The New Battleground in the U.S.-Iranian Covert War

The Buzz

The emergence of cybersecurity as a global problem reveals that states are harnessing cyber technologies in the service of their respective national security and foreign policy interests. One question arising from this phenomenon is how the embrace of cyber means and methods might affect strategic and geopolitical competition among rival powers. Will the increasing exploitation of cyber technologies destabilize power politics given the technologies’ unique qualities? Or will these technologies become just another tool rivals use jockeying for international influence?

David Sanger’s story in the New York Times on February 22 about the “growth of cyberwarfare between the U.S. and Iran” provides some food for thought concerning how rival states are using cyber means. The story analyzes an April 2013 NSA document published by The Intercept, courtesy of Edward Snowden, that contained talking points about Iran for then-NSA director Keith B. Alexander.

Sanger emphasizes “the striking acceleration of the use of cyberweapons by the United States and Iran against each other” and the “computer competition between the United States and Iran.” Sanger quotes David Rothkopf as arguing that, in U.S. strategic decision-making, the cost of using cyber weapons is sufficiently low that U.S. officials seem to believe that “we can’t afford not to use them.” That certainly appears to be the attitude with respect to Iran, with the document highlighting NSA’s successful cooperation with Britain’s GCHQ on “multiple high-priority surges” against Iran that allowed NSA to “maximize our target coverage.”

Based on Sanger’s analysis and the NSA document, it looks as if Iranian officials have reached the same conclusion. The document describes Iranian cyberattacks against U.S. financial institutions and Saudi Aramco in retaliation for cyber attacks Iran experienced, including the Stuxnet operation and a cyberattack on its oil industry. The NSA notes Iran’s “clear ability to learn from the capabilities and actions of others” and its “striving for increased effectiveness by adapting its tactics and techniques to circumvent victim mitigation attempts.”

Here, competition is taking place in two contexts. First, the United States and Iran are engaged in cyber-centric competition, with each side playing offense and defense in cyberspace. According to the NSA, Iran developed and used cyber means and methods to retaliate against cyber attacks it suffered. The retaliation involved unsophisticated DDoS attacks in response to Stuxnet, and cyberattacks to destroy data on Saudi Aramco computers “after having been a victim of a similar attack against its own oil industry.” In this cyber-on-cyber context, Iran is increasing its capabilities and demonstrating its willingness to use them.

The second context involves the larger strategic and geopolitical relationship between the United States and Iran. The U.S. government faces multiple challenges with Iran, including—as the NSA document mentions—the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program and Iran’s efforts to “extend [...] its influence across the Middle East.” Neither of these are specific to, or dependent on, cyber technologies. The NSA document reveals the U.S. government bringing its cyber capabilities to bear on these challenges, including cyber espionage designed to support U.S. negotiators in the nuclear talks and integration of cyber inputs into crisis contingency planning for Iran. In this cyber-in-realpolitik context, the United States applies its cyber capabilities, in parallel with other sources of material power, to advance its overarching strategic and geopolitical interests vis-à-vis Iran.

Sanger characterizes the NSA document as evidence of expanding cyberwarfare between Iran and the United States, which implies that cyber-on-cyber competition between the two has the potential to destabilize the broader strategic and geopolitical relationship. I read the document differently.

In the cyber-on-cyber context, the Iranian actions described in the document are retaliatory and do not appear to involve escalation from the attacks it experienced. In that sense, the Iranian counter-strikes look calibrated to respond in kind, signal commitment and capabilities to compete in this realm, and perhaps deter future attacks. Presently, neither DDoS nor destruction-of-data attacks constitute warfare. The United States has not treated them as such, as evidenced by its labeling of the North Korean cyber attack on Sony, which included the destruction of data, as “cyber vandalism.”

The destabilizing strategic factors for the United States in the NSA document—Iran’s nuclear program and its attempts to spread its influence in the Middle East—do not arise from cyber-on-cyber competition. The strategic nightmare of Iran developing a nuclear weapons capability is what led the United States to deploy its cyber power against Iran in the Stuxnet operation. Even in this cyber-in-realpolitik context, neither the Stuxnet attack nor the escalating “cyberwarfare” has stopped the two countries from continuing to negotiate a possible nuclear deal, which demonstrates how subordinate the cyber elements of this rivalry are in the broader scheme of things. The expansion of Iranian influence in the Middle East also has nothing to do with cyber-on-cyber competition, and this geopolitical problem is not one the United States will manage effectively by focusing on cyber power.

