Week of February 21th, 2015

Executive Summary

Cold and a White House summit on extremism and terrorism descended on Washington this week.

The Monitor Analysis looks at the extremism summit being held by Obama.  We argue that it is designed more to be a political exercise rather than being a solid attempt to stop either terrorism or extremism.  We also note that many in the Muslim/American community view government programs as focused more on gathering intelligence rather than actually addressing social issues.

Think Tanks Activity Summary 

Although many in Washington talk about a “ground strategy” in the Middle East, the CSIS argues that few know what it really entails.  They note, “simply calling for more U.S. military forces in the abstract is as irresponsible and stupid as determining the type and size of forces without regard to the facts on the ground. “Boots on the ground” can mean sending in more advisers and trainers that cannot help host country forces learn how to become effective in combat, because they are not allowed to help the forces in the field. No advisory effort is likely to work that focuses on generating forces from the rear that have no real experience in combat, lack proven leadership, and cannot tie all of the elements of effective operations together.”

The Brookings Institution argues that it’s time for Israel to reconsider its policy toward the Syrian civil war.  They conclude, “Israel’s best option is to signal to Hezbollah and to its Iranian patrons that its response to escalation along the Lebanese-Israeli border and the Golan will not be local, and that it may well target major units and installations of Assad’s regime, thus affecting the course of the Syrian civil war. This would not be a simple or easy decision. In the current conditions in Syria, it may play to the hands of the Islamic State and run against the grain of the Western offensive against it. It could also trigger a significant Syrian response. This is a call the Israeli leadership will have to make if the trends observed last January continue, and that call would have to be made in close coordination with Washington in order to dovetail it with U.S. policy in Syria and Iraq. Caution and restraint may well prevail, but the foundation for the first major change in Israel’s policy towards the Syrian civil war has been laid.”

The CSIS argues that intelligence gathering is critical to monitoring Syrian chemical weapons.  They conclude, “More than 1,000 Syrians have tragically died in chemical attacks to date, and there are continuing allegations of chlorine use. As long as these and other threats persist, the need for good intelligence, to provide for a more secure nation, will also persist.  Good intelligence today and into the future will require constant closer collaboration among all the elements of the intelligence community. This is what is meant by the term intelligence integration. An ideal 10 years ago, intelligence integration has become a reality among that the men and women of the intelligence profession who employ it every day in the work they do.”

The Carnegie Endowment looks at the deteriorating situation in Mosul and ISIS.  They note, “Sunni tribal leaders are the key to any political and military solution that can begin to address ridding Iraq of the Islamic State and the alarming rate of radicalization that has accompanied it. They are the same figures who, supported by the United States and Maliki, revolted against AQI during the original Awakening. And today, conversations with Sunni tribal leaders indicate that an overwhelming majority of them despise the Islamic State and its attempts to establish a caliphate, just as they detested AQI.  Yet these tribal leaders are stuck between a rock and a hard place. The Islamic State has pushed many of the tribes away from governing their territories and has shattered their traditional structures of representation. The growing radicalization within territories occupied by the Islamic State calls into question their own legitimacy as tribal or political leaders.”

The Carnegie Endowment notes that much of the fighting in Libya centers around Libya’s oil wealth.  They note, “the consequences for Libya’s recovery are serious given the mounting infrastructural damage. These oil facilities are, in effect, Libya’s patrimony, and that patrimony is being squandered by both sides.” 

The American Enterprise Institute says there are five questions that every presidential candidate should ask about terrorism.  They ask, “Should Iran be removed from the list as an incentive to reach a nuclear deal? Should Turkey be put on the list because of its support for Hamas and radical groups in Syria, or does its NATO membership make it immune? What about Pakistan because of its support for the Taliban and various terrorist groups targeting India and, specifically, its state of Jammu and Kashmir? Sometimes if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck, unless of course a Secretary of State is asked to define it, in which it becomes a partner with whom we have had consultations and will continue to consult as we address issues of mutual concern.”


Obama Hosts Conference on Extremism

With ISIS regularly beheading or burning alive its captives, gun attacks by ISIS sympathizers or recruits in Paris and Copenhagen, and growing terrorism around the world, a diminished Obama responded by calling for a White House conference on extremism and how to counter it.

Attendees included over 60 countries’ representatives, as well as the High Representative and Vice President of the European Union, the UN Secretary General, and senior officials from regional organizations and other multinational bodies, as well as representatives from the private sector and from civil society.  Many were selective representatives of Muslim communities around the US.

This summit is based on the strategy the White House released in August of 2011 of, “Empowering Local Partners to Prevent Violent Extremism in the United States.”  A White House announcement stated at the time, “Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) efforts rely heavily on well-informed and resilient local communities. Boston, Los Angeles, and Minneapolis-St. Paul have taken the lead in building pilot frameworks integrating a range of social service providers, including education administrators, mental health professionals, and religious leaders, with law enforcement agencies to address violent extremism as part of the broader mandate of community safety and crime prevention. The summit will highlight best practices and emerging efforts from these communities.”

