President Obama’s Last State of the Union Speech: An FPRI Primer

Tonight, President Obama will deliver the last State of the Union Address of his presidency. This prime time speech offers him an opportunity both to celebrate his accomplishments and to sketch his priorities as his presidency enters its final year. News leaks suggest that the speech will not include many policy specifics, since the president has no plans to present any new initiatives to Congress. Presidents often spend their last years in office focusing on foreign affairs and international travel, where they still enjoy some possibilities for independent action, and reports of President Obama’s upcoming travel schedule indicate that will be the case for him as well.  That doesn’t mean that he will offer foreign policy specifics either, but it will certainly come up in the speech.

The world remains unpredictable, though State of the Union addresses are generally much less so.

  • ​The President will certainly highlight his efforts to break out of previously frozen relationships, such as with Cuba, where the U.S. Embassy has been reopened in the past year. Look for him to mention, if not insist upon, the need for Congressional action to reduce further political and economic barriers to trade, travel, and communications with the island.

What he will likely leave out: any discussion of Cuba’s continued imprisonment of political dissidents, or the Castro regime’s tight control on trade and economic benefits for the Cuban people.

  • This also means the President will accentuate the positive of the nuclear deal with Iran. It may be difficult for him to be too specific in his positives, considering the ongoing tension in the gulf between Iran and Saudi Arabia, and Iran’s recent missile tests, but we can expect that the President will paint the agreement, which he and his staff have already called one of the landmarks of his administration, as an important first step in reducing tensions in the Middle East. That will also likely include vague but hopeful words about how Iran can be induced to play a more constructive role in resolving the conflict in Syria.

What he will likely leave out: specific references to Iran’s missile program, or its irresponsible encouragement of the mob that attacked the Saudi embassy, not to mention today’s Iranian seizure of two US Navy ships.

For a more in-depth analysis of the Iran deal and its implications, see our recent E-Note by Oded Brosh, “The Problem with the Iran Nuclear Deal: It’s Not that Iran Will Violate It but that Iran Will Comply

  • He will also emphasize his commitment to improving the terms of global trade, which will include positive evaluations of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the major trade deal with a dozen Pacific Rim states that has been negotiated and is now before Congress for ratification. This will require an uneasy balancing act between the President’s desire to cite TPP as a diplomatic success and his recognition that all three of the Democratic presidential candidates, not to mention the majority of Democrats in Congress, have expressed deep skepticism about free trade in general and the TPP in particular.

What he will likely leave out: in addition to his party’s ambivalence, he will also likely soft pedal his own dilatory handling of the equally important Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe, which was also supposed to be ready for ratification by now.

For some more background on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, see William Krist’s E-Note, “Why We Need the Trans-Pacific Partnership and How to Get It Right;” Felix Chang’s blog post, “U.S. Foreign Policy Aspirations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership: Economic Integration and Political Alignment?” and (re)watch our Google Hangout “The Trans-Pacific Partnership Debate: Prospects, Problems, and Implications” featuring Jacques deLisle, Shihoko Goto, and Minyuan Zhao

  • On ISIS and terrorism, the President will both reaffirm his resolve to defend the homeland and warn against allowing fear of terrorism to paralyze America’s relations with the world. As he links this general topic to the specific attacks in San Bernardino and Istanbul, as well as to the disturbing reports of migrant behavior in Germany, it is very likely that this discussion will lead into an effort to explain why legal and properly regulated immigration is important for the future of the United States, allowing him to place himself and his party on the side of immigration reform and to paint critics as alarmists and nativists.

What he will likely leave out: the security lapses that led US officials to miss the radical background of Tashfeen Malik, the female San Bernardino attacker, or his administration’s halting and uneven strategy against ISIS.

For the latest FPRI commentary on ISIS, read our Robert A. Fox Fellow Clint Watts’ essay “5 Questions on the Islamic State for GOP Presidential Candidates” from War on the Rocks, and John Haines’ recent E-Note “What Would Kennan Do? George Kennan, the Containment Doctrine, and ISIS.”
One should also expect certain international issues will be touched upon more lightly, such as:

  • China: the current economic upheaval will likely come up, though the President is likely again to accentuate the positive, holding up cooperation with China as crucial for global stability and prosperity.

