ISIS in Perspective

Paul Pillar

Americans, following a long tradition of finding monsters overseas to destroy, are now focusing their attention and their energy on a relatively new one: the group variously known as ISIS or ISIL or the Islamic State. The group has become a major disruptive factor in the already disrupted internal affairs of Iraq and Syria, and it is legitimately a significant object of concern for U.S. policy as far as instability and radicalism in the Middle East are concerned. The outsized role that this group has come to play in discourse about U.S. foreign policy, however—including hyperbolic statements by senior officials—risks a loss of perspective about what kind of threat it does or does not pose to U.S. interests, and with that a possible loss of care in assessing what U.S. actions in response would or would not be wise.

Several attributes of ISIS have repeatedly and correctly been identified as measures of the group's strength, and aspects of the group's rise that are worthy of notice. These include its seizure of pieces of territory in both Iraq and Syria, acquisition of financial resources, and enlistment of substantial numbers of westerners. Although these are impressive indicators of the group's success, none of them is equivalent to a threat to U.S. interests, much less a physical threat to the United States itself—at least not in the sense of a new danger different from ones that have been around for some time. Money, for example, has never been the main determinant of whether a group constitutes a such a danger. Terrorism that makes a difference can be cheap, and one does not need to rob banks in Mosul or to run an impressive revenue collection operation in order to have enough money to make an impact. Even a terrorist spectacular on the scale of 9/11 is within the reach of a single wealthy and radically-minded donor to finance.

The involvement of western citizens with terrorist groups has long been a focus of attention for western police and internal security services. To the extent this represents a threat, it is not a direct function of any one group's actions or successes overseas, be they of ISIS or any other group. Several patterns involving westerners' involvement with foreign terrorist groups are well established. One is that the story has consistently been one of already radicalized individuals seeking contact with a group rather than the other way around. If it isn't one particular group they seek out, it will be another. A further pattern is that, despite frequently expressed fears about westerners acquiring training overseas that they then apply effectively to terrorist operations in the West, this hasn't happened. Faisal Shahzad and his firecracker-powered attempt at a car bomb in Times Square illustrate the less ominous reality. Yet another pattern is that apart from a few westerners whose language skills have been exploited for propaganda purposes, the westerners have become grunts and cannon fodder. They have not been entrusted with sophisticated plots (unsuccessful shoe bomber Richard Reid being the closest thing to an exception), probably partly because of their evident naiveté and largely because of groups' concerns about operational security and possible penetration.

The control by a group of a piece of territory, even if it is mostly just sand or mountains, is what most often is taken mistakenly as a measure of the threat a group poses, and this phenomenon is occurring in spades with ISIS. Probably seizure of land is interpreted this way because following this aspect of the progress of a group is as simple as looking at color-coded maps in the newspaper. The history of terrorist operations, including highly salient operations such as 9/11, demonstrates that occupying some real estate is not one of the more important factors that determine whether a terrorist operation against the United States or another western country can be mounted. To the extent ISIS devotes itself to seizing, retaining, and administering pieces of real estate in the Levant or Mesopotamia—and imposing its version of a remaking of society in those pieces—this represents a turn away from, not toward, terrorism in the West. Significant friction between ISIS (then under a different name) and al-Qaeda first arose when the former group's concentration on whacking Iraqi Shias was an unhelpful, in the view of the al-Qaeda leadership, digression from the larger global jihad and the role that the far enemy, the United States, played in it.

Traditionally an asset that non-state terrorist groups are considered to have, and a reason they are considered (albeit wrongly) to be undeterrable is that they lack a “return address”. To the extent ISIS maintains a mini-state in the Middle East, it loses that advantage. Any such mini-state would be more of a burden to the group than an asset, beyond whatever satisfaction the group gets from installing its warped version of an Islamic order in its little piece of land. Maintaining and exerting power in the mini-state would be a difficult, full-time job. The place would be a miserable, ostracized blotch on the map with no ability to project power at a distance. It would be a problem for the immediate neighbors, and even more of one for the governments out of whose territories the mini-state had been carved, but its existence would not make ISIS any more of a threat to the United States than it otherwise would be.

