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

The Islamic State: Thoughts from the Top Think Tanks

By Erik Goepner

Annually, the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program (TTCSP) at the University of Pennsylvania publishes a ranking of the world’s think tanks.  Regarding the Islamic State and the coalition’s response, perspectives from senior researchers and fellows at the four top-rated defense & national security think tanks follow (i.e., the Center for Strategic and International Studies, RAND, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and the Brookings Institution).  The insights come from Jon Alterman, Ben Connable, Ben Barry, and Kenneth Pollack, respectively.

Overall Strategy:

  • Political settlement and reconciliation is critical (CSIS, RAND, IISS & Brookings)
    • Force collapse of IS from within (CSIS)
    • “Resurrect” power sharing arrangement fashioned by the U.S. during the surge and “recreate” a unified Iraqi government (Brookings)
  • Build an effective coalition (CSIS, IISS)
    • This is a complex endeavor: U.S., et al, want to focus on Iraq first, while the UK and others recommend starting with Syria; several Arab partners will only conduct kinetic operations in Syria; and Turkey is potentially more concerned with the Kurds than IS
    • Iraqi government needs to effectively balance outreach to Sunnis, sustaining military support from Iran, and engagement with the U.S. (IISS)
    • Those with the most to offer are the least willing to participate (i.e., Sunni states and Turkey) (Brookings)
  • Empower moderate forces (Brookings)
  • S. will “have to lead an effort of nation-building to heal the wounds of the [Syrian] civil war. It is unavoidable.” (Brookings)
  • President Obama is on the right track, not just to defeat ISIS but also to address the “wider circumstances” of Iraq and Syria (Brookings)
  • Too militarily focused (CSIS)
  • Two somewhat different approaches are needed to address the two different civil wars (Brookings)
  • Delegitimize IS’ ideology and message (CSIS)
    • IS’ information operations are quite successful, it is unclear whether Iraq and/or the coalition will effectively counter (IISS)

Political Component:

  • Place main emphasis here (RAND, IISS)
  • Sunni reconciliation in Iraq is a must (RAND, IISS, and Brookings)
    • Sunnis are primarily nationalist and, therefore, anti-Iranian, not necessarily anti-Shia (RAND)
    • Most Iraqi Sunnis “reject IS methods and philosophy” (RAND)
  • New Iraqi Prime Minister al-Abadi should enact all grievance resolutions available to him in one fell swoop (RAND)
  • Divisions within the Sunni polity are problematic (RAND, IISS)
    • Some Sunni leaders have been marginalized for having tried to work with unity government, perceived as having failed
    • Difficult to find one or a handful of Sunni leaders to be the face of reconciliation efforts (RAND)

Military Component:

  • Airstrikes are insufficient (RAND)
  • Build a new army in Syria to oppose the Assad regime (Brookings)
  • Iraq’s recent tactical successes resulted, in part, because of Shiite and Kurdish militia participation (CSIS)
    • But, inclusion of Shiite militias may be used by IS to kindle Sunni-Shia civil war (IISS)
  • IS has high morale and decent fighting prowess (RAND)

Pandora Report 10.26.14

This late weekend Pandora Report covers antibiotics in fish, ISIS and chemical weapons, the UN and Cholera, and, of course, an Ebola update. Don’t forget to get your flu shot, and remember to protect yourself by washing your hands! Have a great week!

There Are Antibiotics in Your Fish

A study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials has found antibiotics present in both farmed and wild fish, including those labeled as ‘antibiotic free’. The good news for the food producers is that all traces of the drugs were within the legal limit for food. The bad news is twofold; one, for there to be any traces after processing and freezing means that at one point, there was a lot more antibiotics, and two, levels of antibiotics in the food we eat contributes to growing antibiotic resistance in humans.

Time—“Antibiotics are used in fish largely to treat and prevent disease, not to promote growth… They’re dispersed into the water in fish farms and are sometimes injected into fish directly. And once they get into the fish, they generally stay there, even though their concentration diminishes over time.”

