What threat does the Islamic State pose to America?

By Erik Goepner 

One way to assess the threat that IS poses to America is to see what the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS) says. To date, NTAS has issued no alerts regarding the terrorist threat from IS. Back in 2011, NTAS replaced DHS’ memorable color-coded system. It is also worth noting that in those intervening years, the NTS has apparently not issued any alerts about terrorist threats against the homeland.

Statements by government officials provide another way to assess the threat, and they do not appear to suggest IS presents a significant threat to America. The President’s National Security Strategy (NSS), published last week, notes that “the threat of catastrophic attacks against our homeland by terrorists has diminished but still persists.” The NSS goes on to refer to “an array of terrorist threats.” As for IS in particular, the NSS mentions them as one of several “regionally focused and globally connected groups” that “could” pose a threat to the homeland.

Rolling out the new NSS at the Brookings Institution last Friday, the National Security Advisor appeared concerned that threat concerns were being unnecessarily inflated by some. Ms. Rice cautioned, “We cannot afford to be buffeted by alarmism and an instantaneous news cycle,” as she characterized the threats as not existential.

Another estimate comes from the Department of Homeland Security Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism Policy. This past December, he testified before a House subcommittee hearing on ISIS. His assessment? “At present, DHS is unaware of any specific, credible threat to the U.S. Homeland from ISIL.”

If Americans’ perception of the threat posed by the Islamic State substantially differs from the actual threat, our unconscious biases may have something to do with it. Ms. Rice potentially alluded to one—the availability bias—when she cautioned against alarmism and the instantaneous news cycle. The availability bias suggests people estimate the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can imagine it or remember a past occurrence. Since the sensational, yet uncommon, event is often of greater interest to the media, the public may hear more about unlikely events than they do common ones. In response, people overestimate the likelihood of rare events while underestimating the probability of common ones.[1]

Additionally, people tend to overstate threats they dread, even if the evidence indicates otherwise. The Islamic State’s gruesome videos of beheadings and the recent burning alive of the Jordanian pilot effectively evoke dread in many.

Potential biases notwithstanding, those responsible for assessing the threat and keeping the homeland safe indicate that the Islamic State could pose a threat to us, but at this time, IS does not pose a specific, credible or imminent threat.

 

Image Credit: The Knight Foundation


[1] See, for example, Morgan’s “Risk Assessment and Management.”

The Islamic State as Insurgency: The Growing Strength of Salafi Jihadists

By Erik Goepner

Terrorists occupy the low-end of the power spectrum. They are weaker than guerrillas, who are weaker than insurgents, who are weaker than conventional armies, who are weaker than nuclear-equipped armies. That is a point made, more or less, by the Council of Foreign Relation’s Max Boot. Successful revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung,[1] made a similar point when he noted guerrillas are but a step towards total war and regular armies. Has the Islamic State, then, progressed the Salafi jihadist movement from the weak power position of terrorism to the mid-range power of insurgency?

RAND researcher, Seth Jones, defines a Salafi jihadist group as one that emphasizes the need to return to “pure” Islam during the time of the Salaf (“pious ancestors”) and believes that violent jihad is a duty of each member of the ummah, much like daily prayers, fasting during Ramadan, etc. Dr. Jones notes that between 2010 and 2013, the number of Salafi jihadist groups rose by 58%. Interestingly, the growth roughly coincided with the timing of U.S. surge operations in Afghanistan. At the end of that period, IS began seizing and holding terrain in Iraq and Syria, with some estimating they now control approximately 81,000 square miles, or the land mass equivalent of Great Britain. Professor Bruce Hoffman, author of the seminal work Inside Terrorism, suggests that while both insurgents and terrorists may use the same tactics, even for the same purposes, insurgents differ from terrorists in that they often operate as military units, seize and hold terrain, and include informational and psychological warfare in an effort to win over the population’s support.

If so, and if the Islamic State is winning over segments of the Iraqi and Syrian populations rather than just terrorizing them, then the problem set facing the U.S. would be substantially different. Terrorists can, in large measure, be defeated by police or military action, which the world’s premier military can accomplish unlike any other. If, however, IS now finds firm footing as an insurgency, broader issues must be tackled. Issues that can only be successfully resolved by the indigenous government—which we are not—or dictatorial occupiers—which we will not be.

