28 July 2015

ISIS Is a a “Fast-Moving and Confounding Enemy,“ U.S. Officials

Damian Paletta, Wall Street Journal
July 26, 2015
ASPEN, Colo.—Top U.S. national security officials at a multiday mountain summit described Islamic State militants as a fast-moving and confounding enemy, immune to some of the counterterrorism methods that appeared to work more effectively against al Qaeda.

Some suggested that efforts to counter Islamic State advances were yielding success, but others painted a picture of a militant group that—particularly on social media—operates with stealth and speed that the U.S. government wasn’t prepared to match.
“We didn’t perfect the process of sharing information and sharing intelligence until this emergency really exploded in our faces,” said retired Marine Gen. John Allen, now a top State Department official who leads the government’s effort to combat Islamic State.

The three days of panels at the Aspen Security Forum demonstrated the extent of the challenge facing Gen. Allen and other law enforcement, security, intelligence, military, and foreign policy leaders as they continue to re-evaluate their approach to the militant group.
U.S. officials described two glaring challenges. First, the places where Islamic State thrives-northern Iraq, Syria, and Libya—are major U.S. intelligence blind spots. The U.S. government has no military or diplomatic presence in these areas and it is difficult to monitor activity.

Second is the challenge posed by Islamic State’s use of social media to recruit supporters and inspire followers to carry out attacks in the U.S. Against al Qaeda, U.S. officials had successfully tracked and disrupted networks often made up of trusted allies with long-standing relationships. Islamic State militants, however, often have much looser bonds, and have motivated attacks with people who militants never meet in person.
Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey said these militants connect with possible sympathizers by using the social media network Twitter, then they hold conversations by using encrypted technology that the U.S. government has a hard time monitoring.

After this point, its difficult to know who of the estimated 20,000 people following Islamic State’s messages on Twitter might carry out an attack, he said. The length of time between initial contact with militants and an attempted domestic terrorist attack can be very quick, or can have a longer fuse.

“The ‘flash-to-bang’ is both short and unpredictable with ISIL,” Mr. Comey said, using an acronym for the group.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John McCain (R., Ariz.) appeared at the conference over the weekend and unloaded on the Obama administration’s approach to combating Islamic State, saying, “We have no strategy”–a criticism he repeated four times.

The Aspen conference is styled as a relaxed setting for top U.S. government officials to meet with academics, business leaders, and others to discuss security concerns. Neck ties are frowned upon, and some attendees – though not military leaders – wear jeans and sport coats. The retreat center is on a bluff above the Roaring Fork River. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said three bears had congregated outside his lodge one night.

In 2014, leaders met at the summit just weeks after Islamic State shocked U.S. and Iraqi officials by invading and capturing Mosul, a major city in northern Iraq. Many were unsure how long Islamic State militants would be able to gain or hold footholds in Iraq and Syria.

But this week, U.S. officials offered no timeline for defeating the group or even a concise strategy for its ouster. Islamic State militants still hold Mosul and they have expanded their grip into other parts of the country, notably the Anbar province and the key city of Ramadi. They have also gained footholds in Africa, sending operatives to Libya and forming a loose alliance with Boko Haram militants in Nigeria.

The U.S. this week secured agreements with Turkey to step up the tempo of a military-led effort. But illustrating the depth of U.S. concern, Mr. Comey said the FBI also has active investigations into terrorist groups in all 50 U.S. states. Mr. Johnson said he is meeting around the country with Muslim groups to try to address what he described as “violent extremism” among many young men.

Despite months of efforts to disrupt Islamic State’s revenue supply, Daniel Glaser, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for terrorist financing, said, “They have a lot of money.”

Gen. Allen said U.S. officials are re-evaluating their approach for counting Islamic State’s message on social media, suggesting that efforts by the State Department and other agencies so far have borne little fruit. He suggested a more effective communications strategy might require “an Arab face and a Muslim voice.”

Gen. Joseph Votel, Commander of U.S. Special Operations Command, said that many military successes against Islamic State in the Middle East had only served to push the militants to regroup somewhere else. Victories can appear short-lived, he said.

“What we’ve seen is, you apply pressure and then the bulge comes out somewhere else,” he said.

Despite the rhetorical hand-wringing, there were some bright spots. A number of U.S. officials said that efforts to combat al Qaeda had proven extremely successful and they said the group’s reach had been greatly diminished.

Nick Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said many of the terror groups U.S. officials are currently tracking lack the “scale” that al Qaeda used to embrace, and he said the likelihood of a large terrorist event like the 2001 attacks had been greatly reduced.

“Scale matters in my mind and none of the terrorist actors that we are confronting…at present have at their ready disposal right now the ability to carry out attacks of that size and scale,” he said.

The gathering didn’t focus exclusively on terrorist attacks. National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers said for the first time that in the past nine months, his surveillance had detected “huge spearphishing campaigns,” a reference to a type of cyberattack that tries to trick unwitting email recipients to download malware. He also said he had recently issued a high-level directive toward one of his teams to mobilize to protect a computer network against an attack, though he wouldn’t provide more details.

While the officials also discussed concerns involving China, North Korea, Iran, Russia and drug cartels, the discussion rarely strayed far from Islamic State.

In a steady drizzle Friday night, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper addressed the summit in a large outdoor tent. He said efforts against the terror network were ongoing, but he made an ominous prediction about terror attacks on U.S. soil carried out or inspired by the group.

“I personally think it’s a question of time before we have more of these than we’ve had already,” he said. “It’s a very daunting challenge for us.”

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