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The Future of the War on Terror – ISIS and After

May 8, 2019

Ilan Berman

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About the speaker

Ilan Berman is Senior Vice President of the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington, DC. An expert on regional security in the Middle East, Central Asia, and the Russian Federation, he has consulted for both the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the U.S. Department of Defense, and provided assistance on foreign policy and national security issues to a range of governmental agencies and congressional offices. He has been called one of America’s “leading experts on the Middle East and Iran” by CNN.

Mr. Berman is a member of the Associated Faculty at Missouri State University’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. A frequent writer and commentator, he has written for the Wall Street JournalForeign Affairs, the New York TimesForeign Policy, the Washington Post and USA Today, among many other publications.

Mr. Berman is the editor of four books – Dismantling Tyranny: Transitioning Beyond Totalitarian Regimes (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), co-edited with J. Michael Waller Taking on Tehran: Strategies for Confronting the Islamic Republic (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007), and Iran’s Strategic Penetration of Latin America (Lexington Books, 2015), co-edited with Joseph Humire, and most recently, The Logic of Irregular War: Asymmetry and America’s Adversaries (Rowman & Littlefield, 2017) – and the author of four others: Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam (Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America (Regnery Publishing, 2013), and Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power (Encounter Books, 2015).

He previously spoke at Westminster on the subjects of Iran’s Global Ambition, The Drivers of Russian Strategy in the Middle East, and Russia in the Middle East.


Robert R. Reilly:

Well, it’s a particular pleasure to welcome Ilan Berman back as he has been a friend and speaker at Westminster Institute before. He is the Senior Vice President at the American Foreign Policy Council, an ally institution which resides on Capitol Hill and which does such a great deal of terrific work on foreign policy questions. I happened to see Herman Pirchner last night, who’s the president and founder of the institution and Ilan kindly brought me Herman’s new book, Post Putin: Succession, Stability, and Russia’s Future, just a sample of the kind of work that AFPC does.

Well, back to Ilan and his work there in which he covers in depth the Middle East, Russia and adjoining areas, Iran, and so forth. He’s written four books, the titles of which I think you’ll find enticing; Tehran Rising: Iran’s Challenge to the United States – sounds quite contemporary, it’s an evergreen – Winning the Long War: Retaking the Offensive Against Radical Islam, Implosion: The End of Russia and What It Means for America, and Iran’s Deadly Ambition: The Islamic Republic’s Quest for Global Power.

Ilan has also edited four books and I’m going to just tell you the title of one of the four because it pertains to the subject he’s addressing tonight, The Logic of Irregular War: Asymmetry and America’s Adversaries. Tonight, he’ll be addressing, “The Future of the War on Terror — ISIS and After.” Welcome, Ilan.

Ilan Berman:

It’s really a pleasure to be back here at Westminster. This is one of my very favorite places to come and talk. I know some of you. I don’t know all of you. I do have to give a particular shoutout to my mafia, which is my students or my former students from the Missouri State’s Department of Defense and Strategic Studies. Free plug for the university, the dean will be very happy.

Let me start out by just saying, first of all, thank you, Bob. This is really a pleasure and a treat. I feel a little bit like a comedian, so if you guys have ever seen comedians, they have a life cycle to their acts. And so they go to the little clubs and work out their act and they go to slightly bigger venues when they have their minutes accumulated and it’s an iterative process because they’re refining their core arguments.

My core arguments don’t have nearly as funny punchlines, but I’m doing the same thing because my institute is working on a big project relating to strategic partners in the war of ideas against radical Islam. And the starting point of that discussion is precisely what we’re going to talk about today, which is what’s the future of the war on terror? Where are we now? We have to know where we are to know where we’re going or where we should be going and what the dangers are that lay ahead. So I think that’s a really good place to start.

It’s very easy in this media environment in which every day brings with it seventy-eight media cycles and nobody pays attention to anything for many than twelve minutes to imbibe what the press, the mainstream press, is talking about when it talks about the fact that ISIS is over, ISIS is done. That’s I think a misnomer. It’s also something that unfortunately has been perpetuated by a lot of triumphalism on the part of the administration, on the part of foreign officials, the Iraqi government for example, that are very eager to turn the page on the Islamic State. And so there is a perception that now that we have declared – arbitrarily I would argue – victory against the Islamic State, we’re done. And the real moving question is what comes next and do we care about what happens in the Middle East? Are we sort of turning our attention to other things. I would argue not so fast.

