years.  He was taken captive by ISIL in 2012 while covering the war in Syria.

Further, ISIL gave us visual proof that they are truly butchers and savages by posting a video yesterday on Twitter, with Mr. Foley reading an obvious ISIL-prepared statement criticizing the U.S.'s and the West’s actions against ISIL terrorist forces in Iraq.  A message by the lone British-accented ISIL spokesman and executioner, as it appeared, standing over Mr. Foley said he was to be killed because Barack Obama had ordered airstrikes against ISIL positions in northern Iraq.

Also included toward the end of the grisly video, ISIL purportedly presented pictures of a second American photo-journalist, Steven Sotloff from Pinecrest, Florida, who writes for Time and Foreign Policy Magazine, with the Twitter announcement that President Obama's actions will determine Sotloff's fate.

This latest event offers some insight and a glimpse into ISIL’s future intentions beyond what they have strategically announced publicly – into what we refer to militarily as tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTP).  We can see something about this terrorist army’s advancement and capabilities, and about how the U.S. and rest of the free world can defeat this cancerous adversary.  Three critical and decisive points need to be made.

First, we know and understand that strategically, ISIL’s intent for regional and worldwide dominations started with its divorce and self-imposed expulsion from al-Qaeda for several reasons.  First, it refused to accept a role of subordination as an affiliated regional and subordinate element under al-Qaeda’s centralized command structure during its participation in the ongoing conflict in Syria.  Essentially, Abu al-Baghdadi had his own design on how he wanted to lead and employ ISIL, both in Syria and later, when he went back into Iraq (ISIL being previously identified as al-Qaeda in Iraq before it was crushed by U.S. General Petraeus and the “surge” in 2007).

Second, there is Baghdadi’s design to create an Islamic caliphate across the greater Iraq and the Levant region, with Baghdadi being the caliph.  That was not in al-Qaeda’s cards.

The third point is that ISIL’s widespread brutality was not acceptable to al-Qaeda, which has somewhat throttled back in order to regain support and cooperation with former and new supporters following the death of Osama bin Laden and its regrouping.  It was al-Baghdadi’s decision to separate and free ISIL from al-Qaeda, in order to unilaterally pursue what we have been witnessing since the latter part of last year.

This in no way means that al-Qaeda and its affiliates across the world are no longer a threat.  Rather, it means we must continue to keep our eyes on each to ensure we are never blindsided.  Proof of this came in a recent Rand Corporation study this past spring, which indicated that the number of radical Islamic jihadists has increased worldwide by over 57% since 2010.

That said, with regards to strategic intentions, while we must deal with all actors of radical Islam, ISIL must be dealt with immediately.  Since the early part of 2014, ISIL has moved out in rapid fashion, unlike anything we have witnessed before.  ISIL has acquired perhaps two billion dollars in assets, funding, and materials and a rapidly growing army of fighters, supports, and a support network of upwards of 80,000 people.  Additionally, they have attracted and recruited radicalized jihadists and foreign Islamic and non-Islamic fighters and technically trained supporters from many skill sets and countries outside the Middle East, Southwest Asia, and Africa.  Indications are that they have recruited individuals from throughout Europe, with up to 4,000 maintaining passports from across Europe and as many as 400 with U.S. passports. 

As part of strategic intentions, it is necessary to address what I am tagging the “weaponization of social media.”  While this has been implemented in various ways over the last 20 years, from information operations to cyber-warfare to strategic communications and influence, nations, international criminal elements, and terrorists have applied the various applications to suit their needs and support their capabilities.  However, ISIL utilization has been rather significant in its social media escalation and success.  The fact that ISIL has created warfare-supporting tactics around social media shows a rapid evolution of a multifaceted and a multi-tiered strategy.  In the Foley-Sotloff situation, ISIL presented both a tactical and strategic-level “chess-move” directly aimed to the president of the United States.  Using only a couple of abducted American non-combatants, they basically said, "Your move," creating a major international media event in a matter of minutes.

In the meantime, ISIL is pushing toward Baghdad, at the same time flooding social media with updates and spreading its message with corporate sophistication.  As a radicalized jihadist army, they have advanced on the ground in Syria and Iraq and invaded microblogging sites, conducting psychological warfare via social media techies posting a near-constant stream of updates and photos of extortion, murder, and rape.  Similarly, they have attracted legitimate companies to advertise and sell products online on ISIL’s websites, mainly because the violent material posted has attracted millions of visitors.  From a public relations stand point, they are utilizing social media to present a good side, with personal family stories of their fighters and their personal lives, which draws followers and sympathizers in the Muslim world and the West.  At the same time, they portray valiant stories of bravery and heroism among their fighters, which attract the attention of young "fanboys" from around the world, including the U.S.  The group is on the cutting edge in displaying how influential social media technologies can be in the hands of extremists.

Various reports indicate that ISIL has recruited individuals from throughout Europe, with up to an estimated 7,000 maintaining passports from across the European continent.  Last week alone, over 40 suspected ISIL and Nusra (aka al-Qaeda in Syria) fighters were arrested in Kosovo.  The ISIL fighter holding Mr. Foley in the Twitter video on Tuesday is suspected of being a Brit.  Recently a British rap artist traveled to Syria to join ISIL and was photographed holding the severed head of an ISIL victim.  Additionally, as many as 400 with U.S. passports, whose whereabouts are currently unknown, may have joined the ISIL jihad.  We have already seen a young man from Florida recruited to ISIL and trained as a suicide bomber in Syria.  An online video showed him describing his intent and disdain for America.  Later, his suicide attack was prominently filmed and presented on numerous ISIL and other jihadist websites.  Just this past week ISIL made in-roads in Ferguson, Missouri, to call for ISIL sympathizers to join in the violent disruptions.

Another major concern is the potential for ISIL to establish small cells in Europe and subsequently the U.S. for the purpose of creating panic and mayhem by via small-scale attacks similar to the situation during the Boston Marathon – or perhaps of reproducing Foley's ordeal on American soil.  For ISIL, there is no concern as to whether individual actors are confronted or caught.

Since Barack Obama's 2009 Cairo speech, the battle in the Middle East has been essentially relegated to drones and air strikes.  Competent national security and military strategists and strategically focused practitioners of radically focused Islamic-based terrorism will tell you that drones and or air strikes are not a strategy, but rather merely operational tools employed for tactical and operational military effects.  Just as armored warfare was just one operational arrow in our overall strategic quiver against Hitler in WWII, the strategy in the clash with radical Islamic terrorism has to be against the ideology that promotes and sustains it. 

On Tuesday, the parents of Daniel Pearl, the American beheaded by al-Qaeda in February 2002, closed a note of sympathy and support to James Foley’s parents as follows: “[T]he civilized world needs to take more seriously the growing threat of terrorism and the ideology  that breeds it.” 

Until a competent and coherent national security strategy and policy against the radical ideology of Islam – be it ISIL, Hamas, Al-Qaeda, Hezbollah – is formulated, we will continue to face the wrath of Islamic terror.  If this state of affairs is allowed to continue, we may well be the ones defeated.

The writer is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and a former senior fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.  He is also former deputy director for Intelligence at U.S. Central Command, and a former White House National Security Council staffer.  He lives in Tampa Bay, FL.

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