The summit will also focus on how social media has helped spread extremism.

Although the sentiments are grand, many questioned the efficacy of the plan as it was vague in approach and was specifically designed to avoid mentioning the current major terrorism problem, ISIS.  In that regard, many critics saw this conference less as a way to counter terrorism and extremism and more as an attempt to apply a political Band-Aid to a serious problem that is causing more concern in the US.

According to the Associate Press, “A White House summit this week on countering violent extremism will not focus exclusively on threats from the “Islamic State” group, senior administration officials said Monday.  While the militant group, which has killed several Americans and others, poses a near-term threat, one of three officials previewing the summit Monday said violent extremists “come in all shapes and sizes.”  The three-day conference will highlight domestic and international efforts to prevent extremists and their supporters from radicalizing, recruiting and inspiring others, particularly disaffected young people. The conference is designed to share best practices and emerging strategies to prevent extremists from carrying out violent acts.”

However, some questioned if the summit was less an attempt to fight extremism and more an attempt to frame the issue in a politically correct way that the White House preferred.  The NY Post noted, “Although the White House didn’t make the guest list public, attendees at Tuesday’s session with Vice President Joe Biden were mainly from Muslim groups.”

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.  The political aspects of the summit were obvious from the beginning.   Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson first announced the summit in September, as concern was growing about the threat posed by ISIS and by that group’s recruitment of fighters in the West. Johnson said the high-level meeting would take place the following month.

However, it did not. In the lead-up to the midterm elections, White House spokesmen repeatedly refused to discuss the reason for the delay or even to confirm on the record that it had been postponed lest it impact the election, where the Democrats were already seen as weak on national security.

It took the Paris terrorist attacks to force the White House to reschedule the meeting.  In fact, the Politico noted, “Some active in counter-violent extremism programs have described the White House’s commitment to the issue as limited and uneven—waxing and waning depending on news events. Critics also say the effort lacks coordination and is distributed across too many government agencies, none of whom are accountable for its success.”

The result is that the summit is treating extremism more as a social problem than a conflict.

Obama wrote in an op-ed article Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times that said, “Groups like al-Qaida and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives…The world has to offer today’s youth something better.”

This sentiment was echoed by Vice President Biden.  In referring to the American tradition of making immigrants feel like full members of their new society, Biden said, “We haven’t always gotten it right, but we have a lot of experience integrating communities into the American system, the American dream.”

Addressing the Social Issues or Finding a New Way to Infiltrate Muslim Neighborhoods?

The “social approach” attempt to curb terrorism and extremism has critics from all points of the political spectrum.  While many say terrorism must be fought with conventional anti-terrorism methods, some say the social approach is equally flawed.

Last Tuesday, at a news conference in Minneapolis, representatives from various mosques and Muslim organizations in the Minnesota outlined several recommendations on how they think their community can counter violent extremism. One of their key recommendations was that the program be independent from the influences of all law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, the Department of Justice and the National Counterterrorism Center – something the federal agencies refuse to do.

Jaylani Hussein, executive director of the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said the program stigmatizes the Muslim community. “The Department of Homeland Security is not known to be providing funds to do after-school programs,” Hussein, who is organizing the press conference, told the Minnesota Post last month. “There are other organizations that do that.”

“We don’t want police, especially law enforcement agencies — we don’t want them to be doing after-school programs because their job is to investigate, their job is not to run after-school programs or to monitor after-school programs,” he continued.

Many Muslim leaders are leery about these programs because law enforcement agencies have used such programs in the past to gather intelligence.

According to Mike German, a former FBI agent who worked for the ACLU and is now with the Brennan Center, “FBI agents were going out with outreach officers or mimicking community outreach to exploit it for intelligence purposes.”

Documents obtained by attorneys at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, and shared with the publication Intercept, show that previous community outreach efforts in Minnesota–launched in 2009 in response to the threat of young Americans joining the al-Qaeda-linked militia al-Shabab, in Somalia—were, in fact, conceived to gather intelligence.

A grant proposal from the St. Paul Police Department to the Justice Department, which the Brennan Center obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request to the FBI, lays out a plan in which Somali-speaking advocates would hold outreach meetings with community groups and direct people toward the Police Athletic League and programs at the YWCA. The proposal says that “the team will also identify radicalized individuals, gang members, and violent offenders who refuse to cooperate with our efforts.”

“It’s startling how explicit it was – ‘You don’t want to join the Police Athletic League? You sound like you might join al-Shabab!’” said Michael Price, an attorney with the Brennan Center.

