"A very brutal style of warfare": Terrorism expert explains ISIS -- and what you should really know

ISIS may be the result of American policy, but it doesn't mean we can make them just go away, an expert tells Salon

By Elias Isquith

Published September 25, 2014 12:30PM (EDT)

Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Fallujah, June 30, 2014      (AP)
Militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), in Fallujah, June 30, 2014 (AP)

As American bombs continue to rain down on ISIS targets in Iraq and now Syria, the question of whether it's wise for the U.S. to launch another war in the Middle East has become moot (but don't worry, the debate lasted all of a month or two, so it had a good run). But in predictable fashion, at least when it comes to U.S. policy in the Middle East, the cart has gone before the horse: we're at war with ISIS, following a plan most Americans don't think will work, in service of a goal that most experts say is impossible to achieve.

Fully aware that war with ISIS was already a fait accompli, Salon nevertheless reached out recently to Scott Stewart, a former special agent with the State Department and the current vice president of tactical analysis at Stratfor, the Texas-based geopolitical intelligence and advisory firm, who has spent most of his professional career dealing with international terrorism and security threats. We discussed the basics of ISIS — what kind of group is it, what is its history, what are its capabilities, what kind of threat is it, really? — as well as the disconnect between American national security politics and the reality on the ground. Our conversation is below and has been edited for clarity and length.

To start simply: How would you characterize the Islamic State? Is it a terrorist organization? A militant group? A paramilitary force? A jihadist army? I've seen all of these descriptions, but I don't think they're quite as interchangeable as some may believe — and how we describe ISIS will likely influence what we think should be done.

I characterize it as a militant organization. Now, we've gotten some heat over the use of militant versus terrorist in the past, but I think it's important to make a distinction there. As a militant organization, they employ terrorism within their area of operations, but they're also quite adept at conducting irregular warfare, insurgent warfare — and now we've seen conventional warfare, taking over places like Mosul or even some of the attacks they've conducted on some of these large Syrian air bases. So, really, they're more than just a terrorist organization, and if you refer to them as such, you're really selling them short and losing sight of their very sophisticated insurgent and conventional warfare capabilities.

And why is it that they're so much more diverse in terms of their abilities than is usually the case with radical Islamic groups?

I think the big reason is just their history. This is really an old group. There capabilities didn't just emerge in June. They've had a long evolution in their capabilities from the time of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Even today, seeing the differences in their capabilities in things like using artillery and mortars, it's far better than what they could do in 2004, 2005.

Fighting the U.S. and the coalition forces in Iraq certainly taught them a lot of lessons the hard way — on the battlefield. And they suffered quite a bit for the mistakes they made. Similarly, they've been locked in battle since 2011 with the Syrians. That has also been a very brutal style of warfare. So they've had a lot of opportunities to learn and to grow and to master the craft of warfare.

Talented as they are, do they really represent a threat to people in the U.S. today?

I see them at this point as being a threat to Americans in the region — whether that's in Levant, whether that's Americans in Iraq, or even along the Turkish border, or Jordan. I certainly see them as being a threat there, not only as far as kidnapping operations but terrorist operations.

As far as the homeland, I just have not seen them display the capability to project sophisticated terrorist tradecraft at a distance. Back in the day, during Zarqawi's time, they tried a couple operations in Jordan, but even then they had difficulty projecting that force beyond their core areas. They've been very successful with conducting improvised attacks in Syria and Iraq, but it's a far different skill set to construct a large truck bomb out of military ordnance and high explosives in Mosul or Baghdad than it is to travel somewhere, to a hostile environment, like the United States or Europe, and then construct a truck bomb using improvised explosive mixtures and improvised components for your firing train in your IED.

It's really a different skill set and, beyond that, you also have to have the capability of traveling and operating in a clandestine manner. When I talk about the skill set, that transnational terrorism skill set, it's really much closer to what you'd traditionally think of in espionage: to be able to travel under cover, to be able to operate in a hostile environment without being detected, having good documents, that sort of thing; as opposed to the terrorism they've been conducting in Iraq and Syria, which is more akin to insurgent warfare type stuff.

Is that qualitative difference between them and, say, al-Qaida at the peak of its powers, is it simply a matter of time? The president and other supporters of the campaign have described ISIS as a looming threat. Is it the case that it's a pretty straightforward trajectory from being the way ISIS is now to being capable of launching more ambitious, far-reaching attacks?

No, no. I believe it's possible for them to develop, but we would start to see a progression before it got to that point. So really, before they got to the capability to reach across the Atlantic, halfway around the world, I think we'd start to see more sophisticated operations within their region. They've attempted to conduct some operations in Lebanon and those really have not been that well done. And certainly, their operations in Lebanon stand in stark contrast to Hezbollah, for example, which has been far more effective. They've attempted to attack Hezbollah, but with limited success.

