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Fighting ISIS, on the battlefield and online

March 25, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
Is the U.S. making headway in the fight against the Islamic State group? Judy Woodruff talks to retired Col. Derek Harvey, a former Army intelligence officer, and Brendan Koerner of Wired Magazine about the military offensive against ISIS, including the killing of a senior leader, and the resiliency of the group on social media.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Secretary of Defense Ash Carter and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joe Dunford, spoke this morning at the Pentagon about the fight against the Islamic State. While hailing operations to kill top ISIS leaders like the one we reported earlier, they sought to put the longer war in context.

ASHTON CARTER, Secretary of Defense: There’s no question that this individual and other individuals we have eliminated have been part of the apparatus of ISIL to recruit and to motivate foreign fighters, both to return from Iraq and Syria to countries in Europe and elsewhere, and also simply by using the Internet and other communications to do so.

Even if it’s just inspiration, it still takes you back to Iraq and Syria and the need to eliminate the sources of that inspiration.

GEN. JOSEPH DUNFORD, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: While ISIL has not been able to seize ground in the past several months, that hasn’t precluded them from conducting terrorist attacks, and it hasn’t precluded them from conducting operations that are more akin to guerrilla operations than the conventional operations that we saw when they were seizing territory.

So, I think the momentum is in our favor. I think there’s a lot of reasons for us to be optimistic about the next several months. But by no means would I say that we’re about to break the back of ISIL or that the fight is over.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dunford and Carter also spoke of expanding the role of U.S. Marines in Northern Iraq and the possibility of sending more forces in the coming weeks, adding to the nearly 4,000 already there.

We examine the state of the fight against ISIS now with retired Army Colonel Derek Harvey. He was an intelligence officer and special adviser to the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus. He’s now a professor at the University of South Florida. And Brendan Koerner is a contributing editor at “Wired” magazine. He’s the author of an upcoming article about ISIS and its use of social media.

And we welcome you both to the program.

Colonel Harvey, to you first. How important was this number two figure at ISIS who we have been talking about who has evidently been killed by U.S. forces?

COL. DEREK HARVEY (RET.), Former Army Intelligence Officer: Well, Judy, I usually don’t get very excited about taking out a senior leader through the decapitation strategy, but Haji Imam is a very important person, for one particular reason.

It’s not just that he’s number two, but he connects the Islamic State to key core al-Qaida senior leaders, operatives at that level. Plus, he is closely tied in and historically was tied in with the order of the Naqshbandi army, Izzat al-Douri’s insurgency wing from the former regime days. Those entities…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meaning Saddam Hussein.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Saddam Hussein’s former vice president, and he was an architect of the original insurgency back in 2003 and 2004 before becoming part of al-Qaida in Iraq with Zarqawi.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, by eliminating him, assuming he’s been killed, and the other ISIS leadership the U.S. says has been eliminated, where does that leave the state of the fight against ISIS in Iraq and Syria?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I still — I think it’s a very bleak picture, because what we have had to do is destroy urban centers, Sunni Arab cities in order to clear those areas of the Islamic State, Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, those types.

And we’re probably going to wind up doing the same in Mosul. And the humanitarian issues, the fallout, the civil war, the core issues have not been addressed yet. It’s necessary to go after the Islamic State militarily, but there is so much more to do and it’s still very bleak.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Derek Harvey, one more question. Secretary of State John Kerry was saying today in Europe — he essentially that because ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria that they’re lashing out in Europe.

He said they’re resorting to actions outside the Middle East because their fantasy of a caliphate is collapsing.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I think that’s just plain wrong.

The Islamic State has for two years been talking in their speeches and in their communications about conducting operations in Europe and elsewhere. This wasn’t a lashing out. This is part of their normal operational profile. And we are going to see more of it, particularly as we see these foreign fighters move back to areas around the world, not just just Europe, but North Africa and Asia.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Brendan Koerner, when it comes to these foreign fighters, we know that the — certainly one of the main ways ISIS appeals to them and tries to recruit fighters is using social media.