In addition, the U.S. attempt to use a cyber attack to address its strategic concerns about Iran’s nuclear program did little, it appears, to mitigate that threat, but, according to the NSA document, contributed to Iran’s ability to compete more effectively in the cyber-on-cyber context. This boomerang effect suggests that using cyber attacks as leverage for strategic and geopolitical interests might be counterproductive because they have little impact on the balance of influence and advantage but can help the adversary, in the NSA’s words, “learn from the capabilities and actions of others.”

One leaked two-page document does not, of course, tell us everything about how cyber technologies affect power politics now or in the future. Cyber-on-cyber competition might, one day, prove sufficiently disruptive to upset strategic and geopolitical calculations among rivals. But, based on the NSA document in question, that is not what is happening between the United States and Iran.

David P. Fidler is a Visiting Fellow for Cybersecurity at the Council on Foreign Relations and is the James Louis Calamaras Professor of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research at Indiana University and an Associate Fellow with the Centre on Global Health Security at Chatham House.

This article originally appeared on CFR's Net Politics blog here.

Image: Flickr/ Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff


Martyrs Wanted: ISIS' Devastating Defector Problem

The Buzz

As the pressure on the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) mounts against the backdrop of coalition attacks and a Kurdish offensive in Syria’s Raqqa region, militant recruitment has become a pressing matter for the radical organization, which has lost many fighters in clashes around Iraq and Syria. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), out of 1,800 people killed during the Kobani battles, 70 percent belonged to ISIS. On February 14, 132 fighters died across Syria, including forty-four ISIS militants. Given mounting losses, ISIS expansion has relied on a two-pronged recruitment approach: targeting foreigners looking to join the new caliphate and enlisting members of the local population. While the foreign recruitment strategy appears successful, local recruitment faces growing obstacles in Syria and Iraq.

ISIS has relied on a powerful branding strategy, diffusing violent images on social media, YouTube and Twitter. The organization has released several documentaries boasting its military exploits such as the Flames of War featuring heroic-looking militants and gruesome footage of bombings and executions. This systematic glamorization of violence has allowed the terror group to attract foreign recruits. In January, a new study by International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence estimated that the number of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria had reached about 20,000.

ISIS’s local recruitment approach has been described in Idarat al Tawahosh (The Management of Savagery), a book written by Abu Bakr Naji in 2004, which ISIS has adopted. Naji argues that the first step for recruitment is “the creation of organizations to improve the management of the areas under our control.” ISIS applied this technique initially following its surge in June. The groups managed everything from bakeries and banks to schools, courts and mosques in Raqqa. One activist admitted at that the time that the organization had been doing “massive institutional work.”

A second recruitment tool imagined by Naji was the manipulation of tribal antagonism in favor of the organization. ISIS attempted to mobilize Arab crowds ahead of the battle of Tel Hamis in Syria last year using flagrant anti-Kurdish discourse. In accordance with Naji’s recommendation to use money or power as incentives, activists in Raqqa report that ISIS offered cash and sabaya (female slaves) to local tribal leaders to encourage them to swear allegiance.

Indoctrinating local populations and its youth was another cornerstone to Naji’s manifesto. Since its inception, ISIS has imposed religious and military training on children in the Raqqa province. The same activists report that the group uses two training camps—Sharea Ashbal and Maahad Ashbal al-Khilafa—to indoctrinate and train children. According to a Syrian Human Rights Committee report in August, at least eight hundred children under eighteen had been recruited by ISIS. Other reports highlight the more than thirty kids fighting with ISIS in Kobani. An ISIS defector said that militants targeted the young to “[break] down traditional authority structures: the alliance to the family and to the tribe.”

While these strategies succeeded initially, they appear more difficult to maintain in the wake of the continuous coalition, Kurdish and Shia militia attacks on ISIS. The counteroffensives have killed many militants and disrupted the transfer of goods between regions under the organization’s control. Naji’s governance tool appears to be faltering as residents in ISIS-controlled areas increasingly complain of rising food and fuel prices and declining services. The price of staples such as bread has also risen significantly and basic products have become scarce.