What he will likely leave out: discussion of China’s provocative island building in the South China Sea, or their failure to live up to their commitments to monitor and rein in the North Korean nuclear program. For that matter, he is likely to avoid discussing how the failure of the North Korea nuclear deal might reflect on the deal with Iran.

For the latest FPRI commentary on China, see June Teufel Dreyer’s recent E-Note “China and Russia: The Partnership Deepens” and Felix Chang’s recent blog post “China’s “One Belt, One Road” to Where?

  • Russia: although significant differences remain over issues ranging from Ukraine and Crimea to Syria, the President will confine comments on Russia and President Putin to hopes for more constructive cooperation.

What he will likely leave out: the relationship between Russia’s aggressive behavior and his own failed “reset” with Moscow.

For an unusual take on Putin’s motivations, see Mitchell Orenstein’s E-Note “Vladimir Putin: An Aspirant Metternich?” from 2015.
One last thing. The President is unlikely to offer a coherent statement on American policy toward the EU. In this, he will be like too many Presidents, who have not made an effort to explain why the unity of our most important allies and trading partners is good for us as well as them.

Readers are welcome to follow the speech with us on Twitter, @fprinews and @RonaldGranieri to see how well these predictions hold up.

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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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Four Key Drivers For Eroding ISIS

June 15, 2015

Scary ISIS headlines have saturated media outlets in recent months.  They usually come in three varieties: a) ISIS does incredibly awful thing(s) in Syria/Iraq, b) ISIS is unstoppable because of (fill in the blank), or c) the U.S. and the West must do (fill in the blank with every conceivable government option) to defeat ISIS. The international coalition seems unlikely to deploy overwhelming military force to rid the world of the latest awful jihadi group. All coalition partners are up for airstrikes, but no one seeks the dirty work of ridding Syria and Iraq of ISIS in direct military engagement.  Likewise, at least in the West, there remains a complete lack of strategic consensus on what should be done to defeat ISIS. 

A few months back, I offered up an alternative option to boots-on-the-ground; the “Let Them Rot” strategy–i.e., using containment to establish conditions by which ISIS destroys itself from within.  (NB: A forthcoming paper will discuss this in greater depth.)  To this point, it appears that the U.S.-led coalition, either by choice or more by default, is pursuing a modified “Let Them Rot” strategy.  But officials and the public grow impatient while the media reinforces the belief ISIS is the next al Qaeda–a misguided one in my view.  The headlines will lead you to believe that ISIS can only be defeated by a major military campaign. And counterinsurgency proponents are likely drooling for another opportunity to employ their beloved Field Manual 3-24.  But defeating ISIS via external force will be a long battle, and one that perpetuates the jihadi belief that the West denies their vision.  The U.S. should seek to destroy the idea of an Islamic State altogether, and to do that ISIS must fail by its own doings, not from outside forces. The recipe of the the “Let Them Rot” strategy should be followed: contain ISIS advances, starve them of resources, fracture their ranks, and exploit through alternative security arrangements

Analysis of the key drivers pushing forth the advance of ISIS reveals several key points at which the U.S.-led coalition can focus to degrade ISIS over time.  Figure 1 below provides a causal flow diagram showing the relationship of key drivers powering ISIS operations.  Note in the diagram that there are two relationships between entities.  Blue arrows represent direct relationships where an increase in one factor leads to an increase in the subsequent factor.  Red arrows represent where an increase in one factor leads to a decrease in a subsequent factor.  (Bottom Line Up Front: Blue and Red show relationships, not good or bad, plusses or minuses.)  In the diagram, clearly the most important factor is ISIS’s territorial expansion (see circle #1); their ability to sustain the offensive, and the initiative.  The diagram also illustrates multiple feedback loops arising from their territorial expansion to include increases in their global popular support, financing through taxation and global donations, recruitment through social media, and their levels of military resources through the seizure of equipment. Containment of ISIS’s advance should remain the main effort, and I doubt that they can continue to expand much further. 

