Counterterrorism and Jihadist Capabilities

March 30, 2016 Islamic State’s capabilities warrant much more scrutiny than its ideology.

|March 30, 2016

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By Kamran Bokhari

Summary The media and online sources are increasingly filled with details on how the Islamic State and other jihadist groups are able to continue to operate with near impunity. Despite this growing wealth of information, the public debate suffers from a poverty of thought on the capabilities of IS – in part because of the disproportionate amount of focus on its intent and ideology. IS and other such groups should be treated like intelligence agencies who have to avoid detection. And since IS has established a state, it has more resources than similar groups like, al-Qaida.

Ever since the 9/11 attacks, a great amount of energy has been expended trying to prevent jihadists from carrying out attacks, especially in the West. There has of course been considerable progress in ensuring that attacks on the scale of 9/11 do not occur again. Those were much harder to pull off to begin with, and in the post-9/11 international security climate, their probability has gone down even further. But just as those engaged in counterterrorism have made progress in the past 14 years, those in the business of terrorism have also experienced a significant learning curve.

Jihadist organizations have opted for less ambitious attacks at a greater volume and frequency, instead of a few large-scale attacks. They also benefit from the fact that they have far more targets to choose from than they could actually attack, while security forces cannot possibly protect more than a handful of targets. Our recent article, The Cycle of Terrorism, elaborated on how security forces go on high alert after a terrorist attack, while terrorists go to ground and wait, and eventually states naturally lower their guard, presenting opportunities for terrorists to seize and start the cycle all over again. To break this cycle, intelligence agencies must infiltrate groups such as IS because detecting attack plans from outside is extremely difficult.

Western intelligence agencies are great at collection, because collection is largely a function of technology, which the United States and its allies excel at developing. But intelligence collection is just part of the struggle. The greater challenge is analysis, which explains why they continue to fail to detect attacks in the making even though they come across many signs. In her March 29 article, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times goes into extensive detail on how IS operatives were plotting and planning under the noses of European authorities.

Callimachi also talks about the specific organ within IS that is responsible for planning transcontinental attacks within the wider organization. There is very little public discussion on what Callimachi calls the “machinery” producing terror attacks. Most publications make use of vague terms like top leaders, masterminds, local cells and networks to try and explain the inner workings of terrorist groups, though there have been attempts to provide more nuanced and rigorous explanations.

As is the case with any public or private organization, terrorist entities also have a middle management layer. It is this mid-level management that is tasked with operationalizing the strategic guidance from the apex leadership of the terrorist entity by recruiting, handling and deploying operatives who carry out the actual transcontinental attacks. This organizational layer is critical for groups like IS and al-Qaida who seek a long-term capability to stage attacks in the West.

These middle managers ensure continuity of operations, as the operatives die in suicide missions and the apex leaders are killed by opposition forces. This middle management is also responsible for putting together multiple simultaneous attacks. Since IS has a global presence, this middle management is likely a large layer with its own division of labor and redundancies. The job description of this middle management is unique, and unlike operatives, they are hard to replace.

Therefore, it is only reasonable to assume that IS likely invests a great deal in the security of this cadre to ensure that they remain invisible to intelligence agencies. Information on them is a tightly guarded secret so that if operatives are captured, they can only speak of one person or at most two people supervising their activities. The use of Arab pseudonyms further helps conceal their true identities. In essence, terrorist organizations are very much like intelligence agencies – in a business that necessitates staying below the radar.

In the case of IS, it is not the usual paramilitary group engaged in acts of terrorism. It is staging attacks in numerous countries from East Asia to the West and at the same time controlling territory in the heart of the Middle East. It is a terrorist organization as well as a state. Most observers have yet to recognize that IS has a multi-divisional conventional military capability, which is why it is able to control and administer large swathes of land in eastern Syria and western Iraq. Likewise, for IS to be able to simultaneously execute terror attacks across the world while being hunted by a global dragnet means it has a very sophisticated intelligence apparatus.

That said, the Islamic State is a group of mortals that make mistakes and thus increase the chance of being intercepted. The problem is not that the Islamic State is highly sophisticated. Rather, it is that security and intelligence agencies tasked with destroying the transnational jihadist entity have yet to fully appreciate the complexity of the threat that they are dealing with. A great deal of international energy is being invested in countering violent extremism, which is necessary.

However, there is a disproportionate emphasis on the ideology of IS and other jihadist actors and very little focus on the physical capabilities of the group. Ideology is necessary but not sufficient to produce terrorist attacks. In the end, the extent to which operatives possess terrorist tradecraft is what allows jihadists to pull off horrific attacks.