Among the most significant challenges in countering terrorism today has been the dynamic nature and fluidity of ISIS, which has evolved from a more traditional terrorist branch of Al Qaeda, to a merged organization with other terrorist groups, to a terrorist force controlling territory in multiple nations, to an international terrorist movement, now with even de-centralized terrorist supporters willing to commit terror attacks around the world – independently. In every stage of the ISIS evolution, however, it continued to remain constant in supporting extremist ideas, while those countering it have struggled to wage any type of real offensive “war of ideas” against it.
While the Establishment governments, institutions, and media are only interested in reporting about the activities of ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, where they actively control territory at this time, the reality is the the ISIS terrorist movement is much more of a global challenge to the security of the nations of the world.
The number of estimated ISIS supporters varies wildly, depending on the source, anywhere from nearly 50,000 to 250,000. The most recent estimate of ISIS supporters inside Syria and Iraq has been recently estimated at 20,000 by U.S. officials in late 2016. Others major concentrations of ISIS terrorist supporters are located in West Africa (7,000-10,000), Libya (6,500), Jordan (several thousand), Turkey (1,000), Yemen (300), Afghanistan and Pakistan (between 300 – 2,000), Saudi Arabia (1,600), Russia, India, Algeria, and the United States (where in November 2015 there were a reported 900 active ISIS investigations ongoing). Around 27,000 supporters are believed to have joined the ISIS terrorist movement since the start of Syria’s civil war five years ago, with between 5,000 and 7,000 of them arriving from Europe, 800 from United Kingdom, and an estimated 250 from the United States of America.
For the American readers, let me repeat, this includes (nearly a year ago) nearly NINE HUNDRED active terrorist cases involving ISIS terrorist suspect in the United States of America. The FBI has reported that ISIS terrorists have been radicalized among Americans in every one of the 50 states of the United States.
In Europe, as ISIS has lost to military forces in retaining some areas in Iraq and Syria, some of the European recruits have returned back to Europe, with European security sources expecting thousand of ISIS trained terrorists to return to Europe. As of this week, European security is currently aware of 30 to 40 ISIS terrorist suspects at large across Europe – this is clearly just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the ISIS terrorist threat to both Europe and the United States.
Any institution would be challenged to keep up with the rapid metamorphosis of such a terrorist movement like ISIS, but a tactics-based counterterrorist establishment, focused on military, law enforcement, and intelligence tactics has certainly been ill-equipped to “fight” ISIS. Even as a military-centric approach to ISIS has been haltingly pursued by the U.S. and other countries, ISIS has evolved with ideological propaganda and nimble global recruitment methods to gain new supporters literally around the world.
As each military “success” is trumpeted to be “defeating” ISIS, its evolution as a global terrorist movement has allowed ISIS to expand the theater of warfare to any and every street, town, and city across the world. To find a solution to effectively challenge ISIS, we need to recognize the seriousness of this threat and employ new human rights-based measures which challenge the very extremist ideas that ISIS seeks to promote, and why such anti-human rights ideologies are destructive to both its supporters and the rest of humanity.
Using counterterrorism offensive measures from 15 years ago, the American and Western nations leaders thus far would prefer to fight the sources of terrorism through military means (where possible), with a focus on threats in the Greater Middle East. These tactics provide several benefits to such leaders: (a) they provide a tangible demonstration of such governments “doing something” offensively against terrorist camps, (b) they transfer the focus of such terrorist and extremist views to those in other “foreign” countries (not in their own or “ally” countries), and (c) they, in fact, do stop some structured terrorist groups and disrupt some leadership.
The challenge has remained that, other than a limited law enforcement-centric approach in the actual United States homeland, a very significant portion of resources and emphasis has been put in tactics to fight the “last war” in the Greater Middle East for the past 15 years. But instead of gaining more security for the American nation, over time, we are actually seeing a diminishing security position from such military intervention. It has come to the public’s realization, and there is a sense of frustration both among the general public, as well as within the military, who feel they have been saddled with “go slow” tactics specific to the ISIS movement that don’t allow them to “do the job” and get out of there.
The military tactics involved with the ISIS movement are uniquely complicated for the United States leadership due to the multiple countries involved, changing alliances, and a previous commitment to expedite disengagement of the USA from Greater Middle East wars, the U.S. leadership has been confused and frustrated on what tactics are appropriate when dealing with ISIS. The initial tactics by the U.S. government leadership were to diminish the perception of the threat of ISIS, with the now notorious statement by President Obama, that ISIS was a “Jay Vee” (a slang for “junior varsity” sports teams in high school) level of terrorist group, with the obviously mistaken perception that ISIS posed no real terrorist threat.
The primary focus on terrorist threats to the USA homeland have migrated from the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda terrorist group (given haven by the Taliban) to the ISIS terrorist movement. The ISIS terrorist attacks have been less focused on mass-casualties, and more focused on frequency and low security targets, making their threats less “predictable” and “structured,” but more random and diverse, including threats and killings in small town and areas, which previously would have considered themselves outside a threat to “terrorism.”
