The Evolving Threat: Today’s Terrorist

Tom Warwick

This entry is part five of an ongoing series on the evolution of America’s response to terrorism. Read part four here.

It has been twenty-three years since the first attack against the United States by al Qaeda and almost fifteen years since President Bush declared a “Global War on Terror.” In the intervening years as our strategy has evolved, so has the face and expertise of our enemy. In the aftermath of the withdrawal from Iraq and among the chaos caused by the civil war in Syria, we have seen the rise of a new threat in the form of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL began as a “franchise” of al-Qaida but eventually grew to surpass its parent network in size, structure, and especially brutality. ISIL has managed to climb its way to this position through a combination of experienced members of Iraq’s Baathist army and “the most potent propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist group” (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015).
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003 Paul Bremer, the Administrator for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq signed Coalition Provisional Authority Orders 1 and 2 ordering the dismantlement of the Ba’ath organization and the Iraqi Army (Sly, 2015). In the stroke of a pen, “400,000 members of the defeated Iraqi army were barred from government employment, denied pensions, but allowed to keep their guns” (Sly, 2015). This act would result in the disbanded Baathist officers eventually playing a significant role in the leadership of what would become ISIL. It would be these Baathist officers, who came to ISIL with years of military and intelligence experience, who ultimately “propel [ISIL’s] fresh military victories…oversee the Islamic State’s expansion in Syria and drove the offensives in Iraq” (Sly, 2015). ISIL has been able to exploit the “out in the cold with nothing to do” predicament of the former officers and use their experience to go beyond the impromptu planning and lack of structure indicative of their former parent organization (Sly, 2015). ISIL has managed to turn their occupied lands into something resembling a functional state. They keep “selective services operating while using brute force to impose its vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state” (Sly,2015). ISIL employs “religious police to make sure that shops close during Muslim prayers and that women cover their hair and faces in public” (Sly, 2015). Those who are discovered breaking these laws “are punished by public executions or amputations.” Among all of this, ISIL manages to “keep markets, bakeries and gas stations functioning” (Sly, 2015). The logistics for most of this is provided by those former Iraqi Ba’ath officials.
The aspect of ISIL that has the largest direct policy ramifications on the United States comes from what has been called “the most potent propaganda machine ever assembled by a terrorist group” (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015). Within the ISIL “bureaucracy” exists a media operation which has managed to produce “hundreds of videos in more than a half-dozen languages, puts out daily radio broadcasts, and garners as many as two million mentions per month on Twitter” (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015). Within the Islamic, State propagandists are held in even higher esteem than most fighters. One such propagandist, who later was arrested in Morocco, told the Washington Post that while he was working for ISIL, he was “given a villa with a garden in Syria…issued a Toyota Hilux, paid a salary seven times the sum paid to a typical fighter, given money for food, clothes, and equipment, and excused from the taxes that the Islamic State imposes on most of its subjects” (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015). The reason for this special treatment is the fact that these propaganda pieces, which range from brutal videos of beheadings to online forums, are ISIL’s most effective recruitment tool. In fact, almost ninety percent of those being recruited into ISIL are being recruited online (Miller and Mekhennet, 2015) as opposed to the almost exclusively direct contact strategy used by al-Qaeda.
ISIL’s propaganda machine is a problem for the United States and its allies not only for its ability to draw more recruits to Iraq and Syria but also for its success in developing “homegrown” terrorist attacks like the ones recently seen in Paris and California. American efforts to combat the online propaganda being distributed by ISIL have been ineffective due to a lack of personnel addressing the issue and a greater lack of monetary resources (Miller and Higham, 2015). The most recent attempt has been undertaken by the US Department of State in their “Information Coordination Cell (ICC).” The mission of the ICC is to “highlight Islamic State hypocrisy, emphasize accounts of its defectors, and document its losses on the battlefield” (Miller and Higham, 2015). Overall the program has been incredibly ineffective in its mission. The ICC has seen little evidence of its message reaching those at risk of radicalization, let alone preventing it (Miller and Higham, 2015). The ICC is simply “outnumbered by its online adversaries, has a minuscule budget by Washington standards, and is saddled with what some regard as the insurmountable burden of having to affix the U.S. Government label to messages aimed at a skeptical Muslim audience” (Miller and Higham, 2015). As of 2015, the ICC is being merged with another Department of State office as part of an “unnamed new entity” tasked with the same mission (Miller and Higham, 2015).

Read the next part of this series here.

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