The Three Dynamics of the Fight Against ISIS

| Michael Morell
Michael J. Morell
Former Acting Director, CIA

Michael Morell, the former Deputy Director and twice Acting Director of CIA, spoke with The Cipher Brief about battling ISIS and how the terrorist attacks in Brussels last week could impact U.S. and European strategies moving forward. 

The Cipher Brief:  A week has passed since the attacks in Brussels.  Can we step back and take a broader look at the fight against ISIS?

Michael Morell:  There are three important dynamics under way with regard to ISIS.  The first is that the forces fighting against ISIS in Iraq and Syria are making progress.  Those forces are increasingly taking territory back from ISIS — ISIS has now lost 40 percent of its caliphate.  Just this weekend, it lost the historic city of Palmyra in Syria.  And, ISIS is losing some key leaders.  It is fair to say that ISIS has never been under as much pressure in its caliphate as it is today.  This is, of course, a very good thing.  The ISIS leadership needs to be permanently removed from the battlefield, and its safe haven needs to be eliminated, completely.    

So, as I said, a good thing.  But we need to keep some things in mind about this first dynamic.  One is that we have a long way to go in this fight.  ISIS in Iraq and Syria is not going to go away as fast as it emerged.  We are not going to take Raqqa and Mosul anytime soon.  This will take time. 

Another is that the word “permanently” in the phrase “permanently remove the leadership from the battlefield” is important.  Capture is preferred over kill because of the potential intelligence gain.  But when we capture someone, we need to be certain that they stay captured.  Most people do not know that many senior ISIS leaders were once in U.S. custody in Iraq.  When we left Iraq, we turned them over to the Iraqis.  They eventually escaped.  We cannot allow this to happen. 

And, finally, we need to be careful using the word “we” in the sentence “We are putting pressure on ISIS.”  Why?  Because “we” implies the U.S. and its allies.  “We” are certainly playing an important role, but so are the Iranians, Hezbollah, Russia, and the Assad regime (Palmyra was taken by Syrian ground forces with air support from Russia).  Of that list, one is a U.S.-designated state sponsor of terrorism, another is itself a U.S.-designated international terrorist group, one is a state trying to undermine the international order, and one a regime that has slaughtered hundred of thousands of its own people.  Great allies. 

TCB:  Are you saying you wish they were not fighting ISIS?

MM:  No, I’m not saying that at all.  They are currently the lesser of two evils.  ISIS is priority one.  It is just important to remember that because these folks are a big part of the push against ISIS, they will have a big say in the decisions that will be made about the future of Iraq and Syria.  If you pay, you get to play.  Not exactly a diplomatic term, but you get the point.

TCB: You said three dynamics? 

MM:  Right.  The second dynamic is that Europe is facing an unprecedented terrorist threat.  And I chose the word “unprecedented” carefully.  ISIS and its supporters have conducted roughly a dozen attacks in Europe in the last two years.  Half of those have occurred in the last six months.  So, the pace is quickening, and the scale of those attacks is growing.  More attacks are coming.  No question about it.

The size of the problem in Europe is huge.  The investigation into Paris and Brussels shows that the ISIS network is extensive, much larger than anyone thought.  Some 5,000 West Europeans went to fight for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  Some 2,000 have come home.  That is a very large problem to get your arms around.  And that does not even mention the homegrown terrorists in Europe.

The network is also operationally sophisticated, garnered from training in Iraq and Syria.  Bomb makers and bomb making facilities, document forgery, secure communications through the use of throw-away phones and the use of commercial encryption, the clandestine movement of money, etc.  Also, they are beginning to focus on catastrophic attacks; the Belgian authorities have noted an ISIS interest in either attacking a nuclear power plant directly or stealing radioactive material from one for a dirty bomb attack.

And then there is the capacity and capability of European intelligence and security services.  The capacity question – that is, having the resources to do the job – is the responsibility of the political leadership, and they are failing in this regard.  The capability question is the responsibility of the leadership of the services, and there is failure here as well.  For example, not asking Salah Abdeslam about future attack planning when he was arrested 10 days ago may be the biggest error of judgment I have ever seen in counterterrorism.  You do not need to be a professional to know that is the very first question you ask. 

TCB:  Could a Paris or Brussels-style attack happen in the U.S.?

MM:  Ah, the question.  I’ve been interested to see that many of the op-eds that have been written on this question over the last week have concluded “probably not.”  I think that is wrong.