Islamic State Accused of Using Chemical Weapons

Iraqi officials claim that ISIS fighters have used chemical weapons—chlorine bombs—during clashes last month in Duluiya and Balad, towns north of Baghdad. Approximately 40 troops were affected and were then treated at a hospital where they recovered quickly. Iraqi forces claim that two other chlorine gas attacks have taken place over recent months, as well.

Sky News—“‘These allegations are extremely serious and we are seeking additional information in order to be able to determine whether or not we can confirm it,’ John Kerry told reporters. ‘The use of any chemical weapons is an abhorrent act, it’s against international law, and these recent allegations underscore the importance of the work that we are currently engaged in.’”

U.S. Judge Considers Whether UN Can Be Sued

In 2010 an earthquake ravaged the island nation of Haiti. Shortly after United Nations peacekeepers arrived, the nation experienced one of the worst cholera epidemics in history. Last week, a lawyer representing the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti presented an argument that the UN should be held responsible for the outbreak which led to the deaths of over 8,500 people. Lawyers from the U.S. government are representing the UN in this case. The judge will decide if the case can proceed to criminal trial.

China Central Television—“Evidence from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention later provided strong indication that UN peacekeepers were the source of the outbreak, but the UN has denied any links, and its own investigation into the cause was inconclusive.”

This Week in Ebola

Well, the number of Ebola cases this week reached over 10,000 with nearly 5,000 deaths including the first death in Mali. As the disease spreads within the U.S., Africa, and Europe, it might be a smart time to look at how SARS was stoppedChina is a good case study. After the diagnosis of an American health worker returned from West Africa, the states of New Jersey, New York and Illinois have moved to automatically quarantine health workers returning from the affected region. All this comes at a time when federal officials and the WHO say vaccine trials could begin in West Africa as early as January. Average Americans still have very little risk of catching Ebola, but that hasn’t stopped the culture of fear and concerns about state use of Ebola as a weapon. But don’t worry, National Geographic puts the Ebola epidemic in historical perspective. Still worried? You can blame Richard Preston.

Stories You May Have Missed

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

ISIS and Chemical Weapons

The Washington Post has reported that ISIS used an improvised chemical weapon containing chlorine to attack an Iraqi police patrol in Balad, north of Baghdad, in September, injuring 11 officers. Chlorine is readily available in Iraq given its widespread use for water treatment.

The good news is that ISIS’s use of chlorine indicates that it has not gained access to more toxic agents located at Muthanna, Iraq’s former chemical weapon production complex, which the group seized in June. That complex contains two bunkers with abandoned and degraded chemical agents and munitions that were sealed shut with concrete by UNSCOM almost twenty years ago. Breaching the bunkers to obtain the material inside would be extremely hazardous and would not likely yield readily usable agent or munitions given their age and storage conditions.

The bad news is that this attack is probably only the beginning. ISIS is the latest incarnation of the group Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which has had a long-standing interest in chemical weapons. AQI conducted a string of attacks in 2006 and 2007 that combined chlorine gas tanks and improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Due to the poor design of these improvised chemical weapons, most of the casualties were caused by the explosive component of the bomb, not the chlorine. AQI stopped using chlorine-laced IEDs due to their perceived ineffectiveness and a concerted effort by US intelligence and military forces to break up the network that had been constructing the weapons. ISIS, like AQI, has demonstrated a willingness to engage in extreme levels of violence, such as beheading captured fighters and civilians and conducting mass casualty attacks. The use of chlorine or other chemicals by ISIS fits this pattern of escalating violence and violation of norms to maximize the shock value of their actions.

Given the large swath of Syrian and Iraqi territory that ISIS now controls, the inability of local forces to launch offensive operations against ISIS, and the unwillingness of the Obama Administration to deploy even small numbers of U.S. soldiers in a combat role in Iraq, ISIS will likely be able to continue carrying out such attacks if they desire. Hopefully they will not learn any lessons from AQI’s previous experiments with this form of chemical terrorism.

