Last week, a television news producer asked me if the terror nexus, the Islamic State, could be compared to the Taliban in the Afghanistan and Pakistan region. Dubbed a counter-terrorism expert by the media, this seemed like the perfect question to ask on air. (Note: The question was scratched in my recent television interview with Al-Jazeera on August 29.)
Examining the two groups seems logical as government agencies and political pundits look for creative ways to isolate a newly recognized enemy. Comparing terror groups is what terrorism analysts do. They take notes. Look for similar strategy, technique and tactics. They design link charts, drawing lines between associates, facilitators, and leader(s). Some analysts look for the Western connection—the possibility of an American Muslim convert ready to sign up for an illegitimate war. (The Economist published a slick graphic with a breakdown of the group’s fighters, listing over 81 nationalities, most of whom are Arab.)
Horrified by the beheadings of American journalists (no one deserves to die that way), the news media is flooded with experts and policy makers on the “way forward” when it is equally important to review the “way back.” On a news program with Vice President of Stratfor Kamran Bokhari, who has been tracking the Islamic State, it became clear someone had to be blamed for the violence spreading across Syria and Iraq. (I pinned the Iraqi government for enabling ISIS to become the kingpin of terror groups in the Middle East, even when accusing the former autocrat Nouri Maliki did nothing to alter the threat.)
Can we defeat an enemy we don’t know? Yes, with better intelligence and responsible allies. When I was in the Counter-Terrorism Center, fighting al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the mission seemed simple enough. To start, identify leaders, members, operational location, recruitment cycle, funding stream, and potential outside support. Intelligence assessments I once drafted didn’t pronounce policy but did help inform policymakers and stakeholders as they planned a sound strategy—this almost always included working side-by-side with foreign liaison partners. Working together, as simple as it sounds, was the key to counter-terrorism success. And to some degree, it worked. My uncle, once Pakistan’s Minister of Interior, told me, “Our intelligence agency worked with the CIA to capture al-Qaeda. It was the only way.” A Special Forces Operations officer, who wishes to be unnamed, agreed that counter-terrorism cooperation with the Pakistanis worked well when it was mutually beneficial.
The good news is that there is hope. The Islamic State can be defeated. Bobby Ghosh celebrated the recent onslaught on ISIS from the Kurds and Iraqis, with American air support, which is a sign that “the tide could be halted, and turned back. We know now that they [the Islamic State] can be beaten.” Long-term success is contingent on commitment and credible partners. American Ambassador Zbigniew Brzezinski told Fareed Zakari on CNN’s Sunday program, “This can’t be an American enterprise. Other Muslim countries, including Iran, need to be involved.” Not many Westerners trust Iran, but they might not have to if there is a common interest and shared goal of pushing back “The un-Islamic State.”
Policymakers should know that eliminating the Islamic Group, if that is the goal, will take a long time. It always does, and the Islamic Group isn’t exclusive or exceptional. Defeating al-Qaeda (translated as the end of Usama Bin Laden) took ten years. Destroying senior Taliban leadership required time, targeted analysis and enough drone strikes to hit Baitullah and Hakimullah Mehsud in Pakistan’s tribal belt. In both cases, neither al-Qaeda nor the Taliban are completely “dead.” Today, the one-eyed leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar, is allegedly alive—Pakistan’s envoy to Afghanistan, Ambassador Syed Murshid, told me he met with him twice as Americans continued to search for his hiding place. The Pakistani Taliban has replaced the Mehsuds with a shaggy bearded man known as Mullah Radio. And al-Qaeda, albeit splintered into factions, is operational in different countries and regions. (Good news: Because these groups are decentralized and lack a single leadership, they are less capable of attacking the West.)
What’s the solution? A multi-pronged approach. Or this three-step formula that is by no means inclusive. Eliminate. Empower. Engage.
Eliminate. Leaders have to be killed. Not captured. There is a difference. When captured, terrorist leaders continue to offer guidance from behind bars and can act as a living martyr / myth. A dead terrorist has nothing to say and therefore can’t motivate men like the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hassan, who wrote a letter to ISIS leader al-Baghdadi from prison in Texas. Of course, a dead terrorist is not always easily forgotten. This was true when al-Qaeda leader in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2006, a victory acknowledged then by al-Maliki. Finding his replacement was a nightmarish problem for the terror network. (Zarqawi’s wife posted a communiqué online shaming Muslim men, seeking revenge for her husband’s death, declaring ‘we are all Zarqawi.’ Her propaganda campaign only proved she was one angry woman.)
Empower. While much needed attention is to support the Kurdish and Iraqi fighters, there is another important local partner which includes the disaffected Sunni population in Syria and Iraq. No thanks to Maliki for sidelining this crucial community, but damage can be repaired with a second Sunni Awakening. This time, the effort should be led by Iraq’s leaders, not the Americans, as a symbol of goodwill. Sunnis might see it as a passive apology for years of sectarian suicide. In exchange for long-term incentives, that include political participation and representation, Sunnis will likely fight the Islamic State.
Engage. No one wants to work with, much less recognize, Bashar al-Assad but there might not be another way to counter ISIS in Syria without him. Nor should mainstream Islamist groups be marginalized, according to Shadi Hamid, a fellow at Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.. “Mainstream Muslim groups…[such as the Muslim Brotherhood]…are deeply illiberal. They’re religiously conservative. We as Americans don’t share their values. But they do believe in the democratic process. They’re not using violence like groups like ISIS.” How to interact with “illiberal” moderates and medieval maniacs like al-Assad is another conversation.
If there’s anything I’ve learned from being in the Counter-Terrorism Center, it’s that terrorists can evolve into political groups; erupt into factions that weakens their core; or become eliminated. The third option seems right for the Islamic State.