Combating ISIS and Defeating Radical Islamic Extremism

For over two decades, I have had the honor of serving in defense of our country both at home and abroad, working to counter the broad range of threats we face. It is clear that ISIS is a dangerous enemy of the United States. We must be both smart and strategic in our approach to defeating ISIS, while pushing back against the avenues to radicalization that have allowed ISIS to grow.

While we have seen some key victories against ISIS — including the successful targeting of key leaders, the advances in Manbij in Syria, and the retaking of Fallujah in Iraq — we still have work to do. The continued instability caused by the Syrian civil war, the devolution of security in Iraq, and the continued instability in Libya have led to a regional power vacuum that has allowed ISIS to take hold and impose their own twisted version of Islam and Sharia law on the people whose towns they occupy.

Effectively combating ISIS requires a partnership between the Congress and the President to authorize and fund an unrelenting focus on finding and eliminating the radical elements that continue to incite, plan, and conduct violent activities against U.S. citizens. Our Congress has the responsibility of ensuring that our military has the authorities, resources, and partnerships needed to effectively tackle this multi-national threat. At the same time, it is critical for Congress to establish clear, bounded objectives to minimize the risk of drawing the U.S. into a prolonged, expansive military engagement in the myriad of conflicts across the region.

It is important for the United States to have a strong, sensible policy that first and foremost prevents an attack on our homeland. To do so, we must focus on directly combating the threats posed by ISIS to the U.S. and our allies through 5 key lines of effort to provide the authorities, resources, and oversight needed to effectively dismantle ISIS, while preventing mission creep and the risk of a broader, more prolonged military engagement in the Middle East. It will not be quick, and it will not be easy. But with the right leadership in Congress, we can defeat ISIS.

Key Priorities

Protect the Homeland: Reinvigorate our Joint Terrorism Task Force to effectively integrate information on threats and interrupt planned attacks on the homeland.

A New AUMF for our Current Enemy: Pass a new Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to provide clear legal authority to the executive branch to hunt down and capture or kill ISIS leadership wherever they are hiding, while ensuring focused and rigorous Congressional oversight to prevent mission creep or executive overreach.

Intelligence Sharing and Joint Operational Planning to Create a True Coalition: Enhance support for intelligence sharing and joint planning, including efforts with key regional partners in the fight against ISIS.

Cutting Off ISIS Sources of Money: Expand operations and financial activities aimed at undermining ISIS sources of power — specifically their oil, arms, and financial backers.

Confront ISIS in their Cyber War: Expand and enhance existing authorities and funding that allow the U.S. to engage in offensive and defensive cyber operations to undermine and eliminate ISIS efforts to radicalize and recruit online.

Key Lines of Effort to Combat ISIS

Our priority should be the security of the United States and all Americans, which means focusing our military efforts on identifying, hunting down, and killing or capturing ISIS leadership wherever they are hiding. But to effectively combat ISIS, we must be smart and strategic. That means authorizing direct and indirect operations to kill or capture key ISIS leaders, as well as targeted strikes to effectively dismantle ISIS leadership and power in the region. Our rules of engagement have to provide us the capacity to take on ISIS, while ensuring that we minimize civilian casualties and avoid the mission creep that further entangles the United States. It is critical the United States limit engagement in civil wars, including Syria, and stay out of the greater Sunni-Shia conflict that rages across the Middle East.

Protect the Homeland

Our first priority must be reducing and eliminating the capacity of ISIS to plan and execute attacks on our soil. Our main defense against a domestic attack depends on information collected by local police departments, often in conjunction with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. But most police departments lack the resources to conduct often expensive, time-intensive investigations. We must ensure that the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice have the resources and information sharing authorities needed to train and support local law enforcement in a whole of government approach to collecting information and identifying threats. We must also work to protect and engage with Muslim communities in the United States. Our police forces, from local police departments to the FBI, TSA, and Border Patrol should be encouraged to protect and engage with Muslim communities to ensure a robust partnership between community leaders and law enforcement that can ensure any information is brought to light quickly, safely, and effectively. With such information, we can better identify suspected terrorists, and better stop individuals from traveling to Iraq, Syria and other conflict zones to receive advanced indoctrination and training. And should would-be attackers make it to such places, we can better stop them from returning. This combination of resources, training, and intelligence sharing will ensure we continue to have an intelligence, law enforcement and border-control apparatus that can protect us from attacks at home.

