The Landing Zone | 4.18.16
By Alan W. Dowd
The Islamic State will “attempt to direct attacks on the U.S. homeland in 2016,” warns Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. There are more terrorist safe havens today “than at any time in history,” reports Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. Britain’s counterterrorism chief says ISIS is planning “enormous and spectacular attacks” against Western targets.
The numbers behind the words paint an even grimmer picture: The FBI has approximately 900 active investigations into ISIS-inspired operatives in all 50 states. Some 250 Americans have attempted to travel to the Middle East to join ISIS. The FBI arrested five dozen U.S.-based ISIS supporters in 2015, up from a dozen in 2014. ISIS-inspired jihadists murdered 14 Americans in San Bernardino last December.
Overseas, ISIS fields an army of 36,500 foreign fighters, including 6,600 from the United States and other Western countries. The number of foreigner fighters aligned with ISIS in Iraq and Syria doubled between mid-2014 and the end of 2015. ISIS controls some 26,000 square-miles of Iraq and Syria. Thirty-four militant groups from around the world – from the Philippines to Uzbekistan to Nigeria – have pledged alliance to ISIS. And 10 countries are ISIS “provinces.” The ISIS franchise in Libya, for instance, controls 200 miles of prime Mediterranean coastline and boasts an army of 6,000 fighters, up from 1,000 just 18 months ago.
A congressional analysis reveals ISIS and its disciples have conducted 60 terrorist attacks in 20 countries outside Iraq and Syria. These include the Brussels bombings (31 killed), Paris siege (130 killed), Ankara bombing (102 killed), Russian airliner bombing (224 killed), Beirut market bombing (43 killed), Tunis bus bombing (12 killed), San Bernardino massacre (14 killed), Jakarta attack (seven killed), Istanbul suicide bombing (10 killed) and Aden car bombing (nine killed).
It gets worse. Clapper reports ISIS is using chemical weapons in Iraq and Syria, including sulfur-mustard, and is “taking advantage of the torrent of migrants to insert operatives into that flow.” Noting that 100 people from the Caribbean and South America have joined the ranks of ISIS, Gen. John Kelly, former commander of U.S. Southern Command, warns that existing human smuggling networks are “so efficient that if a terrorist or almost anyone wants to get into our country, they just pay the fare.” The network “overwhelms our ability to stop everything.” He bluntly adds, “While they’re in Syria they’ll get good at killing ... If they go over radicalized, one can expect that they’ll come back at least that radicalized, but with really good job skills.”
Add it all up, and ISIS is “more powerful now than al-Qaeda was on 9/11,” according to Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., chairman of a key House counterterrorism committee. Brett McGurk, the president’s envoy to the anti-ISIS coalition, calls ISIS “worse than al-Qaeda.”
But al-Qaeda is far from dead. It was revealed last October that U.S. forces launched an operation against two massive al-Qaeda bases in the Afghan province of Kandahar. One of the bases covered 30 square-miles. And al-Qaeda’s partner in crime, the Taliban, controls more of Afghanistan today than at any time since 2001, which explains why Gen. John Campbell, departing commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, urges a return to kinetic air operations across Afghanistan.
It’s no coincidence that this is happening as the American people turn inward, as Washington shrinks the reach, role and resources of the U.S. military, as policymakers from both parties conclude that it’s time to “focus on nation-building here at home” and “build some bridges here at home” and “build our own nation,” as the United States pulls back and disengages from its forward presence overseas.
But don’t take my word for it:
• “The failure to help build up a credible fighting force of the people who were the originators of the protests against Assad,” former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concludes, “left a big vacuum which the jihadists have now filled.”
• Noting that “inaction” carries “profound risks and costs for our national security,” former CIA director Gen. David Petraeus calls Syria “a geopolitical Chernobyl.”
• Gen. James Mattis, former commander of U.S. Central Command, laments how the United States has withdrawn into a “reactive crouch.”
• “By not intervening early, we have created a monster,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls of France says of the Syria debacle.
• “The moment they cease to be fought against,” former British Prime Minister Tony Blair says of our jihadist enemies, “they grow.”
This period of retrenchment was predictable. Like a pendulum, U.S. foreign policy was bound to swing back from the hyperactivity of the immediate post-9/11 era. It appears this shift is in line with what a majority of the American people believe: 58 percent of Americans say the United States “should not take the leading role ... in trying to solve international problems.” Pew polling reveals that 52 percent of Americans want the United States to “mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own” – up from 30 percent in 2002 and 20 percent in 1964.
But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? Secretary of State John Kerry seems to think so. “We cannot allow a hangover from the excessive interventionism of the last decade to lead now to an excess of isolationism,” he sighs. “Fatigue does not absolve us of our responsibility.”
President Obama sensed this war fatigue among the American people, and so he ordered a full withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. Just as it was a gamble for President Bush to launch the war and then the surge, it was a gamble for President Obama to withdraw from Iraq. With ISIS turning western Iraq and eastern Syria into a metastasis of regional chaos and global terrorism, it’s safe to say that gamble did not pay off. As former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta concludes, the White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
That’s an important point. It pays to recall that al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been eviscerated by the surge. But after the U.S. pullout, the remnants of AQI “morphed into the earliest version of ISIS,” as the Financial Times has reported, and began drawing disaffected Sunnis to its ranks.
Fearing just such an outcome, then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey noted in late 2011, “None of us recommended that we completely withdraw from Iraq.” Dempsey’s predecessor, Adm. Mike Mullen, urged the White House to keep 16,000 troops in Iraq as an insurance policy to protect the hard-earned gains of the surge. Then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Gen. Lloyd Austin (then-commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq) and Mattis all concurred.
In a similar vein, The American Legion’s national commanders have spoken out about jeopardizing post-surge gains. In 2014, then-National Commander Mike Helm expressed frustration with “a failed post-Iraq war policy that helped reverse most of the gains that Americans made after years of war.” Months before, then-National Commander Dan Dellinger declared, “Too many brave American men and women have sacrificed their lives and limbs in Iraq for us to disengage.” (Some will counter that ongoing airstrikes against ISIS underscore U.S. commitment, but military experts say this is a severely limited operation yielding limited results. Moreover, the number of bombs dropped on ISIS targets has steadily fallen since November 2015.)
ISIS thrived on the symbiotic chaos of Iraq and Syria, using the unchecked Syrian civil war and the lawless lands of Iraq as feedstock for its rise. By early 2014, ISIS was rampagingthrough western Iraq. By summer 2014, ISIS had captured Mosul and Tikrit. By fall 2014, ISIS was beheading Americans. By winter 2014, ISIS was targeting Christians and Yazidis in a campaign of genocide. By 2015, ISIS and its affiliates would hit Paris, then San Bernardino.
In short, there is a connection between what happens – and doesn’t happen –over there and what happens over here. As FBI Director James Comey concludes, “Their ability to have a safe haven from which to gather resources, people, plan and plot increases the risk of their ability to mount a sophisticated attack against the homeland.”