Thursday, June 26, 2014

Why Bomb ISIS?

You Might Be A Terrorist If: Your Warm-Weather Uniform Includes a Balaclava ...

Reader Sanctaphranx takes issue with The Omnivore's bomb-the-hell-out-of-ISIS strategy saying, in part:
ISIS is not a threat to the West. It just isn't. It's a small group with poor organization, little money, and no standing on the international stage. Plus they're on the other side of the planet. They can't hurt us meaningfully.
He links to a blog post that addresses the ISIS-State-As-Terrorist-Training-Camp:
More realistically, we can’t prevent terrorists from training. We can’t even prevent them from training in America, as our home-grown right-wing militias do. And yet, we have managed to prevent any 9/11-scale attacks on U.S. soil for the last dozen years. The existence of terrorist safe havens is bad, but not nearly so bad that we need to control the world to keep ourselves safe. Attacking any region that threatens to become a terrorist haven is a recipe for constant warfare, which in the long run may create more America-hating terrorists than it kills.
The author is especially het-up about the media trotting out neo-cons who agreed with the invasion of Iraq in the first place. If there's insufficient abasement, how can he listen to them!? He writes:
Arguing against the points they make only legitimizes their “expertise”. The only proper response to them is Ygritte’s line from Game of Thrones: “You know nothing, Jon Snow.If neocons want to convince me that re-engaging in Iraq is a good idea, let them send out a spokesman who at least understands what a bad idea the invasion was to begin with.
Is this all correct? Is his patented "Cut-And-Run" plan the right one? Let's see ...

First Things First: ISIS Is Big, Rich, And Organized

The first thing to tackle here is the key bullet points Sancta laid out around a general lack of concern:

  • Poor organization
  • Little money
  • No standing on the international stage
  • Other side of the planet
Almost none of this is right--(save for the planet one) and it's directionally 180-degrees in the other direction. ISIS, with an almost 2bn (yes, with a 'b') war-chest is one of the richest militant groups ever. Bombing costs, in terms of materials, are pretty cheap (average bomb: same cost as an iPhone)--but one thing that money buys is recruitment. If you can get to someone inside America (or Canada, or Western Europe) and fund them their anger and hate goes from still-just-a-rat-in-a-cage to operationalized.

How about poor organization? No--ISIS is frighteningly organized. Here are some of their PowerPoint slides:
They do better PowerPoint than the NSA

The Omnivore Is NOT Inventing This ...
This is not the mark of a poorly organized operation. They are in the business of terror and business is booming (sorry).

Standing In The International Stage

ISIS is not popular--that is true: ISIS is breaking Osama's 7 Rules For Terrorist (no kidding--Osama had rules)--mostly by being brutal psychopaths--but there's a reason they're doing that: Branding. Here, in Pando Daily, The War Nerd writes (long-form) about their PR war against the World Cup. Jihad loses--but look:
And you could tell that the jihadis knew they were in a deadly serious ratings competition with the World Cup. They admitted it themselves, in a strangely envious tone, in a video they made just as the World Cup was kicking off. This video—almost an hour long, a real feature film–shows the decapitation of an Iraqi police official by I.S.I.S. in Central Iraq. It’s an interesting film in many ways, which I’ll discuss in another article I’m doing on jihadi video evolution—but what’s most interesting about it is the bitterly ironic message I.S.I.S. tagged their video with. The last scene, showing the cops’ sawed-off head dumped on his own legs, was accompanied by a subtitle saying, “This is our ball…it is made of skin #WorldCup.
This is an organization that understands its target market: disaffected, incredibly angry, alienated young men. It is speaking to them in the language of blood and violence. ISIS is not "too X-TREAM" for (4) Al Qaeda--they've just moved into an ancillary market: instead of trying to become the Caliphate the educated Bin Laden dreamed of, they wish to build the brutal, crimson-soaked caliphate the most psychotic wish to see.

To think this won't be resonant--across the globe--is a gross mistake: it won't have the overarching draw that a for-real unified Caliphate would, true--but if any sort of Caliphate they have, they will have adherents. They will find a measure of success and that success will be in death and bone.

The Other Side Of The World

ISIS, right now, is far, far away--that's true: they cannot use their captured tanks to attack us. That's not how the international terror model works though, and everyone here knows it. Terror recruitment has several different models--but with the rise of the global channel known as YouTube, the "net" model is probably the most pervasive. Organizations put out their message--snuff videos--and those who are receptive will seek them out, become further radicalized, and seek to make contact (often running into FBI agents along the way, fortunately).

The point here is that ISIS is already recruiting to a world-wide audience and they have the funds to buy a lot of Jihad.

They may also have, uhm, WMD. Yes, you read that right. The Telegraph reports:
The jihadist group bringing terror to Iraq overran a Saddam Hussein chemical weapons complex on Thursday, gaining access to disused stores of hundreds of tonnes of potentially deadly poisons including mustard gas and sarin.

Isis invaded the al-Muthanna mega-facility 60 miles north of Baghdad in a rapid takeover that the US government said was a matter of concern.
If you read the article, these stores are not in any kind of ready-use condition--but still? You can bet ISIS is going to open its check book to any willing expert it can get its hands on.

