Both the CIA Director, John Brennan, and the former DIA Director, LTG Mike Flynn, insist that the Paris attacks are a sign of things to come. FBI director James Comey has confirmed that there are 900 active ISIS investigations across the US. Although the US is tired of fighting terrorism and the political apparatus is tugging wistfully towards more civilized battles, we seem drawn back towards a visceral reality, that the real, existential threat may still be radical Islamists in our midst.
I am not going to bother with disclaimers of imperfect knowledge or the complexity of the situation – that goes without saying. I will simply offer five points that I think should be considered when going about the business of defeating Daesh. These are all obvious to most of you, so I write them partly out of catharsis.
- Identify allies within the Islamic community who oppose Daesh. Without a critical mass of Islamic leaders and fighters who oppose terrorism, the task of defeating Daesh is infinitely harder. For those who would write off all Muslims as terrorists, they lack the experience of working alongside pro-Western Muslims who oppose Daesh. Muslim nations and leaders must take the lead in countering the narrative, mustering the political and military might to suppress Islamist terrorism, and financing the war against Daesh.
- Understand the value propositions on both sides. For those that have taken the time to watch Daesh recruitment videos, you will notice a powerful narrative – join a global cause, be part of something eternal, be welcomed into a larger family, be approved by God… These are motivations that have been belittled by the Western world as small incentives, and yet they are drawing recruits in droves. It is folly to underestimate the power of this value proposition. In a clash of orthodoxies, the one that provides an eternal metanarrative has more recruiting power and staying power. Conversely, a culture that teaches all is finite logically produces members who are more prone to avoid mortal combat (as a matter of practicality). We can try to overcome this fact with superior technologies, but in asymmetrical warfare, a superior technology can become too big to fail, which makes it ripe for disruption (through low tech attacks, swarms, DDOS, SWATting, hacking, and the like, or budget cuts).
- Political Will is a Double Edged Sword. Following 9-11 and following this weekend’s tragic attacks there is the political will to act. This kind of will allows for the sudden alignment of typically gridlocked political bodies, but also permits rash action. These are the precise moments when a premeditated national security plan and ongoing discipline of wargaming are most important. If we anticipate another attack on US soil, the reactions should be mostly known in advance, and for the fog of war, we rely on good leaders to have wisdom.
- Islamic Terrorism is a Long War. For those who recall ancient history as if it were yesterday and anticipate the eternal afterlife could be experienced tomorrow, time has a way of expanding. This is a rehashing of a point made above, but distinct in that it contrasts with the shortsighted political cycles of the west. We live from election to election, buffeted by the polls and media and trends. Who has the stomach to hear that this could be a century long war? If we were to admit that, would it only serve to legitimize Daesh in ways that ultimately serve its agenda rather than our own? There are some military advisers who suggest this long view.
- Go to the top, when possible. This effort requires dealing with the powers behind the proxies. Otherwise, the game of terrorist whack a mole is tantamount to treating symptoms rather than the disease. Terrorist funding is as evil as terrorist attack, and we should approach it that way. Looking the other way in the name of diplomacy, in the end, is actually just weakness.