Image Credit: NBC News


[1] See The Red Book of Guerrilla Warfare by Mao Zedong.

Pandora Report 2.1.15

No themed coverage this week, sadly. However, we’ve got stories covering the Federal fight against antibiotic resistance, ISIS airstrikes, and super mosquitoes in Florida. All this in addition to stories you may have missed.

Have a fun Super Bowl Sunday (go team!) and a safe and healthy week!

Obama Asking Congress to Nearly Double Funding to Fight Antibiotic Resistance to $1.2 Billion

One of The White House’s goals for 2015 was to combat growing antibiotic resistance through research into new antibiotics and efforts to prevent the over prescription of these vital drugs. President Obama is requesting that Congress add additional funding to this fight, bringing the total to $1.2 billion. The funding will be a start, but there are many other things that can happen in order to fight this extremely important problem.

U.S. News & World Report—“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says more than 23,000 Americans die every year from infections that can withstand some of the best antibiotics. The World Health Organization said last year that bacteria resistant to antibiotics have spread to every part of the world and might lead to a future where minor infections could kill.”

Air Strike Kills IS ‘Chemical Weapons Expert’

News came Saturday morning that U.S. airstrikes in Iraq last week killed a mid-level Islamic State militant who specialized in chemical weapons. Killed on January 24, Abu Malik had worked at Saddam Hussein’s Muthana chemical weapons production facility before joining Al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2005.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty—“Officials say his death could “temporarily degrade” the group’s ability to produce and use chemical weapons. Coalition air strikes have pounded the Mosul area over the past week [and] The U.S.-led coalition has carried out more than 2,000 air raids against IS militants in Syria and Iraq since August 8.”

Millions of Genetically Modified Mosquitoes Could Fight Disease in Florida

On January 11, we had a small note about the possibility of genetically modified mosquitos controlling diseases like chikungunya and dengue, but this week coverage on this issue absolutely exploded! British biotech firm Oxitec plans to release millions of genetically modified mosquitos in Florida to control the existing population and help control the spread of these diseases. The A. Aegypti species of mosquito is extremely prevalent in Florida and recently has become resistant to most chemical pesticides. Residents, of course, are up in arms over the potential release of this “mutant mosquito”.

The Weather Channel—“Technology similar to this is already in use in Florida and other states, Entomology Today points out. Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) employs a similar technique, sterilizing insects so that when they mate, no offspring are produced. “Florida spends roughly $6 million a year using SIT to prevent Mediterranean fruit fly infestations, while California spends about $17 million a year,” Entomology Today wrote.”

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Global War on Terror Redux

By Erik Goepner

Are we destroying the Islamic State or fighting a global war on terror?

In the past six months, the U.S. launched air strikes to neutralize the al Qaeda offshoot, Khorasan group, and the imminent threat they posed. Authorities in Ohio arrested a man—apparently self-radicalized—who was planning to target the U.S. Capitol. The Charlie Hebdo attackers reportedly received funding and guidance from Yemeni-based, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The kosher market killer apparently had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Soon after, French, Belgian, and German authorities arrested more than a dozen suspected terrorists, some of whom had recently returned from Syria and allegedly may have ties to the Islamic State.

While the Islamic State dominates the headlines and Obama Administration officials repeat the defeat and destroy Daesh (nee ISIL) mantra, the President’s narrowly-named Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL speaks of a decidedly broader end goal. General Allen recently acknowledged “Daesh” as the immediate threat, but noted, “more broadly we’re interested in the underlying factors that create these problems.” He went on to talk of the collective action needed to eliminate the social, ethnic, religious and economic problems that have combined in the Middle East. He noted that if we are successful, there will be a government in Syria that “reflects the will of the Syrian people,” which will have “the happy second and third order effect of assisting in the creation of stability more broadly in the region.”

In words reminiscent of President Bush, “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Secretary Kerry recently shared similar thoughts. In a speech at the Saban Forum, the Secretary observed that “even once Daesh is defeated and Syria is stabilized, our work is far from over.”

