This is the second of James Kitfield’s in-depth analysis of the continuing challenges posed by America’s so-called “forever wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq.
At the height of its powers several years ago, ISIS was attracting an estimated one thousand new foreign fighters each month. While U.S. officials always believed that the U.S.-led coalition would take back ISIS-held territory, they worried that as the caliphate collapsed, the tens of thousands of foreign fighters would spread across the world to wreak havoc on a mass scale.
“We assumed the foreign fighters that flowed out from the caliphate would roughly equal the numbers that joined ISIS, and we have rethought that analysis,” National Counterrorism Center (NCTC) Director Nicholas Rasmussen told me in an interview. “We now think most of them will stay and fight and die in the caliphate. That’s good news. The bad news is that some small number are likely to make their way out, and these individuals may have a unique skill set and networks back home that will enable them to carry out attacks in their homelands.”
While the ISIS army of foreign fighters has dwindled from 40,000 at the height of the fighting to 1,000 to 1,500 survivors, the group continues to prove effective at inspiring “lone wolf” attacks. ISIS produced the glossy online jihadist magazine “Dabiq,” for instance, following in the footsteps of the master propagandist and recruiter Anwar al-Awlaki, the American-born extremist cleric and leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who published the online terror magazine “Inspire,” and who was killed in a U.S. drone strike in 2011. ISIS even named its propaganda and recruitment arm the “Awlaki Brigade.” In recent years ISIS has successfully inspired “lone wolf” terrorist attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, Nice, Barcelona, Berlin, London and, most recently, New York. Great Britain has been particularly hard hit, suffering a string of bloody jihadi attacks this year.
“We take the threat ISIS’ British fighters will return as the group’s territory is squeezed very seriously, and we have plans to make sure those who do return are arrested. The numbers are small, but very important,” Amber Rudd, the British Home Secretary, told me at a recent event sponsored by a Washington thinktank, New America. Though the Manchester bomber is thought to have received training by an ISIS affiliate in Libya, all the other ISIS-inspired attacks in Britain this year were committed by homegrown terrorists radicalized online or in local mosques. “For both Britain and the United States, we believe the future threat will mostly come from homegrown radicals,” said Rudd.
Torture Doesn’t Work
After President Trump campaigned on a promise that “torture works” and promised to bring back waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,” it was inevitable that a debate would ensue over whether to bring back the CIA’s discarded program of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that most people consider torture. (Of course, Sen. John McCain insisted on language in the 2015 National Defense Authorization Act requiring interrogations rely on methods approved by the Army Field Manual. It expressly forbids toture and cruel and inhuman treatment.) For their part, the U.S. military and most counterterrorism officials have never forgotten where that detour into darkness led – unreliable intelligence, demoralized interrogators, guilty terrorists who still cannot be tried in a court of law because they were tortured, and a stench that still clings to America’s counterterrorism reputation these many years later.
The most prominent test case where a single terrorist suspect was interrogated using both the FBI’s traditional approach and the CIA’s enhanced techniques was Abu Zubaydah, the first high-value Qaeda operative captured after Sept. 11. Held at a CIA secret “black site” prison, Zubaydah was initially interrogated by a two-man FBI team. By building a rapport with the suspect and painstakingly breaking down his cover story, the agents learned for the first time from Zubaydah that the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks was Khalid Shaikh Mohammed. They also extracted the potentially critical intelligence that an American Qaeda operative, Jose Padilla, was plotting to explode a radiological “dirty bomb” inside the United States.
Later the CIA took over the interrogation, and for the first time a prisoner was subjected to “enhanced techniques” that included sleep deprivation, hard slaps, stress positions, prolonged confinement in coffin-like containers and more than 80 rounds of mock drowning. At the end of the torment Zubaydah was a broken man, but he had surrendered no more actionable intelligence.
In a later brief to the president, senior CIA officials summarized the “key intelligence” gleaned from Zubaydah as information identifying Khalid Shaikh Mohammed as the mastermind of 9/11, and the terrorist suspect Jose Padilla, both of whom were later captured. No mention was made that the critical intelligence was gleaned by FBI agents without using torture.
“Some people have tried to claim that the way we found out that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was the 9/11 mastermind was through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques,’ and that is absolutely not true,” said Steve Gaudin, one of the two FBI agents to interrogate Zubaydah. “Now Zubaydah wasn’t sitting in custody in Brooklyn with his lawyer present the whole time, but the FBI did nothing in questioning him that would shock anyone’s conscience.”
No Killing Your Way to Victory
Perhaps we can practice decapitation well enough to slow the terrorists down. Unlikely. If al-Baghdadi is ultimately captured or killed, history suggests that another true believer in the Salafi jihadist creed will step forward to take his place as ISIS’ leader. Similarly, the Somali Al Qaeda affiliate Al Shabab survived the 2013 death of its mercurial leader Ahmed Abdi Godane Ahmed Abdi Godane; Al Qaeda survived the 2011 death of Bin Laden; Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) survived the 2011 death of Anwar al-Awlaki; and Al Qaeda in Iraq lived to terrorize another day after the 2006 elimination of the murderous Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. What counterterrorism officials call “decapitation of leadership” is an important tactic for keeping these groups back on their heels and looking over their collective shoulders, but U.S. military and intelligence officials learned the hard way that it is a proven failure as a war-winning strategy.
Meanwhile, the man most responsible for crafting the greatest terrorist hunting network in history worries that a workable policy to address the conditions that give rise to Islamist extremism, and a broader strategy for breaking the chain of radicalization are more important than killing their leaders. Decapitations can give the illusion of progress, former Joint Special Operations Commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal told me in our interview, where little actually exists. Because of their often antiseptic nature, often with no U.S. troops placed in harm’s way and the lethal blow landed by a drone, the threshold for approving such operations is often lower than for manned missions, making them all the more tempting from a policymaker’s standpoint.
“If it’s not meshed with a wider strategy and effective policy, targeted killing becomes like a narcotic,” said McChrystal, one that can lull decision makers into a false sense of accomplishment where showy gestures are confused with solving root problems. “Targeted killing is extraordinarily dangerous from that standpoint, because it can become like an ‘Easy Button.’ You have to constantly do the hard-headed analysis and keep asking yourself, ‘Will this actually solve the problem?’”