We Americans need to exercise some introspection regarding how and why we are reacting to the ISIS phenomenon the way we are, beyond the way we interpret shadings on a newspaper map (and beyond the usual politicized biases that infect any policy discussion in Washington). To some extent the group is filling a need for a well-defined, personified adversary. We don't have Osama bin Laden to fight anymore, but now we have Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We also are reacting quite understandably to the group's methods, which are despicably inhumane, and to its objectives, which are disgustingly medieval. The burst of attention to the group over the past week clearly results largely from the grisly killing of a captured American photojournalist. We all abhor that event, and we should. But we also should bear in mind that an emotional reaction to such an incident produces the wrong frame of mind for debate, and cool-headed deliberation, about public policy.

What may be most disturbing about the tenor of current discourse on the subject is how much of it is expressed in absolute terms, with many proclaiming that ISIS “must be destroyed,” or words to that effect. Such absolutism undermines the consideration that should be given to other U.S. interests and objectives (as there always will be) affected by pursuit of that one objective, and consideration of costs as well as benefits (there always will be both) of any U.S. action taken in pursuit of that objective. We have heard similar absolutism before, and we have seen the results. We heard it with the post-9/11 false syllogism that if terrorism is considered a serious problem then we must recognize that we are at “war,” and if we are at war then that means we must rely principally on military force. We heard it also in the dictum that if there is even a one percent chance of something awful happening to us, then we must treat that as a certainty.

The absolutist approach leads to inappropriate derision and dismissal of policy steps as “half measures” when they may in fact be—considering the costs, benefits, and other U.S. interests at stake—the most prudent steps that could be taken. Some actions that would set back ISIS may be, given the circumstances, sensible and cost-effective. Other possible measures may seem aimed more directly at the goal of destroying ISIS but, given the circumstances, would not be sensible.

And what does “destroying” the group really mean? Our experience with al-Qaeda should have taught us to ponder that question long and hard. We killed innumerable “number three” leaders of al-Qaeda, we killed bin Laden himself, and we have rendered Ayman al-Zawahiri a largely irrelevant fugitive. We have in effect destroyed the organization, or at least as much as can be expected from more than 13 years (yes, the process started before 9/11) of destruction. But the methods we really were worried about lived on through a metastasis that led to the emergence of other organizations. ISIS is one of those organizations. If ISIS is “destroyed,” there is little reason to believe that the methods we most worry about, and associated ideologies, will not take still other forms.

The seeds of the death of ISIS lie within its own methods and objectives, which are as abhorrent to many of its would-be subjects as they are to us. The group rode to its dramatic gains, in both Iraq and Syria, on larger waves of opposition to detested incumbent regimes. Its losses can be just as dramatic if the political circumstances that led to such opposition are changed. They already are changing in Baghdad, and it still is possible for political change of some sort, which excludes any groups as extreme as ISIS, to take place in Syria.

The extent of any terrorist threat to the United States does not depend on killing any one organization. It will depend partly on those political processes in countries such as Iraq and Syria. It also will depend on how well the United States, in going after any one monster, does not create other ones. In that regard we cannot remind ourselves often enough—especially because this fact seems to have been forgotten amid the current discussion of ISIS—that ISIS itself was born as a direct result of the United States going after a different monster in Iraq.                                          

TopicsTerrorism Iraq Syria RegionsMiddle East

The Perplexing Case of Kajieme Powell

The Buzz

A storm has been brewing in Ferguson, Missouri since the fatal shooting of Michael Brown—but not the storm you think. While the protests that have been taking place in Ferguson have been given extensive media coverage, and are a storm in and of themselves, a more subtle, political revolution may be fomenting.

