May 24, 2017
The Manchester bombing is a wake up call for America and Europe
The horrific attack in Manchester which has now been claimed by ISIS is just the tip of the iceberg. Speculations that it was a lone-wolf attack are wishful at best and harmful in the long run. They feed a narrative that attacks like these in Europe and the United Stated are disconnected from the groups that enable and direct them abroad. More often than not, those so-called “lone wolves” rely on a pack of supporters and an operational network. ISIS’s networks in Europe already run deep.
The cookie-cutter approach to counterterrorism that we have taken — of killing those who threaten us and denying groups control of terrain — is not working. In fact, it is failing. The Manchester bombing is yet another wake up call for the United States and Europe.
ISIS has set conditions for a wave of attacks against European and maybe even American targets during the upcoming Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Last year, ISIS organized a surge of attacks in the Muslim world. This year, ISIS shifted to directed attacks against the West. The steady stream of leaked intelligence indicating that ISIS pursues the ability to bring down a commercial airliner earlier this spring combined with regular roll-ups of ISIS-linked cells in Europe point to a centrally planned and offensive campaign of terrorist attacks in the West.
ISIS seeks to polarize the population, not just terrorize it. It utilizes terror to drive support to far-right parties that push anti-immigrant and even anti-Muslim policies. The rise of these parties (not fully attributable to ISIS) fuels further radicalization that strengthens ISIS globally. European countries in particular, but also the United States, must not let fear influence policies.
Taking back terrain is no longer sufficient to defeat ISIS. Yet the United States and its partners continue to focus nearly all of their energy and offensive assets on destroying the physical symbols of ISIS’s so-called caliphate. Seizing Mosul, Raqqa, or any other single piece of terrain might be tactical victories, but believing those victories add up to something greater sets the United States up for a strategic loss.
Worse, the manner by which the United States aims to seize these cities will cost much more than the dividend of weakening ISIS. The United States has entered into a de facto coalition with Russia, Iran, the Assad regime, and the Kurds against Iraqi and Syrian Sunni Arabs in pursuit of these limited terrain gains. The effect has been to subordinate multiple other American national security interests in the Middle East, such as the containment of Iranian influence, to recapture terrain from ISIS.
ISIS galvanized global support that is independent from its control of terrain. Its inability to replicate success outside of Iraq and Syria in Libya, the Sinai, Afghanistan, and elsewhere shows true limitations to ISIS’s strategy to expand organizationally as a global caliphate. But the unprecedented number of individuals responding to ISIS’s call, especially for fight-in-place attackers as “soldiers of the caliphate,” confirms the extent of its reach. And ISIS is exploiting opportunities afield as they arise, offering remote operators to provide directives to what we in the West label lone wolves.
ISIS is cultivating a virtual community of supporters that ensures ISIS’s message survives the collapse of the organization. The United States and anti-ISIS coalition members will defeat ISIS in Iraq and Syria and will weaken or defeat its recognized affiliates. But ISIS will not wither on the vine as long as the local and even global conditions that permitted its growth remain unchanged. Furthermore, a real danger is the seed, planted by ISIS in the cyber sphere, that has weaponized the internet against the West. The rise of ISIS’s “virtual caliphate” has begun.
The Manchester bombing will prompt renewed calls to destroy the threat from ISIS. But responding blindly to such calls comes at a greater expense. Al Qaeda is the larger threat that is emerging much more quietly in the shadow of ISIS. It benefits from the West’s singular focus on ISIS by strengthening locally and being able to cast itself in the role of the moderate. Al Qaeda is building popular support and literally transforming the local Muslim populations in which it operates so that ripping al Qaeda out from the population will be much more challenging than going after ISIS. Simply shifting the focus of current counterterrorism operations is not the answer.
Al Qaeda, ISIS, and the global Salafi-jihadi movement — all of which share the same base ideology — strengthen through their ability to generate popular support. Conditions in the Middle East and throughout the Muslim world are facilitating that support and thereby strengthening al Qaeda, ISIS, and the movement. Counterterrorism actions disrupt active threats, but will not defeat the movement. It is time to find a new way to fight this war.