ISIS has since resorted to aggressive means for youth recruitment, triggering resentment in some areas. One Iraqi activist notes that the organization often recruits children without the knowledge or approval of their families, leading to a drop in school attendance. A wave of conscription among youth in Mosul, Hawija and Kirkuk in Iraq has in some cases led to kidnappings to coerce families to provide them with fighters (although reports could not be independently confirmed). ISIS militants also arrested forty ex-fighters in the Nusra Front and rebel factions from the village of Abriha and town of al-Sahil and trained them in sharia camps before sending them to battlefronts. Syrian activists said that ISIS also began forcing male members of foreign families that had come to live in the Islamic State, but did not want to fight, to participate in battles.

As a result, ISIS has suffered increased defections in Syria, particularly after the fall of Kobani. Militants have tried to return home or join other groups. ISIS executed one hundred jihadists who attempted to defect. Defections have left the organization possibly facing a shortage of willing martyrs. Other reports point to ISIS police arresting four hundred fighters in Raqqa for not reporting for duty. The same Iraqi activist reported that the organization banned truck drivers from transporting ISIS fighters to limit desertion. In both Raqqa and Mosul, the transit of residents in and out of the city has been closely monitored.

Decreasing human resources may account for ISIS repositioning across areas under its control. ISIS had to transfer in late December eight hundred Chechens, Afghans and Syrians with their families to the city of Tel Affar (50 km west of Mosul), which was the scene of heavy fighting. The number of Islamic State checkpoints and patrols also dwindled in the Syrian border town of al-Bokamel in January, with troops possibly funneled into Iraq.

ISIS relies heavily on the loyalty of both its muhajireen (foreign fighters) base and ansar (local supporters). While the organization’s successes bolstered its appeal among foreign fighters, warlords and tribes, whether in Syria or Iraq, new losses may be starting to chip away at its aura of power. The rate of recruitment has dropped by more than half in February (only fifty-four recruited) compared to January 2015. Compare this figure to June 2014, when nearly six thousand fighters had joined ISIS.

Growing defections, rising tensions and declining local recruitment puts added pressure on ISIS and provides the U.S.-led coalition and the Baghdad government with a window of opportunity to degrade the organization. But in Iraq, other social, political and economic reasons account for local support of ISIS. Naji’s tactic using tribal antagonism to breed organizational loyalty may not have had enough time to sink in, but for many Sunnis—particularly in Iraq—no credible alternative to ISIS has emerged. The Iraqi government will need to take concerted steps to diffuse sectarian tensions and present itself as that alternative. ISIS also benefits from the use of both Syrian and Iraqi territory according to its military needs. The anti-ISIS coalition will need a more comprehensive approach in Syria if it hopes to win the day.

Mona Alami is a Nonresident Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center currently reporting from Iraq. She is a French-Lebanese journalist and based in Beirut. Follow her on Twitter @monaalami. This piece originally appeared here, on the Atlantic Council’s MENASource blog.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Magharebia/CC by 2.0


Has ISIS Invaded Afghanistan?

The Buzz

The growing geographic spread of ISIS has lately been part of the news chatter in tabloids and respected papers alike.

We know ISIS has tried to spread its propaganda to Pakistan and Afghanistan since late 2014 and proclaimed its leadership of that region in early January, with members of the Pakistani Taliban claiming loyalty to the group. One of ISIS's Afghan commanders who was in a recruitment video aimed at the region was killed at the end of January, and another was allegedly arrested by the Afghan Taliban.

However, police in Afghanistan's Ghazni province, where ISIS was reported to be fighting, recently denied the group had a presence there.

Nevertheless, many Afghan Government officials, Afghan analysts with links to Government, and some civil society activists I spoke to last year are set on making the case that ISIS is operating in Afghanistan. Their counterparts across the border in Pakistan seem to be less concerned, even if the link between the Pakistani Taliban and ISIS is ostensibly stronger.

Others however, remain skeptical, and the Taliban website has been suspiciously silent on the matter. Australia's Foreign Minister has been cautious about acknowledging an ISIS presence in Afghanistan (possibly because there is about as much evidence for its presence in Australia, considering the Sydney siege and two individuals arrested before they could strike), though the Australian Government continues to warn that ISIS may expand its operations to Afghanistan in the future.