It is absolutely true that it would be difficult – but not impossible – for ISIS to develop the same kind of network here in the U.S. that it is has developed in Europe.  None of the factors that have come together to create the Europe threat – the failure to integrate Muslim communities into society, the huge foreign fighter flow to Iraq and Syria, the weaknesses of the intelligence and security services – are at play in the U.S.

But just because Paris and Brussels could not happen here exactly the same way they did in Europe does not mean that they can’t happen.  Not a logical conclusion at all.  Indeed, there are two ways we could have a Paris or Brussels-style attack in the U.S. – one, a group of homegrown terrorists come together to plot and conduct a major attack, and two, and more likely, a group of clean European terrorists take advantage of the ease of travel to the U.S. — take advantage of the Visa Waiver Program — to come to the U.S. to conduct an attack.  This is what I meant when I said on Face on Nation on Sunday that the threat in Europe is also a threat to us.  This is what I meant when I said the terrorist problem in Europe is a clear and present danger to the U.S.

TCB:  What do you mean by “clean” terrorists? 

MM:  The Visa Waiver Program no longer applies to Europeans who have traveled to Iraq or Syria.  And, hopefully, if we know the identity of someone who went to Iraq and Syria to fight for ISIS, that person would be on the no-fly list.  But, the problem is that we can’t possibly know everyone who went to Iraq and Syria.  If they drove from, say, France to Turkey and crossed the border illegally into Syria, we may well not know.  That is what I mean by clean – us not knowing.

TCB: The third dynamic?

MM:  Just one more point on the European problem, and this will be a good transition to the third dynamic.  Europe could well be a harbinger of what is to come in other parts of the word.  As we put more pressure on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, more and more of the 40,000 foreign nationals who went there to fight for ISIS are going to go home.  That will give ISIS an opportunity to build in other parts of the world the same kind of network they have built in Europe.

So, the third dynamic is the very rapid growth of the ISIS ideology outside of the Middle East.  This is the rise of ISIS affiliates.  Over 30 militant groups in roughly two dozen countries have joined the ISIS cause.  Libya is the poster child of this.  In Libya, ISIS now has some 6,500 fighters, foreign fighters are flooding the country, and ISIS is making territorial gains.

Why do we care about this?  We care because the rise of these groups, along with the inspiration and guidance they receive from ISIS will lead to further instability in these parts of the world and over time these groups will become platforms for attacks against the west.  I believe that it will not be long before ISIS in Libya starts attack planning in Europe.

TCB:  What do you think it would take to reduce—if not eliminate—the threat from ISIS?

MM:  I would look to a three-part strategy for where we are now. 

First, we and our allies need to continue to pressure ISIS in Iraq and Syria.  We need to intensify those efforts, short of putting 100,000 US troops on the ground, which is the wrong thing to do.  We made a number of enhancements to our effort post-Paris, and I can think of a number of overt and covert steps we could take now.  Iraq and Syria are the heart and soul of ISIS; the caliphate is a huge part of the group’s narrative.  Defeating ISIS and its ideology around the globe requires victory in Iraq and Syria And, in a perfect world, we would over time squeeze out Iran, Russia, Hezbollah, and Assad and squeeze in our Sunni partners, although it is much easier said than done.

Second, because the terrorist threat in Europe is a threat to us, we need to help Europe gets its arms around the problem they face.  We can’t just hope that they will do so.  We need to lead them.  We need to say to them “We know how to do this, we will bring our data to the table, you will bring your data to the table (and we will tell you what you need to bring), together we will fuse it into actionable information that will allow you to wrap up the network in Europe and that will allow us to protect ourselves here in the homeland.  Getting to where we need to be with Europe may well require not only the leadership of our intelligence community but also that of the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department.

Third, and finally, we need to sit down with our allies and prioritize our efforts against the ISIS affiliates.  Which affiliates pose the greatest threat today and in the near term?  Who do we go after first?  How do we do that?  And, who has responsibility for different pieces of what needs to be done with regard to a specific group?

At the end of the day, if a major attack happens here in the U.S., we need to be able to look ourselves in the mirror and say that we did everything we could have to have prevented it – not just because of the lives that are stake but because of the policy overreaction that could result – actually leading us to do things that at the end of the day would make us less secure.  There is a great deal at stake.

The Author is Michael J. Morell

Michael Morell, the former Acting Director and Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, is one of our nation's leading national security professionals, with extensive experience in intelligence and foreign policy.  He has been at the center of our nation's fight against terrorism, its work to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and its efforts to respond to trends that are altering the international landscape—including the Arab Spring, the rise of China,... Read More

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