Who Conducted the Paris Attacks & Stormed the Bataclan Theater? ISIS? Al Qaeda?

*Posted on 13 November 2015, 1900 hours EST*

Information regarding the Paris Attacks on Friday night November 13th remain limited at this point.  While we should remain open to almost any possiblity, this would presumably appear the work of jihadists. I’ve returned to my framework for “Assessing Jihadist Plots In The West” which I created after the Charlie Hebdo attack this past January. I’ve updated my evidence matrix that I utilize for assessing the likelihood of responsibility for different types of plots. I generally look for four different potential perpetrators and scenarios:

  • An Al Qaeda Central (AQC) or al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) directed plot from Yemen or potentially Pakistan (AQAP is AQC at this point);
  • An ISIS directed plot from Syria and Iraq;
  • An al Qaeda inspired plot by supporters in the West; or
  • An ISIS inspired plot by supporters in the West, of which there have been several in recent months. 

There could always be a fifth scenario, a completely unaffiliated different ideological movement that wants to conduct an attack (I call this the Andres Brevik scenario), but I think its not sufficiently likely to warrant analytical effort at this point. ISIS is the likely candidate right now, even based on the limited information that we have as seen in my chart below.  

Here are some things I’m looking for right now:

  • Planning – This appears to be one of the more well planned attacks. Were there reports of reconnaisance before these attacks?  
  • Targets Not Symbolic – The restaurant and the theater attacked don’t appear to be particularly symbolic. Al Qaeda directed plots tend to go for spectacular targets, these are not. So I lean ISIS and I wonder, did any of these perpetrators work at these locations or frequent these spots? Is that how they got the idea to hit these locations?
  • A Suicide Bombing? And Several Armed Assaults? – This would be a significant advancement. We would be talking about explosives in the country, assault weapons, lots of planning. The French have a serious problem on their hands.  
  • Weapons Training – Early reports suggest these shooters were calm and calculating. That would suggest weapons training and preparation, leading one to look for former foreign fighters from Syria or other theaters. 
  • Communications – Al Qaeda did tight control of targeting of attacks with affiliates. I don’t believe this is the case with ISIS. In the case of the ISIS Sinai affiliate, I don’t have any evidence that ISIS Central in Iraq and Syria directed the airline bombing. Instead, I get the feeling the situation is the reverse, an affiliate or some global supporters and former foreign fighters execute an attack and then communicate back to central command (Baghdadi and top aides) what happened. Will we see that in this case, post attack reports of chatter back to Iraq and Syria?
  • Media Reporting Is Making ISIS Into ONE BIG THING! – I’ve been really frustrated the past few weeks as news reporting continues to push the theory, without evidence, that ISIS in Iraq and Syria, all affiliates that have pledged to ISIS and all global fanboys of ISIS act in unison under a central command. This was more the case with al Qaeda, but we don’t know this to be true of ISIS. Thus, the public is becoming crazed with fears of an all powerful ISIS which is both untrue and unhelpful.  

Below I’ve posted my latest assessment matrix and I’ve noted where there appears to be evidence to support one scenario over another with the marker #ParisAttacks. Here are my notes on this method, known as Analysis of Competing Hypothesis:

When assessing jihadi attacks in the West these days, I look at several factors to begin distinguishing perpetrators, which I’ll discuss here. In government, this might be called a quick and dirty Analysis of Competing Hypotheses (ACH for short). The scenario with the most supporting evidence tends to be the most likely. NOTE: This will evolve throughout the day as more evidence comes in; I have not settled on one perpetrator over the others and I’m still compiling information. Also, a good ACH takes time and the evidence is weighted and assessed for being confirmed or suspected. I don’t have time to do that this morning so am just doing an initial draft here. In a vetted ACH approach, the evidence would be noted as consistent or inconsistent. I’m just posting red #ParisAttacks markers where I’ve heard news reporting that supports that hypothesis.