These are amazingly aspirational goals. Daesh defeated. Syria stabilized. A government in Syria reflecting the will of the people. And it would seem, a stabilized Iraq and Afghanistan, too.

Again, the similarities are evident. Also speaking at the Saban Forum, though years prior, President Bush outlined similar aspirations, “Our vision for the future: a Middle East where our friends are strengthened and the extremists are discredited, where economies are open and prosperity is widespread, and where all people enjoy the life of liberty…”

Times have changed, but the mission hasn’t. However passionately or half-heartedly we approach it, America continues to wage a global war on terror and seek the remaking of the Middle East.

Image Credit: Huffington Post

Defeating and Destroying the Islamic State: What the Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq Can Tell Us

By Erik Goepner 

Afghanistan Iraq Iraq & Syria
U.S. Goal Defeat & destroy al Qaida Eliminate Iraqi WMD, “central front on war on terror Defeat & destroy Islamic State
Date U.S. initiated operations October 2001 March 2003 August 2014
Name of operation Enduring Freedom Iraqi Freedom Inherent Resolve
# countries in coalition 50 34 62
# global terror attacks the year U.S. initiated operations 1,878 1,253 11,9521
# global terror attacks 5 years after U.S. initiated operations 2,728 4,780 TBD
# global terror attacks 10 years after U.S. initiated operations 5,007 11,952 TBD
White House assessment at      +3 months Our war on terror is well begun, but it is only begun mission accomplished

Iraq is free

We are making steady, measurable progress
White House assessment at      +5 years We have significantly degraded the al–Qaida network” “The success of democracy in Afghanistan is inspiring We have seen significant security gains…Less visible are the political and economic changes taking place…This progress isn’t glamorous, but it is important TBD
White House assessment at    +10 years We are meeting our goals…the light of a secure peace can be seen in the distance We’re leaving behind a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq TBD
Cost: U.S. deaths 2,353 4,486 TBD
Cost: $ $686 billion2 $815 billion3 $5.6 billion4

Notes:

  1. Numbers are for 2013, 2014 not yet available.
  2. Does not account for future costs, such as FY15 funding or medical care for veterans.
  3. Does not account for future costs, such as medical care for veterans.
  4. Represents budget request for FY15.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Fighting the Islamic State: U.S. Objectives

By Erik Goepner

Our objective is clear:  We will degrade, and ultimately destroy, ISIL,” said President Obama during his national address on 10 September 2014. Since then, the destruction of the Islamic State has been echoed as an American objective by senior leaders across the executive branch.

Such an absolute and mammoth objective towards IS, while for years the U.S. has sought reconciliation and reintegration with much of the Taliban in Afghanistan? Destroy IS, and inadvertently relieve much of the pressure against Assad, a despot who has presided over a state in which 200,000 have been killed? Is the threat from IS so severe that they must rise to the top of America’s targeting list?

A compelling argument for such an all-encompassing national priority might have been expected during the President’s national address in September. Not so. Instead, he noted the threat IS poses to the people of Iraq and Syria, and the broader Middle East—including American citizens, personnel and facilities located there. Quite likely, that is why part of the American Embassy staff in Iraq was evacuated in June 2014, as also occurred in Yemen, South Sudan, and Libya last year. And the threat to Americans in America? “If left unchecked, these terrorists could pose a growing threat beyond that region, including to the United States,” offered the President.

Two months later, the White House repeated a similar threat assessment. Their fact sheet said IS “could pose a growing threat to the United States and others beyond the region.” The fact sheet also noted that IS posed an immediate threat to Iraq, Syria and U.S. allies throughout the region, as did numerous other groups per a State Department travel warning.

So, America will send 3,100 military members and spend $5.6 billion this year in an effort to destroy a group that could pose a threat beyond the Middle East?

That Iran and Syria will likely benefit if we succeed in destroying IS makes the U.S. choice of objectives all the more confusing. Both countries are on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism—since 1979 for Syria and 1984 for Iran. One of the most lethal killers of American service members in Iraq was the explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) provided by Iran.