The question is, why should we even bother looking for ISIS in Afghanistan?

Afghanistan is in enough trouble already, and for what it's worth it has had an “Islamic state” for much longer than Syria or Iraq. After all, the Taliban officially goes by name Islamic Emirate, and has thus long laid claim to the “Islamic state” brand. The fact that ISIS called itself the “Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham” might actually be a nod of acknowledgment from one quasi-state to another that such an ambition is already established in Afghanistan.

Though much has been made of the similarities between ISIS and the Taliban, such as their focus on conquering territory, maintaining an army and governing structure (all trademarks of states), they are not the same.

The Afghan Taliban still draws the majority of its recruits from within Afghanistan's Pashtun tribal structure, though it is known to also collaborate with many other ethnic and terrorist groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. There have been suggestions of Arabic trainers and mentors in Afghanistan, but generally Afghans have not liked them. Sunni Muslims have long been a majority in Afghanistan (no underdog status as in Iraq) and any sectarian problems have been predominantly of an ethnic nature, involving the Shia Hazara minority group.

Rather than looking for ISIS, I worry more about Afghanistan's other problems, which provide ample space to breed more extremist and criminal groups, and should be addressed both by the Afghan Government and the international community.

The Afghan Taliban is losing command and control, and its self-financing structure has seen it morph more into a criminal group than an insurgency. A recent UN report argued that the Taliban was acting more like a 'godfather' than a 'government in waiting', something Gretchen Peterson argued in 2009 when she compared the Taliban to the Sopranos minus the chianti. The Taliban leadership has long denied fragmentation and emphasized its unwavering command and control. On the ground however, the story is different, and many Afghans resent the fact that some fighters no longer practice as their leadership preaches.

There is a lesson here for counter-terrorism as an answer to the problem of ISIS. Much of what the Taliban has become today can be linked to the 'kill and capture' policy of the US military, which not only alienated the local population but also eliminated a lot of older, mid-level commanders with allegiances to the old Taliban leadership and belief system. Forced to continuously refill their ranks, the Taliban fighters and commanders have become younger, many with a rather basic understanding of Islam and Taliban rules (such as the laheya).

Thus, the very counter-terrorism policy designed to defeat the Taliban – which recently was quietly reinstated – has made the group into the different beast we are now dealing with; one that is far less likely to be reconciled into the Afghan Government. This should cause us to pause and consider if similar counter-terrorism approaches elsewhere might not also backfire.

Another way to understand the appeal of groups such as the Taliban, or ISIS, is to recognise what I would call the enabling environment that breeds extremism.

In addition to rising poverty and unemployment in Afghanistan, high dowry prices have forced young men to delay marriage and seek work abroad, or even engage in crime or jihad to afford a wife. This creates frustration, so much so that the Taliban has tried to lower dowry prices in areas they control. ISIS's response to the same problem has been somewhat more 'creative'. Either young women are encouraged to volunteer to marry fighters or ISIS sanctions their rape, enslavement and forced marriage. The importance of this 'sexual conquest' or 'primitive gratification' in ISIS's strategy, and the attraction for many young men struggling to find their place in more modern societies, has been little analysed in trying to understand the group's universal appeal.

In many ways, what ISIS offers is what young marginalized men across the world, including in Afghanistan, seek: adventure, violence, power, sex and a sense of self and community.

If we analyze the appeal of extremists groups from this angle, then the international community needs to adjust its narrative of “all is going well in Afghanistan” and ensure a longer-term development strategy. The Afghan government needs to get serious about its reform agenda and address corruption within its ranks. Not an easy task, which is perhaps why some stick to the seemingly more straightforward promise of counter-terrorism, which in my opinion only fans the fire of groups like ISIS and the Taliban.

This article originally appeared on the Lowy Interpreter.


Are Americans Sliding Into Another War?

