After Orlando, New Ideas Needed to Fight ISIS

After Orlando, New Ideas Needed to Fight ISIS
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In the wake of 9/11, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly made a strategic choice.  The NYPD would help secure the city from foreign threats, an area until then that was exclusively in Washington’s domain.  Predictably, there were entrenched interests that resisted this seismic change in thinking.  I was fortunate, as part of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism, to help make the case that first responders were an integral part of defending against terrorist groups like al-Qaeda.  Together with leaders like current Commissioner Bill Bratton, we decisively influenced that discussion and local law enforcement’s participation in homeland security became routine.  Having accomplished our original purpose, we closed the center and left ongoing innovation to others.

The terrorist attack in Orlando and the shrill partisan jabs that have followed serve as sobering indicators that fresh thinking at the strategic and policy level is needed.  Within a matter of days, President Obama and his administration argued that the shooter acted upon a false version of his religion disseminated over the Internet. Further, we were told that there is no evidence of a larger plot or that ISIS directed the attack, and there was nothing federal agents could have done differently to prevent this massacre. The rhetoric devolved into bipartisan attacks on gun control and immigration policies and was capped by the CIA director’s stunning pronouncement that our efforts to date have done little to reduce ISIS’ capacity to harm us.

The bickering reveals that our leaders are politically unable to articulate the unique challenge posed by ISIS, have failed to build consensus, and offer no coherent strategic direction.  For starters, it is hard to conceive of a workable approach to global jihad that views its ideas as an Internet phenomena.  To the contrary, ISIS is built upon a theological foundation crafted over hundreds of years that justifies violence directed against non-believers. Current methods of disseminating that set of beliefs aside, its principles were honed by the finest intellects over the long span of history and are ingrained in many cultures.  Ignoring this reality in our strategic calculus increases the risk of future failures.

While sharing a common theological foundation, ISIS by its nature fundamentally differs with al-Qaeda.  In the last decade, AQ built a terrorist network that primarily existed overseas, focused on gaining control of the Muslim world first, and pursued spectacular, elaborate attacks. ISIS, by contrast, is a media conglomerate with teeth that satisfies its blood lust with low-tech brutality and is determined to press its fight on all fronts. Its genius is not in central direction or its global network, but in its ability to inspire. ISIS depends less on a network and more on a media platform into which individuals connect, feed on a compelling narrative, and are empowered to act. 

Recent attacks in Orlando, Paris, Brussels, Boston, and San Bernardino are not properly classified as “lone wolf” or “home-grown” attacks.  Rather, they are a part of a collective, global enterprise that has emerged from the uncoordinated actions of ISIS’ individual cells and adherents. No comfort should be taken in the fact that this most recent attack was not part of some broader plot or that it was not directly ordered from without.  While ISIS did not direct the Orlando attack from Syria, the ISIS enterprise surely did.  That enterprise has footholds in Europe and America and seems to be growing.  As such, it will be more difficult to identify and counter than AQ was, and neither the U.S. nor its allies have demonstrated an understanding of how to dismantle such an enterprise. 

That lack of understanding leaves us in a reactive mode, whether countering domestic attacks or pursuing ISIS in its safe havens in the Middle East and North Africa.  Domestically, Exhibit A was FBI Director James Comey’s admission that there was little his investigators could have done differently to thwart the Orlando killer.  Internationally, Exhibit B was CIA Director John Brennan’s testimony that despite all of our targeting successes to date, ISIS’ capacity remains unaffected.  Clearly, we have lost the initiative, and without it, we can expect more setbacks—both at home and overseas.  It is only a matter of when.

New ideas are needed to change that dismal expectation.  Here is one:  We are losing this conflict with ISIS.  It has been responsible for 90 attacks in 21 countries since it declared its caliphate in 2014.  It operates in safe havens for which we have no strategy to deny them.  The carnage in Europe and America is mounting.  The system of alliances that have protected free people is deteriorating.  Most notably, the British vote this week on Brexit came about in large part due to the EU’s immigration policies that many Brits rightly see as a threat.  American leadership is timid at best, and Orlando has made our already deep political divisions even worse, if that is possible.  In this light, both the gun control and immigration points we shout at each other are petty distractions.

Domestically, the rationale for police to be part of the fight—their numbers, community contacts, and domain knowledge—remains.  While state and local law enforcement are part of the team, its intelligence and counter-terrorism capabilities are uneven around the country.  New York, Los Angeles and Washington, AQ’s preferred targets, developed top-notch capabilities after 9/11 and have maintained the capacity to deliver them.  However, ISIS moves against soft targets in places where terrorism has been a distant threat. The rest of the country needs to catch up. 

We also need to understand why in both Boston and now Orlando, federal agents have investigated ISIS adherents who later went on to murder innocents.  In retrospect, both cases were preventable.  We need to have a national discussion on whether and how we monitor people like this, or they will simply continue to wait out a criminal probe.  While the domestic intelligence activities pursued in the last decade were, in some instances, overly broad, what happened in Boston and Orlando is an unacceptable alternative.  In both cases, people with known ties to terrorism, who espoused hateful ideas but who had committed no crime, were allowed unfettered freedom of action.  No system was in place to monitor them and reopen these investigations when suspicious behavioral cues (like attempting to buy body armor) justified it.

If we are to stop reacting like this, we need to think differently.  As with the last decade’s fight on integrating state and local law enforcement in homeland security, many good ideas will come from outside the Beltway.  Those voices must contribute and be heard again.

Tim Connors was the director of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for Policing Terrorism.  He continues to write and speak on security issues.

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