Second, starving ISIS comes from disrupting one factor more than any other: elimination of oil revenues (see circle #2).  ISIS, as compared to other jihadi groups that have tried to form emirates, developed the capacity to resource themselves years ago.  Their self-resourcing is not only strong, but also diversified.  Oil and taxation provide a dual-pronged financial power base complimented by global donations and illicit revenue schemes which have combined to buoy ISIS over time.  Three of these financial resource streams, however, result in large part from ISIS’s ability to expand and sustain territory. If expansion was halted, these three streams would be constrained.

Starving ISIS of resources thus requires the elimination or degradation of ISIS capitalizing on oil fields in Eastern Syria.  This will put pressure on ISIS to extract more revenues from the local population through taxation and illicit schemes preying on local populations at a time when expansion is no longer viable due to containment.  The U.S. raid on Abu Sayyaf last month has apparently yielded some gains against ISIS and will hopefully be a first step in the elimination of this vital oil resource for ISIS.  How does the U.S. disable the oil fields without destroying the infrastructure and creating an environmental disaster?  Maybe a raid to facilitate a cyber attack, placing malware into the closed network to disable the oil pumping systems. Or maybe a series of raids to disable the equipment of several oil platforms, although this would be tough. Lastly, the coalition could send a militia deep into Eastern Syria to capture the oil fields, but in so doing will be anointing one group as king over all of the others. 

Airstrikes, partner pressure, containment and starvation will ideally bring stress on ISIS disrupting the feedback loops previously created form territorial gains.  Fearful of spies and infiltrators directing airstrikes and providing intelligence for Special Forces raids, ISIS will tighten its security, slowing their operations while further alienating the population.  At the same time, ISIS will ideally become more predatory on the local population and increasingly self-doubting.  At this point, two key fractures may become available for fracturing ISIS.  First, in Iraq, internal starvation of resources paired with a slow and steady advance by Kurdish and Iraqi forces will hopefully incentivize former Baathists and Iraqi Sunnis to break ranks with ISIS to secure their local stake in Sunni territories of Western Iraq (see circle #3).  A representative example of this dynamic was seen with the collapse of Shabaab from clan-oriented defections over the past three years. 

The second important fracture for exploitation is the potential rift between ISIS Iraqi leadership and the global foreign fighter legions that power their ranks (see point #4). To date, young ISIS foreign fighters have had much to celebrate; winning on the battlefield, taking ground and rapidly becoming administrators of governance.  But when battlefield advances end and resources become tight, local ISIS members will compromise their ideological principles to maintain their grip on power.  Resource starvation, much as was seen in Somalia, will cause tensions between the heavily Iraqi-dominated leadership and the global ranks of foreign fighters. 

Examining what is currently underway in the fight against ISIS, it appears that the U.S. is essentially pursuing this strategy.  Despite the media ramping up the American public with a relentless barrage of scary ISIS stories, on the surface it appears the U.S., at least, is pursuing this strategy–they are doing most of what I just outlined.  The trick will be whether they can exploit the fractures described above.  Exploitation will be the hardest step, offering alternatives that fill the void and spread the rifts across Syria and Iraq. 


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Are We Our Own Worst Enemy? The Problems in Countering Jihadi Narratives and How to Fix Them

Two weeks back, the Washington Post published the most insightful article to date on the challenges the U.S. government has encountered battling al Qaeda, the Islamic State and jihadis writ large in social media.  The U.S. State Department’s Center for Strategic Counterterrorism Communications (CSCC) has been charged with a mission impossible: countering jihadi sympathies online while also pleasing all critics inside the U.S. government and in the mainstream media. 