Paul Pillar

The current U.S. administration has wrapped up U.S. involvement in a mistaken war in Iraq (albeit on a schedule set by the previous administration, and with subsequent reintroduction of some U.S. military personnel into Iraq), has wound down U.S. involvement in a war in Afghanistan that had metamorphosed from a counterterrorist operation into a nation-building attempt (albeit only after an Obama-era “surge” and now with apparent second thoughts about how much longer the 13-year-old U.S. military involvement will continue), and has resisted pressure to throw U.S. troops into the civil war in Syria (albeit while employing other forms of U.S. military involvement, including airstrikes). The general direction of the administration's policies (though not some of the exceptions and detours) has been sound in terms of both the proper criteria for expending American blood and treasure and the effectiveness, or limitations thereof, of applying U.S. military force in internal conflicts such as the ones in those lands. Some observers would say that this overall direction also has been good politics given the lack of enthusiasm of the American public, still feeling some effects of an Iraq War syndrome, for getting involved any time soon in anything that could be described as—in the legally fuzzy but politically relevant term in the administration's draft authorization for use of military force against ISIS—“enduring offensive ground combat operations.”

That last element may be changing. A just-released poll of American opinion by the Pew Research Center shows a significant shift in the last few months in favor of more extensive use of military force against ISIS. A question asked in October 2014 about possible use of ground forces against the group showed 39 percent in favor and 55 percent opposed. The same question in February 2015 showed an almost even split: 47 percent in favor and 49 percent opposed. There have been comparable shifts over the past year in responses to questions about support for the overall campaign against ISIS and about the best approach to “defeating global terrorism.” On that last question, those saying “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism” rose from 37 percent in March 2014 to 47 percent in February 2015. Those saying that “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred and more terrorism” decreased from 57 percent to 46 percent.

Several patterns in American public attitudes toward—and hence also in the political handling of—use of military force are at work in the views recorded by such polls, and have been displayed repeatedly in the past. One is that sentiments, either for or against use of military force, fade over time as whatever gave rise to the sentiment recedes farther into the past. There is regression toward the mean. This is true of militancy-stoking events, but it also is true of war-avoiding syndromes following failed wars.

Also at work is a heavy dose of emotion, usually embracing anger as well as fear, associated with the militancy-stoking events but also resting on beliefs that such events signify some broader threat. Probably the most glaring example is the American public response to the 9/11 terrorist attack, which involved an abrupt upward surge in militancy and in the willingness of the American public to use military force. The emotion concentrated on that one event was associated in the public mind with a broader perceived terrorist threat against the United States. The slide of the United States into the Vietnam War featured specific emotion-arousing incidents such as attacks (or supposed attacks) against U.S. warships in the Gulf of Tonkin, seen as manifestations of a larger Communist threat against U.S. interests.

Today ISIS arouses emotions especially with its grisly killings of captives, including Americans and other Westerners. There is again a popular perception of a connection with broader and more direct threats against the West and the United States. The significant shift over the past four months in sentiment about use of force against ISIS is probably connected to high-profile attacks in Western cities that—even though there may be little or no organizational connection to the ISIS that is waging war in Iraq and Syria—have been seen in the American public mind as all part of the same threat, and a threat to which the United States is vulnerable. Polling five months ago was already showing a large majority of Americans believing that ISIS had resources in place to conduct attacks within the United States.

Another mechanism in play is a classic form of the slippery slope, in which even a small degree of commitment to some objective overseas leads incrementally to larger commitments of resources on behalf of the same objective. The main decisions of the Johnson administration in the mid-1960s to escalate in a big way in Vietnam were based directly on the positing of the objective during the Kennedy administration of keeping South Vietnam non-Communist. The makers of the Iraq War in the George W. Bush administration were able to point to legislation signed by President Clinton that declared regime change in Iraq to be a U.S. policy objective, and to ask whether the United States was going to act to realize that objective. Besides the sheer slipperiness of such slopes, there also is commonly invoked the argument, however invalid, that U.S. credibility would suffer if the United States were to back away from any such objectives or perceived objectives.

Finally, not least important, partisanship and fears of domestic political losses often are a major factor. When Lyndon Johnson was deciding how to respond to the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964 he was running for his own presidential term against Barry Goldwater, who was beating the drums about Vietnam, criticizing the president (in Goldwater's acceptance speech at the Republican convention) for not clearly indicating “whether or not the objective over there is victory,” and saying, “I needn't remind you, but I will, it has been during Democratic years that a billion persons were cast into Communist captivity and their fates cynically sealed.”