Here’s my first cut at an ACH chart for this round of Paris Attacks and I’ll be tweeting evidence (@selectedwisdom) that should be included in the chart as the night and next day progresses. 

 

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U.S. Troops in Syria: A Quick Assessment Of The U.S. Strategy To Combat The Islamic State – One Year On

Last week, the White House announced the deployment of a few dozen Special Forces soldiers to Syria. After more than a year of operations and a promise not to put soldiers in harm’s way, the U.S. would seemingly be pushing troops directly into Islamic State (IS) territory.  The announcement comes just days after the U.S. saw its first foreign advisor perish during a raid on an IS prison in Northern Iraq

It’s been nearly a year since the U.S. convened its “Counter ISIL Coalition” and in short, when all was said and done, more has been said than done.   The U.S. State Department and the President’s Special Envoy retired General John Allen have spent more than a year reciting five “lines of effort” for countering the Islamic State, which they continue to refer to as Daesh–a name that hasn’t really caught on the way they hoped it would. Last year, I identified seven obvious flaws that would plague this strategy.  A couple of these flaws have been remedied, but the toughest challenges still remain.  Here’s my short assessment (grade) of progress on these five strategy pillars and those massive hurdles that still remain for defeating IS (See also Figure 1):

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #1 –

Supporting military operations, capacity building, and trainingGrade F

The toughest challenge and most obvious weakness remains the building and deployment of a Sunni force capable of countering IS in Sunni territory. Never has the world witnessed such commitment to a bad Pentagon PowerPoint bullet than the tripling down on creating militias to fight terrorists. The U.S. has tried for a third time in a third country to train and equip an indigenous force. A year of training Syrians yielded roughly one infantry company of troops (100-200) to fight IS who has possibly recruited thousands of foreign fighters in the same time. Al Qaeda’s Jabhat al Nusra quickly displaced this force, referred to as Division 30. If the U.S. were to pursue a  train-and-equip mission again in a fourth country, we will most assuredly know our policy makers to be absolutely mad. 

Since the U.S. can’t build militias to counter IS, they’ll instead have to reinforce existing forces, and this is where things become problematic. The Iraqi Army and its supporting Shiite militias have made intermittent progress against IS, but seem unlikely to make a full recovery of Sunni areas of Iraq. U.S. Special Forces deploying to Syria will back the only element truly capable of gaining ground against IS–the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.).  The Y.P.G. seems capable, but will be seen as occupiers should they invade Arab areas such as IS’s heartland of Raqqa.  U.S. alliance with Y.P.G. also chafes Turkey, an American ally, who fears the rise of Kurdish forces as much or more than IS.  The Arab Syrian Democratic Coalition in Syria represents nothing more than a briefing point–incapable, disorganized remnants of forces previously routed by IS.

Bottom line:  Only Sunni Arabs will want to fight and die for Sunni Arab land in Syria. Kurds and Shia will never be fully invested, and should they win, they’ll be resisted by locals.  Until there are Arab forces capable of countering IS in Eastern Syria and Western Iraq, there is no viable U.S. strategy to counter IS. An alternative approach and potentially the only viable solution may be to starve and splinter IS into Sunni Arab sub-groups over time, similar to the method used against al Shabaab in Somalia.  This will take years to achieve.

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #2 –

Stopping the flow of foreign terrorist fightersGrade B

Turkey hasn’t sealed its border entirely, but it has somewhat stemmed the flow of foreign fighters into Syria. Analysts continue amplifying talk of foreign fighter flows heading into Syria.  Many of these fighters have expired in fighting, and many others have begun to defect from IS ranks. 