At the UN, two years ago, the President said “the United States will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.” It is difficult to see how the elimination of what appears to be the most capable Sunni fighting force in the Middle East will not strengthen Iran’s hand and further embolden them. The presence of American and Iranian military advisers in Iraq, and our common purpose there, appears to make achievement of Iran’s goals more likely and less costly.

As for Syria, President Obama had previously spoken of a red line regarding their use of chemical weapons and that Assad must step down, yet America now strikes Assad’s most lethal foe.

 

Image Credit: defense.gov

The Right Choice?

By Erik Goepner

It has been eight years since the demise of Saddam Hussein. During his brutal reign, the dictator used chemical weapons against his own people, invaded an American ally, and went to war with one of our enemies. Across his 24-year rule, hundreds of thousands died. The intervening years since the 2003 invasion have resulted in more than 200,000 killed and the Islamic State now controls wide swaths of both Iraq and Iran. As a result, both American and Iranian forces are in Iraq fighting IS.

In the 1980s, Saddam was an ally of sorts, as the discomforting photo of him shaking hands with then-Special Envoy Donald Rumsfeld suggests. Only a few years earlier, Iran had overthrown the U.S.-backed Shah, taken U.S. citizens hostage and embarked on what seemed to be a radical path. In response, America supported Saddam’s war efforts against Iran.

But, then, power seemingly having corrupted absolutely, he invaded Kuwait. Regardless of what the Ambassador did or did not say, Saddam poorly estimated the global response and a decisive military victory against the battle hardened, fifth largest army of the world soon followed. Horrible repression of revolts, sanctions and no-fly zones ensued.

Then came 9/11. If it weren’t un-American, I’d tell you we were a bit scared. Assuredly, we wanted revenge and America was ready to prevent future attacks by all necessary means. Meanwhile, Saddam was posturing for his neighbors, dropping hints about having weapons of mass destruction, while violating U.N. resolutions.

And so, in early 2003, Desert Storm II kicked off. In less than three weeks Baghdad fell. In short order, the Iraqi Army and security forces were disbanded and the government was largely crippled through de-Baathification. Regrettable remarks such as “freedom is untidy” from the Secretary of Defense and others accompanied the beginnings of the civil war they refused to acknowledge.

Almost 12 years have passed. Two hundred thousand people have been killed, the United States has spent trillions, and a barbaric terrorist group—IS—dominates much of the Iraq. America finds itself working uncomfortably close with an avowed enemy (Iran), while local militias, to include those the U.S. fought against during the war, offer the best chance for success.

Are there times when tolerating an evil yields less tragedy than a noble, yet ill-informed, pursuit?

 

Image Credit: Daily Paul

This Week’s Top 5 Islamic State News Stories

By Erik Goepner

  1. Are negotiations with IS inevitable?

Padraig O’Malley, professor at UMASS and veteran mediator of civil conflict, thinks so. “A way in time must be found to talk to Islamic State,” he says. “You simply will not wipe it out. It’ll just re-emerge in a different form.” He goes on to suggest few in the West understand the “phenomenon of Islamic State” and the “degree of its sophistication in attracting young people from all over the world.” For the full story, see http://www.newsweek.com/we-must-negotiate-islamic-state-says-senior-mediator-291837.

  1. How is IS organized and how does it operate?

Analyzing 144 documents captured between 2005 and 2010, a group of researchers observe that IS (and its predecessor, AQI) takes a “bureaucratic, systematized approach to maintaining power that makes it look in some ways more like a settled government than a fly-by-night band of extremists. Whether under the flag of the Islamic State, or ISIS before that, the group organizes the territory it administers into well-defined geographic units, levies taxes in areas it controls, and manages large numbers of fighters across a sparsely populated territory roughly the size of the United Kingdom.” Read more at

http://www.bostonglobe.com/ideas/2014/12/14/the-terrorist-bureaucracy-inside-files-islamic-state-iraq/QtRMOARRYows0D18faA2FP/story.html

  1. IS training camps spotted in eastern Libya, and they may also have established a new presence near Tripoli. Full story available at

http://www.latimes.com/world/africa/la-fg-libya-isis-20141212-story.html

  1. Kurds retake town north-east of Baghdad, reversing IS’ territorial gains in Jalawla. See http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-30469011 for more.
  1. For the latest on the incident in Sydney, see the Australian newspapers: The Daily Telegraph (http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au) and The Sydney Morning Herald (http://www.smh.com.au/).