And now, Republican presidential contenders see a push for more extensive U.S. military involvement against ISIS as an opportune, or maybe even a necessary, campaign strategy. As Jonathan Martin and Jeremy Peters write in the New York Times, this tack “is a tacit acknowledgment by Republicans that, with the economy improving, they need another issue to distinguish themselves from Democrats. And it offers them a way to link former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to President Obama on an issue where the president's approval ratings are weakening.”

Note that none of these factors shaping popular sentiment, and its reflection in what the political class says, are ingredients in sound foreign policy. They are instead a matter of popular inattention, public emotion, the hazards of incremental decision-making, and partisan politicking. Such things have led the United States in the past into bad, costly policies overseas, and they could do so again.

Note also that the American public doesn't seek long, costly wars. Americans just think, mistakenly as it has sometimes turned out, that uses of military force they do favor will be short and not all that costly. The pollster John Zogby notes that although public support for use of military force against terrorists was quite high in the wake of 9/11, the degree of support went down precipitously if the question projected a duration of the use of military force extending beyond a couple of years.

A lesson is to be very careful in the early stages of an overseas commitment, keeping in mind that it could be the first part of a slippery slope even if it is not immediately recognizable as such, and to eschew objectives the pursuit of which could become much costlier in the future than they are so far. Some past disasters might have been averted near the beginning of the slide if this sort of thinking had prevailed. This would have meant avoiding, two or three years before Johnson escalated the country into what we know as the Vietnam War, any declaration that Communist unification of Vietnam was a major U.S. objective. It also would have meant not enshrining as the law of the land in the 1990s an objective of regime change in Iraq.

The poll results about growing public support for use of ground troops against ISIS are an indication that we may again be on the first part of a slide into a larger war. We might not go far down the slide during the remainder of Barack Obama's term, but that guarantees nothing about what will subsequently happen regarding U.S. involvement in Iraq and Syria. Although it is possible that ISIS will flame out by then, that isn't guaranteed either. The civil war in Syria in particular seems likely to be long-lasting. And even if ISIS isn't generating as much fear a couple of years ago as it is now, we no doubt will hear reminders about how removal of the Assad regime was supposedly a U.S. objective too.                                                 

TopicsIraq Syria ISIS RegionsMiddle East

Al-Shabaab Threatens U.S. Attacks: Should You Be Worried?

The Buzz

Al-Shabaab, the al Qaeda-linked militant group in Somalia, has sympathizers in the United States, but likely does not have the ability to strike targets in the West, despite its recent threat to do so, according to Atlantic Council analyst J. Peter Pham.

“Shabaab has always had a transnational reach, but it has never struck transnationally beyond the region,” Pham, Director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center, said in an interview.

“There has also been no evidence of an active sleeper cell, but there has been more than sufficient evidence of sympathizers,” he added.

A small number of Western citizens, including Americans, joined the ranks of al-Shabaab. Shirwa Ahmed, the United States’ first suicide bomber in the modern era, came from the Somali-American community in Minnesota.

Shabaab’s leadership is betting on inciting anyone among a small minority of Shabaab sympathizers in the United States to carry out a terrorist attack, said Pham.

“It would be a feather in their cap coming at a time when militarily they are weak and really the third tier among terrorist groups in Africa behind Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Libya,” he said.

In a video posted online on February 21, al-Shabaab called for attacks on shopping malls in Canada, Britain, and the United States. The video lists the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, as a target. Minnesota is home to the United States’ largest Somali community.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called on visitors to the Minnesota mall to be “particularly careful.”

Al-Shabaab is trying to “inspire a copy cat event” similar to the attack in Nairobi, and they’re “trying to wreak economic havoc” in the United States by threatening to strike malls, Atlantic Council Chairman Jon M. Huntsman, Jr. said on MSNBC.

Al-Shabaab has rarely carried out major attacks outside Somalia, but in September of 2013 it attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya, killing more than 60 people and injuring hundreds.

The United States is well prepared to foil such an attack, said Huntsman.

“I don’t think the nation has ever been better prepared… for these kinds of scenarios. We’re a whole lot better than we were before 9/11,” he added.

The State Department designated al-Shabaab a foreign terrorist organization in 2008.