The fundamental roots of the ISIS terrorist movement come from a branch of the Al Qaeda terrorist; Al Qaeda was behind the largest mass casualty terrorist attack in history on the United States on 9/11/2001. Its success spawned Al Qaeda branches in different parts of the world to continue such terror activities. This process of global terrorist expansion has now been taken over by the ISIS terrorist movement on a truly world-wide scale.
In the course of seeking to end the war in Iraq, the U.S. government signaled its intentions, and the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization was able to leverage the military pullout to gain territorial gains. In 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq re-formed itself as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) merging with other groups, and it used pullouts and military weakness between 2006 to 2013 to develop strongholds in Mosul, Baghdad, Al Anbar, Diyala, and Baqubah. ISI then sent terrorists to Syria in 2011 to fight against the Syrian government. Through its its success in capturing cities, ISI then proclaimed itself to be a worldwide caliphate in June 2014, and it gained further control of parts of Libya as well as parts of Syria and Iraq, becoming the multi-national terrorist force we know today as “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham”, “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or simply “ISIS.”
ISIS has used this concept of building a global Islamic “caliphate” out of a series of nation-states in the Greater Middle East as a vision of the future for Islamist extremists, who are drawn to this message. Many others have spoke about and called for this idea for the past 20 years, from Al Qaeda to Hizb ut-Tahrir (who has appeared with the U.S. DHS and a White House adviser) and have promoted this view of a global caliphate to develop a major new “Islamic” territory with the land, funds, and resources to truly challenge other parts of the world. This vision of a caliphate of Islam not only to defy, but also to someday defeat and conquer the “non-Islamic” world is a tangible vision to encourage Islamist extremists to join and support the ISIS terrorist movement.
While ISIS was recruiting global members for a vision of ultimate world-wide domination, our Establishment was dismissing their threat as a “Jay Vee team” terrorist. Once again, this demonstrates the danger of a tactical approach to counterterrorism that measures by manpower, weapons, control of cities, rather than understands the power of IDEAS in influencing how people think and believe. It demonstrates the impotence of such tactics that do not understand without a “war of ideas” against those building a global movement based on “ideas,” we have not even begun to fight.
Much has and will be written about the endless activities, campaigns, and permutations of the detailed military campaigns regarding ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Libya. This is very important, but has been extensively addressed elsewhere. That is not the point of what I write about regarding ISIS here, because the greater global threat of ISIS has not been in its terrorist activities in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, but the real global threat has been the metamorphosis of ISIS from a “caliphate” and “terrorist army” to an international “movement.”
At the same time as ISIS promoted this vision of a global caliphate to its supporters, it also demonstrated a new low in human rights atrocities and genocide against Christians, Yazidis, Shiite Muslims, and others, the likes of which we have not seen since Adolf Hitler’s Holocaust. The amount of genocidal mass murder by the ISIS terrorist movement is unknown, but the 72 mass graves that have been found thus far in former ISIS territories in Iraq and Syria indicate that in 17 of these 72 mass graves, there may readily be 15,000 who were mass murdered. In these mass graves alone, if the estimated mass murders are comparable in the other graves out of these 72 graves, we could see 60,000 mass murders just here.
Not only has ISIS introduced multi-national genocide of religious minorities, it has also aggressively introduced mass slavery of women, and it has sold women slaves on Facebook for sexual slavery, rape, and worse. The depravity of ISIS has publicized and even “normalized” such crimes against humanity as genocide, mass murder, slavery, rape, and every possible form of human butchery to mass audiences eager for such horrors around the world. ISIS has not only “televised” its Islamist extremist terrorist revolution, it has used the global video power of the Internet to televise mass murder, rape, torture, and butchery of every kind. Not a week goes by without ISIS “televising” some new video of crimes against humanity: burning people alive, sawing people into pieces, beheadings, boiling people in tar, throwing homosexuals off of the top of building, stonings, and more. With each new step of depravity, ISIS has managed to dehumanize those who oppose them more and more, and normalized the worst forms of barbaric evil in the hearts of its supporters around the world, including in the United States.
But our Establishment political and counterterror tactician do not see that as an “existential” threat to our societies.
Despite all of these barbaric horror, atrocities, and crimes against humanity, our leaders and our human rights organizations have not developed a comprehensive, consistent, and determined human rights campaign against the ISIS terrorist movement. This, more than anything else, demonstrates the total failure of a tactical approach to fighting the ISIS anti-human rights horror.
While the U.S. foreign policy, military, and security forces were working to fight using the tactics of the last war to defeat ISIS, ISIS made a dramatic transnational leap in terrorist tactics, which coincided with a new form of social media that allowed more instant communication anywhere in the world, using any language, called “Twitter.” While “Twitter” was formed in 2006, the widespread use of Twitter significantly accelerated around 2012, about the same time that ISIS was aggressively recruiting for members to help its terrorist army in Iraq and Syria.