The fatal shooting of Kajieme Powell may be indicative of this new revolution. Powell’s death is the second Missouri shooting to have gained nationwide attention this month for its controversial circumstances. Had his “suicide by cop” occurred outside of the context of the Ferguson protests, there would be less of a case to be made for the potential politicalness of Powell’s intentions. However, the fact that he committed his suicide a couple of weeks after Brown’s death and in the midst of the Ferguson protests raises the question of whether his suicide was simply an act of opportunity (perhaps he felt that law enforcement would be exponentially more trigger-happy during this time of protest and wanted to take advantage of that) or whether there were deeper, political motivations for his timing his suicide so soon after the Ferguson protests broke out.

The protests in Ferguson are born of objection to police brutality, excessive force and racial tensions. In Michael Brown’s case, some news outlets, such as the Huffington Post, have been focusing on the race issue. This may be a race issue, but it could just as easily be an economic class issue as well, or Brown may have indeed been aggressive towards the cop. Saying that Brown’s shooting was certainly motivated by racism, just because the cop is white and the victim is black is not a compelling argument. It is like saying a male boss who denies a female employee a raise is doing so because he hates women. It is also possible that she simply isn’t a good employee and doesn’t deserve a raise.

At any rate, there have been many issues raised by these shootings that pertain to law enforcement standard operating procedure, autopsy reports, white-on-black violence, protests and riot controlling—the list goes on. However, Powell’s case is distinctly different.  

Here is the full video of Kajieme Powell’s shooting taken by an eyewitness:

After watching the footage, there is certainly ambiguity about what exactly was said between Powell and the officers, how close he actually was to them, if he was brandishing the knife and so on. And the media has been addressing these issues. However, far more interesting is Powell’s behavior leading up to the shooting.

From the beginning of the video, something about the situation seems odd. This was not your run-of-the-mill case of shoplifting. Here is what doesn’t add up: Powell exits the store—and doesn’t run or walk away. What does he do? He walks slowly to the edge of the sidewalk and places the two cans of soda he stole on the ground, side-by-side. The cans appear unopened. He didn’t drink them. Then he paces, seeming somewhat agitated, but not frantic. He paces around with his hand in his pocket (a pocket, we find out later, contained a knife). He knows that the police will be coming, and he waits for them. When the police arrive, they instruct him to take his hand out of his pocket, and he does—he shows them the knife. Now, the police have not started shooting at him yet. He walks towards the police, but doesn’t charge them. He deliberately climbs up on a cement ledge and into an enclosed area, away from police and just as he turns and walks towards them again, the police fire off their shots (at about 1:40 in the video). All the while, it is reported that he was saying, “Shoot me, shoot me already!”

It goes without saying that both these men’s deaths were tragic. However, in Powell’s case, we have been given a rare opportunity—to see a man’s last moments, minutes even, before his death. After analyzing the video, one might conclude that Powell may have been politically motivated. After likely being profiled his whole life, and perhaps feeling that law enforcement is too quick to jump to the conclusion that a seemingly low-income black man is up to no good, he may have purposely staged the whole incident with the intent of being shot to prove a point to American society, giving his suicide a political edge.

Revolutions and protests by suicide are nothing new to the world. There are the famous cases of Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tibetan monks and Jan Palach, to name a few. But before being quick to say that Powell’s case is nothing like these cases, consider for a moment that political protests can indeed take many shapes and forms. For example, in April 2013, a man in Rome attempted suicide by cop by opening fire and yelling “Shoot me, shoot me!” Some suggested that the tense political climate in Italy motivated his actions.

Kajieme Powell may have had much deeper and complex reasons for acting the way he did. Automatically labeling him insane or simply suicidal seems too easy. Insanity is too often misused as a band-aid explanation for someone’s actions when we are too complacent to investigate a person’s motives any further. Just because we cannot imagine ourselves doing what Powell did, does not make the man insane. Conversely, he could have had political motivations and also been insane; the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive. However, Powell’s actions seemed calculated, planned and intentional, not rushed, haphazard or random. Perhaps Powell did not plan on being political. But one should at least entertain the possibility that Powell intended to evoke a social revolution of another kind in his community.