The Islamic State: 5% of the Militarization Problem

By Erik Goepner

An estimated 1,000+ militant organizations currently operate in Iraq, Syria, or both. Comprising somewhere between 600,000 and 1 million fighters, each fights for its desired piece of the power pie. Professor Robert Bates of Harvard wrote that when states fail, “those with power employ it to extract resources from those without power. The latter flock to those who offer them security, albeit often for a price…Political predation from the top is thus accompanied by the militarization of civic society below.”* The “militarization of civic society” seems an apt description for Iraq and Syria, where IS and its ~30,000 fighters comprise just 5% of the overall armed presence.

The extent of militarization within both countries represents a substantially larger problem than IS alone. The 1,000+ armed groups, however large or small, each has a different perspective on what the future should look like, and each appears to agree with Mao that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.”

Should IS be defeated, approximately 1,000 armed groups would remain. They include the Iraqi army, of which 48% of its brigades are assessed as too sectarian to be a credible force against IS. Syria’s security forces, the next largest group, have been condemned for their systematic attacks against the civilian population, with more than 190,000 now dead. The third largest group is likely the Kurdish Peshmerga, which the U.S. has begun arming. With somewhere between 80,000 and 200,000 fighters, they fight for the Kurdistan Regional Government located in northern Iraq. Their goals remain somewhat unclear, but appear to include increasing territorial gains in Iraq and, potentially, the establishment of their own nation-state. The next largest, the Islamic Front, is an umbrella group for multiple Islamist groups comprised of an estimated 50,000 fighters intent on establishing an Islamic state in Syria. Depending on which estimates are more accurate, the fifth largest armed group is either IS or the Free Syrian Army.

A sample of the remaining 1,000 or so armed groups follows:

Estimated Fighting Strength Name Description
10,000 Mahdi Army (aka Peace Brigades) Shiite; fighting IS, historically has received support from Iran
10,400 Islamic Army of Iraq Sunni Islamist, nationalist; more inclusive of others within the Iraqi jihadist movement than IS
10,000 Badr Organization Shiite; previously aligned with the ISCI
5,000 – 6,000 al-Nusra Front Al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria
2,000 – 4,000 (“several thousand”) 1920s Revolution Brigades Sunni Islamist, nationalist; wants to install a state guided by Islamist principles in Iraq
1,500 – 15,000 People’s Protection Units (YPG) Kurdish; has been linked to Democratic Union Party (i.e., the dominant Kurdish party in Syria)
1,500 – 5,000 Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) Sunni; offers alternative to al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI)
1,000 – 5,000 League of the Righteous Shiite; opposed to al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army, thought to be fighting in both Iraq and Syria; supported by Iran

*see “State Failure,” Annual Review of Political Science, 2008.

Image Credit: Business Insider Australia

The Manifestos of the Islamic State, Part II

The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I is available here.

By Erik Goepner

Potential recruits hear at least two different messages from the Islamic State. The first is a grievance-based message that can, by definition, be ameliorated over time. The second, though, appears to be timeless, albeit subject to significant waxing and waning of appeal.

God infuses this second message, which makes it enduring. With more than 80 percent of the world’s inhabitants professing a religious identity, including 1.6 billion Muslims, God is bigger than the Beatles and it is Nietzsche who is dead. However corrupt IS’ message might be, it is God-focused. Each speech begins and ends with praises to Allah. References to key Quranic figures, such as Muhammad, are common. Verses from the Quran are interspersed throughout their proclamations.

No doubt IS carefully selects certain passages and overlooks others, but in its larger context, the verses remain the expression of God. For the faithful, that can be quite powerful.

