Thursday, August 21, 2014

Countering the Islamic State

The Obama Administration’s foreign policy continues to dither. The earlier post focused on possible intelligence shortcomings of the US on Iraq and the unbridled advances made by the Islamic State [known formerly as Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL)]. By August 2014, there was pressure from groups such as the Kurds on the US Government to intervene military in Iraq to counter the Islamic State.

In response to gains made by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq the United States began to deploy its military to Iraq to defend American assets (and interests) and to advise Iraqi government forces. In August 2014, the U.S. military began an aerial campaign directed against radical Islamists in northern Iraq. In addition to military efforts, the US also mounted a considerable humanitarian mission aimed at assisting ethnic minorities, particularly the Yazidis, in northern Iraq who were and continue to be under the threat of genocide by ISIS.

The consequences of US strikes

One of the most horrific consequences of US military intervention was the execution of a US national who was abducted two years earlier while on an assignment in Syria. This was not the first time that a US national had been taken hostage and executed by terror outfits. Hostages have been executed by radical Islamist groups operating in Lebanon in the eighties. James Foley, an American free lance photo-journalist working for the Global Post was abducted in November 2012 in north-western Syria by militants belonging to the ISIL/ISIS. In August 2014 he was executed by the terrorist outfit in response to the US airstrikes in Iraq.

According to White House sources he was believed to have been abducted by Shabiha militia (a shadowy outfit suspected to have been established by Namir al-Assad and Rifaat al-Asad operating in the Mediterranean region around Latakia, Banias and Tartous), and later reportedly held in a Syrian Arab Air Force intelligence complex in Damascus. It is not clear how or under what circumstances did Foley came under IS captivity. A US Special Forces operation was ordered by President Obama to rescue Foley and other hostages in July 2014 somewhere inside Syria. President Barack Obama ordered the secret operation, the first of its kind by the U.S. inside Syrian territory since the start of the civil war, after the U.S. received intelligence the Americans were being held by the extremist group known as Islamic State in a sparsely populated area inside Syria. The officials said that U.S. forces landed modified, heavily armed Black Hawk helicopters flown by the Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, which works with both the Army’s Delta Force and Navy SEAL commandos. The regiment is known as the “Night Stalkers.” After landing nearby and approaching the facility by foot, the force came under small-arms fire, to which it responded, the officials said. Several fighters of the Islamic State were killed in the exchange of fire. One member of the special operations forces team was shot and slightly injured, the officials said. However, Foley was not located. A case of inaccurate intelligence on the whereabouts of the hostages, perhaps! The operation was a secret but was revealed after Foley's death.

Foley's continued whereabouts were unknown until August 19, 2014, when ISIS posted a video to YouTube depicting Foley reading a prepared statement urging Americans to stop their support for the U.S. government for its bombing campaign against ISIS targets.

Tackling the Islamic State

The Islamic State or ISIS is a unique outfit; it cannot be termed as an insurgent group in the classical sense considering the kind of brutality that it has unleashed on minorities, especially Yazidis and Christians. At the same time, like insurgents and unlike terrorists, it has come to control large swathes of territory in parts of Syria and Iraq. The Islamic State is more or less in the mould of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). If that be the case, then countering this group is certainly going to be an uphill task. It took the Sri Lankan forces nearly three decades to wipe out the LTTE.

The use of air power by US and its allies will have limited impact on the capabilities of the Islamic State. Air power may deter IS to mount large-scale military offensives but will have hardly any impact on its ability to carry out suicide bombing, assassinations and hostage-taking. The US will be in a bind if its nationals are taken hostages and their executions are filmed and uploaded on the net. The US will have to come up with an effective counter-terrorism strategy which will deter the IS from targeting nationals belonging to the US and its allies. The US needs to borrow a page from that unconfirmed incident which took place in the mid-eighties in Lebanon when about four diplomats of the erstwhile Soviet Union were abducted by a radical Sunni Muslim outfit, the Islamic Liberation Organisation, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Alpha (or Alfa) Group was dispatched to Beirut in October 1985. By the time Alpha arrived, one of the hostages had already been killed. Through a network of supporting KGB operatives, members of the task-force identified each of the perpetrators involved in the crisis, and once identified, began to take the relatives of these militants as hostages. Following the standard policy of no negotiations with terrorists, some of the hostages taken by Alpha Group were dismembered, and their body parts sent to the militants. The warning was clear: more would follow unless the remaining hostages were released immediately. The message was “Release our people or you will get your people piece by piece”. The show of force worked and for a period of 20 years no Soviet or Russian officials were taken captive.

There is a great deal of apprehension that radicalized Western Muslims have been engaging and continue to engage in terrorist activities in Iraq and Syria as part of the Islamic State and will eventually return home. The fear is misplaced. For if, the West is determined to keep its soil free of Islamic extremists, the only solution is to physically prevent them from returning home. The other option is to neutralize them. And the last option is the Soviet option, the veracity of which incident has been questioned by some.

Softer options of incarceration or rehabilitation, howsoever democratic and fanciful, it may appear, will only give rise to more rabid militant outfits. Physical elimination will ensure that these elements will not be around to re-engage in any kind of terror activities and will have a deterrent effect on other like-minded individuals and groups who nurture such sinister ideas.


Pete said...

Hi Kumar

Difficult to know how to counter ISIL.

Certainly increased knowledge of the personnel in ISIL, especially its leadership is vital.

As US boots on the ground would stir up a hornets nest - leading to moderate Sunni's increasingly siding with ISIL - boots on the ground would be no real option. Also ISIL can always retreat over the border into Syria (a safe haven from US forces).

There have been vague news reports about US drones operating in northern Iraq. The drones need considerable intelligence information for targeting - something the US has become expert at in its drone campaign over Afghanistan and Pakistan.

A conserted drone campaign against the ISIL leadership might be worthwhile.

ISIL seems very adept in the news cycle-propaganda effort with the Western media constantly screening ISIL's youtubes of black clad, young men with guns. Governments should encourage the media not to cooperate with ISIL news makers (spin doctors) to the current extent.

This article indicates how conventionally economic focussed much of ISIL may be. Perhaps ISIL might become increasingly concerned with its economic performance - life's luxuries.

No doubt the US has many strategies in mind.



Kumar said...

Dear Pete
Thanks for your comments.

I have a difference of opinion and reiterate the Soviet option. For unless there is a deterrent effect in any strategy, drones or use of special forces to battle the terrorists will have very little effect. For instance, liquidation of a few jihadists is not going to eliminate the threat. However, if kith and kin are under constant threat, there is every possibility of foreign fighters refraining from going to battlefields of Iraq and Syria.

You are right about Syria being a safe haven. A war against ISIS is going to be fought not only in Iraq, but Syria as well. Or it may well end up like the Afghan campaign against Al Qaeda and Taliban whose leadership found a safe haven in Pakistan. And drones have limitation and may not achieve the desired results.