Look, I think it’s very clear that tremendous progress has been made and it’s even fair to say that the caliphate stage of the Islamic State is over. Over the last year we’ve seen what amounts to a catastrophic decline in the Islamic State.

At the height of its power in late 2014, early 2015, the Islamic State controlled a territory of roughly 81,000 square miles, which is geographically equivalent if you can picture a map, geographically equivalent to an expanse the size of the United Kingdom. And they controlled eight million citizens that lived on that territory, therefore they became the effective government for the people that live there. That’s a population on par with Israel, on par with Switzerland, and they generated a revenue of about one to one-and-a-half billion dollars a year. They were the single most well-funded threat group in history. These budgets obviously pale in comparison to actual nation-states but they are quite something when you look at ISIS as compared to other near peers, Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, other groups.

Today, by contrast it has been almost entirely destroyed. It’s certainly been destroyed physically. As of late March we have rolled up – we and our dozens of partners in the global coalition against ISIS – have rolled up the physical caliphate and we’ve eliminated the last vestiges of ISIS control from Iraq and Syria, but there is a big ‘but’.

And this reminds me, I think the period we’re in right now in terms of counterterrorism policy reminds me of a famous quote by my friend Jim Woolsey. Some of you may know him. Jim Woolsey, the former CIA Director, Bill Clinton’s first CIA Director, at his confirmation hearing in 1993 in describing the post-Cold War environment that prevailed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, “We have slayed a large dragon, but now we live in a jungle filled with a bewildering variety of poisonous snakes, and in many ways the dragon was easier to keep track of.”

And I think that’s actually a really good way to describe the situation that we’re in now because for a long time, for three years, four years, ISIS has been the shiny object in the mirror. It’s been the organization, the threat actor, that has occupied the lion’s share of our attention. What we’re discovering now – and I’m going to make the case in a second that ISIS is down but it’s not out for a whole host of reasons – but we’re also beginning to notice that as we focused on ISIS, other threats have grown in the shadows and have done so in a material way that impacts our strategy moving forward in counterterrorism.

And what this new era in what used to be called the war on terror is more complicated and I would argue it’s more challenging and it’s really defined by at least five distinct traits. So with your forbearance, I’m going to try to walk you guys through them to give you a sense of what we’re looking at and how I like to slice and dice the threat environment that we have currently.

So the first challenge: we should start where we ended, which is the Islamic State. ISIS is down. It’s not out. Even though the caliphate stage is over, the group remains a global force for a series of reasons. First of all, it’s adaptive. The best analogy I’ve come up with – and it may not be great. I’m going to torture you with it anyway – is that ISIS is like a tube of toothpaste. So when a child grabs a full tube of toothpaste and squeezes really hard in the middle, the toothpaste doesn’t go away. It comes out of the top and it comes out of the bottom. We have squeezed ISIS really hard in its center, its geographic center of Iraq and Syria.

And what we’re finding is the Islamic State has begun to adapt because ISIS is a living, breathing organism and it’s begun to reposition itself and it’s repositioned itself to places like North Africa where they’ve declared Libya an important “second front,” second caliphate potentially. They have surged in southeast Asia. A year ago this month, there was a series of bombings throughout Indonesia that was carried out by ISIS returnees working as families. This wasn’t just isolated bombers. These were families of returnees. Indonesia has a serious ISIS problem now, so do the Philippines, so does Malaysia. ISIS is expanding into Africa. It has a new franchise in the Sahel region, which is just south of the Maghreb. ISIS is even poised for a comeback in the Middle East.

The latest DOD Inspector General Quarterly report regarding operations against the Islamic State ended with a judgement that given ISIS’s remaining strength, battlefield strength, and its ability to reorganize, it could reclaim lost territory and regroup in as little as six to twelve months in the absence of a continuing U.S. presence in Iraq and Syria. That is a remarkably short period of time and it suggests to us that everything that we’ve gained even though they’ve been hard fought gains are very transient in nature without continued focus and continued pressure.

