“And yet, no one seems to know who’s running it” (Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman N. Africa...)

July 27, 2015

This is one of an ongoing series of dispatches concerning ISIS -- Tom Gross

 

* Ex-government official: Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough – even in hindsight – to have predicted the movement’s rise.

* Today, thirty countries, from Nigeria to Libya to the Philippines, have groups that claim to be part of the Islamic State movement, with fighters from over 120 countries.

* We hide this phenomena from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. There have been no satisfactory explanations of what draws over 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar).

* They come from the social democracies (Sweden) and from monarchies (Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey) and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria), or allowed an Islamist party to be elected (Tunisia).

 

* Ahmad Fadhil was eighteen when his father died in 1984. Photographs suggest that he was relatively short, chubby, and wore large glasses. He wasn’t a particularly poor student – he received a B grade in junior high – but he decided to leave school. There was work in the garment and leather factories in his home city of Zarqa, Jordan, but he chose instead to work in a video store, and earned enough money to pay for some tattoos. He also drank alcohol, took drugs, and got into trouble with the police. So his mother sent him to an Islamic self-help class. This sobered him up and put him on a different path. By the time Ahmad Fadhil died in 2006 he had laid the foundations of an independent Islamic state of eight million people that controlled a territory larger than Jordan itself.

Who then could have imagined that a movement founded by a man from a video store in provincial Jordan would tear off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter historical institutions, and – defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest countries on earth – create a mini empire [with growing outposts around the world]?

The story is relatively easy to narrate, but much more difficult to understand. It begins in 1989, when Fadhil [later known as Zarqawi], inspired by his Islamic self-help class, traveled from Jordan to “do jihad” in Afghanistan. Over the next decade he fought in the Afghan civil war, organized terrorist attacks in Jordan, spent years in a Jordanian jail, and returned – with al-Qaeda help – to set up a training camp in Herat in western Afghanistan…

There is no evidence that ISIS initially received more cash or guns than other Jihadi groups. The al-Qaeda cash that launched the first variation of ISIS by Zarqawi in 1999 was, in his words, “a pittance compared to what al-Qaeda was financially capable of disbursing.” The fact that it didn’t give him more reflected bin Laden’s horror at Zarqawi’s killing of Shias (bin Laden’s mother was Shia) and his distaste for Zarqawi’s tattoos.

Yet the Shia Iranian regime gave Zarqawi medical aid and safe haven when he was a fugitive in 2002.

 

* Israeli military intelligence: “Sinai’s ISIS offshoot is most effective in Mideast -- And yet, no one seems to know who’s running it.”

For example, on July 1 they successfully coordinated attacks on 15 outposts and checkpoints simultaneously, spanning an area 12 kilometers (7.5 miles), killing dozens of Egyptian soldiers. These attacks demonstrate a high level of coordination, command and control, involving more than 100 fighters and a wide range of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

Since transferring its allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in late 2014, the group has on average perpetrated attacks every two or three days. This indicates an ability to regroup rapidly, as well as a steady supply of arms from Libya and Sudan. Rocket attacks by ISIS in the Sinai have also scored direct hits on Egyptian Navy vessels.

 

* Top U.S. national security officials at a mountain summit this past weekend described Islamic State militants as a fast-moving and confounding enemy, immune to some of the counterterrorism methods that appeared to work more effectively against al Qaeda.

Some suggested that efforts to counter Islamic State advances were yielding success, but others painted a picture of a militant group that operates with stealth and speed that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared to match. The Obama administration was criticized for having no clear strategy.

 

* The Islamic State group used chemical weapons in attacks against Kurdish civilians and fighters in late June in both Syria and Iraq, reports Reuters, the Daily Telegraph and other sources.

Victims “experienced burning of the throat, eyes and nose, combined with severe headaches, muscle pain and impaired concentration and mobility, and vomiting.” (More here from the Daily Telegraph.)

* The Assad regime (increasingly taking orders from Iranian generals on the ground) also continues to store and use chemical weapons against civilians and against more moderate Sunni opposition groups.

 

* British extremist “Jihadi John’ (the former Westminster University business management student Mohammed Emwazi) is said to have fled the Islamic State to other parts of Syria, fearing his usefulness is over, reports British media.

“Jihadi John” was responsible for the beheading of several western journalists and aid workers last year. (See here for my interview with a French journalist held with the executed British and American journalists.)