Image: Flickr/Shawn Semmler/CC by 2.0

TopicsSocietyDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Janet Yellen's Reserved Monetary Insight

The Buzz

In her speech at the central bank retreat in Jackson Hole, Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen said something remarkable for an economist—the labor market data lacks clarity, is confusing, and is sometimes contradictory. Yellen admitted the Fed is having a difficult time understanding precisely what is happening in the labor markets, and the difficulty of understanding the data has been magnified following the Great Recession. Some variables appear to have lost some of their meaning or ‘predicative power’, while others do not seem to have been affected much at all. This requires a shift in interpreting some data, and not necessarily extrapolating past tendencies and correlations to the present.

In the speech, Yellen subtly argues some data her colleagues are relying on should be interpreted with care. Some may not be relaying the same information about the labor market (and output, and wages and so on) as before the Recession. One to be wary of is the number of people working part-time for economic reasons. Yellen points out that there are “structural”—permanent—forces at work here, such as the shift to a services oriented economy where part-time employment is more common. But there is also a “cyclical”—temporary—component and Fed policy should be effectual here.

The Fed caused itself a problem by stating that monetary policy would be tightened as the unemployment rate dropped and inflation stayed within bounds. This is causing some issues now, as some at the Fed believe the unemployment rate—what the Fed has tied itself to—is not a good measure of the labor market. So Yellen proffered an idea about how to avoid the problems that using a single data point to determine policy could wreak:

“I believe that our assessments of the degree of slack must be based on a wide range of variables and will require difficult judgments about the cyclical and structural influences in the labor market. While these assessments have always been imprecise and subject to revision, the task has become especially challenging in the aftermath of the Great Recession, which brought nearly unprecedented cyclical dislocations and may have been associated with similarly unprecedented structural changes in the labor market—changes that have yet to be fully understood.”

The critical element embedded in this statement is the use of a wide range of data to understand an economy vastly different from the one we knew before.

To drive her point home, Yellen gives a few examples of what happens when data is not properly understood. Are more job vacancies a good sign for the labor market? Maybe:

“Given the rise in job vacancies, hiring may be poised to pick up, but the failure of hiring to rise with vacancies could also indicate that firms perceive the prospects for economic growth as still insufficient to justify adding to payrolls. Alternatively, subdued hiring could indicate that firms are encountering difficulties in finding qualified job applicants.”

Job vacancies and hiring are linked, and not understanding this link could render an analysis useless. Or, simply looking at the rise in job vacancies could lead to an inaccurate assessment of the labor market and the number of workers being demanded.

Other variables may not be so difficult to understand, even now. The quit rate—the number of people who quit their jobs as a proportion of the workforce—is one of those. As more people quit their jobs, the better the labor market is assumed to be. It indicates workers’ confidence in finding alternative employment, and how broadly firms are competing for talent. But, as Yellen points out, the quit rate is still “somewhat depressed,” and this could be a sign the labor market is not as dynamic as some think. While many of the variables may have been deeply affected by the Recession, the logic behind quitting a job is unlikely to have changed.

Yellen is a labor economist—this is her territory. It is disconcerting when she admits there is uncertainty regarding the state of the labor market, and how the Fed should react to it. But today Yellen did something truly brilliant. Instead of providing economists and Wall Street with specific policy plans, Yellen gave economists and Wall Street a lesson on how to acknowledge a lack of clarity in the data. This may not sound like a monetary policy, but it is. By allowing for uncertainty and calling for a broad range of variables to be used in the determination of policy, Yellen is allowing for almost any policy to be justified by data. After all, the data could be good, it could be bad, but it is certainly indeterminate.

Image: Flickr/DonkeyHotey/CC by 2.0

TopicsEconomicsDomestic Politics RegionsUnited States

Newsflash: There Is No “Wonder-Weapon” When it Comes to Modern War

The Buzz

As Herman Göring might have said, “when I hear the name Carl von Clausewitz, I reach for my gun” (he actually made the comment about the word “culture”.). Particularly when the reference occurs early on in a speech and when it’s followed, in short order, with a machine-gun like spray of other military theorists—finishing up with Azar Gat. There was, however, method in  Australian Air Marshal Geoff Brown’s dinner speech to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the reference to Gat (who believes traditional war is in decline in today’s world) was certainly not accidental.

