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How should the West battle the Islamic State’s shifting strategy?

November 16, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
The attacks in Paris have raised concern about the threat posed by the Islamic State around the world, and how to counter it. Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff talk with William McCants, author of “The ISIS Apocalypse,” Juliette Kayyem, former assistant secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Hassan Hassan of Chatham House and Richard Barrett, a former British intelligence official.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We focus now on the changing nature of the threat from the Islamic State group and how to counter it.

For that, we turn to four people with deep expertise.

Juliette Kayyem was an assistant secretary at the Department of Homeland Security during the Obama administration. She now has her own security consulting firm. William McCants is director of the Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Institution. His most recent book is “The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State.”

Richard Barrett is a former director of global counterterrorism operations for the British government. He’s a founder of the United Nations’ Counter-Terrorism Task Force. And Hassan Hassan is a Middle East analyst at Chatham House in London. He co-authored the book “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.”

And we welcome you all to the program.

Will McCants, I’m going to start here in Washington with you.

What have we learned from the Islamic State group from these attacks? What new do we know about them now?

WILLIAM MCCANTS, Brookings Institution: Well, they seem to have shifted and taken on a strategy of global jihad.

They have always had the rhetoric of global jihadism, similar to Al Qaeda. They have always talked about hitting the far enemy, the United States, France, and others. But for most of their history, they have focused on state-building. And for the past few years, they have been pretty successful at it.

But with the attacks over the past two weeks, taking down the Russian airliner, the attack in Beirut, and now in Paris, we believe that its attention has shifted abroad.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Barrett, if it’s — this is so that their attention has shifted abroad, how was it missed? What — how did this happen?

RICHARD BARRETT, Former Leader, United Nations Al-Qaida Monitoring Team: I think the European and other Western intelligence agencies have been looking out for this to happen for some time. They haven’t been oblivious to the threat.

And we understand that about seven previous plots have been thwarted in France, and another seven in the United Kingdom. And, indeed, in Belgium, it wasn’t so very long ago that the mastermind of this attack so-called narrowly escaped a police raid on the safe house that he was living in with his accomplices there.

So it’s not as though this has suddenly come out of the blue. And the problem, I think, is that there are so many people of concern for the security services, that it’s really difficult for them to focus their resources. Hindsight is great. Now everybody knows that all these people were known beforehand.

But foresight is very, very difficult because there are just so many people who could be one of the guys who attacked in Paris last Friday.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Juliette Kayyem, how much has the West, the United States and the rest of NATO underestimated ISIS?

JULIETTE KAYYEM, Former Department of Homeland Security Assistant Secretary: I don’t think they have entirely underestimated it.

I think it is just a difficult threat to confront. There is both the geographic aspect of ISIS, that they just cover a lot of land in the Middle East, and then the sort of terrorist incidents, whether it’s the lone wolf, the individual who is getting radicalized or the much more sophisticated attacks like what we saw in Paris.

And so there’s just different pieces to minimizing and degrading the threat of ISIS. And none of them is going to work perfectly, and all they need to do is succeed once. And that has been the — people have been waiting for this. I know that sounds sort of harsh and not sympathetic, but this was not a shock. They have been saying they wanted to do this.

I think the shock is that none of the pieces were picked up beforehand seemingly by any intelligence agencies.

GWEN IFILL: Hassan Hassan, what is the appeal? We heard Juliette Kayyem talk just now about lone wolves. And we know that there are lone wolves. And we have seen that act out, but this was a lot of people and we’re now hearing that there is like a 24-hour help desk with ISIS. What is changes? How is it evolving?

HASSAN HASSAN, Chatham House: Well, in terms of appeal, ISIS appeals because of — because of its — because it has the caliphate-building enterprise that is actually functioning — or it looks like functioning at least for people who are potential sympathizers to the group.

But ISIS has always had this twin strategy that actually feeds into each other, the two facets of the strategy. The first is the one I mentioned, the caliphate-building enterprise, that makes — that feeds into its global ideological appeal and makes people outside look into it and look at the group as something different, something that might have been — you know, that they have been thinking about for a while, the appeal of the caliphate, the appeal a powerful Muslim state that is opposed to the Western hegemony in the Middle East.

And at the same time, ISIS looks now like it has started to focus on its global network. But I think the fact is, what we have seen recently with the Russian airliner, with the attacks in Paris, is only a sign that ISIS’ global network has developed. It’s now more capable, more mature in its ability to strike abroad.

And I think that’s only a sign of that is happening. Otherwise, ISIS has had that in mind for a while. I could — I remember, last year, I sat with someone in Turkey, in Southern Turkey, who works with ISIS as a security official, someone who sets up sleeper cells, who spies and so on.

And he told me something that we have learned from the Iraq War is that, instead of waiting for other people to spy on us or to infiltrate us and attack us or bring the war against us, we are doing that now. We are establishing ears and eyes — eyes and ears in neighboring countries, but also abroad in Western countries and so on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, given that, Will McCants, does this call for the West or the United States to change its approach?

WILLIAM MCCANTS: I don’t think so.

The Islamic State has seen 25 percent of its territory wither under firepower from the United States and its allies. It’s had tens of thousands of its soldiers who have died. And I would argue that this strategy they are pursuing of building cells abroad is the consequence of the success against them.

