Tag Archives: ISIS

White House: less force, more diplomacy in Syria

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

White House Press Secretary discusses national security after Islamic State attacks. (Sean Froelich/Medill).

WASHINGTON — White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday that no amount of U.S. military power will solve the chaos in Syria.

Earnest answered questions regarding President Barack Obama’s recent and upcoming meetings with world leaders to discuss how the Syrian civil war and threats posed by the Islamic State are being confronted.

Earnest assured reporters that international resources are being funneled together in order to meet the current U.S. plan of “degrading and defeating ISIL.”

“The success of this mission is dependent on 65 nations coming together, recognizing the common interest they have here and dedicating significant resources,” Earnest said.

Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande Tuesday as part of the international outreach.

Reporters asked Earnest about the ongoing efforts to snuff out terrorist threats in Belgium, which is currently on high alert against potential attacks following the massacre in Paris.

Earnest was mum on safety procedures in Belgium to ensure their secrecy, but suggested that security improvements Europe can make it easier for those allies to better defend their own national security.

Earnest said it is important to expand intelligence sharing within the European Union and with the U.S.

“That is certainly something we are committed to,” Earnest said. “And we are committed to helping our allies in Europe deal with this rather urgent threat.”

Congress voted last week to increase the security measures for Syrian refugees coming into the U.S. due to GOP fears that Islamic State operatives would sneak into the country.

“I think those who voted to further encumber the refugee process are accountable for their vote…it’s not likely to do much to improve the national security of the United States.”

Online recruiting fuels big boost in Islamic State foreign troops

WASHINGTON — In recent weeks a lot of news surfaced about the Pentagon halting its strategy to equip and train Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State and the Syrian government. While the Obama administration is sending a limited number of Special Operations forces on the ground to advise local soldiers fighting ISIS, the shift in strategy coincides with the constant replenishment of ISIS troops and the ineffective rebel recruitment program.

While covering a committee hearing on Transportation Security Administration reform, a deputy communications director, Matthew Ballard, informed me of a recent report from the House Homeland Security Committee analyzing the unprecedented growth in the number of foreigners traveling to Syria and other terrorist areas across the globe.

The increase is occurring despite U.S. air strikes killing over 10,000 ISIS combatants. According to the report, “When the strikes began, counterterrorism officials estimated the total number of extremists was around 15,000…Today the figure stands at 25,000-plus foreign fighters.”

The flow of foreign fighters continued despite U.S. airstrikes, which numbered more than 5,000 since August 2014. Fighters continue to stream in from Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Russia and Western countries including the U.K., France and the U.S.

The number of foreign fighters traveling from America is substantially smaller than a country like Tunisia (with over 5,000 recorded travelers) but also is the group the task force knows the most about. It found that American fighters are largely influenced by the ISIS global branding through its heavy social media presence. ISIS, unlike previous terrorist organizations, uses full advantage of the ability to craft and hone its own message with Twitter, Tumblr and other platforms while editing “Hollywood-style” videos illustrating its violent acts and power in the region.

The report finds that the pervasiveness of this social media effort is not simply ISIS top leaders sending out tweets from Iraq and Syria but that is channeled through its foreign fighters to their home countries, leading to more recruits. The grassroots nature of the foreign fighter recruitment poses an immense challenge for governments including the U.S. to monitor and prevent their citizens from joining ISIS or returning to recruit and carry out attacks in their respective countries.

Online recruitment for ISIS often moves from public to private channels. For instance, potential recruits watch publicly available “seminars” on social platforms are then directed to encrypted services such as Telegram. The government has yet to figure out an effective way to stop the online recruitment other than private citizens, family members and friends who have tipped off 75 percent of arrest cases related to potential U.S.-born foreign fighters.