The Chief of Air Force began with a discursive explanation of how airpower had begun, during World War One, as little more than an ancillary to the real protagonists deciding the result on the ground. Then came the almost obligatory development of his theme, the transition from appendage to enabler in World War Two.

Perhaps I’ve listened to too many after-dinner speeches. I’d almost begun to drift off and count the rosettes on the ceiling. “Now,” I thought to myself, “there’ll be an elaboration of how the RAAF has subsequently become the decisive factor in the military equation.” That was a mistake.

When Brown turned to the present he suddenly became specific. Gone were the broad brush-strokes with their theoretical references; replacing them came details and particulars. But, and much to my surprise, there weren’t any references to the third generation of war—one where airpower reigned supreme. Instead the Chief emphasised something we journalists find it difficult to get our heads around: there are no simplistic answers in modern conflict. It requires a team to achieve the objective, and every player has their part.

It’s interesting to hear this sort of talk from one of the three service chiefs, particularly at a time of increasing financial stringencies. While it’s true the announcement that Australia is going to buy the Joint Strike Fighter means the RAAF has already been given its Christmas and birthday presents for many years to come, technology is developing fast.

The big question, of course, is how rapidly unmanned systems will develop. As long ago as 2011, even the Economist was predicting that the piloted plane could soon become a thing of the past. But, and as Brown pointed out, that’s misreading the lessons of history.

His message was that there is no silver bullet. Military effects are created by a system of systems. Brown had just as much time in his speech for the maintenance engineer as he did for the unmanned drone.

We don’t reflect on that often enough. It’s in our nature to look for the sensational breakthrough technology; the wonder-weapon. Those don’t exist. That’s probably not the message Brown wanted us to take away from his speech—but it’s not a bad one. And it’s a relief to see that even the head of the RAAF’s capable of understanding that airpower alone never wins wars.

Apart, of course, from Bosnia.

Nic Stuart is a columnist with the Canberra Times. This article first appeared in ASPI’s The Strategist here.

Image: U.S. Air Force Flickr. 


China vs. America: The "Freedom of Navigation" Debate

The Buzz

Comments by China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Meeting recently highlighted the futility of the US-China dialogue over the freedom of navigation. In remarks to the press, Wang challenged Washington’s call for unhindered navigation of the high seas by arguing that the ‘current situation of the South China Sea is generally stable, and the freedom of navigation there has never seen any problems.’ The circular nature of this debate makes it clear that support for the US by third parties, such as Europe, will be necessary to break the logjam and reinforce a principle that Europe also relies on for its prosperity and security.

What was not apparent in Wang’s remarks is that the dispute between the US and China over the freedom of navigation is not about commercial ships, but military ones. According to Beijing’s interpretation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), military activities within a country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) – which extends 200 nautical miles seaward from a state’s coastline – are banned. Washington argues that this is a distorted understanding of the law, and is supported in this view by the majority of states worldwide. Only about two-dozen countries openly agree with China’s interpretation.

There are many facets of China’s disputes with the United States over the South China Sea, but none generates more rancor than the question of military activities within an EEZ. This dispute has been the source of most US-China flashpoints in the region, including China’s harassment of the surveillance ship USS Impeccable in 2009 and the near-collision of a Chinese vessel with the guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens earlier this year. Following China’s announcement of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea in 2013, it now appears that Beijing is seeking to exert sovereign control over the skies as well, and given China’s tendency toward harassment and coercion, mid-air confrontations with the US cannot be ruled out.

Yet while the US has defended its right to conduct military activities during recent crises, Washington is coy about raising the issue on a routine basis, favouring instead a vaguer call for ‘freedom of navigation.’ This could be due to a lack of support in the region for the US position. Countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, India, and Japan have all expressed reservations over the rights of foreign military vessels to operate in their EEZs. While these countries are all vigorous proponents of UNCLOS, and are skeptical of the legality of China’s historically based maritime claims, they are largely silent over the EEZ issue. This of course adds to the potency of Wang’s recent comments: they suggest that the US is an outlier in the region and has a policy that is not recognized by others.