 

* More than 30 people were detained in a suburb of Moscow on suspicion of recruiting for the Islamic State. Russian Interior Ministry officials have confirmed that they made arrests on Friday at a mosque in Balashikha, about 20 km east of Moscow.

Russian intelligence services have recently recorded a rise in the number of Russian citizens who have gone to fight for ISIS in Syria and Iraq. Up to five thousand Russian Muslims and Muslim converts are now fighting for the jihadists, according to the head of the Anti-terrorist Center of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Andrey Novikov.

 

* Over 70 Christian churches in Niger are facing a lack of resources and difficult conditions in rebuilding, six months after a wave of Islamist attacks destroyed the churches in revenge for secular French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s drawings of the prophet Muhammad.

Islamists also destroyed several Christian schools and an orphanage, which have not yet been rebuilt. Niger is one of several African countries being target by IS affiliate groups, attacks on which are all but ignored by western media.

***

I attach three articles below.

For various reasons, the author of the first article needs to remain anonymous. He has worked for the government of a NATO member state.

-- Tom Gross

 

Among previous recent dispatches that had items on ISIS:

* The abandoned freelance journalists trying to report the world’s worst war, Syria (September 3, 2014)

* “Good to meet you, bro”: A poetic tribute to James Foley (September 3, 2014)

* Why ISIS murders (& Pushed to his death for being gay) (February 5, 2015)

* No hope of escape: the most repulsive video ever shot in a swimming pool (& NYT act out mass killings at work) (June 24, 2015)

* You can’t get married if you’re dead. (& Now they are beheading Al-Qaeda) (June 28, 2015)

 

* Please “like” these dispatches on Facebook here www.facebook.com/TomGrossMedia, where you can also find other items that are not in these dispatches.

 

CONTENTS

1. “The Mystery of ISIS” (New York Review of Books, August 13, 2015)
2. “Sinai’s ISIS offshoot is most effective in Mideast” (By Amos Harel, Haaretz, July 27, 2015)
3. “U.S. security conference reveals Islamic State as confounding foe” (By Damian Paletta, Wall Street Journal, July 27, 2015)


ARTICLES

THE MYSTERY OF ISIS

The Mystery of ISIS
By Anonymous
The New York Review of Books
August 13, 2015 Issue

Ahmad Fadhil was eighteen when his father died in 1984. Photographs suggest that he was relatively short, chubby, and wore large glasses. He wasn’t a particularly poor student – he received a B grade in junior high – but he decided to leave school. There was work in the garment and leather factories in his home city of Zarqa, Jordan, but he chose instead to work in a video store, and earned enough money to pay for some tattoos. He also drank alcohol, took drugs, and got into trouble with the police. So his mother sent him to an Islamic self-help class. This sobered him up and put him on a different path. By the time Ahmad Fadhil died in 2006 he had laid the foundations of an independent Islamic state of eight million people that controlled a territory larger than Jordan itself.

The rise of Ahmad Fadhil – or as he was later known in the jihad, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi – and ISIS, the movement of which he was the founder, remains almost inexplicable. The year 2003, in which he began his operations in Iraq, seemed to many part of a mundane and unheroic age of Internet start-ups and a slowly expanding system of global trade. Despite the US-led invasion of Iraq that year, the borders of Syria and Iraq were stable. Secular Arab nationalism appeared to have triumphed over the older forces of tribe and religion. Different religious communities – Yezidis, Shabaks, Christians, Kaka’is, Shias, and Sunnis – continued to live alongside one another, as they had for a millennium or more. Iraqis and Syrians had better incomes, education, health systems, and infrastructure, and an apparently more positive future, than most citizens of the developing world. Who then could have imagined that a movement founded by a man from a video store in provincial Jordan would tear off a third of the territory of Syria and Iraq, shatter all these historical institutions, and – defeating the combined militaries of a dozen of the wealthiest countries on earth – create a mini empire?

The story is relatively easy to narrate, but much more difficult to understand. It begins in 1989, when Zarqawi, inspired by his Islamic self-help class, traveled from Jordan to “do jihad” in Afghanistan. Over the next decade he fought in the Afghan civil war, organized terrorist attacks in Jordan, spent years in a Jordanian jail, and returned – with al-Qaeda help – to set up a training camp in Herat in western Afghanistan. He was driven out of Afghanistan by the US-led invasion of 2001, but helped back onto his feet by the Iranian government. Then, in 2003 – with the assistance of Saddam loyalists – he set up an insurgency network in Iraq. By targeting Shias and their most holy sites, he was able to turn an insurgency against US troops into a Shia–Sunni civil war.