Syrian reporter honored for giving back to her country

Erhaim and top Washington foreign editors discuss national security threats in Syria. (Sara Shouhayib/ MEDILL NSJI)

Erhaim and top Washington foreign editors discuss national security threats in Syria. (Sara Shouhayib/ MEDILL NSJI)

WASHINGTON – The increasing dangers to journalists covering the Syrian civil war and other stories in areas where the Islamic State operates has driven many to cover the conflicts from outside the country, leaving the rest of the world less able to get eye-witness news Syrian journalist Zeina Erhaim is trying to get those stories out by training Syrians to report on their country’s war despite the dangers.

Erhaim was honored with the Peter Mackler Award on Thursday at the National Press Club.

The award honors courageous and ethical journalism by reporters and editors who have demonstrated a commitment to fairness, accuracy and speaking truth to power and asserting their right to publish or air their stories in countries where independent journalism is under threat.

Erhaim works to bring Syria’s stories to people around the world by reporting from inside the country herself and training others Syrian citizens to be reporters. In Syria, international news organizations and freelance reporters have left the country due to journalists’ beheadings by the Islamic State and threats for being there.

As the director of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, which supports journalists in countries undergoing conflict, crisis or transition, she has trained dozens of Syrians on how to report and produce stories, many of which have been published by news organizations outside Syria. She began working for IWPR in 2013, after reporting for the BBC.

After receiving the award at the National Press Club event, Erhaim shared her experiences in Syria during a panel discussion that included Miriam Elder, world editor of Buzzfeed News, Hannah Allam, a foreign policy reporter for McClatchy Newspapers, and Louise Roug, global news editor of Mashable.

Erhaim noted that other countries only recently began to seriously address the Syrian refuges crisis.

“I think in terms of the refugee crisis that it only became a crisis because it hits the EU, even though it’s been hitting Jordan, Beirut and Turkey for so long,” Erhaim said.

Allam agreed that Syrian migration should have been more widely covered sooner, emphasizing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a bigger reason than the rise of the Islamic State for Syrians to leave their country.

“I think it’s been really good in the recent interest in the refugee issue that there have been a number of stories pointing out that… I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that here it’s easy to imagine that they’re all fleeing ISIS, but when you actually talk to them they say by and large, they’re fleeing the barrel bombs,” Allam said.

Erhaim agreed, saying some Syrians consider ISIS-occupied territories as some of the safest parts of the country because the Assad regime won’t bomb those areas.

She criticized the news media’s attention on ISIS for giving the terrorist group exactly what it wants – a propaganda megaphone.

Reporting in Syria requires different approaches than in Western countries.

Erhaim said she used men, most often her husband, to conduct interviews with other men because they would not speak directly with a female reporter.

Further information about the IWPR and how it operates can be found at https://iwpr.net/.

Why Mosul matters

WASHINGTON – As the Islamic State continues to gain territory in the Middle East, the fall of Mosul, a city of Northwestern Iraq, has been ISIS’ largest victory to date. More than a year after it invaded Iraq’s second largest city, ISIS is still in control of its population of more than one million people.

With nearly daily reports of new land ISIS has conquered, military experts say the U.S. will not successfully counter the Sunni extremist organization without making Mosul a key focus.

The Islamic State’s takeover of Mosul doesn’t mean just a physical dominance over the land and psychological problems for the city’s citizens. An estimated 60,000 Christians fled when the group took over, and those who stayed are under constant intimidation with things like ISIS shutting down schools and destroying rival Shia mosques.

“On a larger psychological scale, which frankly is what’s really hurting our national interest, is that this is not just a problem for Iraq or more for Iraq and Syria,” said Steven Bucci, senior fellow for Homeland Security and Defense Issues for the Heritage Foundation. “It’s a problem for the whole region and is having implications here in the homeland, in that, when an organization like ISIS can stand up to the United States of America and the coalition of its friends, and not be crushed… that’s tantamount to a victory” against the West.

Bucci served as an Army Special Forces officer for more than 30 years and is a former Pentagon official. He believes the U.S. has a vested interest in countering ISIS and needs to take a more aggressive approach because of the movement’s lone wolf attacks brewing in the homeland.