The message also endures because of its purported purity. The message calls its hearers to purity before Allah and the message itself is pure, in that it is unambiguous. Purity before God is an important pursuit for many religious people, and this pursuit often requires personal sacrifice. At God’s command, Abraham had his knife out, ready to slay his own son. Flogged for their faith, Jesus’ followers rejoiced for being “counted worthy” of suffering for God. Sacrifices seen as callings from God can have profound implications for the pious believer.

IS also communicates a black and white story. In a nod to Hitler, Mao, and Pol Pot before them, grey cannot be found in IS’ messages, and with no shade of grey goes any need for doubt or accommodation. As a result, their message is particularly effective on youth, who have great capacity to see hypocrisy in others but oftentimes have not yet developed the wisdom needed to see their own hypocrisy and shortcomings.

As for IS’ grievance-based theme, it may be more successful in attracting recruits, but it need only have temporal appeal. “Upon whom do they [the Americans, Jews and rafidah] plot and conspire night and day?” The Islamic State, answers their spokesman (1:50 into the video). Transgressions are being meted out against Muslims in “Palestine, Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Burma, Nigeria, Somalia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, India, China, the Caucasus, and elsewhere,” claims IS.

As IS tells it, the Sunnis (often represented as the “true believers”) are under siege:

  • The Egyptian Brotherhood outlawed and imprisoned, again
  • Sunnis have become second-class citizens in Iraq following Saddam’s ousting
  • They are the “out-group” in Syria (despite being the majority)
  • Israel’s treatment of Palestinians
  • Killing of Muslims in Burma

In Andrew Bacevich’s recent op-ed, he notes Syria has become “at least the 14th country in the Islamic world that U.S. forces have invaded or occupied or bombed…since 1980.” This latest foray he expressively phrases, “Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV.” There is no hint that the force was unjustified, but rather his article raises interesting questions about how that force may be interpreted and reacted to.

Over time, the grievance-based theme can be substantially ameliorated by the efforts of a variety of actors within the Middle East (e.g., by enfranchising Sunni communities to a greater extent or providing increased economic opportunities for youth). The God-focused message, though, may prove more problematic. While its appeal seems to vary greatly through the centuries, the 9/11 Commission noted (see ch 12, p. 362) it follows a tradition “from at least Ibn Taymiyyah [~1300], through the founders of Wahhabism, through the Muslim Brotherhood, to Sayyid Qutb [1950s].”

So what is a possible way forward? “Reform coupled with respect,” suggests Fareed Zakaria, where intellectuals and theologians celebrate and emphasize the tolerant, liberal, and modern parts of Islam, while also giving devout Muslims reasons to take pride in their faith.

The Manifestos of the Islamic State: Part I

By Eric Goepner

The Islamic State’s recently released Flames of War is a sleek, 55-minute video that has led some to draw Hollywood comparisons.  Watching the film, observing its production quality, and use of branding, a viewer might conclude it represents growing capacity for the Islamic State and an increased skillfulness with respect to public affairs and propaganda.  Alternatively, the viewer might detect substantial incoherence between ideology/theology, which can be viewed as anti-Western and backward-looking (to the times of Muhammad), and the tactics they feel compelled to adopt.  Their propaganda tactics mimic Hollywood while their rhetoric deplores the West’s decadence and the technology they embrace is only created in future-oriented societies.  Either way, directly consuming IS’s source material has value beyond what can likely be learned from secondary sources alone.  For the strategy and military-minded, reviewing IS’s primary sources helps actualize Sun Tzu’s dictum to know your enemy.

Part of the picture which emerges from their primary sources suggests a reactive, perhaps helter-skelter, organization quite concerned about what other Muslims are saying about them.  The Islamic State’s press releases, speeches and videos can be as specific as the evils of the Iraqi government and the need to expand operations in Diyala province or as general as “everyone is fighting the state.”  The oscillation between the specific and general seems to have less to do with purposeful vision and strategy than it does with their current fortunes and, more importantly, the actions of others.

