Five Ways To Devastate ISIL
In the wake of the Brussels terrorist attacks, the United States and its allies would do well to consider these new tactics.
By Malcolm Nance
Tuesday’s terrorist attacks in Brussels, Belgium, remind us that the Islamic State is a resilient and adaptive enemy. Its fighters can operate in high security environments and stay one step ahead of counterterrorism forces as the group seeks to punish Europe, and by extension the United States, for operations against their “Caliphate.”
Of course, Europe, the U.S. and many of their allies have been fighting back: Nearly 23,000 successful airstrikes launched by the U.S. and its allies since 2014 have decimated ISIL’s ranks to the point that the terrorist group has cut salaries, reduced food rations by half and ordered children onto the battlefield. But there are also more asymmetrical tactics the U.S., NATO and their regional allies use in their fight against the terrorist group. Here are five ways to devastate ISIL right now.
- Use the right words
ISIL is not “radical Islam.” Hamas, Hezbollah, Fatah, the Muslim Brotherhood—these are radical Islamic groups. They resort to armed struggle and terrorism to move toward their goals. But they are also deeply political organizations that have internal rules, standards and codes of conduct. Hamas and Hezbollah operate within geopolitical norms. They can be negotiated and reasoned with.
ISIL is a different animal altogether—a religious cult an order of magnitude more extreme than even the most extreme Islamic groups of the past. The ISIL cult worships at the altar of perpetual apocalyptic jihad that claims that each act of mass murder, rape or suicide terrorism against its enemies is a form of worship equal to prayer. Participation in jihad until death is considered a bigger religious obligation than charity, fasting, prayers, pilgrimage and Hajj, the five pillars of Islam. Yes, ISIL is a terror-based insurgent army that seeks to establish a Caliphate, but the group’s actual end goal is far from political: ISIL believes that through jihad, it will bring about the Day of Judgment. This is not true Islam. It is a corrupt variant that ignores the religion’s centuries-long incremental embrace of tolerance, respect, education and art, and instead passionately embraces an incorrect interpretation of the Quran: One that says that rape, destruction and child abuse are the highest forms of worship.
Referring to ISIL as a destructive religious cult rather than a legitimate theo-political “radical Islamic” group is not just more accurate, it also exposes ISIL’s corrupt religious narrative. It will allow the Muslim world to reject the group without rejecting its faith—and might make those Muslims supplying and supporting ISIL wonder whether their souls are at risk for cooperating.
- Stop Blaming Islam. Attack the Cult.
The Muslim world is the only bulwark against ISIL. We will not defeat ISIL with a single State Department Twitter feed; we will defeat them by marshaling the collective voice of the global Muslim population. If Muslims around the world deny ISIL’s legitimacy and work with the U.S. and its allies to root out possible terrorists in their communities, the group’s influence will wane dramatically.
To do that requires recognition that those in the Islamic world are not the problem or the threat; they are the victims of ISIL. They are the allies that we are fighting to defend.
And until the nasty political rhetoric against Muslims stops, ISIL wins big. Both ISIL and Al Qaeda want to prove to Muslims that America is their greatest enemy. Deny the enemy this tool. Our values are based on tolerance and respect, and if we learn to provide a modicum of those values to the 1.6 billion Muslims in the world and support their efforts to reject this cult directly, ISIL can be “Crushed in the Shadows” just as Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the new leader of Al Qaeda, feared.
- Unleash the Special Ops
Right now, when it comes to fighting ISIL, U.S. Special Forces are mostly deployed to gather intelligence, rescue hostages and snatch high-value terrorists. They can be used more effectively.
The ISIL “caliphate” is really a series of city and village islands connected by roads and supply lines. Cut these lines, and the image of a cohesive ISIL land mass changes into pockets of populated areas. The Pentagon has just identified the “thickest” or densest region of ISIL combat power in Iraq as the highway corridor between Mosul and the Syrian border. How do we destroy this? Order trained Iraqi and Kurdish forces along with U.S. Special Forces to conduct heavily armed raids along the group’s highways. These 100-man indigenous units, each with 25 U.S. advisers and backed up by tactical airstrikes, would maraud in ISIL’s rear for a period of 24 to 96 hours—and they would change the game overnight.
Flown in by helicopters, parachuted in or dropped on improvised airstrips by C-17 aircraft, the ground units would not only cut off lines of supply but also deliberately provoke fights with heavy concentrations of terrorists, creating pockets of mayhem that ISIL would have to scramble to confront. After the ISIL fighters had emerged from their tunnels, targeted airstrikes would decimate any and all vehicles, tanks, infantry or suicide-bomb truck assaults. Striking in multiple locations hundreds of miles apart on different days, this combined air-ground assault would grind ISIL’s logistics to a halt.
- Launch full-scale cyber warfare
Right now, the National Security Agency is averse to directly attacking primary and valuable intelligence sources, such as enemy computer servers or communications. They should reconsider that policy in cyberspace. ISIL operates on the Dark Web—the deepest, hidden parts of the Internet—through a global network of supporters. This network can be disrupted if a concerted effort is launched to shatter the constellation of actual computer servers that maintains these hidden online operations. The same way that Stuxnet virus targeted Iranian computers supporting Iran’s nuclear program, so should U.S. Cyber Command identify and knock down the computer connections that support ISIL’s media and fan network around the world.
Once Cyber Command electronically attacks, and if it is able to seize control of the servers, it can then disseminate counterideology propaganda on those same networks. Imagine if every ISIL webpage in the world were instantly covered with the words “You are the No. 1 enemy of Islam. Surrender.”
The Terror Asymmetric Project, where I work, has been exploring and attacking ISIL’s Dark Web network for over a year, with some success, but this is a job for U.S. Cyber Command, which has not yet launched a global cyber campaign against the terrorist group.
- Prepare for at-sea war crimes trials
The U.S. House of Representatives and Secretary of State John Kerry this week declared that ISIL is committing genocide against Christians and Yazidis in the Middle East. ISIL fighters have also committed war crimes against Muslims, both Shiite and Sunni. The international community should launch a bold response.
Many ISIL fighters, once captured, are turned over to their home countries for trial or held in ramshackle prisons where chances of escape are fairly good. Instead of continuing this practice, the international community, with the U.S. taking the lead, should send captured high-value ISIL fighters to prison ships and convene immediate, no-nonsense international war crimes trials based at sea. These ships could be positioned off Diego Garcia, the British protectorate in the deepest part of the Indian Ocean. Prosecutors, defense lawyers and witnesses could conference by video. The ships could be equipped for swift on-board capital punishment. If the sentence were a prison term, the terrorist would be transported to a Western prison with adequate security and safeguards.
Modern, large-scale prison ships would have to be built and contracted, but they would be far less costly than maintaining Guantánamo Bay—and very difficult to locate or escape from. Not to mention that starting international war crimes trials would immediately change ISIL’s global image from victorious expeditionary army to a band of hunted war criminals.
Malcolm Nance is executive director of the Terror Asymmetrics Project and a former a career U.S. Navy Counterterrorism Intelligence Officer who has worked in the Middle East for over 35 years. He is author of Defeating ISIS: Who they are. How they fight. What they believe.