Terrorist Training Camps

The idea of the ISIS Caliphate becoming a safe-haven for terrorist training is a real concern despite what Doug Muder (the author of the linked blog post) says. Firstly, willing Jihadis often have to travel to fairly remote areas to receive training. Right wing militias in the US (a) are under some level of observation and (b) are not generally open to non-nationals (who are also under some measures of watch).

The Boston bombers, for example, were not simply able to "train in the US" despite what he says. The 9/11 Hijackers did train in the US--a shocking development for our security apparatus and one that will not easily happen again.

Terrorists spend a lot of time hiding. They have very careful means of communication and mobility. All of this has a cost. When you give them a friendly host nation you lower those costs dramatically. Where does that surplus money go? To puppy dogs and rainbows, of course.

Agreement With Neo-Cons

It's a nice rhetorical trick to ask for a neo-con who disagreed with the Iraq invasion to come in and explain why bombing's a good idea as agreement with the Iraq invasion just about defines neo-con. But how about this guy:
[Douglas] Ollivant is no one's idea of a hawk. He's one of the leading critics of the so-called "Surge Narrative" — the idea that the Bush administration's decision to send 30,000 extra troops into Iraq in 2007 and adopt a counter-insurgency strategy turned the tide against al-Qaeda in Iraq. "The crisis of violence in Iraq in 2006-2008 was fundamentally a political problem," Ollivant writes, "that the U.S. lacked the capability to resolve."
He thinks the same thing about Iraq today.
He thinks bombing ISIS might well be a good idea--for similar reasons The Omnivore does:
ISIS overextended itself in Iraq, making a bombing campaign more viable
ISIS' offensive in Iraq, in that sense, presents something of an opportunity. "With ISIS massing for some kind of fight in and around Baghdad, that makes them uniquely vulnerable to airstrikes in the coming weeks," Ollivant said. ISIS militants hiding in cities or remote Syrian training camps are much harder to find, but "they come out of their hole, the US air force can destroy them in detail." Killing lots of ISIS operatives would, in the short term, severely degrade their ability to threaten the Iraqi government or other states in the region.
Now, to be fair, he is talking about bombing them on the battlefield--always a better option--and The Omnivore is talking about hitting their captured cities and towns--certainly a worse option--but the same principle is at work here: ISIS is (currently) overextended and has over-committed. An air-power campaign can take advantage of that.

We may not get another chance this good--and the idea that ISIS's motives won't bring the US back into their cross-hairs is ridiculous: their brand is anti-US / allies. There is simply no reasonable model where the US does not impose sanctions or otherwise conduct hostilities against a sovereign ISIS. There is no way that, eventually, they turn away from Global Jihad--it's in their DNA--it is their DNA.

We're going to have to deal with them sooner or later. The Omnivore says sooner.


  1. Yes, I know ISIS is rich and well-organized by terrorist standards. They're still poor and disorganized by the nation-state standards.

    Two billion dollars is a lot for a person, but my country's government spends well over a hundred times that every single year. America has twenty B-2 Spirit bombers, which each cost more than that. (Though much of that cost was up-front R&D, as I understand it. Wikipedia says a new one would cost under a billion.)

    And while they're undoubtedly better-disciplined than the Iraqi army, that's not exactly impressive. They don't have a real tradition of governance or anything close to the infrastructure that we do. Again, well-organized by militant standards is still badly organized.

    Anyway, there's no doubt that the West will have to do something about ISIS. But there's no need to kill thousands of civilians. There are other tools in the box, and there's a decent chance that ISIS will collapse on its own.

    PS: Stepping back from the argument a bit, I think part of the reason I'm opposed to military action is that terrorism really doesn't scare me. 9/11 was the biggest terrorist attack to date, and it (probably, exact figures are hard to find) killed fewer Americans than car accidents did that month. The war in Iraq, meanwhile, has killed half a million people.

    I'm not scared of Islamic terrorist atrocities. But I am scared of Western military atrocities. Western armies are simply far more powerful, and far more dangerous to the people of the world.

    This is a little off-topic, but maybe it'll help you understand where I'm coming from.

    PPS: I'm a lot more sympathetic to Ollivant's battlefield bombing plan than your civilian bombing plan. Killing soldiers is acceptable, killing civilians is not. And there's a clear and achievable end goal to the battlefield plan, which is essential.

    1. I feel the above is a reasonable position to hold.

      -The Omnivore

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  2. Thinking outside the box, there is another solution: install an ostensibly successful government left of Sweden on the socialism scale that embraces Islam in every stripe except the IED kind. And maybe you even allow that - in a utilitarian master-stroke - for a while. The oil-rich country redistributes billions of dollars to otherwise disaffected Islamic citizens, and they become fat and lazy just when the oil runs out. Almost none of the rank-and-file militia of ANY organization are middle class, and fewer wealthy. Once these fine folks get a taste of Papa John's....voila! Recruit that, billionaire poverty state!

    1. There are probably innumerable reasons this would not work--but it would be hilarious if it did.

      -The Omnivore

  3. Nope. Nope. Nope.

    At some point we have to end the cycle of blowback. Making the military the de facto "Shiite Air Force" will only compound the problem and continue to radicalize Sunni Arabs, and lay the foundations for the next Al QaedISISiban.

    We should probably support an independent Kurdish state, and let Maliki ask his buddies in Tehran for help. Maybe then Sunni extremists would look east instead of west.

    Bonus irony: If the Neocons had gotten what they wanted, and American bombed Assad, ISIS would be even more powerful today.