During most of this same timeline, another technology advancement occurred, the creation by Apple of a combined mobile phone/computer appliance called the iPhone. The iPhone gained increasing capabilities of Internet usage, integration with the Twitter application for mobile utilization, and quick and ready integration with a built-in camera for still and video purposes. While the iPhone was first announced in 2007, the year after the initial formation of ISIS, it became a global phenomenon in late 2008-2009, and by the time more advanced features were added to the iPhone in 2012, potential ISIS supporters could be recruited on a mobile basis around the world using the Twitter application.
The extensive use of ISIS in infiltrating Twitter has allowed it to use the instant, worldwide, and multiple language sources of Twitter to promote ISIS calls for terrorism, to plot specific terrorist plots, and to recruit followers all over the world. The introduction of the iPhone also allowed for ISIS terrorists to use this tool on mobile basis, literally anywhere in the world with mobile Internet connectivity. While iPhone internal GPS tools have allowed this same technology to track the physical location of some ISIS followers, many, especially those in Syria and Iraq, simply don’t care if counterterror tacticians are gathering such information, and baldly announce there whereabouts and plans in open defiance of counterterror and military authorities – daring them to stop their terrorist actions.
Other ISIS iPhone users have disabled such GPS tracking and also have deployed encryption tools for their messaging, as well as Apple’s iPhone built-in encryption. As we saw in the aftermath of the San Bernardino ISIS terrorist attack, Apple was unwilling to help in disabling such iPhone encryption to allow the FBI to gain information after the terrorist attack, and while the FBI eventually found a way to access the phone, weeks were lost in assessing any potential information. Apple has indicated that its newer iPhone tools will have an even greater and sophisticated encryption tools — this is in addition to other ISIS custom encryption application s and other encryption such terrorist can now use.
In February 2016, Twitter reported that it had deleted 125,000 ISIS Twitter accounts. But for every account that Twitter takes down 50 to 100 new accounts get created by ISIS and ISIS supporters. In addition to the global reach and multiple languages in Twitter, it also provides an immediate and ready way for people to find and share information they are interested in using the keyboard hashtag (“#”) in front of a term, name, word, or phrase – in any language, including Arabic. The ISIS use of Twitter has been a key aspect of its recruitment activities around the world, and especially in Europe, the United Kingdom, and especially the United States. Of the top four countries in the world, where computer computer users are promoting ISIS propaganda – Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iraq – and then the United States.
While such public use of ISIS social media recruitment helps American counterterrorism tactical groups to help document suspects involvement with ISIS, the greater challenge is that non-criminal sharing of ISIS propaganda has reached untold millions and millions of individuals, from which to find those who are interested in following its terrorist cause.
In the United States of America, with ISIS followers in every state of the United States, this ability to recruit and promote ISIS propaganda — with virtually NO human rights counter-message to untold thousands, perhaps millions, of viewers — is a serious and dangerous terrorist threat to U.S. homeland security.
For every ISIS terrorist supporter that such ISIS Twitter propaganda may allow our FBI to document criminal cases, how many more are impacted and recruited to support the ISIS cause without such consequences?
In addition to such open source Internet tools such as Twitter, ISIS has moved on to use many other social media, information sharing, and messaging tools, including JustPaste.it,Telegram and other mobile messaging applications (“app”s). The ISIS terrorist movement’s propaganda machine includes its Amaq media arm, its own private Internet spaces on the “dark web,” and those regularly promoting their propaganda, such as pro-ISIS media arm, Wafa Media Foundation, as well as video posted on YouTube around the world. There global Internet presence is certainly not their only method of recruitment, as ISIS now has an in-place worldwide recruiting force, meeting and gaining members in person throughout the Greater Middle East, Africa, Southeast Asia, Russia, Australia, China, Europe, the United States, and we have recently learned even in South and Central America.
ISIS has grown from a limited terrorist group to a global terrorist movement. While our Establishment political leaders and counterterror experts are confident once they militarily defeat ISIS in its Greater Middle East strongholds of Iraq, Syria, and Libya, these tactician have failed to grasp the danger that it has allowed by letting ISIS provide a vision of a “caliphate” to its supporters. Whether or not ISIS is defeated militarily for now, the ISIS vision and ideas will continue, until we START to fight ISIS in the “war of ideas” on human rights and human dignity. Even if allied military forces destroy every ISIS physical outpost today, they deadly failure was allowing ISIS to build a structure of a caliphate to inspire new ISIS terrorist supporter not just in the near future, but also for years to come.
While President Barack Obama waves away the potential threat of ISIS as certainly not an “existential” threat to the United States, his inability to understand the need for a human rights war of ideas to challenge the ISIS anti-human rights and pro-caliphate vision, demonstrates his inability to understand ISIS’s threat – not only to the United States, but also to the world.
America and the world need new leadership which understands the gravity of the threat of the ISIS terrorist movement, and which will also put in place a human rights offensive to spread a counter-message to the ISIS propaganda around the world. If we do not work to regain the hearts and minds of the untold thousand, perhaps millions of ISIS terrorist movement supporters, to recognize the imperative need for human rights and human dignity, the short term military and terrorist struggles we see today will end up as a generational battle to come.