Will the Summit Bring Results?

Beyond the optics of the White House holding a summit on extremism, will there be any solid results that will lessen the terrorism risk?  Probably not.

First, the summit pointedly stayed away from addressing the critical terrorism threat today, ISIS and its radical version of Islam.  Obviously, a refusal to address the major threat means that any solution will not be tailored to defeating ISIS.  And, no one believes that a “community based, bottom up approach” would have stopped any of the terrorism of the last month.

Second is the failure to understand modern extremism.  The White House prefers to see the issue of class warfare and in State Department briefings this week State spokeswomen Jen Psaki and Marie Harf said the issue of poverty and lack of jobs was seen as the key to addressing the problem of extremism.  However, they failed to address the fact that Osama bin laden was a multi-millionaire and many of the terrorists in the War on Terror were financially well off.

The third problem is that the solutions are suspect.  Department of Homeland Security and FBI outreach programs are (rightly so) seen as intelligence operations by Muslim communities in the US.  Not only does it make the whole community feel that they are perceived as a security threat, it means that federal law enforcement agents are actively penetrating the neighborhood without regard to rights.

So, what is the goal of the summit?  Given the White House approach to the summit, it is merely a way to divert attention from the growing threat of terrorism – a threat that is depressing the president’s favorability ratings.  The summit had been planned last September, but delayed lest the issue of terrorism impact the mid term elections.  It remained in limbo until the pace of terrorist attacks made some sort of reaction politically mandatory.

Rather than directly addressing the issue of terrorism, Obama has used the summit as a platform to shape the war on terror as a social-economic issue – an issue that he hopes will play well in the presidential election of 2016 and one that works for Democrats.

No mention whatsoever anywhere in the sessions of this summit or a discussion on the role That U.S. policy has played and continue to play in instigating violence and extremism in the region, nor addressing the role of  U.S. clients and partners in supporting such violent groups as we have witnessed in Syria.

However, Obama’s hopes to turn this issue into a political advantage are quickly disappearing as critics from both left and right are criticizing him for a limp wristed attempt to address terrorism without looking at the major, current cause of extremism in the world today – ISIS and its brand of radical Islam.  The NY Post noted, “They’re burning and beheading victims in the name of Islam, but President Obama delivered a major speech Wednesday on combating violent extremism — while refusing to use the words “Muslim terrorists.”

While many at the summit hope that the plans laid out will help reduce the threat of extremism, the fact is that community based violent extremism reduction campaigns are seen not as programs designed to make the neighborhood safer, but as tools to infiltrate law enforcement into the community.  In the end, the programs will be rejected both by those who don’t buy into the social\economic argument, by those who advocate a conventional approach to the terrorism threat, and those same Muslim communities that they are designed to help.

US Expands Drone Sales

The State Department announced this week that the US would be selling armed drones to some allies, including some in the Middle East.  It is assumed that they will primarily be used against ISIS.

UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have become a weapon of choice because they can loiter long over a battlefield and operate without a pilot onboard, which prevents the potential of ISIS capturing a downed pilot and using them as a hostage.

The new policy affects drones that are capable of flying a distance of 300 kilometers and carrying a payload of 500 kilograms. Those specifications come from the internationally agreed upon missile technology regulations but apply to UAVs like the Reaper, which are capable of carrying laser-guided bombs and Hellfire missiles.

Exporting more drones, either armed or outfitted with laser targeting systems for smart bombs, to key allies and partners in the Middle East like Jordan would help them strike ISIS.

Jordan had asked for drones before the burning alive of First Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, the Jordanian pilot captured by ISIS.  However, Rep. Duncan Hunter, (R-CA), wrote to Obama in a Feb. 5 letter.  “Given our mutual interests, and our strong relationship, it’s absolutely critical that we provide Jordan the support needed to defeat the Islamic State,”

“Transferring drones, particularly those that had laser designators so they could designate targets for strikes from manned fighter aircraft, to coalition partners such as Jordan participating in strikes against ISIL could be a significant advantage to them,” according to Paul Scharre, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security.

Offering the sale of UAVs to regional allies may also encourage a more aggressive air war against ISIS.  Some countries like the UAE have shied away from sending its pilots into ISIS territory lest they too get shot down, captured, and killed.  Although the US has positioned Special Forces nearby in order to rescue downed pilots, offering drones may encourage more sorties against ISIS.

In addition to Middle Eastern allies, it is reported that the Ukraine is requesting drone aircraft to support its fight against Russians and separatists in the eastern part of their country.

One reason for the change in policy is a dearth of qualified drone pilots in the US.  Currently, there are more missions for American UAVs than operators qualified to carry out the missions.  By allowing American allies to operate drones in the war against ISIS, it helps the US Air Force to husband its resources for critical targets, while allies are free to target ISIS assets that have a higher priority for them.