I think where the Americans and others have failed is bringing the Syrian civil war to a close. So, the ISIS strategy is right, but the Syrian strategy is not. And that’s what is fueling ultimately this conflict.

GWEN IFILL: Richard Barrett, one of the questions right after this happened was whether this was al-Qaida or whether this was ISIS. I don’t know if it’s a difference without a distinction or whether ISIS has now eclipsed al-Qaida as the biggest global threat.

RICHARD BARRETT: Well, I think it’s eclipsed al-Qaida as the biggest global threat in the number of supporters, yes.

I don’t see why some young guy who becomes very radicalized would choose al-Qaida over the Islamic State, because Islamic State is where the action is. It’s ISIS that’s building the caliphate. It’s ISIS that’s calling on people to do stuff. It’s ISIS which is there present in the news all the time and so on.

So I think that the attraction, if you want to get back at your own society or if you want to go and join something new, if you feel that you want that sense of adventure and belonging and so on, it’s ISIS you are going to choose, rather than al-Qaida. And I think al-Qaida is also rather difficult to get ahold of now, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but, also, in Somalia, it’s rather nationalist.

In Yemen, maybe, but Yemen is a war zone as well, so it’s not so easy. But in — for ISIS, it’s still, I think, relatively easy to join and quite attractive to join.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Juliette Kayyem, what about this question of whether the West should change its approach? President Obama said today, remember, ISIS is not a state. He said traditional military tactics won’t work. That doesn’t address who ISIS is.

How do you see that?

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Well, we hear this all the time that we have to change our tactics, and I’m not quite sure what people mean.

Every tactic is presently being used. And they will be amplified, obviously. After Paris, the Europeans are going to step up to a much greater extent.

This question comes down to, are we willing to commit ground troops, ours and others, into the fight in ISIS? We just have to speak in English. I mean, we have to say that this is the question. And I just want to remind people who think that we should do that, we had half-a-million troops in Afghanistan and Iraq over the course of 14 years.

GWEN IFILL: Juliette Kayyem, we’re losing your audio for a second, but we’re going to come back to you in just a moment, because we want to follow up on that.


GWEN IFILL: But, Hassan Hassan, meanwhile, I want to ask you a little bit about the role that we should expect that international organizations like NATO to play, or as we heard today, people saying this is a problem for Muslim nations to solve or to at least take the lead on.

HASSAN HASSAN: I think this is a really kind of a tricky thing for fighting ISIS.

On the one hand, the Western countries, especially the United States, are indispensable in the fight against ISIS. No other country can — in the whole world can mobilize the resources that the United States can. It’s capable of getting countries behind it and fighting this war. Now, the problem is, when you do that, you risk playing into the hands of…

GWEN IFILL: Go ahead.

HASSAN HASSAN: Yes. You risk basically get — playing into the hands of ISIS that this is a global war against ISIS, and that appeals to a lot of people who feel, when a country or a group is under attack from the West, that means that it has something — it got something right.

Now, the question today is whether you step up the current campaign against ISIS. And I think Obama is partly right that the current campaign is effective, and Will McCants just mentioned, is effective in a measured way, in the sense that it’s containing ISIS militarily, and in the sense that it’s preventing it from going to Baghdad, to Irbil, to countries that are neighboring countries.

But that won’t defeat ISIS. The other option that needs to be looked at is not — on the table is not to drop more bombs and strike more against ISIS inside Raqqa, but to really be — to start a very heavy-handed, if you like, political process that really resolves the conflict in Syria and Iraq, rather than — rather than let the — allow the conflict to fester and grow, sorry, and protract.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let me ask Will McCants to respond to that, and, then, if you will, comment on how vulnerable you think the U.S. is.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: I think the current campaign is working, but the challenge is that there are many more places in the Middle East and North Africa for ISIS to go, because of the political instability. There are many security vacuums opening up. And ISIS is seeking to continue its state-building in those countries.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t mean to attack. You mean to go and gather recruits.

WILLIAM MCCANTS: Go and gather recruits, but also to build states in Libya, and in Yemen and also in Somalia. So, even if we deal with the ISIS problem in Syria and Iraq, it’s still metastasizing and growing.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me follow up with Juliette Kayyem, if we have her microphone back, to ask that question, because, of course, you were at the Department of Homeland Security, so you have a unique point of view about how vulnerable Americans should be feeling in all of this.

JULIETTE KAYYEM: Well, America was built vulnerable.

And we have to accept that. And so, as government officials, we think about it not reducing risk to zero, but how do you reduce risk and then fortify targets that might be attractive to terrorists?

But just given our country and the flow of people, and goods, and ideas, and the kind of commercial activity we have, we are never going to get it to zero. And so that’s why we have different pieces of the homeland security network, which also includes of course the private sector and individuals engaging.

But this idea of — or the question, you know, are we safe, I sort of feel like always answering, of course not. I mean, we live in a vulnerable society and we choose to. To make us as safe — or perfectly safe would require, say, bag checks on subways. Well, New York City would shut down if that were the case. So, we’re just balancing these different risks at various stages.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we appreciate that, Juliette Kayyem. Apologies about the microphone difficulty. But we were able to understand what you were saying. Thank you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We thank you, Richard Barrett, Hassan Hassan, and, here in Washington, Will McCants. We appreciate it.