Zarqawi was killed by a US air strike in 2006. But his movement improbably survived the full force of the 170,000-strong, $100 billion a year US troop surge. In 2011, after the US withdrawal, the new leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, expanded into Syria and reestablished a presence in northwest Iraq. In June 2014 the movement took Mosul – Iraq’s second-largest city – and in May 2015 the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the Syrian city of Palmyra, and its affiliates took the airport in Sirte, Libya. Today, thirty countries, including Nigeria, Libya, and the Philippines, have groups that claim to be part of the movement.

Although the movement has changed its name seven times and has had four leaders, it continues to treat Zarqawi as its founder, and to propagate most of his original beliefs and techniques of terror. The New York Times refers to it as “the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.” Zarqawi also called it “Army of the Levant,” “Monotheism and Jihad,” “al-Qaeda in Iraq,” and “Mujihadeen Shura Council.” (A movement known for its marketing has rarely cared about consistent branding.) I will simplify the many changes of name and leadership by referring to it throughout as “ISIS,” although it has of course evolved during its fifteen years of existence.

The problem, however, lies not in chronicling the successes of the movement, but in explaining how something so improbable became possible. The explanations so often given for its rise – the anger of Sunni communities, the logistical support provided by other states and groups, the movement’s social media campaigns, its leadership, its tactics, its governance, its revenue streams, and its ability to attract tens of thousands of foreign fighters – fall far short of a convincing theory of the movement’s success.

Emma Sky’s book The Unraveling: High Hopes and Missed Opportunities in Iraq, for example, a deft, nuanced, and often funny account of her years as a civilian official in Iraq between 2003 and 2010, illustrates the mounting Sunni anger in Iraq. She shows how US policies such as de-Baathification in 2003 began the alienation of Sunnis, and how this was exacerbated by the atrocities committed by Shia militias in 2006 (fifty bodies a day were left on the streets of Baghdad, killed by power drills inserted in their skulls). She explains the often imaginative steps that were taken to regain the trust of the Sunni communities during the surge of 2007, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s alienation of those communities again after the US withdrawal in 2011 through his imprisonment of Sunni leaders, his discrimination and brutality, and the disbanding of Sunni militias.

But many other insurgent groups, quite different from ISIS, often seemed to have been in a much stronger position to have become the dominant vehicles of “Sunni anger.” Sunnis in Iraq initially had minimal sympathy with Zarqawi’s death cult and with his movement’s imposition of early medieval social codes. Most were horrified when Zarqawi blew up the UN headquarters in Baghdad; when he released a film in which he personally sawed off the head of an American civilian; when he blew up the great Shia shrine at Samarra and killed hundreds of Iraqi children. After he mounted three simultaneous bomb attacks against Jordanian hotels – killing sixty civilians at a wedding party – the senior leaders of his Jordanian tribe and his own brother signed a public letter disowning him. The Guardian was only echoing the conventional wisdom when it concluded in Zarqawi’s obituary: “Ultimately, his brutality tarnished any aura, offered little but nihilism and repelled Muslims worldwide.”

Other insurgent groups also often seemed more effective. In 2003, for example, secular Baathists were more numerous, better equipped, better organized, and more experienced military commanders; in 2009, the militia of the “Sunni Awakening” had much better resources and its armed movement was more deeply rooted locally. In 2011, the Free Syrian Army, including former officers of the Assad regime, was a much more plausible leader of resistance in Syria; and so in 2013 was the more extremist militia Jabhat-al-Nusra. Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss show in ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, for example, that al-Nusra formed far closer links to tribal groups in East Syria – even marrying its fighters to tribal women.

Such groups have sometimes blamed their collapse and lack of success, and ISIS’s rise, on lack of resources. The Free Syrian Army, for example has long insisted that it would have been able to supplant ISIS if its leaders had received more money and weapons from foreign states. And the Sunni Awakening leaders in Iraq argue that they lost control of their communities only because the Baghdad government ceased to pay their salaries. But there is no evidence that ISIS initially received more cash or guns than these groups; rather the reverse.

Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss’s account suggests that much of the early support for the ISIS movement was limited because it was inspired by ideologues who themselves despised Zarqawi and his followers. The al-Qaeda cash that launched Zarqawi in 1999, for example, was, in their words, “a pittance compared to what al-Qaeda was financially capable of disbursing.” The fact that it didn’t give him more reflected bin Laden’s horror at Zarqawi’s killing of Shias (bin Laden’s mother was Shia) and his distaste for Zarqawi’s tattoos.

Although the Iranians gave Zarqawi medical aid and safe haven when he was a fugitive in 2002, he soon lost their sympathy by sending his own father-in-law in a suicide vest to kill Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, Iran’s senior political representative in Iraq, and by blowing up one of the most sacred Shia shrines. And although ISIS has relied for more than a decade on the technical skills of the Baathists and the Sufi Iraqi general Izzat al-Douri, who controlled an underground Baathist militia after the fall of Saddam, this relationship has been strained. (The movement makes no secret of its contempt for Sufism, its destruction of Sufi shrines, or its abhorrence of everything that Baathist secular Arab nationalists espouse.)

Nor has the leadership of ISIS been particularly attractive, high-minded, or competent – although some allowance should be made for the understandable revulsion of the biographers. Mary-Anne Weaver, in a 2006 Atlantic article, describes Zarqawi as “barely literate,” “a bully and a thug, a bootlegger and a heavy drinker, and even, allegedly, a pimp.” Weiss and Hassan call him an “intellectual lightweight.” Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger in ISIS: The State of Terror say this “thug-turned-terrorist” and “mediocre student…arrived in Afghanistan as a zero.” Weaver describes his “botched operation[s]” in Jordan and his use of a “hapless would-be bomber.” Stern and Berger explain that bin Laden and his followers did not like him because they “were mostly members of an intellectual educated elite, while Zarqawi was a barely educated ruffian with an attitude.”

If writers have much less to say about the current leader, al-Baghdadi, this is because his biography, as Weiss and Hassan concede, “still hovers not far above the level of rumor or speculation, some of it driven, in fact, by competing jihadist propagandists.”

Nor is ISIS’s distinctive approach to insurgency – from holding territory to fighting regular armies – an obvious advantage. Lawrence of Arabia advised that insurgents must be like a mist – everywhere and nowhere – never trying to hold ground or wasting lives in battles with regular armies. Chairman Mao insisted that guerrillas should be fish who swam in the sea of the local population. Such views are the logical corollaries of “asymmetric warfare” in which a smaller, apparently weaker group – like ISIS – confronts a powerful adversary such as the US and Iraqi militaries. This is confirmed by US Army studies of more than forty historical insurgencies, which suggest again and again that holding ground, fighting pitched battles, and alienating the cultural and religious sensibilities of the local population are fatal.

But such tactics are exactly part of ISIS’s explicit strategy. Zarqawi lost thousands of fighters trying to hold Fallujah in 2004. He wasted the lives of his suicide bombers in constant small attacks and – by imposing the most draconian punishments and obscurantist social codes – outraged the Sunni communities that he claimed to represent. ISIS fighters are now clearly attracted by the movement’s ability to control territory in such places as Mosul – as an interview in Yalda Hakim’s recent BBC documentary Mosul: Living with Islamic State confirms. But it is not clear that this tactic – although alluring, and at the moment associated with success – has become any less risky.

The movement’s behavior, however, has not become less reckless or tactically bizarre since Zarqawi’s death. One US estimate by Larry Schweikart suggested that 40,000 insurgents had been killed, about 200,000 wounded, and 20,000 captured before the US even launched the surge in 2006. By June 2010, General Ray Odierno claimed that 80 percent of the movement’s top forty-two leaders had been killed or captured, with only eight remaining at large. But after the US left in 2011, instead of rebuilding its networks in Iraq, the battered remnants chose to launch an invasion of Syria, and took on not just the regime, but also the well-established Free Syrian Army. It attacked the movement’s Syrian branch – Jabhat-al-Nusra – when it broke away. It enraged al-Qaeda in 2014 by killing al-Qaeda’s senior emissary in the region. It deliberately provoked tens of thousands of Shia militiamen to join the fight on the side of the Syrian regime, and then challenged the Iranian Quds force by advancing on Baghdad.