My current assessment is that the flow of foreign fighters to IS has passed its peak.  The costs associated with getting to Syria have become too high for many potential recruits. Regional affiliates allying with IS in North Africa, the Middle East and South Asia have created other opportunities for recruits to join an IS affiliate closer to home. Across Europe, North Africa and the Middle East, there have been infrequent, but successful attacks coupled with the arrests of IS supporters.  Online, IS networking on social media has been blunted and the fervor amongst its fanboys has reached a steady state.  Surely there will continue to be a trickle of foreign fighters sliding across borders into IS’s ranks, but the flow of fresh extremists no longer appears to be the fire hose it was two years ago. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #3 –

Cutting off ISIL/Daesh’s access to financing and fundingGrade C

The U.S. coalition apparently put the brakes on IS external donor funding placing pressure both on Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Banking instructions for wiring funds into IS coffers appear less frequently on social media.  But, slashing IS external funding addresses only a small part of the problem.  IS predominately funds itself through taxation, oil revenues, and black market activities.  Only military defeat and the rolling back of IS territory will undermine their internal resourcing.  Thus line of effort number 1, “supporting military operations” is clearly intertwined with this line of effort number 3.  Luckily, even if the U.S. coalition only sustains its current efforts, IS appears poised to collapse economically according to Jamie Hansen-Lewis and Jacob Shapiro in their recent analysis “Understanding the Daesh Economy”.   

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #4 –

Addressing associated humanitarian relief and crises Grade F

The refugee crisis continues to grow.  A year ago, refugee discussions focused largely on the displacement of civilians to camps in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.  Today, Syrian refugees flood the Mediterranean Sea and land routes across Europe. Those who’ve decided the Syrian conflict may never end, have given up hope of returning home and now seek other opportunities.  Syrian emigration threatens Europe as droves of refugees resettling in their countries have strained resources and have created isolated immigrant communities that in future years may breed crime and violent extremism.  The conferences and associated working groups for stemming this refugee crisis have begun.  But much like the Syrian civil war, no solution appears available or palatable for an increasingly fractious coalition. 

U.S Coalition Line of Effort #5 –

Exposing ISIL/Daesh’s true nature (ideological delegitimization) – Grade D

Social media campaigns refuting IS have begun.  The United States, United Kingdom, France and others in the future will continue to cast counter IS programming into the social media abyss. IS’s near constant stream of content still drowns out these counternarratives. On the ground in recruitment hotbeds, there seems little success in stemming militancy.  The same failed approaches used to counter al Qaeda extremism last decade are being trotted out against IS.  I guess the logic goes like this: Why invent a new failed approach when the old failed approach works just fine? 

Luckily, disillusioned foreign fighters are fleeing from IS in ways never seen during al Qaeda’s boom years.  Their departure provides a valuable new weapon for creating counter-narratives to IS.  Whether the U.S.-led coalition can take full advantage of these gifts remains to be seen. 

In the U.S., critics have pounded the Obama administration’s weakness in Syria and Iraq. The administration deserves some of this. At times, the U.S. has wanted to lead the charge against IS and then at other times been completely reticent to get involved. The Obama administrations delay to act in many ways may be justified. No one in the U.S. political system, either Republican or Democrat, has clearly identified U.S. interests in Syria or with regards to IS over the longer term. 

The central goal for any IS strategy should be to end the Syrian conflict, but doing so requires bartering with two other adversaries – Russia and Iran.  Simultaneously countering IS and the Assad Regime without deploying overwhelming military force has put the U.S. at odds with all of its allies.  For the U.S. in Syria, there are no good options, and any chosen ‘bad option’ will either anger an ally or enrage an adversary.  Thus the U.S. by default may end up pursuing a strategy I’ve endorsed from the start: “Let Them Rot”.  When you are unsure what to do, it’s often better to do nothing at all or pursue only a limited set of actions.  The U.S. may appear weak from inaction in Syria, but at least we haven’t plunged calamitously into unending conflicts like we did in Iraq and Afghanistan last decade.  General Colin Powell once applied the Pottery Barn rule to Iraq noting, “You break it, you own it.” The U.S. has been negligent in Syria, but not entirely responsible for the conflict.  We didn’t break it, and we don’t own it.  