“Their ability to continue to control places like Mosul, to continue to basically thumb their nose at us, even though we dropped bombs on them, continues to allow them to be an incredible recruitment magnet to either get folks to come there and fight with them, or take actions in their homeland like we’ve seen a couple times here in the states,” Bucci adds.

Stabilizing Mosul will be no easy task; it will require re-establishing local leadership and rebuilding a developed city that has almost completely been destroyed. The military force needed to combat ISIS will yield more destruction for the city, but Bucci says things will have to get worse before they can get better. A more aggressive strategy is essential in not only to release ISIS’ tight grip on the Middle East, but to keep the U.S. safe in the future.

“The only way to stop that from happening is to crush them, literally to go in and destroy them,” Bucci said. “They’re not going to negotiate with anybody; they’re not going to make concessions in any way. The only way to remove that magnet is to destroy it.”

If the U.S. does not seriously consider Mosul in its counter-ISIS strategy, Bucci predicts other religious extremists will attempt to take over the city in the future.

“Unless we go in and help them directly, is going to be the Shia militias, which is not necessarily a good thing,” Bucci said. “Their track record of dealing with predominately Sunni population centers has been pretty visible. They get in there and yea, they might chase ISIS out eventually, but their attitude towards their Sunni brothers is colored by the decades of abuse that they got from the Sunnis from under Saddam Hussein.”

As ISIS continues to gain more territory, counterinsurgency strategies must not lose sight of reestablishing Mosul to take back ISIS’ largest victory and control. ISIS will continue to dominate Middle East territories so long as it has a hold on the regions biggest cities. Even with U.S. troops being in the midst of withdrawing from the Middle East, aggressively working to eliminate ISIS is key for both national interest and to keep the homeland safe.

Turkey joining the fight against ISIS

WASHINGTON – For the first time since the Islamic State – also known as ISIS – began to spread across Iraq and Syria, neighboring Turkey has launched air strikes against positions of the jihadist organization in Syria.

Air Forces commanded from Ankara responded to the attacks launched by ISIS last month in the Turkish location of Suruç and the bordering city of Kilis. With this new development, the conflict takes on a new profile, perhaps one that many were expecting from a NATO ally, to slow down and undermine the progress and consolidation capabilities of the Islamic State.

For Ayça Alemdaroglu, Associate Director at the Keyman Modern Turkish Studies Program, this decision is related to Turkey’s domestic policy situation. “The governing party is making a clear effort to maintain its power in times of decreasing electoral support. A way to balance this is to look for support in the international community – especially the U.S. – and so, their current fight with the Kurds is not seen.”

If the Islamist militias were aiming at a military escalation, they are indeed succeeding. So far Turkey, which borders to the south with Syria and Iraq, had maintained a poorly defined defensive posture towards the advancement of ISIS. This, even though ISIS’ assault to Kobanî in October last year came dangerously close to the Turkish border.

Turkey, let’s not forget, has also been a haven for sympathizers of jihadism. Many of them are in the Kurdish southern provinces that have chosen to provide support to ISIS given the lack of prospects offered by the Turkish government for their cause.

Alemdaroglu, who has worked as a post-doctoral scholar at the Anthropology Department at Stanford and earned her doctorate in sociology at Cambridge, highlights the fact that several reports indicate that the Turkish government has been indirectly supporting ISIS. “Central intelligence agencies from Turkey have been transporting trucks across the boarder loaded with ammunitions, including anti-aircraft rockets that end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda,” she says.

Turkey is also the gateway to the territories controlled by ISIS for youths coming from all over Europe and the rest of the world to join the Islamist militia. And if that isn’t enough, there are more than a million and a half Syrian refugees living on Turkish soil.

Ankara had wanted to maintain its own agenda on the issue and on more than one occasion refused to provide facilities to the U.S. military. However, in this new stage, the Turkish government has yielded to Washington’s request to use the Incirlik Air Base and although the details of the agreement are unknown, it appears that the U.S. activity in the area will require greater Turkish cooperation.