Next, already struggling against these new enemies, the movement opened another front in August 2014 by attacking Kurdistan, driving the Kurdish forces – who had hitherto stayed out of the battle – to retaliate. It beheaded the American journalist James Foley and the British aid worker David Haines, thereby bringing in the US and UK. It enraged Japan by demanding hundreds of millions of dollars for a hostage who was already dead. It finished 2014 by mounting a suicidal attack on Kobane in Syria, in the face of over six hundred US air strikes, losing many thousands of ISIS fighters and gaining no ground. When, as recently as April, the movement lost Tikrit and seemed to be declining, the explanation appeared obvious. Analysts were on the verge of concluding that ISIS had lost because it was reckless, abhorrent, over-extended, fighting on too many fronts, with no real local support, unable to translate terrorism into a popular program, inevitably outmatched by regular armies.

Some analysts have, therefore, focused their explanations not on the movement’s often apparently self-defeating military strategy, but on its governance and revenue, its support from the population, and its reliance on tens of thousands of foreign fighters. Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow of the Middle East Forum, has explained in recent blog posts how in some occupied cities such as Raqqa in Syria, the movement has created complicated civil service structures, taking control even of municipal waste departments. He describes the revenue it derives from local income and property taxes, and by leasing out former Iraqi and Syrian state offices to businesses. He shows how this has given ISIS a broad and reliable income base, which is only supplemented by the oil smuggling and the antiquity looting so well described by Nicolas Pelham in these pages.

ISIS’s power is now reinforced by the staggering arsenal that the movement has taken from the fleeing Iraqi and Syrian army – including tanks, Humvees, and major artillery pieces. Reports from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and Vice News over the last twelve months have shown that many Sunnis in Iraq and Syria now feel that ISIS is the only plausible guarantor of order and security in the civil war, and their only defense against brutal retribution from the Damascus and Baghdad governments.

But here too the evidence is confusing and contradictory. Yalda Hakim’s BBC documentary on Mosul makes rough brutality the secret of ISIS’s domination. In his book The Digital Caliphate, Abdel Bari Atwan, however, describes (in Malise Ruthven’s words) “a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.” Zaid Al-Ali, in his excellent account of Tikrit, talks about ISIS’s “incapacity to govern” and the total collapse of water supply, electricity, and schools, and ultimately population under its rule. “Explanations” that refer to resources and power are ultimately circular. The fact that the movement has been able to attract the apparent support, or acquiescence, of the local population, and control territory, local government revenue, oil, historical sites, and military bases, has been a result of the movement’s success and its monopoly of the insurgency. It is not a cause of it.

In ISIS: The State of Terror, Stern and Berger provide a fascinating analysis of the movement’s use of video and social media. They have tracked individual Twitter accounts, showing how users kept changing their Twitter handles, piggybacked on the World Cup by inserting images of beheadings into the soccer chat, and created new apps and automated bots to boost their numbers. Stern and Berger show that at least 45,000 pro-movement accounts were online in late 2014, and describe how their users attempted to circumvent Twitter administrators by changing their profile pictures from the movement’s flags to kittens. But this simply raises the more fundamental question of why the movement’s ideology and actions – however slickly produced and communicated – have had popular appeal in the first place.

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.

Nor was the surge in foreign fighters driven by some recent change in domestic politics or in Islam. Nothing fundamental had shifted in the background of culture or religious belief between 2012, when there were almost none of these foreign fighters in Iraq, and 2014, when there were 20,000. The only change is that there was suddenly a territory available to attract and house them. If the movement had not seized Raqqa and Mosul, many of these men might well have simply continued to live out their lives with varying degrees of strain – as Normandy dairy farmers or council employees in Cardiff. We are left again with tautology – ISIS exists because it can exist – they are there because they’re there.

Finally, a year ago, it seemed plausible to attach much of the blame for the rise of the movement to former Iraqi prime minister al-Maliki’s disastrous administration of Iraq. No longer. Over the last year, a new, more constructive, moderate, and inclusive leader, Haider al-Abadi, has been appointed prime minister; the Iraqi army has been restructured under a new Sunni minister of defense; the old generals have been removed; and foreign governments have competed to provide equipment and training. Some three thousand US advisers and trainers have appeared in Iraq. Formidable air strikes and detailed surveillance have been provided by the United States, the United Kingdom, and others. The Iranian Quds force, the Gulf states, and the Kurdish Peshmerga have joined the fight on the ground.

For all these reasons the movement was expected to be driven back and lose Mosul in 2015. Instead, in May, it captured Palmyra in Syria and – almost simultaneously – Ramadi, three hundred miles away in Iraq. In Ramadi, three hundred ISIS fighters drove out thousands of trained and heavily equipped Iraqi soldiers. The US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter observed:

“The Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.”