The second major reason why we need to still worry about ISIS is that the organization retains significant force strength. And here, I’m not a numbers guy as my students know, but here are some numbers that I think are important because it’s useful to think about ISIS and the size of the cohort that ISIS managed to mobilize in historical context. So between its rise in early 2014 and the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in late 2018, the intelligence community judges that the Islamic State managed to mobilize approximately 40,000 foreign fighters from roughly eighty to eighty-two different countries around the world, countries in Europe, countries in Africa, countries in Asia, countries in the Middle East, that self-organized, self-mobilized, transitioned to the Middle East to join the ranks of the Islamic State.

By the way, in terms of historical analogy, it is useful to point out that that number, that figure that ISIS managed to generate in three-and-a-half years, is twice as large as the number of foreign fighters that joined the Afghan Jihad in the decade between 1979 and 1989. So I say that to point out that I know some people say that history repeats itself. I would argue it may not repeat itself, but it rhymes, and if you look at the trajectory of security in the 1990s, a lot of it had to do with returnees from the Afghan Jihad and the type of instability they brought with them when they returned to their countries of origin.

We are now looking at a trained, mobilized networked cohort that is twice as large as what we saw in the 1990s. In fact, Europe is petrified precisely because of this problem. When Europe talks about the returnee threat, this is precisely what they’re talking about. They’re worried about these mobilized, trained alumni now of the Syrian jihad that may return back into the eurozone.

And today, most of that care is still intact. The Pentagon estimates that only about – as of last fall – only about a quarter of that entire cohort, only about 10,000 out of those 40,000 had been taken out of commission, have been killed, have been captured, have been detained either by local forces or by coalition forces, and that there are 30,000 active potential militants that still exist. Now, they are dispersed, scattered, but they are resilient and they are networked and they communicate, and therefore, the rump strength of the Islamic State – I would argue – has been diminished far less in its constituent parts that it has been in the whole.

Which leads us to where they’re going. That’s the second trend because we’re seeing now, and I would argue we’re going to see over the next several years, is a resurgence of local jihad. Let me start this by saying it’s a truism in all things that everyone loves a winner and everyone hates a loser and it’s certainly true in terms of the War on Terror.

So what you saw when ISIS was rising was this heated intellectual tug-of-war between the Islamic State and the group that birthed it, Al Qaeda. And you had all these different affiliates that oscillated between the two. It’s the jihadi, superpower struggle if you will, and ISIS won that struggle handedly and by 2016, nearly three dozen separate, radical groups had made common cause or pledged allegiance, pledged bayah, to the Islamic State and to its self-declared emir, to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. This included Boko Haram, Nigeria’s Boko Haram splintered and half of it became an ISIS affiliate. This includes most of the Caucasus Emirate, which is Russia’s main jihadist group, most of which affiliated with the Islamic State. There are some vestiges that have not yet, but most of it has. This includes radicals like Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which was the local militant, Salafi militant group that operated in the Sinai Peninsula, separated between Israel and Egypt, which formally pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and became their Sinai Province. The list goes on.

So all of these groups, I would argue, have been deeply affected by the decline of ISIS, but they haven’t been fundamentally derailed by them and there’s a very simple reason for that. Almost without exception all of these groups if you rack and stack all of the different affiliates that at one time were part of the ISIS constellation, all of them existed before ISIS did, all of them had independent structures, all of them had independent funding, and all of them had independent leadership, and almost without exception, all of them still do. So what we’re actually seeing now is a splintering of a once consolidated Salafi-Jihadi goal and movement as these groups return back to their countries of origin, return back to their regions of origin, and engage in more localized activity there.

To be sure, they can still brand it as part of the global jihad as they did in Sri Lanka during the horrific Easter attacks that happened there, but make no mistake, this is a local campaign. This is now a local campaign that is being waged by all these different groups. And you’re seeing the manifestation of this in an uptick in violence in the Lake Chad region, an uptick in anti-regime violence in Somalia by Al Shabaab, and the list goes on. But this is the new complexion. We used to focus on the global nature of the Islamic State. The Islamic State has now fallen apart into its constituent parts. They still talk, they still communicate, they may be thinking globally, but they’re acting locally.

This gets us to the third trend, which is the terrain in which they are operating because I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but these groups now are operating in a more permissive strategic environment. There is a more receptive Arab polity today than at any time in the recent past to the type of political structures and ideology that these groups are promoting.