The U.S. has made their conditions very known to Turkey in order for this cooperation to succeed. Among them is to fully respect the Kurds, who have become key allies to America in the area, and which they have armed to the teeth to avoid having a single boot on the ground.

So far Turkish Presidente Erdoğan has found it difficult to agree, mainly because he doesn’t like the Kurds to be armed by the U.S. and gaining international recognition for their work to eradicate extreme jihadism in the area.

This agreement and the new attitude of the Turkish government will mark a profound change in the management of the crisis by both Washington and Ankara. Before this, it was unacceptable that Turkey, a country that belongs to NATO, had turned a blind eye to the jihadist activity in its own territory.

Furthermore, it was strategically ineffective for the U.S. to combat ISIS militarily from bases and aircraft carriers located more than a thousand miles away.

This turning point, however, will not come without risks and the crisis could spill over to neighboring countries and even deepen the less known violence happening in Turkey right now.

“If you think about national security in a much broader sense, the security of human beings for example, what Turkey is doing right now is not strengthening national security at all. I just came back from Turkey on August 10 and there were two attacks in Istanbul. I think around 10 people died. This could be unrelated to the main ISIS issue but it shows that Turks are not safe at this moment,” says Alemdaroglu.

U.S. reluctant to declare safe zone along Turkey-Syria border

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey exchange pleasantries before testifying in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Services about U.S. counter ISIS strategy. (Matt Yurus / Medill NSJI)

Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey exchange pleasantries before testifying in front of the Senate Committee on Armed Services about U.S. counter ISIS strategy. (Matt Yurus / Medill NSJI)

WASHINGTON – Turkey and the U.S. agreed to a deal in late July that might lead to an ISIS-free zone along the Syrian-Turkish border while allowing the U.S. to launch airstrikes against the marauding jihadist organization from Incirlik Air Base in Southern Turkey.

There is not a plan in place, however, to create this buffer or safe zone, as it is often called. And Obama administration officials are reluctant to call what they expect to be a roughly 60-mile long and 40-mile deep area that nearly reaches Aleppo a safe zone.

The administration refers to this as an “ISIL free zone so that it would not have the perception of a safe zone protected as a no-fly zone,” said Ömer Taşpınar, a professor at the National War College and expert on Turkey. To implement a no-fly zone, the U.N. must pass a resolution, and Russia and China would veto it, and Iran would view it as a hostile act, according to Taşpınar.

Taşpınar pointed out that the agreement did not detail the type of zone that would be created. The Turkish media, however, has been reporting that the U.S. has finally agreed to a safe zone. So in this sense, it has been a public relations strategy, he added.

There are a lot of loose ends and potential complications, he said. The Turkish forces are hesitant to deploy ground troops without the protection of a U.S. and coalition-enforced no-fly zone. The Obama administration has refrained from sending in a sizable U.S. led ground force, instead choosing to train indigenous fighters, and these moderate Syrian rebels are too weak to police the area.

In early July, Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter told the Senate Armed Forces Committee that only 60 moderate rebels were in training, a force “much smaller” than expected. He expected that number to improve, however, saying that as the U.S. learns more about the opposition forces and builds relationships recruiting will become easier. More recently, The Washington Post reported that Jabhat al-Nusra captured U.S.-backed Syrian rebels earlier this month — five of whom were directly trained by U.S. personnel. U.S. officials said that many more members of the Syrian rebel forces have returned to Turkey.

Taşpınar noted that this area is too small to house millions of Syrian refugees. There are roughly 4 million Syrians displaced in neighboring countries, according to a USAID report. More than another 7 million and 12 million are internally displaced and need humanitarian assistance, respectively, in Syria.

What this zone does is break the Kurdish plan to “establish a Kurdish enclave,” he said. The Turks along with the U.S. consider the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist group.

The same report from The Washington Post quoted Yezid Sayigh, a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, as saying, “I don’t think we will see anything approaching what even resembles a safe zone” in Syria.

To accomplish this there will have to be access to electricity, water and shelter along with medical facilities.