Both Flames of War and another recently released video indicate IS is quite concerned the public affairs campaigns of other Muslim groups are having a neutralizing effect against IS.  In a move that defies the Washington injunction to always deny wrongdoing or failure, IS includes footage of other Muslims criticizing them on issues of religious understanding and practice (see Flames of War minutes 23-24 and 4:50+ in the second video).  After, IS interestingly follows this section with graphic video of their own battle dead, only to then include footage suggesting Allah has strengthened them and given them the victory.

A year ago, in a brief video purportedly from their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, he railed against fellow Muslim nations, specifically Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.  Then, in July of 2014, Abu Bakr, the so-called caliph of the Islamic State, offered up more traditional propaganda, beginning with numerous quotes from the Quran, extolling fellow Muslims to be and do well during Ramadan, and so on.  When he did turn his attention to the threats that concerned him, he mentioned China first.  Soon after, his threat concerns spewed forth like an unguided brainstorming session:  the Philippines, Indonesia, the Kashmir, Burma, the leaders of the non-Muslim world—“America and Russia,” and on he went.  In all, he listed 19 countries as enemies of Islam.

Around the same time, their spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, released a 42-minute meandering speech via social media.  In it, he focused on the United States and Europe before expanding his critique to the Canadians and Australians.  Finally, he took aim at the alawites and Shiites.

As for Flames of War, it appears to be targeted at the United States and, perhaps, a broader western audience.  The frequent honorifics given to Allah and quotations from the Quran are gone, replaced with footage of American presidents and military operations.


Next week’s installment will focus on the Islamic State’s recruiting message. On a related note, you might find Andrew Bacevich’s recent opinion piece on the Greater Middle East Battlefield XIV an interesting read.

Image Credit: Mashable

Pandora Report 10.4.14

This week the round up includes Russian bird flu, pregnancy and flu, ISIS threats to British troops, and of course, an Ebola update.

Have a great weekend, don’t forget your flu shot, and keep smart about your news!

Russia Reports First Cases of Deadly Bird Flu in Two Years

Domestic chicken, geese, and ducks in the Altai Krai region of Russia, near the border of Kazakhstan, were found to be infected with the H5N1 serotype of bird flu. These are the first cases of the highly pathogenic flu in this area in nearly two years.

Reuters—“The latest outbreaks in Russia, which led to the death or culling of 344 birds, were thought to have come from wild birds. “Probably, hunted ducks and geese trophies had been placed in backyards where mortality occurred later in domestic birds,” the farm ministry said in its report.”

Why is Flu Virus Higher Risk for Pregnant Women? 

While HHS continues to prepare for pandemic flu, which could kill 60 million people, researchers at Stanford University have looked at the effects flu has on pregnant women. A pregnant woman’s immune system is strongly suppressed, but researchers say this alone cannot explain vulnerability to influenza. Researchers looked at the proportion and behavior of natural killer cells and T cells, which in the presence of flu increased and changed in function. These findings offer a possible treatment path—changing inflammatory response rather than just fighting replication of the virus.

Star Tribune—“Women who get the flu while pregnant have a much higher risk of hospitalization and death and are four times more likely to deliver a premature baby. During the 1918 epidemic, in fact, the death rate among pregnant women was at least 28 times that of the general population.”

ISIS Threatens to Gas British Troops in Iraq: Soldiers Ordered to Carry Chemical Suits

British Special Forces training Kurdish Peshmerga fighters and identifying RAF bombing targets in Northern Iraq have started carrying chemical protection suits. Intelligence sources warned that ISIS fighters may have stolen poison gas from Syrian forces who withheld the agents from destruction. ISIS is thought to have stolen sarin and chlorine gases when they raided a Syrian Air Force base two months ago.

The Mirror—“The [British] soldiers now carry nuclear and biological warfare protection and respirators. All vehicles are being fitted with gas detectors and an RAF Regiment trained in chemical warfare is on standby to fly to the region.”