And you have done a lot of reporting and research on that. You wrote that — you said it’s as much a — that ISIS is as much as a media conglomerate as it is a fighting force. What do you mean by that?

BRENDAN KOERNER, Wired Magazine: Well, I think it goes back to its earliest days back in 2004, when it was really just a rogue al-Qaida offshoot in Iraq.

They understood the value of pushing out content, specifically videos of atrocities, into the world. Therefore, they could recruit very brutal young men to come join their struggle. As the organization evolved, it made media very central to its ideology and to its organization.

It now has many different media offices which all manufacture content it pushes out through social media to every corner of the world tailored to specific audiences, whether it be in the Balkans, in Chechnya or in the Western world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Give us an example, Brendan Koerner, of how that works. I know there’s been a lot of reporting about this over many months, but in your reporting, what did you find?

And I was struck you also wrote that — quote — “They have a cockroach-like resilience.”

Explain what you mean by that.

BRENDAN KOERNER: Well, certainly, on social media, the supporters of the Islamic State who are really from all over the world are often expelled from social networks for their speech.

And yet within hours usually of being booted from Twitter or Facebook, or what have you, they’re right back at it. They’re registering new accounts, they’re using false identities, false cell phones to get back on. So they’re hard to stamp out in disseminating their messages.

I also found on a story that I wrote for “Wired” that the atrocities that we see in many videos, that is a very small personally of what Islamic State’s media operation manufactures. What they’re really good at is making videos that portray the so-called caliphate they’re building in Syria and Iraq and elsewhere as kind of a paradise, a place where people can bring their spouses and families and flourish and practice what they say is true Islam.

It’s very effective content for young men.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what’s the best way for the West, for the United States to counter this?

BRENDAN KOERNER: Well, I don’t think it is just focusing our efforts exclusively on tamping down speech.

I think it’s in creating better speech. For example, the Islamic State is clearly frightened by the outflow of refugees. We have seen a lot of media created that excoriates those who flee from these territories. I think we need to take advantage of those refugees, give them the tools to make their own content to tell their stories to the world. That is going to be the best salve against what the Islamic State’s media is putting out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Derek Harvey, Colonel Harvey, how much does it matter that progress is made against ISIS in the social media realm, this media conglomerate realm that Mr. is Koerner describing?

COL. DEREK HARVEY: I think it’s very important in order to tamp down the prospects for the lone wolves as well as the recruitment and the finances that flow into this Islamic State organization. But I think, you know, to pivot off his comments, al Qaeda in Iraq and other jihadist groups are framing their position as a more moderate~ jihadism, and they are actively recruiting in Syria and Iraq, but in Turkey in the refugee camps, in Jordan, and now into Europe.

And they are framing their narrative in a way that we can have the fight without the brutality and the extremism. And so they’re well-positioned to be, you~r know, al-Qaida 4.0 after the end of this, once ISIS is attrited, unless we really go after the core issues. And I don’t see enough effort in addressing the two civil wars and this conflict within Islam.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that as a threat as well, Brendan Koerner, this idea that they keep appealing to the peaceful, the pleasant side of what they say will be the future under their rule?

BRENDAN KOERNER: Well, clearly, the agility of the Islamic State’s media is one of its trademarks, the fact that they can respond to current circumstances and shift their message.

And they have done that very effectively. You can see right now, clearly, Libya is becoming a new front in the struggle against the Islamic State. And they have been very good about producing media surrounding its Libyan ventures, trying to portray that area as a place where people can now emigrate to and participate in the struggle for this caliphate.

So I think we need to be very, very fast about the way we address this situation because they’re clearly one step ahead of us right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, many alarm bells out of this conversation, even as there is progress being made on the~ battlefield.

Brendan Koerner, we thank you. Colonel Derek Harvey, thank you.

COL. DEREK HARVEY: Thank you, Judy.

BRENDAN KOERNER: Thank you so much.

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