The U.S. recently sent six F-16, or “Fighting Falcons,” and an additional 300 personnel to Incirlik Air Base in Turkey. These aircraft were sent to carry out attacks over northern Syria and close the border after Turkey agreed to the deal.

It has been roughly a year since the coalition began airstrikes in the region. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate that ISIS has the same amount as fighters as it did then, between 20,000 and 30,000.


#MedillRemembers James Foley, One Year Later

Considering religious motivations to counter Islamic State

WASHINGTON — Religious experts are saying the U.S. approach with ISIS should be more focused on the movement’s ideology. Islamic extremists claim to be restoring the faith to its original interpretation as part of their recruitment strategy. Experts say interpretations of religion are meant to evolve over time.

“What if a message like the Koran was revealed in modern society, let’s say New York City,” Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid said. “So for example, when it comes to gay rights, presumably anything revealed today in New York would have a little bit of a different perspective, a more tolerant one. They’d say, ‘this doesn’t really relate to our modern context.”

The sentimental appeal ISIS is using continues to give the group momentum, with the ultimate goal being to take over and reform the Caliphate.

Should the U.S. government negotiate with terrorists?

The safety of Americans abroad is a top priority for the U.S. government. Whether working in a U.S. embassy or on an aid mission, all American lives are valued. When these lives are taken hostage by terrorists, their rescue becomes extremely complex.

Chris Voss, CEO and founder of the Black Swan Group, said kidnappings of American hostages makes him angry.

Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group. “There are few people that have worked for the [U.S.] government that know as much about international kidnapping as I do,” he said. (Photo courtesy of the Black Swan Group)

Chris Voss is the founder and CEO of the Black Swan Group. “There are few people that have worked for the [U.S.] government that know as much about international kidnapping as I do,” he said. (Photo courtesy of the Black Swan Group)

“[It’s] a horrifying experience from our perspective, but for them it’s a means to an end. Usually they want to trade for money, for weapons, for political favors, or for publicity,” Voss said.

The Black Swan Group prepares its clients to handle the unpredictable. Voss has 24 years of FBI experience and was their lead international kidnapping negotiator.

He said that he has been involved with about 150 successful rescuing cases worldwide, some involving children, in countries like Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

In 2011, al-Qaida militants in Pakistan kidnapped an American named Warren Weinstein. He was accidently killed by a U.S. drone in January.

During his captivity the White House said it would not negotiate with terrorists for his release.

Elaine Weinstein released a statement after learning about her husband’s fatality: “We hope that my husband’s death and the others who have faced similar tragedies in recent months will finally prompt the U.S. government to take its responsibilities seriously and establish a coordinated and consistent approach to supporting hostages and their families.”

A bipartisan amendment to the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act, headed by Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland and California Rep. Duncan Hunter, a Republican, called for the creation of a “hostage czar.” Weinstein was Rep. Delaney’s constituent.

The legislation, approved by the House of Representatives, includes an Interagency Hostage Recovery Coordinator. Some of the coordinator’s tasks would include engaging in rescue missions alongside all levels of the federal government and keeping families up-to-date with hostage-related developments.

The amendment, however, does not permit negotiations with terrorists.

Voss said he has not negotiated with terrorists in his career, but rather has been involved with “third-party intermediaries” or “proxies.”

Journalists like James Foley and Steve Sotloff, who were kidnapped and then killed by Islamic State militants, led many to question whether government bodies should negotiate with terrorists to secure the release of hostages.

If government agencies were to interact with terror groups, would their arrangements be honored? Would the terrorists demand more? Would everyday people be encouraged to kidnap Americans, knowing they could engage in extortion?

According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, about $165 million has been paid to terror organizations in the form of ransom money, primarily funded by European governments.

The U.S. government has secretly negotiated with terrorists, but not through publicized monetary means. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was kidnapped for five years by Taliban sympathizers in Afghanistan, was swapped for five Guantanamo Bay detainees.

Trading prisoners of war is not unique to the United States. In 2006, Israel Defense Forces solider Gilad Shalit, held captive by the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas for five years, was exchanged for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners.