Some countries believe that unfettered military activities in coastal waters may invite gunboat diplomacy or threaten their resource sovereignty. Others, such as Japan, are hedging directly against China. Amid doubts over the US ability to uphold the principle of the freedom of the high seas, Tokyo believes that the proscription of military activities within its EEZ may be one day come in useful in deterring intrusive activities off Japan’s own coastline.


The stakes in this dispute are clear. First, while the freedom of military navigation within EEZs has undoubtedly contributed to the US Navy’s global supremacy, it has also ensured the security of merchant traffic from the predations of state and nonstate actors, and underpinned the stability of world shipping lanes for centuries. The days of piracy, arbitrary taxation, and trade monopolies are long over – partly because navies around the world are free to conduct constabulary operations.

Second, for any law to be effective, it has to be clear. Freedom of the high seas should be, as the British saying goes, ‘exactly what it says on the tin.’ Exceptions to this rule muddy the waters over what is permissible and impermissible behavior. To paraphrase Thomas Schelling, theoretically, limits can be set on the freedom of navigation, but only on terms that are qualitatively distinct from the alternatives. ‘Freedom of navigation’ is clear and easy to understand. ‘Freedom of navigation under some circumstances’ is more problematic, and leaves ships open to selective enforcement of the law by the coastal state.

Third, freedom of the high seas is important in achieving stability among major powers. While the EEZ question has led to spats in the past, in general, the regime has fostered predictability, knowledge of one’s adversaries and awareness of conflict ‘red lines.’ Throughout most of the Cold War, the US and Soviet Union conducted maritime surveillance operations in each other’s EEZs and while these operations were never welcomed, they were tolerated as a part of an open global system. This attitude explains why the US accepted a Chinese spy ship shadowing the RIMPAC exercises last month, and why Washington is disappointed that Beijing is not returning the courtesy.

What should Europe do?

As the world’s largest economy, Europe has benefited from freedom of the high seas as much as the United States, and it is within its interests to defend it. The continentalist vision of maritime security, in which states can dominate the sea in the same way they do the land, would not only put an end to uninterrupted maritime traffic, but also see the extension of territorial disputes to the sea, where strong states would carve out their spheres of interest at the expense of the weak.

The US can achieve any number of its security objectives in East Asia through the commitment of military hardware, diplomatic effort, and economic resources. Yet it cannot shape global norms alone. Freedom of the high seas is a norm that grew out of international recognition, not the efforts of one country. If it is to be sustained, it must enjoy similar levels of support. This is a role that likeminded partners such as Europe should play.

Europe could assist in a number of areas. It should invite emerging powers such as China and India to take a greater stake in ensuring security of the maritime commons. This means continuing to conduct joint operations in counter piracy, disaster relief, and civilian evacuation. It would also mean accepting China and other big regional players need powerful navies with expeditionary capabilities, but this is a price worth paying.

Second, Europe should seek to engage China in a discussion about its desire for a closed maritime system. China has historical reasons for this approach – some of which are fed by a contemporary sense of insecurity – but there is no proof that the current system is not working in Beijing’s interests, and lots of proof that it is. As one senior Chinese official made clear at the 2014 Shangri La Dialogue, as a global trading nation ‘freedom of navigation is important to China […] we are very much dependent on it.’ How would China cope in a system in which these benefits would continually be under threat?

Third, and most importantly, Europe must come out in open support for the freedom of military activities with EEZs. This would embolden Washington to state its position more clearly – force Beijing to do the same – and would reassure other countries in the region that the principle is being fought for and not forgotten. Europe is accustomed to feeling powerless in East Asia, but on this question its role could be vital.

Edward Schwarck is a research fellow in the Asia Studies Department of the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI). The following article first appeared in CSIS: PACNET here.

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr. 

TopicsSecurity RegionsChina