National Security and the Islamic State: Foreign and Domestic
(Dr. John M. Poindexter, February 3, 2016)
Transcript available below
About the speaker
Dr. John M. Poindexter most recently served as Director of the Information Awareness Office (IAO) at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Dr. Poindexter served as National Security Advisor and Deputy National Security Advisor for President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1986, and as Military Assistant in the White House prior to that. Dr. Poindexter served 29 years active duty in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy.
Since we have someone from the Navy speaking tonight, we’re going to run a tight ship and start on time. Although since I know there are some other people who are coming, I was tempted to ask the short people – there’s one of them – to ask the short people to sit in front so that people in the back could see the slides. Does it look okay to everyone from where you are you can see the slides? Okay, alright. Excellent.
Well, our speaker tonight really doesn’t need an introduction but I’ll make a brief one nonetheless. As you know, Admiral Poindexter served as National Security Advisor and Deputy National Security Advisor for President Ronald Reagan – remember? – from 1983 to 1986, and as military assistant in the White House prior to that. He was also responsible for improving the command and management systems to support the president and national security crisis management, culminating in the creation of a new high technology crisis management center.
We’re also happy to have Mrs. Poindexter with us tonight.
The late Mrs. Poindexter.
No, no, not the late Mrs. Poindexter, you’re very much alive.
Admiral Poindexter served for 29 years, active duty in the U.S. Navy, rising to the rank of Vice Admiral. While in the Navy, he specialized in training, new tactics, and battle management procedures, and pioneering use of chip board computers. That’s how he’s able to do the slide presentation. Something beyond my competence. He holds doctoral and master’s degrees in physics from the California Institute of Technology. He’s also a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. Now, most recently Dr. Poindexter served as a director of the Informational Awareness Office at DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency where he developed and demonstrated information technologies systems to counter asymmetric threats by achieving total information awareness useful for preemption, national security, and national security decision making. Please join me in welcoming Admiral Poindexter.
Admiral John Poindexter:
Bob, thank you very much. Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. As Bob so stated, I’m not an expert on Islam and I am a retired naval officer and scientist. But Bob asked me several weeks ago to come and speak and I asked him what he wanted me to talk about and he didn’t have an exact specification but I told him what I wanted to talk about. So what I want to talk to you about tonight is national security and how it relates to the Islamic State and what we can do about it from a foreign perspective and the domestic perspective.
And I want to compare it with what we did in the Reagan Administration. Our strategy in those years was based on five pillars: diplomatic, military, economic, public diplomacy – which, by the way, Bob is very big on – and covert operations. It’s very important to understand that an integrated strategy is essential because each action in each of the areas provides leverage to actions in the other areas and I strongly believe that we should be using this kind of strategy in the present situation with the Islamic State.
Now, it is true that the administration is maybe doing pieces of this, but it has not been integrated in any meaningful way and explained not only to the domestic audience, but also to our foreign audience. And I think that is one of the reasons that we are in a state right now of great uncertainty.
Geography of the Middle East
Many of you may be aware of the next few slides, but for those that are not, I want to talk a little bit about geography and the geopolitical situation, the geopolitical history. At the end of World War I, British and French diplomats, Sykes and Picot, came up with a scheme for dividing the old Ottoman Empire. It was primarily based on at the time on British and French interests. It was arbitrary in terms of the tribal and ethnic culture of the Middle East. In other words, the Sunni, and the Shia, and the Kurds. In hindsight, it is my belief that that was a huge mistake and we are suffering through the result of that right now.
The area involved is at present time anyway largely desert. Here is a Google Earth image of Syria and Iraq. And note that there are two major rivers that cut through this area, the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. But all of this area here is essentially desert.
Current Operational Picture
Now, the current operational picture in Iraq is represented here. Note that the yellow dots are the Kurds, the red dots are the Iraqi forces, and the black dots are the Islamic State. Also note that all of the activity occurs basically along the rivers, and, of course, the reason is that is where the people are.
Now moving on to Kurdistan. This is the northern part of Iraq. And again, the scheme is the yellow are the Kurdish forces, the red are the Iraqi forces, and the black dots are the Islamic State. And, of course, Mosul is a very large city presently occupied by the Islamic State.
Then in Syria the Islamic State is this grey-ish area. The Kurds are up here to the north, this area over here. The rebels are in these green areas. And the government controls the red areas. Now one of the things to note here is that this is a border with Turkey, and this area is presently occupied by the Islamic State.
Now, recently there have been reports that the Turks and the Kurds are working to close off this border area, which would be very helpful for the prosecution of the war.
Islamic State Control Expanding
Now the Islamic State control is expanding. It is shown here in December of 2014. And recall they announced the Islamic State in June of 2014. So the yellow-ish color here represents where the Islamic State forces were in December and this red represents the expansion that occurred by May of last year. Now, this slide is not exactly up-to-date because recently, as you heard there have been some advances of the Iraqi forces into Ramadi and in this area here.
Alright, now, this is the published Islamic State 5-Year Plan. Now, recall as I mentioned, the Islamic State is formed in June of 2014, and their stated goal is that the Islamic State will expand within five years to its natural, caliphal borders, in other words the black areas. This is the original Arabic and the English translation here.
Now, granted, one of my colleagues says that this is ridiculous, that they will never do that, and granted, it is a little over the top in terms of what they say they plan to do in five years. However, this kind of published plan within the Islamic State forces becomes a great aid in recruiting people to come from foreign countries into the area to participate in the battle. Just recently, there was a report of a radio calling themselves the Voice of the Caliphate, broadcasting in Afghanistan, and talking about Khurasan, so it is not out of the question. And it is certainly something that we should take seriously, that this is their stated objective. We should take that seriously and anticipate having to resist that movement.
Terror Battlefield Spreads
Here is from an article in The Wall Street Journal in January of this year, and it shows how the terror battlefield has spread, and the black dots here are major events, terror activity. Of course, San Bernardino here, the destruction of the Soviet/Russian aircraft [is] here, but the thing I want to point out is this bottom line, showing how the number of fatalities, which are represented by the size of the circles – the number of fatalities and the frequency of events have been increasing over the past few months.
Now, President Obama has said that the Islamic State is not an existential threat to the United States, but I would argue that it all depends on your definition of existential. Certainly, to the people who are murdered it is an existential threat, and we cannot ignore it, and cannot imply that we are willing to accept other San Bernardinos.
We are at War
So, in my opinion we are at war, and we ought to recognize that. The war is not against Islam, but it is against the Islamic State that holds an old interpretation of Islam, and I think this is a generally accepted definition these days, but Islamism is carried out by the Islamists. This interpretation of Islam, as Bob has described in great detail based on very significant research, this interpretation of the Qur’an that the Islamists are using was radical when it first was proposed centuries ago, and it is certainly radical in terms of the modern world, but it is supported in some of the Qur’anic passages, and that is one of the problems. And in my opinion, it is an existential threat.