Ten years ago, countering al Qaeda’s narrative largely rested in the hands of the Department of Defense (DoD).  Gobs of money were thrown at efforts to discredit Bin Laden and crew.  Having supported a few of these programs, I can attest firsthand that they were largely a giant waste of time; their focus was more about pleasing military commanders than actually undermining al Qaeda’s message.  The CSCC on the other hand, in concept, remains the correct approach.  What more could the U.S. ask for than culturally-informed counterterrorism experts armed with social media, building from lessons learned gained in more than a decade of observing jihadi propaganda? Apparently the system must have zero defects as well. 

The Washington Post article illustrates the strange position the CSCC remains in.  The article discusses how one of the CSCC’s videos gathered more than 800,000 views.  This should have been seen as a major success, simply gaining an audience in jihadi online circles is a major first step, but instead those inside government prone to fearful bureaucratic survival immediately started undermining the effort. The CSCC played by the enemy’s rules and lost, not to the enemy, but to their own team. 

As we approach the fourteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. should ask itself whether it seriously has the stomach to counter jihadis on the Internet.  For the CSCC or any government effort to be successful in the online space, they must have initiative, flexibility, capacity, autonomy and space for experimentation.  Bureaucrats, media critics, and counterterrorism pundits are unlikely to provide these things to an operation like the CSCC. 

Two months ago, I questioned the renewed White House calls for countering violent extremism (CVE) against jihadis.  The U.S. government sends out these calls every few years when jihadis do bad things and little really happens afterwards beyond some conferences with nice photo ops.  My three essential questions two months back for conducting CVE were:

  1. Where do you want to counter violent extremism? There are three fronts in countering jihadis flowing into ISIS: 1) The Middle East, North Africa and South Asia (MENASA) 2) Europe 3) North America.  These three fronts, in order, provide different percentages of fighters into ISIS ranks and depending on where they are located, are brought into ISIS through differing combinations of on-the-ground and online recruitment efforts. 
  2. Who do we want to counter? Which extremists do you want to counter? Extremists supporting ISIS come in many different shapes and sizes.  Will McCants provides the best spectrum for identifying where to focus CVE efforts.  I would recommend focusing on those already “radicalizing” to join ISIS. 
  3. How do you want to counter extremists? As I argued at length in past Geopoliticus posts, the U.S. has largely used the wrong messages, messengers, medium, and method to counter the bulk of those radicalizing to join ISIS (i.e., moderate voices and community engagement).  Instead, I proposed using a different message more effective for the radicalizing target audience and in particular a more effective messenger: defectors from ISIS ranks.

Having read about the struggles of the CSCC, I would like to take these questions a step further today and describe how I would recommend doing a more effective counternarrative program. As I discussed previously, CVE efforts should start online rather than on-the-ground.  Online efforts cut across all three theaters of foreign fighters being recruited to ISIS (MENASA, Europe & North America) and when done properly will illuminate the hotspots where on-the-ground CVE efforts such as community engagement and promoting moderate voices can be applied more effectively. 

Engaging videos, mirroring the production format and quality of ISIS and describing the horrors experienced by ISIS defectors provide the ideal vector for engaging those in the ‘Radicalizing’ stage of ISIS recruitment.  I’d call the program “Make Villains, Not Martyrs” with the goal of exposing ISIS members for the power hungry, political criminals they are rather than the devout martyrs they claim to be.  The effort would move through four phases:

  • Pinpoint Vulnerable Audiences: Identify those radicalizing online communities of ISIS enthusiasts most attracted to ISIS content.  Folks like J.M. Berger have already done the lion share of this work (just watch his Twitter feed and read his book). Social media companies who’ve finally conducted waves of shut-downs on ISIS accounts should be able to provide even greater fidelity on where those ISIS digital enclaves reside and further describe the proclivity that these accounts have for ISIS material.  This refined data would further enable the crafting of a precise counter narrative.
  • Develop engaging “telenovela” style defector video content: Defector accounts, I believe, remain the most effective counter narrative, but simply filming a defector interview and then broadcasting it won’t work.  Instead, the ISIS defector content must be able to engage the radicalizing individual and sustain their attention.  I would alternatively propose the development of three dramatic retellings of actual defectors and foreign fighters lost amongst different jihadi conflicts, illuminating ISIS and al Qaeda’s betrayal of their own principles and troops.  I would script out three, “telenovela” style videos that would initially stand-alone but would later be networked together.  It’s important to note, these videos would not be fiction, but instead dramatic retellings of actual debacles involving foreign fighters.  I’d recommend the three movies, as seen in Figure 1, describe the treachery of three fratricidal jihadi campaigns:
    • Tentative Title: “Fitna” – Jabhat al Nusra & ISIS foreign fighters killing each other in Syria
    • Tentative Title: “Bandit” – AQIM’s fracturing, infighting and criminality as they are overrun by French forces in Mali.
    • Tentative Title: “Ansaris & Muhajirs” – al Shabaab’s killing off of their own foreign fighters and clan based infighting inside the group. 