In February of 2012, al-Shabaab leader Ahmed Abdi Godane pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Al-Shabaab also has ties to two al Qaeda affiliates — al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Al-Shabaab has suffered significant setbacks in Somalia in 2011 and 2012, including losing control of the strategic port city of Kismayo.

Al-Shabaab is “a good example of being a victim of your own success,” said Pham, referring to the setbacks the group has suffered following natural disasters in areas that were under its control and under pressure from African Union and U.S. military operations.

Pham spoke in an interview with New Atlanticist’s Ashish Kumar Sen. Excerpts below:

Q: Is al-Shabaab transforming from a regional threat to a transnational one?

Pham: Al-Shabaab has changed dramatically in the last several years and is increasingly primarily a terrorist group and less of an insurgency, which it was for a good number of years.

It is a good example of being a victim of your own success. A combination of the famine and drought, Shabaab’s mishandling of those calamities, its overreach in trying to impose an alien ideology on the Somali people, the efforts of the better trained and equipped African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), the marginally increased capacity of the Somali central government, and interventions by Somalia’s neighbors has contributed to the Shabaab being severely degraded as a military force. It has lost a lot of the territory it once held; its conventional forces have either surrendered or defected; and US special operations strikes in Somalia have decimated the senior leadership, including al Shabaab’s extremist emir Ahmed Godane who was killed last September.    

The result of this degradation is that Shabaab’s nationalist factions have largely melted away, but the hardcore jihadist element has remained and now represents the preponderant force. This minority within Shabaab has asserted itself in ongoing terrorist attacks in Somalia and low-intensity attacks in parts of Kenya, especially the northeastern areas.

Shabaab has always had a transnational reach, but it has never struck transnationally beyond the region. There have been US citizens, Canadians, Europeans who have joined Shabaab as fighters, including America’s first suicide bomber who came from the Somali community in the Twin Cities. There have been Americans who have been charged by the US government with material support for Shabaab.

So there has always been a small niche — a minority within the Somali American community — that has responded to Shabaab. They have primarily responded to the fight in Somalia, but Shabaab’s current leadership is betting that somewhere within this minority there might be a person that they could incite to violence. If they succeed in that it certainly would be a major feather in their cap.

It would be a feather in their cap coming at a time when militarily they are weak and really the third tier among terrorist groups in Africa behind Boko Haram and the Islamic State in Libya.

Q: Does al-Shabaab have the ability to attack targets in the U.S.?

Pham: There does not seem to be any evidence of direct command and control. The video seems to be more of incitement and giving specific suggestions. It doesn’t seem to be an order to an existing group, but inciting someone who is sympathetic to do so.

There has also been no evidence of an active sleeper cell, but there has been more than sufficient evidence of sympathizers. There is a niche they are appealing to. While only a few, it only takes, in a situation like this, one of them to act.

Q: What success has al-Shabaab had in recruiting among the Somali-American community?

Pham: It is only a very small minority that has been sympathetic and an even smaller group that has actually done anything. We are talking about several dozen young men who have gone over as fighters.

We’re dealing with a network of active sympathizers in maybe the low hundreds. We’re not dealing with a great number of people. As within any large minority group there will be some people who will be disaffected and they are the problems.

The key to rooting those out is having good relations with the community as a whole so it can become the first line of defense.

Q: Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) was behind the recent terrorist attacks in Paris. What sort of relationship exists between AQAP and al-Shabaab?

Pham: Shabaab and AQAP have had a long-standing history of helping each other when they were down and out. After the Ethiopian intervention in Somalia in 2006 when Shabaab was on its heels it was the al Qaeda-linked militants in Yemen that later became AQAP that provided a lifeline to Shabaab in terms of training and weapons.

Later when Shabaab acquired territorial dominion in Somalia it hosted training camps for militants who later filled the ranks of AQAP.

In 2012, AQAP facilitated Shabaab’s declaration of allegiance to al Qaeda and Ayman al-Zawahiri.

AQAP and Shabaab have had links, there is coordination and, if you will, good neighborliness between terrorists. But I don’t think there is any AQAP command and control in Shabaab’s recent declaration.

Ashish Kumar Sen is an editor with the Atlantic Council. This article originally appeared on the New Atlantist, an Atlantic Council blog

Image: Flickr/Albany Associates