Another reason is that some countries in the region are becoming concerned about a drone technology gap in the region because Iran and Israel already have UAV capability.  As a result, they have started looking elsewhere for UAV technology.  In fact, last year China and Saudi Arabia agreed on a deal for the Wing Loong medium- altitude long-endurance drones.  The sale of American drones will prevent both China and Russia from acquiring more influence in the region through sales of UAVs.



Intelligence Integration and the Syrian CW Threat 

By Brian Lessenberry

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 18, 2015


In 2011 the US intelligence community launched a major effort to characterize and counter the Syrian chemical weapons threat.  This effort supported two primary policy objectives: 1) preventing the diversion of Syria’s massive chemical weapons stockpile to those who might use it to target the United States and our allies and 2) preventing the catastrophic use of chemical weapons inside Syrian territory.

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Boots on the Ground: The Realities in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria

By Anthony H. Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

February 13, 2015

The Obama administration and its strongest opponents in Congress may not have all that much in common, but one thing they do share is the constant misuse of the word “strategy.” Strategy does not consist of stating a broad policy goal and empty rhetoric. It consist of stating an actual plan with clearly defined goals, specific means to achieve, milestones for action, estimates of the necessary resources and their availability, estimates of cost-benefits and risks, and metrics to measure success. A sound bite that fits in Twitter or a fortune cookie is not a strategy.  Getting this wrong is particularly dangerous when one starts talking about the use of military force and mindlessly throwing around terms like “boots on the ground” with no actual definition of what is involved or what the term is intended to mean. Every American has to accept the fact that the coming presidential election means two years of vacuous partisan political posturing, but any form of war is serious and the stakes in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria are all too real.

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5 questions every presidential candidate should answer: Terrorism Edition

By Michael Rubin

American Enterprise Institute

February 18, 2015

President Obama came to office promising to draw a sharp distinction between himself and the way George W. Bush fought terrorism. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton slow-rolled designation of Boko Haram as a terrorist group so as not to offend Nigeria. A blogger for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s “Progressive Change Campaign,” praised Hezbollah as a force for social progress. Presumptive Republican candidates are all over the map on terrorism. Govenor Jeb Bush’s embrace of former Secretary of State James Baker and former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft, for example, suggests a willingness at least to pivot back to pre-9/11 policies. Too often, candidates are imprecise with their rhetoric. Of course they will oppose terrorism, but how do they actually understand it? Answers to these five questions, however, would give clarity to any would-be president’s counterterrorism policy whether they want it or not.

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The Fight for Mosul: Learning From the Past

By Renad Mansour

Carnegie Endowment

February 11, 2015

Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, has been occupied by the self-proclaimed Islamic State since June 2014. The situation for its residents, Moslawis, is deteriorating, and the isolated city has two to four hours of running water and electricity per week and no functioning Internet or mobile phone networks. It is, moreover, becoming a staging ground for Islamic State radicalization.  To combat the largely Sunni extremist group in Iraq, as well as the growing radicalization linked to it across the region, many analysts are calling for another Sunni Awakening. That Sunni mobilization during Iraq’s 2006–2008 civil war helped to push al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) into obscurity, and the Sunni community will again need to mobilize its fighters and battle against Islamic State soldiers if Mosul is to be reclaimed.

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The Battle for Libya’s Oil

By Frederic Wehrey

Carnegie Endowment

February 9, 2015

The first artillery rounds landed just as the setting sun threw shadows on this barren stretch of coast. Atop an earthen observation berm, a young fighter in an oversize flak vest peered through a makeshift periscope. Six miles away was the prize: white storage tanks filled with oil.  Over the walkie-talkie came a hurried voice: “Saadun, Saadun, the bird is here, the bird is here!” Saadun was the codename for a portly commander in the Libya Dawn militia and my escort on the frontline when I visited Libya in January. His men—boys, actually—had teased him earlier for struggling to haul his hefty frame up the berm.

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A new Israeli policy on Syria

By Itamar Rabinovich

Brookings Institution
February 13, 2015

It is time for Israel to reconsider, in coordination with the United States, its policy toward the Syrian civil war.  For nearly four years, since March 2011, Israel has been sitting on the fence. Israeli policymakers and analysts are divided into two schools with regard to Syria’s future. The first, known as “the devil we know” school, argues that with all his faults Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his regime are preferable to an Islamist or jihadist alternative, and to the anarchy that is likely to ensue should the regime collapse. The other school argues that as the 2006 war in Lebanon amply demonstrated, the axis of Iran, Assad’s Syria, and Hezbollah presents a far more serious threat to Israel.

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Mounzer A. Sleiman Ph.D.
Center for American and Arab Studies
Think Tanks Monitor