Each of these movies would be provided in different languages to more directly appeal to specific radicalizing audiences and they would illuminate several themes of folly and despair encountered by actual foreign fighters embroiled in these jihads. 

The scripts for these three videos would not be propaganda as the content is already written by jihadis who’ve spilled their betrayals online (Omar Hammami’s biography writes its own screenplay).  Each movie would be roughly 60 – 80 minutes in length, but told in chapters of  5 – 10 minutes suitable for dissemination in a serial trough YouTube and other video hosting sites. 

Each of the videos would follow a similar build up as well (See Figure 2).  The videos would need to appear, in at least the first three episodes, to be somewhat sympathetic to joining a jihad – tracing the introduction, immersion and initial reception of a foreign fighter.  After three episodes, dreams of jihad glory would fade as softer themes undermining ISIS enter the storyline–foreign fighters participating in criminal activity for example.  As the story continues, the video would shift to real stories of horrid ISIS behavior–barbaric torture, sexual enslavement, killing of innocent women and children.  The video series would conclude with a foreign fighter watching the fratricidal killing of a fellow foreign fighter at the hands of a corrupt jihadi leader.  The foreign fighter would manage to defect from ISIS to return home, finding he had shamed his family.

  • Host and disseminate the videos: The video chapters would be released one per week.  After release of the tenth episode, the entire movie would be hosted in multiple locations in the jihadi online environment (i.e. YouTube, etc.).  The videos would then also link to the actual documentary interviews of real foreign fighters that have traveled the journey of the foreign fighters described in the telenovela serial.  The internal documents of al Qaeda, ISIS, AQIM and other terror groups detailing internal conflict and deceit (i.e., Harmony Documents, Bin Laden’s Bookshelf, etc.) would also be linked to these videos so that those on the radicalization path can see for themselves the disingenuous nature of all these jihadi campaigns.  The hosting locations would allow for comments and debate, further refining the application of other CVE programs.  These online debates along with standard social media viewer metrics would provide the basis for true measurement of online CVE efforts.
  • Follow up with on-the-ground CVE efforts: Effectively engaging in the online space with these videos would reveal hot spots where other CVE efforts can be employed more effectively.  Those jihadi digital enclaves most engaged on ideological issues would be ideal for a “Moderate Voices” CVE efforts and some physical communities might also surface appropriate for the application of CVE community outreach programs.  Essentially, the videos will act as blood in the water for jihadi sharks. Engagement, regardless of whether its positive or negative, will illuminate what we currently cannot see–the fault lines in ISIS popular support that we need to exploit. 

Ultimately, this type of a program will likely not make it out of the concept phase.  It will be plagued by interagency infighting and will take so long to produce through the U.S. bureaucracy it will be available right about the time ISIS collapses. 

In actuality, an online defector video series like this would not take that much time or resources to execute.  The scripts are practically written and the production will be more effective and efficient if done in the Middle East or North Africa. (Off the cuff, I’d recommend looking first at Morocco, Jordan and Lebanon for video production–they’ve got some good capacity.) The online analytics, hosting, and dissemination can all be done from a few laptops armed with a couple credit cards.  So again I ask, do we really want to do online CVE?  It seems the CSCC can do it, but will we let them? 

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