There’s a very simple reason for this as well. Look, the Arabs are tired. The Arab majority countries of the MENA region, the Middle East and North Africa, there are seventeen of them, we’re going to exclude Iran, which isn’t Arab, we’re going to exclude Turkey, which isn’t Arab, we’re going to exclude Israel, which certainly isn’t Arab, the majority Arab countries of the Middle East and North Africa cumulatively, the median age is 26 for those countries. So what that means as a practical matter is that most of these populations have lived through conflict for their entire adult lives. With the exception of just a couple of years at the tail end of the 1990s, these people have grown up in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, the Arab Spring and the local conflicts that have erupted as a result of that, the Syrian Civil War. They’re tired.

So there are regional perceptions that ISIS was hazardous to your health. ISIS did itself a tremendous disservice by showing that it was really toxic to the environments that it was operating in and it bred a counteraction. It bred a reaction from groups like Al Qaeda and its affiliates that they were a more moderate – let’s be clear, they’re not moderate – they style themselves as more moderate, more authentic global variant, and they were less hazardous to local health than was the Islamic State. And so now, what you’re seeing is these groups, groups like variants and offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood, groups like Hayat Tahrir Al Sham in the north of Syria, groups like Al Qaeda in Yemen, and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Africa, all of these groups are experiencing greater receptivity than they have been before because the Arabs are tired and as a result of the fact that they’re tired, the appeal of models of political governance like authoritarianism or Islamism holds greater appeal to them than they would have in the past. They’re more receptive.

So put another way, the initial promise of the Arab Spring – we all remember the initial promise of the Arab Spring of democracy spreading throughout the Middle East and North Africa – has been replaced by the threat and I think the very real threat of an Islamist winter as these groups take hold in more and more places throughout the Arab and the Muslim Middle East. And so I know I at least am a big fan of Game of Thrones. I don’t know if you guys are, but I have to say, winter is coming. Winter is coming because this is a polity that is more receptive now than they have been in the past to precisely the ideas that these dispersed entities are peddling. And they’re peddling them in a number of different ways.

So the fourth trend, which is enormously concerning for a lot of us that work in the domain of public diplomacy, the domain of information warfare is that the jihadi message is resilient and it’s enduring. ISIS maintains a compelling ideological message that continues to resonate despite the territorial collapse of the caliphate. I was in Morocco earlier this year and in my government meetings, I repeatedly asked the same question, “What does the jihadi movement, the global jihadi movement, look like after ISIS?” And there answer was different variants of exactly the same answer, which is, “What are you talking about? What do you mean after ISIS? We’ve seen no change in mobilization, no change in radicalization, no change in the core patterns of indoctrination.”

Even though the unifying entity of the Islamic State as a territorial state may be gone or may be diminished, the intellectual appeal of the Islamic State is still there. It’s as prevalent as ever. The message is now, despite territorial losses, we are enduring and we are expanding. We don’t care about tactical losses because we have a strategy and the rationale for jihad is still present as a result of local grievances that exist in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world, and the decadence of our enemies. And that’s the message and it’s a message that still continues to resonate, and it’s succeeded.

And what we’re actually seeing is – and this is if you talk to professionals who work on digital media, who work on platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Telegram and they can really get into the nuts and bolts of this – but what you’re actually seeing is a democratization of radical messaging. So the Islamic State was the pioneer of digital indoctrination. They were enormously compelling, they were miles ahead of other groups in terms of the sophistication of videos that they promoted, of the way they leveraged social media platforms, the way they linked up messaging across platforms, but they’re increasingly not the only ones. We’re seeing more and more that there are groups that are learning from this example and they’re becoming more media savvy in their own local regions, in their own local conflicts becoming more media savvy, learning to leverage technology better to do end-to-end encryption, to do more complicated messaging, more compelling messaging, and this is amplifying the overall problem that we face.

And the internet here is the big equalizer. It’s allowed the global Salafi-Jihadi movement far greater resonance than it otherwise would have. Imagine if we had no internet. I can tell you having two teenagers in my house it would be a great thing, a great thing, but in terms of what we’re actually talking about, imagine the difficulties that these groups would have if they couldn’t just upload a video and disseminate their message across platforms. If they actually had to do it the old fashioned way by recording audio cassettes and sending them to mosques and things like that, they would have far less appeal, far less reach than they do now. The internet has been this force multiplier and this equalizer for these groups, and it’s aided in the mobilization of disaffected Muslims. There’s lots of documented and documentary evidence about the pathways of radicalization that the internet has facilitated and empowered, and internet providers are asleep at the switch.