Are we giving our kids the tools to talk to terrorists?

One of the biggest pushes in education today is to give students more access and exposure to new technologies. Schools all across the country are advocating for curricula that encourage teachers to incorporate Smart Boards, computers, iPads and even students’ own smartphones into daily lessons in schools.

Many schools are even providing every student who enrolls at a school with one. While there are obviously endless benefits of cultivating a technologically literate generation, this one-to-one approach to technology has some major drawbacks, critics say – especially when the students take these devices home with them.

Out from under the watchful eye of a school’s Wi-Fi, which usually restricts what websites are accessible, students have unlimited access to the worldwide web. This means that we are potentially handing out students a tool for bullying, for looking up pornography, for illegally purchasing guns or drugs, and for communicating with terrorist organizations like ISIS. The group has a strong presence on social media and frequently uses Twitter to recruit new members. There are about 46,000 active ISIS supporters on Twitter, according to the most recent figures from the FBI.

Sara Rubin, a psychologist at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, Illinois, worries what students are doing with these devices.

“Twitter and Facebook use is easier to monitor at school. However, the students take those iPads home with them and theoretically can use them all night if they wanted,” she said in a phone interview.

Rubin also said parents often find it difficult to monitor how their children use these devices at home.

Experts have found that there is no specific profile for potential ISIS recruits through social media.

In October of last year, three Denver teenage girls were caught attempting to run away to Syria to join ISIS. In November, a 20-year-old college student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham successfully traveled to Syria to join the movement. These young people are among more than 150 U.S. citizens who have attempted to join ISIS, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Worldwide, more than 3,400 people from western countries are now ISIS fighters, CNN reported in February.

David Gartenstein-Ross, a counterterrorism expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told the Senate committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs that it’s difficult to profile exactly the type of person who is likely to sympathize with or join ISIS. Some have criminal backgrounds, while others are educated. “There is no one-size-fits all,” he said.

The parents of all four young people reported that they later found communication between their children and ISIS members on their children’s social media accounts. Ah, okay. A definitive link. Might be worth mentioning higher.

One thing all ISIS recruits do have in common is that they like the message ISIS puts forth. “ISSI is excellent at messaging,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “They have a winner’s messaging. They project strength.”

Rubin believes that this message could be especially appealing to young teenagers.

“Terrorist organizations’ effectiveness at recruiting this population is in part because of how much time teens are spending online without adult supervision,” she said. “It’s also because the message from these organizations is really resonating with teens who are looking to be a part of something bigger and form their identities. Their message is very enticing and warm when you feel isolated from your peers and are trying to form both your personal identity and peer group over the Internet.”

Senator Ron Johnson (R.-Wisc.), chair of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, has called for more aggressive solutions to this growing problem.

“In order to understand the nature of the current threat to America, it is important to understand these changing recruitment methods and the challenges they pose,” he said.

Rubin thinks that better education on Internet safety for students could help illustrate for them how ISIS manipulates them in its messaging.

Gartenstein-Ross also believes that debunking ISIS’s messaging is also part of the solution. In order hamper the effectiveness of ISIS, the U.S. needs to begin attacking the group’s persona of strength, which it too can do through social media. “The U.S. may not be the best voice to deliver this message,” Gartenstein-Ross said. “But it can provide the media with reliable information that it can use to show when and where ISIS is failing.”

In the meantime, Rubin urges schools and parents to better supervise students’ use of technology. “It’s a school issue, but it’s also a parental issue and parents need to do a better job of supervising their kids.”

Parents and schools have begun taking a more proactive approach to combatting bullying in schools and online. Consideration of this new potential threat to kids’ safety and well-being is long overdue. Blindly handing technology to kids without first educating them on the dangers that exist on the Internet is irresponsible. We’ve taught them about predators on the street and to be vigilant in real life, but as more and more of our time is spent online and on social media, we need to start educating kids on the dangers that exist on these platforms.