***Note in this discussion, I, like the U.S. strategy to counter IS, haven’t addressed any of the conflicting nation-state interests that limit any effective and comprehensive strategy. That would require an entirely separate post. 

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Russia returns as al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s ‘Far Enemy’

The Soviet defeat and subsequent withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 left victorious Arab mujahideen adrift.  Many retired from their jihadi adventures returning home to North Africa and the Middle East. Others remained in Pakistan, committed to fighting jihads in other theaters, establishing a network that in 1991 would officially become known as al Qaeda.  With time, Osama Bin Laden aimed al Qaeda’s ideology at the United States whom he believed to be the ‘Far Enemy’ who propped up the ‘Near Enemy’–local apostate Muslim dictators and their regimes.  This strategic logic, annotated in al Qaeda’s 1996 declaration of war on the United States, has powered nearly two decades of terrorist attacks on Americans. 

Al Qaeda’s ‘Far Enemy’ logic for singularly focusing on the United States has proven both wrong over the long-term and counterproductive to the terrorist group.  In the months before and after Bin Laden’s death, the U.S. let North African and Middle Eastern dictators fall to Arab Spring uprisings.  Until the rise of the Islamic State (IS), al Qaeda’s jihadi spawn, the U.S. refused to intervene in Syria–one of the bloodiest and most protracted civil wars in recent history.  U.S. inaction in Syria, rather than meddling, has provided what little lifeblood al Qaeda clings to in its most important affiliate Jabhat al Nusra.  

Jihad’s real ‘Far Enemy’ in Syria for many years has been Iran and now Russia.  For several years, Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) forces have helped Syria hold the line against a band of rebel groups to include Jabhat al Nusra and the Islamic State.  Last month, Russia moved from the shadows and into the forefront with their military build up.  The Russians talk of targeting terrorists, but the pattern of their airstrikes speaks otherwise.  Most sorties have aimed their missiles at Syrian rebel groups including Jabhat al Nusra leaving the Islamic State mostly to the American-led coalition.  Today, Russia, far more than the U.S., has returned to be jihad’s ‘Far Enemy.’

More than a year and a half ago, in anticipation of the Islamic State’s rise over al Qaeda and witnessing the U.S. desire to extract itself from the Middle East post-Iraq, I proposed that, ”U.S. information campaigns in counterterrorism should consider redirecting al Qaeda’s ‘far enemy’ narrative. Today, the real far enemies of jihadis in Syria are Russia and Iran.”  I still believe this to be a wise strategy for the U.S.  First, for more than ten years, the U.S. has failed to successfully counter jihadi ideology and supporting propaganda.  Lacking any demonstrated success winning the hearts and minds of militant Muslims, why continue to waste time and money funding counternarrative efforts?  Second, it’s almost always easier to shift a message (alternative narrative) than to counter it (counter narrative).  If the goal is simply to protect Americans from jihadi violence, then it will likely be easier to shift jihadi violence to another target, such as Russia, than to convince jihadis to abandon their ideology and violence entirely. Third, the Russians have used social media driven information campaigns to discredit the U.S. for years.  Facebook and Twitter remain littered with pro-Russian, Western looking accounts and supporting automated bots designed to undermine the credibility of the U.S. government.  Why not return the favor back to the Russians and restore their place as the ‘Far Enemy’?

Unfortunately, the U.S. will likely be unable to execute such an information strategy to redirect jihadi angst onto a Russian adversary.  Current calls for countering the Islamic State’s ideology echo those of ten years ago to counter al Qaeda.  Americans appear permanently fixed on this failed tact.  U.S. messaging efforts also remain painfully slow to program.  Americans haven’t even figured out how to respond to the Russian invasion of Crimea, therefore it’s doubtful they’d be effective at redirecting jihadi angst prior to the end of the Syrian conflict.  Lastly, the U.S. seems a bit scared of Russia in the information space in part because Russian cyber attacks on the U.S., whether by organized crime or the Russian state, have become a huge vulnerability.  Don’t anger the bear if you can’t keep it in its cage. 