Let’s be clear: we’re still having a debate about whether these platforms are platforms or forums or if they’re providers. This is the big discussion that we’re having now about Facebook. What responsibility do these companies have? To be sure, there’s been some remedial action that’s been taken by Google, by YouTube to de-platform known radicals, to blacklist videos. There have been companies like Jigsaw, which is Google’s think tank, which has worked on programs like Redirect, and the idea is to seed algorithms so if somebody searches for radical messaging on YouTube, they end up getting a video that says the opposite, but in a very subtle way. This is all good, but this is all fiddling on the edges. We are waking up to the reality that radical online messaging is here to stay, that it’s not possible to negate, to downgrade this message – or at least not in any meaningful way, which means that we need to focus on responding to the message and discrediting the message in a much more robust way than we’re doing currently.

And we can talk about all the horror stories relating to the U.S. government’s rather lackluster approach to counter ISIS messaging, counter Al Qaeda messaging, counter jihadi messaging. For those of you working for the government, I don’t think I need to tell you those stories. I think you know them already. But our messengers, our influencers have not acquitted themselves nearly as well as they should have at least so far.

Meanwhile, going back to what we just talked about, the Arab societies where these messages are proliferation are receptive to this message because of a confluence of events, because they’re tired, because they want stability, the allure of precisely what groups like the Islamic State and its fellow travelers are peddling is actually more appealing now than it has been in the past, and it’s being promoted through all these different platforms.

Okay, so the fifth trend is slightly different, but I think it bears discussing because it’s also a truism of counterterrorism that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction. And we tend to forget this. We tend to think about counterterrorism as a binary conversation as in September 11th happened here and therefore it’s all about us and therefore, we are the ones who have to lead the response. But here’s the reality: the Islamic State wasn’t just an existential threat to the West. The Islamic State was also an existential threat to Shiite Muslims, in particular, the Islamic Republic of Iran, and Iran, unlike the United States, was not separated from the Islamic State by a large ocean. And so, looking at what Iran has done as a countervailing response to the Islamic State is both fascinating and informative and quite alarming.

So there’s a fundamental difference here. When Sunni radicals radicalized and mobilized and traveled to the Islamic State, they did so mostly by themselves. They were self-starters. They radicalized online, usually independently. They found facilitation networks. They had to do the heavy lift of mobilizing themselves, of leaving their comfort zones, of traveling to the Middle East. But when they got to the Middle East there were facilitation networks that moved them into the Iraqi-Syrian battle space.

So contrast this to what Iran has done. During the same period that those 40,000 Sunni fighters were joining the Islamic State, Iran succeeded in building a countervailing Shiite irregular force, what I would call a jihadi legion, made up of Shiites from Afghanistan, from Pakistan, from Yemen, Iraq – we know these Iraqi militias as the Hashd al-Shaabi.

We will be hearing a lot about them over the next half-a-year or so, I would argue, and this force is as significant, perhaps more so than what we saw on the Sunni side. It depends on who you ask. The U.S. Intelligence Community estimates that the Iranians succeeded in mobilizing about the same number of Shiite fighters as the Islamic State mobilized Sunnis, so about 40,000. The Israeli government, which I argue is somewhat closer to the problem set, tends to estimate about double that. They will give you a number but they say, if you press them really hard like I did the last time I was there, somewhere between fifty and seventy thousand foreign fighters. And then you have private sector analysts who say that that number – it depends on how you rack and stack. It depends how you stack up your threat, but the number could be if you take in not just active militants who are deployed in theater in places like Syria and Iraq, but also reserve forces that can be marshaled, additional brigades and battalions that can be mobilized. The number could be as big as 150,000, which is a huge number. I suspect it’s less than that, but just by way of comparison, 150,000 fighters is the same size as the standing army of Great Britain. That’s a big number, that’s a big force, and unlike what’s happening with the foreign fighters that joined the Islamic State for a time, these guys aren’t going anywhere.

The problem that we’re facing now with Sunni foreign fighters is that they’ve lost and they’re seeking greener pastures. The whole migration problem has been exacerbated by the potential that foreign fighters from the collapsing Islamic State would find their way into migration patterns, would work their way into the eurozone or even into Canada and the United States, Latin America, and transit away from what they saw as a hopeless conflict, and we’re dealing with that problem. I would argue not as well as we should, but we’re dealing with that problem.

See the rest of his talk…

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