 

Image Credit: Vice

Libyan Town in the Hands of IS?

By Erik Goepner

In early October, the Islamic Youth Shura Council announced that Darnah, Libya, had joined the Islamic State’s caliphate.  Alternatively referred to as Derna or Darna, 80,000 call the city home.  Sitting along the Mediterranean, Darnah has a “notorious” reputation as a center for the recruitment of fighters for the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.  Two hundred miles to its east lies the Libyan border with Egypt, while Benghazi sits 180 miles to Darnah’s west.

Darnah, Libya

Relatively unknown, the Islamic Youth Shura Council (aka MSSI) is thought to have begun operations in March of this year under the banner of al-Qaeda.  The current rift between al-Qaeda and IS notwithstanding, the Islamic Youth Shura Council is now one of 20+ jihadi groups which have pledged their allegiance to IS.  With things moving so quickly and on-the-ground access for journalists often too risky, the affiliation between the two groups remains uncertain.

At the same time, Tripoli and Benghazi are purportedly under the control of Islamist groups as well, though those groups have no known affiliation with the Islamic Youth Shura Council.  In Tripoli, a federation of dubious unity, known as Fajr Libya, appears to be nominally in control, while in Benghazi multiple groups have also loosely aligned themselves, the largest of which is Ansar al-Shariah.  Against this backdrop of insecurity, Khalifa Haftara, an ex-Libyan general, now leads an interesting array of forces attempting to reassert government control.  He oversees Libyan military units, ostensibly under government control, along with assorted militiamen; loyal, it would seem, only to him.

 

Map Credit

Islamic State Goes Old School

By Erik Goepner

Recent reports suggest that IS has employed chlorine as a weapon.  Though currently unconfirmed, these reports suggest that IS is looking to bolster its inventory of tactics, techniques and procedures. In so doing, they’ve gone old school.

IS’ first use of chlorine as a weapon may have been in September against Iraqi security forces and Shiite militias north of Baghdad.  Reports indicate the chlorine was delivered via bombs.  No one died, but approximately 40 reported difficulty breathing and heavy coughing.  One source said IS had taken the chlorine from purification plants overtaken during their advance.

Additional reports suggest that IS employed toxic gas in Kobani on October 21. Patients reportedly sought medical care for trouble breathing, burning eyes, and blisters.  A doctor on-scene ruled out chlorine as the cause, while assessing the injuries as consistent with exposure to an as-of-yet unidentified chemical.  The Guardian noted, however, there was no consensus or confidence from experts regarding potential causes of these injuries.

Five days later, an Iraqi military commander said seven chlorine filled projectiles were fired into a residential area of Anbar province, though no casualties were reported.

According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), though, this is not new.  The implementing body of the Chemical Weapons Convention reported chlorine was already used “systematically and repeatedly” in northern Syrian villages earlier this year.  Western government officials assert Assad’s forces had employed the chlorine, though it is unclear if other groups may also have been responsible.

Historically, perhaps the most heinous and deadly precedent for chlorine-as-weapon comes from World War I, when the Germans dispersed 168 tons of chlorine during the Second Battle of Ypres in Belgium.   Approximately half of the 10,000 allied soldiers in the affected area died.  Two days later, chlorine was again used, killing an additional 1,000 Allied service members.

What might the future hold?  The Nuclear Threat Initiative, writing in 2007 about chemical weapon fears in Iraq, noted that the worst industrial accident in history was the release of 40 metric tons of methyl isocyanate at a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.  3,000 were killed and more than 100,000 were injured.  The author concluded that a “sufficiently large release of elemental chlorine may be capable of exacting a comparable toll, particularly if discharged in a highly populated civilian area.”  However, the author also noted chlorine is typically ineffective against a “prepared adversary” because its visible color and potent odor announce its arrival and the effects of chlorine can be mitigated with “simple countermeasures,” such as gas masks or wet cloths placed across the nose and mouth.

Image Credit: Stripes