U.S. counter-terrorism strategy faces uphill battle

WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama begins to implement his complex plan to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS), he’s been reminded on the 13th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks that the terrorism prognosis grows more ominous each year.

Terrorist organizations such as ISIL are expanding and they are smarter.

“ISIL, in some ways, is a manifestation, or exemplifies the threat that we face in a number of places, certainly right now it’s most acute in Iraq,” Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told a small group of reporters Friday, at the organization’s headquarters.

During its rampage through Iraq, ISIL’s ability to mask its intentions and communications left most of the world in the dark, including Obama, who has been criticized for underestimating ISIL.

But the U.S. was not alone.

“I tell you honestly, it’s not just the U.S.,” said Yuval Steinitz, Israel’s minister of Strategic and Intelligence Affairs. Even Israel missed the alarm.

“The Israeli intelligence services didn’t appreciate that ISIS would become such a great problem.”

However, while impressed by the need to respond immediately to the threat from ISIL, Steinitz said, “I don’t fully understand why the [U.S] focus is so much only on ISIS. After all, you have many similar organizations all over the Middle East — jihadist terrorist organizations like Boko Haram in Central Africa, and Jabhat al-Nusrah in Syria, or Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon.”

The most pressing matters facing the Obama administration include: attempts to stop Russia from invading Ukraine, containing the Ebola outbreak in Africa, marshaling hotspots in Libya, South Sudan, the Central African Republic, Nigeria, Egypt and Pakistan, and ending a 13-year-old war in Afghanistan.

On the secondary list, but equally important are threats like Al Qaida and its Arabian Peninsula affiliate, which with its creative bomb-making capability, was the most dangerous terror group in the world until ISIL’s $2 billion enterprise emerged barely two months ago. North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear weapons exploits keep U.S. intelligence officials up at night as well.

Without a doubt, the Obama administration has been spread thin.

But in the coming years, “thin” may be a relative term, as more potential outbreaks of extremist violence and political instability hover on the horizon.

U.S. intelligence officials say geopolitical upheaval has become much more frequent than in past years and an escalating number of disputes between countries can bring nations to the brink of armed conflict almost overnight.

What they weren’t prepared for was a non-state actor such as ISIL exploding into dominance in Iraq in a matter of days.

“[Iraq] isn’t the only place that we’re concerned about. What we see in a number of different locations is a lack of security capability, a lack of governance that really creates the conditions that give rise to opportunities for terrorist groups, networks, individuals, to have an opportunity to plan and plot,” Olsen says.

But according to former CIA operative Robert Baer, in some of these cases, even having a strategy won’t solve recurring conflicts.

“In the short term in Iraq, we’re going to save lives, we’re going to stop the slaughter of minorities, but in the long-term, we’re getting into a quagmire like you wouldn’t believe. This war between Sunni and Shia goes back 1,400 years and the United States Air Force and Navy aren’t going to solve it in three years or in a hundred years.”

Kurdish officials are hoping the U.S. and coalition forces will continue to try, because without Western help, Iraq faces the real possibility of ceasing to exist as the country we know.

“From 10 June, we found ourselves with a 1,035-kilometer border with terrorists, a border that until the end of 2011 had been guarded by six Iraqi security forces divisions and a U.S. military division. Suddenly our Peshmerga had to protect this border alone, with outdated and limited weaponry,” said Falah M. Bakir, the Kurdistan regional government’s minister of Foreign Relations.

Later in June, the Kurdish government asked the United States for weapons, because “ours wouldn’t match the modern American weapons that ISIS had captured from the Iraqi army after it fled,” said Bakir.

U.S. airstrikes and support from allies have grown into a coalition that comprises Obama’s present strategy, but Baer is skeptical.

“We have just reconstituted the new Shia-led government in Baghdad. The new prime minister comes from a party that was closely allied with Iran in 80s and 90s. They’re saying this is a new game and it’s going to be an inclusive government and were going to set a Sunni national guard. I’m not optimistic this is going to work.”

Olsen said both the scale of ISIL and its dramatic rise make the situation in Iraq the most acute.

But the proliferation of technology and ISIL’s tactical proof that a terror group can seize and hold what amounts to its own country has been a blue print for other like-minded groups.

And U.S. intelligence officials are concerned that ISIL’s alleged “Islamic State,” complete with mass executions, brutal sharia law and hatred of anyone that disagrees with them, is not the only one.

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