Luckily for the U.S., jihadi propaganda appears to be spinning away from the U.S. and toward Russia.  Months ago, the leader of al Qaeda’s Syrian branch Jabhat al Nusra, Abu Mohammad al-Julani, said he was instructed by al Qaeda’s top leader Ayman al-Zawahiri to avoid targeting the U.S.  Shortly after Russian airstrikes, Julani released an audio message calling Russia the “Eastern Crusaders” and calling for attacks inside Russia and on Shiite villages.  The U.S. at a minimum, through covert or semi-covert platforms, should take advantage and amplify these free alternative narratives to provide Russia some payback for recent years’ aggression.  Russia would assuredly do that to the U.S.

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The Islamic State Online: Countering the Symptom Rather Than The Disease May Only Make Them Stronger

The 2016 Presidential campaigns have swung into full gear and tough talk about countering the Islamic State grows by the day.  All of the candidates seem to embrace calls for kicking the Islamic State off of social media.  Hillary Clinton was one of the first to endorse this tactic back in July noting, “we have got to shut down their Internet presence, which is posing the principal threat to us.”  And who wouldn’t want to kick the Islamic State off the Internet?  Here are a couple things to consider.

First, fighting the Islamic State online will be the easiest policy for candidates to get behind–a position with almost no costs and some marginal benefits.  Fighting jihadists online is far more preferable to fighting jihadists on the ground and allows a candidate to call for action without actually having to put any Americans in harm’s way. Battling extremists on social media plays well with American audiences, too. Most Americans understand Facebook and Twitter far better than they do the geopolitics of the Middle East.  Lastly, American policy makers can actually create action on this policy since Facebook, Twitter, Google, and other social media companies predominately reside in the U.S. and can feel discomfort from government tough talk.  As a policy position, “Kicking The Islamic State Of Twitter!” sells.

A second point to consider, however, is fighting the Islamic State online but not on the ground represents nothing more than contending with a symptom while ignoring the disease. Long before the rise of the Islamic State, al Shabaab in Somalia became the first prolific and successful jihadi group to leverage social media.  As J.M. Berger noted, repeated Twitter shutdowns of Al Shabaab did diminish the group’s online prowess.  But these shutdowns occurred concurrently with Shabaab’s decline in Somalia.  Shabaab supporters not only lost access to Shabaab’s propaganda, they lost interest in a group clearly on the wane. 

Undermining access to the Islamic State without eroding affinity for the group’s successes will lead online supporters to innovate and evolve online rather than recede–a dangerous consequence of a tactic that seems so straight forward on the surface.  The Islamic State’s innovation online has been a critical component of their success and a large reason for their overtaking an al Qaeda who failed to adapt to and harness mainstream social media. The Islamic State’s persistent incorporation of new media methods has attracted a band of tech savvy followers.  Resistance from the West on social media has likely led these Islamic State fanboys with computer skills to innovate even further to get out the message and retaliate on the cyber battlefield. 

Today, Islamic State supporters often employ automated bots on Twitter to sidestep attempts to curb their reach.  As they’ve been pushed from mainstream social media sites, the Islamic State has developed and deployed their own apps that provide downloads to their supporters as a way to avoid Twitter’s spam detection algorithms.  Growing support online has also led to the emergence of Islamic State affiliated hackers who during last week’s September 11 Anniversary threatened attacks on the financial system and government websites. Islamic State affiliated hackers have allegedly posted personal information of U.S. military members as well.

Countering the Islamic State’s presence online rather than undermining affinity for the group’s success and resulting message may ultimately lead to policies that make the group temporarily weaker and yet ultimately more resilient.  Kicking extremists off Twitter is fine, but it should not be the first, nor will it be the most essential part of the U.S. strategy to counter the Islamic State.  We should be asking for a lot more from our Presidential candidates who will likely continue to put forth the easiest and least controversial counterterrorism proposals. 

 

 

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