This Week in Ebola

Oh, Ebola. The big story this week is that the virus arrived on American shores, with the first confirmed case in Dallas and potential cases of Ebola in the DC area being ruled out, the CDC is using contact modeling to help track potential cases in Texas. Arrival in the U.S. has caused an absolute avalanche of news stories and opinion pieces throughout the media. They have ranged from fear mongering about an epidemic in the U.S. and how quarantines would be ineffective, to why you shouldn’t worry about Ebola as a bioweapon. We saw the White House urging calm (and making awesome infographics) and medical facilities saying the average American citizen has nothing to worry about. Meanwhile, there were reports that Ebola poses a greater risk than SARS and AIDS and Louis Farrakhan tweeted that Ebola is a bioweapon against Africans. Use of hyperbole and misinformation do a disservice to those trying to responsibly inform Americans. We saw a case of a doctor in Liberia who quarantined herself in order to keep others safe and another Liberian doctor who seems to have effectively treated Ebola using HIV drugs. And, of course, the biggest problem was that Ebola could affect the cocoa trade. Oh wait, no, that’s what we in “the biz” call a #champagneproblem.

Stories You May Have Missed


Image Credit: Pregnant In The City

The Islamic State: Past is Prologue

By Erik Goepner

Current estimates of IS’ fighting strength range from 20,000-31,500—up significantly from previous estimates of 10,000. They control a swath of Syria and Iraq that roughly equates to the size of Great Britain.   And now, they are putting together a governance structure to facilitate the running of their nascent “caliphate.” Potentially, their goals may be as grand(iose) as enveloping the world within their so-called caliphate.

The United States’ strategy to counter the Islamic State, as well as the strategies of other nations and international organizations (e.g., the United Nations), continues to evolve. For America’s part, President Obama recently stated that America’s goal is to “degrade and ultimately destroy ISIL.” The strategy to achieve this goal will include a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism” component, ostensibly led by America and involving a broad coalition.

This goal, and the strategy to achieve it, sounds eerily familiar. In 2009, President Obama’s goal in Afghanistan and Pakistan was to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda. In 2003, President Bush’s goal was to succeed in Iraq—“the central front” in the war on terror—by “destroying the terrorists” (as the first of three objectives he had in Iraq). And, shortly after the attacks of 9/11, President Bush’s stated objective was to destroy and defeat the global terror network.

As for strategy, is it possible that the recently announced “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” is not that new? For the past thirteen years, America has been executing what seemed to be a comprehensive counterterrorism strategy, at least in terms of where it was employed (e.g., Iraq, the Horn of Africa, Afghanistan, the Philippines, Pakistan), how it was employed (i.e., all elements of national power, such as diplomatic, economic & military), and with whom it was employed (40+ nations in the “coalition of the willing”). And after thirteen years, the strategy is nothing if not “sustained.”

While the strength of the individual terrorist groups ebb and flow, a primitive measurement of IS’ current power suggests the aggregate Islamist terror potential may be higher now than at any time since 9/11. Al Qaeda’s 500-1,000 “A-list operatives” around the time of 9/11 seem to pale in comparison to IS’ 20,000+ fighters.

The post-9/11 “coalition of the willing” has evolved into today’s broad coalition. Speeches from America’s political leaders suggest this cannot be, primarily, a U.S. effort. Yet for the past thirteen years it has been just that: America’s young men and women going into harm’s way and bearing the costs. It is difficult to see how that will change now.

The past thirteen years suggest we may have set our sights on the wrong goal. On the one hand, chances are high we will fall short in achieving this objective, just as we have in defeating the “global terror network.” On the other hand, we might achieve the tactical victory at a particular space and time (i.e., defeat IS in Iraq and Syria in the near-term), but at the expense of unwittingly creating the conditions that usher forth a more severe future threat. Then, again, now could be different, and the past is simply the past.

Image Credit: NBC News