National Security

Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism: Part I (A) – The Attack Component


By Ex Umbra

The safety and security of the American people is job #1 for the President of the United States. Unfortunately, we live in an age when radical Islamic terrorism has perpetrated a terrifying slaughter of human life, billions of dollars of senseless destruction, and billions more spent on security measures around the world. All this sadistic political expression is meant to hijack Islam and enslave the masses of “non-believers”—and even the so-called Muslim apostates.

This scourge of evil is now led by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). CNN (Tim Lister) reported on January 16, 2017, that ISIS has conducted 143 attacks in 29 countries that have killed 2,043 innocent civilians in less than three years. Almost half of these deaths have targeted the Western public. Separately, United Nations reports reflect that ISIS has killed 18,802 innocent civilians simply within Iraq during this period.

In just over two weeks since taking office, President Trump (POTUS) promulgated a National Security Memorandum entitled “Plan to Defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” on January 28, 2017. This presidential memorandum tasked the Secretary of Defense (SecDef), James Mattis, in coordination with designated Cabinet members, “to develop a comprehensive strategy and plans for the defeat of ISIS [and provide the plan] within 30 days” (presumably by February 27, 2017).

For essential background on the proposed considerations for a strategic framework, please read the overview article “Defeating ISIS and Radical Islamic Terrorism (RIT): Series Overview,” posted on on January 31, 2017.

This article addresses, in greater detail, more specific considerations regarding the “Attack and Defeat ISIS” component. Overall, there are four components of the suggested strategic planning framework:

  1. Attack and Defeat ISIS and RIT. (Part I of the OpsLens series of articles)
  2. Defend and Protect the US Homeland and Interests. (Part II)
  3. Counter the Combative Ideology and Illegitimacy of RIT. (Part III)
  4. Influence Islam to Reform Itself from Within Regarding RIT. (Part IV)

After writing the overview, it became apparent that the “Attack and Defeat ISIS” component will require two articles to fully address: Part I (A) and Part I (B). This article is Part-I (A), which will address the critical issues within the policy, strategy, plans, and political domains affecting the “Defeating ISIS & RIT” strategic framework. Part I (B) will address organizing for the fight, major tasks, programs, and process functions.

This article does not attempt to regurgitate the US military’s sound MDMP (Military Decision-Making Process) or second-guess US Defense Department or US government (USG) planners. They are arguably the best in the world. I will merely focus on some of the critical success factors (CSFs) addressed in the MDMP that warrant a deeper analysis—even during the first spiral of the OPLAN development process.

First, from the macro viewpoint, I suggest that the USG planning team rigorously conduct a more broadly focused stakeholder analysis. At a minimum, this should include the governments of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Russia regarding the Shiite Muslims’ vital and major interest side of the political equation, as well as the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA), Qatar, and Turkey on the Sunni side of the political equation.

ISIS is a semi-autonomous player with its own religious self-interests. The Sunni Muslim side of the equation tolerates ISIS’ radical Sunni Wahhabism ideology. The Sunni Muslim side does not, however, completely share the same non-religious interests and ambitions as ISIS. ISIS is a sort of “wild card” that serves as a useful tool for KSA in the region in the broader KSA-versus-Iran confrontation. ISIS is KSA’s defense against Iran’s hegemony. Iran has its own radical Shiite proxies, like Hezbollah, that are useful tools in the region. Understanding these interests and agendas will enable the USG’s objectives and strategy. The upcoming Part IV article will address this issue in more detail.

The stakeholder analysis should include, but not be limited to, understanding each major stakeholder’s vital interests, public and private (hidden) agendas, capabilities to achieve its agenda, and risks the stakeholder is willing to take to achieve/satisfy its true interests/agenda. This analysis will inform the USG leadership on how to engage the various stakeholders and navigate to a successful end-state. This end-state should obviously include the defeat of ISIS. In this piece, I will not drill down to the specifics on the stakeholders.

