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French warplanes hit back against Islamic State targets in Syria today. That's where French Prime Minister Manuel Valls says Friday night's terror attacks originated. ISIS (also called ISIL) claimed responsibility for the terrorism in France and also the bombings in Lebanon and Iraq last week.
Seth Jones, director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at RAND, joins Here & Now's Indira Lakshmanan to discuss whether this marks a change in the group's strategy.
What’s happening with ISIS’s strategy?
“The predominant focus of ISIS today still remains its operations in Iraq and Syria, but it has clearly expanded to North Africa, East Africa, West Africa, South Asia and even areas around the Pacific Rim. But when it’s been faced with an onslaught of attacks – airstrikes, Special Operations Forces, intelligence units from the United States, from European countries – it is lashing back. I still think its focus remains a caliphate, but it is now lashing back, the way al-Qaida lashed back for many years, at the foreigners that are supporting its counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations in the areas it wants to control. And I suspect, particularly if we see ISIS lose more territory in Syria and Iraq, it will probably increase its attack portfolio overseas.”
On the belief that ISIS is lashing out with attacks because of Western involvement
"This is a slightly new ISIS than what we have seen and a more dangerous one.”
“First of all, ISIS – its ability to establish territory in both Iraq and Syria - has been a function of weak governance in both Iraq and Syria, and then really serious grievances directed at both the Assad regime and at the Iraqi regime being too close to either Shia in the Iraq case, and then just real unhappiness about the Assad regime more broadly that goes back a decade or more. And the challenge I think we see now is as they have lost some ground in both Iraq and Syria, they are lashing back. That doesn’t mean that European, U.S. and other efforts have caused them per se, but as they lose ground, they are resorting to more terrorist activity rather than just straight up insurgency.”
Do you think there will be more attacks on Europe?
“The challenge right now is that, particularly for Europe, there have been a large number - thousands - of Europeans that have moved to Iraq and Syria to fight with ISIS and other jihadist groups and have the potential to come back and strike targets in Europe. It’s much easier to do this in Europe than it is, say, in the United States, because one can get by land, or boat, or air from Syria and Iraq back to Europe. The second issue is we’ve seen ISIS change for a while. Even in 2014 and early 2015, they were primarily focused on motivating individuals in the West to strike targets. What we see now is with the Paris attacks, and we’ve seen it with a few other situations too – a few other plots, is they are trying to now organize operations out of Syria rather than just to inspire individuals. And that makes this organization notably more dangerous and actually takes us back to the al-Qaida years in the late 2000s when they were trying to do something very similar. And so this is a slightly new ISIS than what we have seen and a more dangerous one.”
Were we underestimating ISIS?
“I think what the U.S. and the Europeans were doing is basing their assessments on what they were seeing at the time. So I think it’s probably more a failure of imagination in a sense of where ISIS may be going than it is a failure of intelligence. Because again, the intelligence appears to have suggested that ISIS was mostly interested in inspiring. Well, obviously we know that’s not true anymore.”
Is there a concern that ISIS could declare war on all of Europe or the United States?
"I think one issue that people must understand is this is not just about Iraq and Syria anymore. This is about fighters that are coming from the West into multiple regions and then trying to return, but it’s also now about Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia."
“I think they already really have declared war on both Europe and the United States. The biggest concern, frankly, is ISIS has spread its tentacles out. They have a relationship with Boko Haram in Nigeria. They have and control territory in Libya, among other locations in East Africa. They have members of al-Shabaab, which have sworn allegiance. They have cells operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are a multi-regional phenomenon now. So I think one issue that people must understand is this is not just about Iraq and Syria anymore. This is about fighters that are coming from the west into multiple regions and then trying to return, but it’s also now about Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. I think the biggest issue, frankly, that becomes difficult and the hardest part of this is to understand that this is more than just a military struggle. This is partly political because we’ve seen governments collapse in these regions where they’ve been able to establish footholds, it’s been partly because of weak governments, but it’s also because of political grievances – political and economic grievances – and we’ve seen that in Iraq and Syria. So at the core of this are very serious political and economic grievances and I think the U.S. has got to push for in a range of these places is trying to make changes both in senior levels of the Iraq and Syrian governments that allay some of the concerns among Sunnis in both countries, because again, they’re political grievances that are at the core of much of what ISIS has been able to capture right now – that territory that they currently control.”
Do you think the West should take a more aggressive stance against ISIS?
“I think on the military front, almost the easiest immediate reaction is to conduct bombing strikes against targets both in Iraq and Syria. The challenge, though, is if one wants to win back territory from ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, they’re going to need a ground component, so ground forces. And it’s generally going to be a combination of state ground forces and sub-state actors – Kurdish Peshmerga for example or Sunni tribes in western Iraq – they’re going to have to take over this territory. And to do that effectively, this is really a game that’s played best by special operations forces and intelligence units. I think with an increased bombing campaign, there has got to be a much more aggressive, probably a much more robust special operations and intelligence presence and coordination across the Europeans, the Americans, and then some of the neighbors like Jordan. Otherwise, all you’ll have is these mowing-the-grass airstrikes with a limited ground campaign.”
This story aired on November 16, 2015.
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