What we need to do is watch their operations in places like Lebanon, and even in places like Jordan, to see how their tradecraft is progressing on that terrorism front. But it's not just something you can develop out of whole cloth; it really requires training and time to perfect. In the past, terrorist groups were able to kind of be jump-started because they were trained by professional intelligence organizations; we saw groups like the Baader-Meinhof Group trained by the Stasi and the KGB, for example. When you're given that kind of professional trade craft training by intelligence professionals, it just assists you a long way toward acquiring those skills.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've seen some people who are skeptical of intervention describe ISIS as essentially a group of opportunists. The argument is, they're very good at moving into a place where there's a power vacuum and doing something dramatic and attention-grabbing to establish themselves as the ostensible new dominant power — but, when push comes to shove, they're a paper tiger.

That goes way too far, especially if you've seen any of their operations and paid close attention to some of their operations of taking some of these Syrian military bases. They've shown me that they are very good — also in kind of their own combined arms type operations, too. They're able to effectively employ artillery and mortars. We've seen them effectively employ large VBEDs to breach base perimeters and then have the infantry come in afterward, so they're showing a degree of sophistication that I think is troubling and alarming. Right now, it's basically constrained to that area of the world, because projecting military power is more difficult than some might think. But still, within that region, I think they're very formidable and need to be taken very seriously.

Looking at how policymakers have responded so far, are you worried that the recent decision to arm "moderate" Syrian rebels may ultimately backfire? There's a popular narrative in anti-interventionist circles that says, pointing to what happened with the Afghanistan Mujahedin in the '80s, the people we arm today are the people we'll be fighting tomorrow.

Frankly, in terms of the more radical and transnationalist type groups within Syria and Iraq right now — whether it's the al-Nusra Front or ISIS, we're fighting them anyway. They're there. Arming their enemies, at this point, I think it's very pragmatic.

One of the things that has been interesting has been seeing the way some of the weapons that have been provided to these more moderate groups have been things that are kind of hard to get ammunition for, like some of the Croatian recoil-less rifles and things like that, which I think is kind of clever. ... Americans have been very, very reluctant to arm even the moderate and more “trusted” rebel groups with things like stingers, just because of the [potential future] threat. What the Americans are trying to do is kind of manage the [potential] of blow-back from these weapons systems.

To address a debate that's been happening on the left, there's disagreement over the degree to which Obama is now endorsing the George W. Bush approach, which is generally seen as less cautious and more comfortable with unilateralism than that of his predecessors. Is the policy Obama's put forward for ISIS pretty much what you'd expect from, say, President Clinton or a pre-George W. Bush Republican?

Absolutely, and we also have to face the fact that no matter what your intentions are coming into office as a president, you are very constrained by the reality on the ground. We've seen that all over the world, as Obama's tried to shape policies to do one thing but the constraints have kept him doing other things.

For example, the increase of the [drone] campaigns in Yemen and Afghanistan/Pakistan, which is a continuation and expansion of a preexisting [Bush-era] program. But what's the alternative? Do you let off the pressure on these groups and allow them to have this same type of latitude that ISIS had? That's one of the things that really helped them, is when the pressure was taken off following the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and, quite frankly, the Iraqi intransigence of not allowing the Americans to stay there like we had asked them to. Had the Americans had a presence in Iraq, we would not have seen the chain of events we did see in June.

But keeping some troops in Iraq, or bombing ISIS today, raises the question of whether the problem currently manifested in ISIS (Islamic extremism, Salafist jihadism, what have you) is something the U.S. not only can but should solve. Is it either?

Quite frankly, the whole jihadist phenomena is something we're looking at, not only with the Islamic State but obviously al-Qaida and their franchises as well, [and] it's not something we can solve ourselves, because it's really about a battle for the soul of Islam and it's going to take an ideological struggle within Islam itself to kind of solve it or take care of that problem. All we can really do is try to limit it, and certainly that's been the policy in places like Yemen and Somalia. But as long as jihadism exists, it will recruit people faster than we can kill them.

What the Americans really need to focus on is trying to take out the most capable transnational type leaders who have the sophisticated terrorist trade craft we talk about. Guys like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Taking him out of the gene pool was huge, rather than letting him continue to train young people and dispatch them. So the more of those kind of terrorist masterminds you can take out, you work to constrain them as a regional problem and a smaller problem.

That sounds a lot like what the president used to say about ISIS, but not so much like what he says now. Do you ever look at the mainstream debate over this issue and feel aggravated because the public's estimation of what a realistic best-case scenario looks like is so disconnected from reality?

I think it works both ways. Some of the more hawkish type people think we can bomb ISIS into oblivion, and that's just not possible. And at the same time, the non-interventionists believe that if we ignore them, they're going to go away, and as we've seen in Iraq and Syria, that's certainly not the case. If we ignore them they're going to grow in power.

[Groups like ISIS thrive] specifically in places where you have a vacuum of power and authority, and sometimes, unfortunately, we've created that vacuum of power, as in Libya and now in Iraq. And that's our own problem we have. But that does not dismiss the reality that now there is this issue and we have to deal with it.

Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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Al-nusra Front Counterterrorism Iraq Isil Isis Islamic State Obama Stratfor Syria War On Terror