The movement now controls a “terrorist state” far more extensive and far more developed than anything that George W. Bush evoked at the height of the “Global War on Terror.” Then, the possibility of Sunni extremists taking over the Iraqi province of Anbar was used to justify a surge of 170,000 US troops and the expenditure of over $100 billion a year. Now, years after the surge, ISIS controls not only Anbar, but also Mosul and half of the territory of Syria. Its affiliates control large swaths of northern Nigeria and significant areas of Libya. Hundreds of thousands have now been killed and millions displaced; horrors unimaginable even to the Taliban – among them the reintroduction of forcible rape of minors and slavery – have been legitimized. And this catastrophe has not only dissolved the borders between Syria and Iraq, but provoked the forces that now fight the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen.

The clearest evidence that we do not understand this phenomenon is our consistent inability to predict – still less control – these developments. Who predicted that Zarqawi would grow in strength after the US destroyed his training camps in 2001? It seemed unlikely to almost everyone that the movement would regroup so quickly after his death in 2006, or again after the surge in 2007. We now know more and more facts about the movement and its members, but this did not prevent most analysts from believing as recently as two months ago that the defeats in Kobane and Tikrit had tipped the scales against the movement, and that it was unlikely to take Ramadi. We are missing something.

Part of the problem may be that commentators still prefer to focus on political, financial, and physical explanations, such as anti-Sunni discrimination, corruption, lack of government services in captured territories, and ISIS’s use of violence. Western audiences are, therefore, rarely forced to focus on ISIS’s bewildering ideological appeal. I was surprised when I saw that even a Syrian opponent of ISIS was deeply moved by a video showing how ISIS destroyed the “Sykes-Picot border” between Iraq and Syria, established since 1916, and how it went on to reunite divided tribes. I was intrigued by the condemnation issued by Ahmed al-Tayeb, the grand imam of al-Azhar – one of the most revered Sunni clerics in the world: “This group is Satanic – they should have their limbs amputated or they should be crucified.” I was taken aback by bin Laden’s elegy for Zarqawi: his “story will live forever with the stories of the nobles…. Even if we lost one of our greatest knights and princes, we are happy that we have found a symbol….”

But the “ideology” of ISIS is also an insufficient explanation. Al-Qaeda understood better than anyone the peculiar blend of Koranic verses, Arab nationalism, crusader history, poetic reference, sentimentalism, and horror that can animate and sustain such movements. But even its leaders thought that Zarqawi’s particular approach was irrational, culturally inappropriate, and unappealing. In 2005, for example, al-Qaeda leaders sent messages advising Zarqawi to stop publicizing his horrors. They used modern strategy jargon – “more than half of this battle is taking place in the battlefield of the media” – and told him that the “lesson” of Afghanistan was that the Taliban had lost because they had relied – like Zarqawi – on too narrow a sectarian base. And the al-Qaeda leaders were not the only Salafi jihadists who assumed that their core supporters preferred serious religious teachings to snuff videos (just as al-Tayeb apparently assumed that an Islamist movement would not burn a Sunni Arab pilot alive in a cage).

Much of what ISIS has done clearly contradicts the moral intuitions and principles of many of its supporters. And we sense – through Hassan Hassan and Michael Weiss’s careful interviews – that its supporters are at least partially aware of this contradiction. Again, we can list the different external groups that have provided funding and support to ISIS. But there are no logical connections of ideology, identity, or interests that should link Iran, the Taliban, and the Baathists to one another or to ISIS. Rather, each case suggests that institutions that are starkly divided in theology, politics, and culture perpetually improvise lethal and even self-defeating partnerships of convenience.

The thinkers, tacticians, soldiers, and leaders of the movement we know as ISIS are not great strategists; their policies are often haphazard, reckless, even preposterous; regardless of whether their government is, as some argue, skillful, or as others imply, hapless, it is not delivering genuine economic growth or sustainable social justice. The theology, principles, and ethics of the ISIS leaders are neither robust nor defensible. Our analytical spade hits bedrock very fast.

I have often been tempted to argue that we simply need more and better information. But that is to underestimate the alien and bewildering nature of this phenomenon. To take only one example, five years ago not even the most austere Salafi theorists advocated the reintroduction of slavery; but ISIS has in fact imposed it. Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough – even in hindsight – to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.