The root cause analysis of RIT is worthwhile because it will illuminate the division between mainstream Sunni Muslims and the ISIS brand of radical Sunni Wahhabism; therein lies the key to delegitimizing ISIS’ radical ideology. That would be a step toward reforming Islam. That conflict has persisted for centuries and is not likely to be solved in our lifetime.

The output and understanding from these three critical analyses provides the USG leadership with a methodology to evaluate the feasibility of various courses of action. A prime example:

  • Why don’t we unilaterally increase armaments for the Kurds? This option has been seriously discussed by many of the recent US presidential candidates and Senators during the past couple of years. Having a good stakeholder analysis would illuminate the big hurdles to be overcome to realistically implement that option.
  • Turkey has a vital interest in keeping heavy arms from any of the Kurd factions. The World Affairs Blog, operated by Michael J. Totten, captures the essence of this issue:
    • “Turkey fears and loathes Kurdish independence anywhere in the world more than it fears and loathes anything else. Kurdish independence in Syria, from Ankara’s point of view, could at a minimum escalate a three-decades-long conflict and at worst threaten Turkey’s territorial integrity.”
    • “The civil war in Syria has allowed the Kurds there to carve out a space of their own between ISIS and the Assad regime, which is what worries the Turks.”
  • Moreover, the sovereign host country of Iraq, heavily influenced by Iran, is not likely to support this option. It would empower the Kurds in Iraq to press their desire (interest) for an autonomous Kurdish state. Arming the Kurds would encourage them to fight for a partitioned territory within Iraq.
  • Would it be possible for the USG to negotiate an arrangement? Possible, but not likely. But would the overall cost-to-benefit ratio be worth the animosity it would certainly cause? With the new emerging success in recapturing huge swaths of territory from ISIS, would the timing of this major initiative be wrong? Probably.

It is evident to me that one of the critical success factors in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria is “managing” the various stakeholders’ interests. Another critical success factor is the psychological/ideological component. Although my suggested framework treats that domain as an equally important component by itself, the relevant aspects of the psychological/ideological campaign must be cross-walked and integrated into the combat campaign—from tactical to strategic levels.

The initial strategic-level stakeholder analysis expands downward to the operational and tactical levels. A target audience analysis process (TAAP) is traditionally conducted. This psychological operations process (DoD Field Manual 3-05) has been perfected over decades of application since WWII.

TAAP further refines the stakeholder analysis down to discrete analysis of the key individuals and groups. It addresses their relevant conditions, vulnerabilities, susceptibilities, and accessibility to the various individuals and groups. This underpins the influence campaign.

These three analyses will help the USG scale its current means and level of support to the existing Iraqi Military Coalition (IMC). The USG’s commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (a three-star corps commander from the US Army deployed on the ground in Iraq) is currently commanding approximately 6000 US troops “advising, assisting (and supporting)” IMC combat operations throughout Iraq and Syria. His input will be the most important for planning. Could we provide additional surge support to the western Mosul battle? More artillery/fire, intelligence, medical, logistical, and communications support for the IMC forces? More food, water, medical aid, clothing, and shelter for the hundreds of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced persons)? Yes.

One thing is for sure—to effectively defeat ISIS, the USG must combine the power of the psychological/ideological with physical combat. Our plans must include a global narrative that capitalizes on ISIS’ impending combat defeat and then documents and “magnifies and multiplies” ISIS’ inhumane atrocities to the world. ISIS has enslaved, raped, tortured, and killed tens of thousands of Muslims (and other minority faiths) during this horrific war inside of Iraq and Syria. ISIS even beheads its fighters who do not fight to the death.

Showing the world these crimes against humanity is the first salvo to delegitimize the true, fraudulent “ISIS brand.” Defeating ISIS on the battlefield is an equally important salvo. Both will seriously degrade ISIS’ ability to recruit more foot soldiers. Defeating ISIS on social media is a significant part of this counter-ideology fight as well. I will address, in more detail, the psychological/ideological component in the upcoming Part III of this series of articles.

The continuation of this “Attack and Defeat ISIS” component is the next article.

Ex Umbra is a pen name used for the security of an experienced senior counterterrorist operative currently working outside of the US government.

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