(Books reviewed: ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan; ISIS: The State of Terror, by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger)

 

NO ONE SEEMS TO KNOW WHO’S RUNNING IT

Sinai’s ISIS offshoot is most effective in Mideast, senior IDF official say
And yet, no one seems to know who’s running it.
By Amos Harel
Haaretz
July 27, 2015

Wilayat Sinai is a well organized and highly skilled terrorist organization. That’s the impression senior Israel Defense Forces officers have gotten from the Islamic State-affiliated group after its string of attacks on Egyptian security forces in Sinai, culminating in a major attack near the town of Sheikh Zuweid on July 1.

A senior officer in the IDF’s Southern Command told Haaretz that an analysis of the latter incident, including the footage Wilayat Sinai itself shot and posted on YouTube, clearly shows that the attack was planned by professionals. The militants attacked 15 outposts and checkpoints simultaneously, spanning an area 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) wide. “Every Egyptian outpost in this sector took fire,” he said.

How many casualties the attack caused remains in dispute, though: Wilayat Sinai said it killed more than 60 soldiers; the Egyptian army said it lost only 23 soldiers, and killed dozens of terrorists.

The IDF officer said the attack demonstrated a high level of coordination, command and control. It involved more than 100 fighters and a wide range of weaponry, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.

The organization’s combat capabilities are steadily increasing over time, he added, and many of its fighters are willing to sacrifice their lives in frontal assaults on Egyptian outposts or in suicide bombings. Wilayat Sinai has also become increasingly skilled in deploying explosives, including booby-trapped cars. In recent attacks, it has used a tactic familiar from other parts of the Middle East, including Iraq and Lebanon: sending a booby-trapped car to blow up the gate to an army compound, followed by fighters who storm the compound’s interior.

On average, the group has perpetrated attacks on Egyptian forces every two or three days over the past six months. That indicates an ability to regroup rapidly, as well as a steady supply of arms. Wilayat Sinai apparently has a large stockpile of weaponry, and also smuggles in more from Libya and Sudan. Since transferring its allegiance from Al-Qaida to Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) in late 2014, the group has benefited from a clear increase in outside financial assistance.

For the past two years, Wilayat Sinai has refrained from attacking Israel, aside from sporadic rocket fire at the south; its top priority is its war against the military regime in Cairo. But the IDF is preparing for the possibility that it might step up its efforts to attack Israel in the future.

In the first half of this year, more than 100 members of the Egyptian security services were killed in terror attacks. Given Wilayat Sinai’s small size – it apparently commands no more than a few hundred fighters – this makes it the most effective Islamic State franchise in the Middle East in terms of the ratio between the number of fighters it deploys and the number of casualties it inflicts.

But despite the group’s steadily improving capabilities, it seems that both Egyptian and Israeli intelligence are still in the dark about the identities of the people running it. The IDF admits it doesn’t know who Wilayat Sinai’s military commander is. And given the extremely close security cooperation between Israel and Egypt in Sinai, this presumably means the Egyptians don’t know, either.

To enable Egypt to fight Wilayat Sinai and other radical Islamist groups in the peninsula more effectively, Israel has gradually allowed Cairo to move far more forces – both infantry and armor – into northern Sinai than are authorized under their peace treaty, and also to deploy weaponry forbidden by the treaty. Among other things, the Egyptians are now using Apache helicopters and F-16 fighters to conduct aerial assaults on these groups.

 

“ISIS OPERATES WITH STEALTH AND SPEED THAT THE U.S. GOVERNMENT ISN’T PREPARED TO MATCH”

U.S. Security Conference Reveals Islamic State as Confounding Foe
By Damian Paletta
Wall Street Journal
July 27, 2015

ASPEN, Colo. – Top U.S. national security officials at a multiday mountain summit described Islamic State militants as a fast-moving and confounding enemy, immune to some of the counterterrorism methods that appeared to work more effectively against al Qaeda.

Some suggested that efforts to counter Islamic State advances were yielding success, but others painted a picture of a militant group that – particularly on social media – operates with stealth and speed that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared to match.

“We didn’t perfect the process of sharing information and sharing intelligence until this emergency really exploded in our faces,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, now a top State Department official who leads the government’s effort to combat Islamic State.

The three days of panels at the Aspen Security Forum demonstrated the extent of the challenge facing Gen. Allen and other law enforcement, security, intelligence, military, and foreign policy leaders as they continue to re-evaluate their approach to the militant group.

U.S. officials described two glaring challenges. First, the places where Islamic State thrives-northern Iraq, Syria, and Libya – are major U.S. intelligence blind spots. The U.S. government has no military or diplomatic presence in these areas and it is difficult to monitor activity.

Second is the challenge posed by Islamic State’s use of social media to recruit supporters and inspire followers to carry out attacks in the U.S. Against al Qaeda, U.S. officials had successfully tracked and disrupted networks often made up of trusted allies with long-standing relationships. Islamic State militants, however, often have much looser bonds, and have motivated attacks with people who militants never meet in person.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said these militants connect with possible sympathizers by using the social media network Twitter, then they hold conversations by using encrypted technology that the U.S. government has a hard time monitoring.

After this point, its difficult to know who of the estimated 20,000 people following Islamic State’s messages on Twitter might carry out an attack, he said. The length of time between initial contact with militants and an attempted domestic terrorist attack can be very quick, or can have a longer fuse.

“The flash-to-bang’ is both short and unpredictable with ISIL,” Mr. Comey said, using an acronym for the group.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.) appeared at the conference over the weekend and unloaded on the Obama administration’s approach to combating Islamic State, saying, “We have no strategy” – a criticism he repeated four times.

The Aspen conference is styled as a relaxed setting for top U.S. government officials to meet with academics, business leaders, and others to discuss security concerns. Neck ties are frowned upon, and some attendees – though not military leaders – wear jeans and sport coats. The retreat center is on a bluff above the Roaring Fork River. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said three bears had congregated outside his lodge one night.

In 2014, leaders met at the summit just weeks after Islamic State shocked U.S. and Iraqi officials by invading and capturing Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq. Many were unsure how long Islamic State militants would be able to gain or hold footholds in Iraq and Syria.

But this week, U.S. officials offered no timeline for defeating the group or even a concise strategy for its ouster. Islamic State militants still hold Mosul and they have expanded their grip into other parts of the country, notably the Anbar province and the key city of Ramadi. They have also gained footholds in Africa, sending operatives to Libya and forming a loose alliance with Boko Haram militants in Nigeria.

The U.S. this week secured agreements with Turkey to step up the tempo of a military-led effort. But illustrating the depth of U.S. concern, Mr. Comey said the FBI also has active investigations into terrorist groups in all 50 U.S. states. Mr. Johnson said he is meeting around the country with Muslim groups to try to address what he described as “violent extremism” among many young men.

Despite months of efforts to disrupt Islamic State’s revenue supply, Daniel Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, said, “They have a lot of money.”

Gen. Allen said U.S. officials are re-evaluating their approach for counting Islamic State’s message on social media, suggesting that efforts by the State Department and other agencies so far have borne little fruit. He suggested a more effective communications strategy might require “an Arab face and a Muslim voice.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said that many military successes against Islamic State in the Middle East had only served to push the militants to regroup somewhere else. Victories can appear short-lived, he said.

“What we’ve seen is, you apply pressure and then the bulge comes out somewhere else,” he said.

Despite the rhetorical hand-wringing, there were some bright spots. A number of U.S. officials said that efforts to combat al Qaeda had proven extremely successful and they said the group’s reach had been greatly diminished.

Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said many of the terror groups U.S. officials are currently tracking lack the “scale” that al Qaeda used to embrace, and he said the likelihood of a large terrorist event like the 2001 attacks had been greatly reduced.

“Scale matters in my mind and none of the terrorist actors that we are confronting… at present have at their ready disposal right now the ability to carry out attacks of that size and scale,” he said.

The gathering didn’t focus exclusively on terrorist attacks. National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers said for the first time that in the past nine months, his surveillance had detected “huge spearphishing campaigns,” a reference to a type of cyberattack that tries to trick unwitting email recipients to download malware. He also said he had recently issued a high-level directive toward one of his teams to mobilize to protect a computer network against an attack, though he wouldn’t provide more details.

While the officials also discussed concerns involving China, North Korea, Iran, Russia and drug cartels, the discussion rarely strayed far from Islamic State.

In a steady drizzle Friday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed the summit in a large outdoor tent. He said efforts against the terror network were ongoing, but he made an ominous prediction about terror attacks on U.S. soil carried out or inspired by the group.

“I personally think it’s a question of time before we have more of these than we’ve had already,” he said. “It’s a very daunting challenge for us.”

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.