It is in this context that anti-Muslim rhetoric is so dangerous: it weakens our ability to protect the homeland. Catching terrorists and interrupting plots requires cooperation from individuals with information on the terrorists. Those individuals are typically also Muslims. In 2009, Muslims assisted law enforcement in stopping 50 percent of the al-Qaeda plots thwarted in the United States. However, anti-Muslim rhetoric makes those efforts more difficult.[1] Threatening violence and treating all Muslims as if they are terrorists reduces the incentive to cooperate both at home and abroad,[2] which damages our ability to collect the intelligence and information needed to keep all Americans safe.

A New AUMF for our Current Enemy

Our best protection of the homeland requires a more aggressive offense. We must deny ISIS the sanctuary it enjoys to recruit and train, principally in Iraq and Syria. This requires Congress provide the executive branch with new authorities, which are appropriately scoped to our new enemy. The current authorities, under the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), were passed in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11. This authority was critical in finding and destroying key al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden — but it is 15 years old and not tailored to our current fight. Due to Congressional inaction, we are literally fighting the last war. It is time for Congress to act forcefully and outline exactly who the military may target, the way in which the military may engage with the targets, and how Congress will exert appropriate oversight over these activities, while maintaining the integrity and security of current operations. Our efforts to combat ISIS should focus on eliminating ISIS leadership, wherever they may be hiding. The authority should include sufficient flexibility to address the transnational nature of ISIS, its loosely connected set of affiliates, and the entities providing aid and supplies to these groups. The AUMF should outline the criteria with which the next administration and Congress will judge success, and the content and timeline on which Congress must be notified or briefed on targeting priorities and operational activities.

Intelligence Sharing and Joint Operational Planning to Create a True Coalition

A key element to victory over ISIS is increased engagement by the full range of nations threatened by ISIS, from our partners in the Middle East to our European allies. This must mean more than token levels of support. Currently, a coalition of sixty-six partners has agreed to join together to fight the rise of ISIS.[3] Allies that we rely on need to be doing more to help push back against the movement of ISIS.[4] Our European allies continue to provide little in terms of military support or direct intelligence collection,[5] which has weakened European security and contributed to multiple attacks throughout Europe by ISIS. In the Middle East, we can collect better intelligence and execute lower risk and higher return joint operations by putting pressure on our key partners such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar. We saw this directly in our fight against al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan.[6] We must also expand our intelligence sharing agreements with our allies and partners in this fight. The failure to share intelligence can have devastating consequences.[7] For example, it should not have taken a terror attack for the U.S. to take greater steps to share intelligence regarding radical groups.[8] As radicalization spreads, we have to find new ways to ensure that intelligence is effectively disseminated while still protecting our nation’s secrets. The U.S. should enter into strong intelligence sharing agreements with our key partners and allies to ensure we have a common operating picture, and can appropriately target key leaders, disrupt training, and prevent future attacks.

Cutting Off ISIS Sources of Money

Like any operation, ISIS needs funding to survive. In addition to military efforts, we must cut off their resources — namely their oil, supply of arms, and the cash that keeps ISIS afloat. By cutting off the black market oil trade that allows for large-scale exports from ISIS territory, we can cut off a large source of the group’s financing.[9] This requires expanding airstrikes, interdiction efforts and a host of other ongoing operations that interrupt illicit oil revenue.[10] We also have to work with our partners and allies, including border nations like Turkey, to halt the flow of weapons in and out of ISIS-held land by cutting off supply routes over land or sea that provide them with the powerful weaponry used to secure territory.[11] And finally, the financial backers of ISIS must be held accountable.[12] Countries like the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have successfully worked to curb some financing of terrorism,[13] but there is still work to be done to halt the open and active funneling of money to ISIS.[14]

Confront ISIS in their Cyber War

Like most organizations today, ISIS depends on the internet to spread its message, attract current and potential supporters, direct militants, and carry out basic, day-to-day functions. But we have only recently started to direct our cyber tools at ISIS.[15] This effort is promising but off to a slow start — and requires additional authorities, support, and resources to be effective.[16] For example, we must ensure our intelligence sharing agreements are modernized to include sharing information on websites used to recruit new members to ISIS. By sharing intelligence effectively at home and abroad, we can work to stop attacks by radical groups, and fight radical websites that disseminate hatred and expand the reach of groups like ISIS.[17] We must also apply our nation’s cyber capabilities to shut down extremist forums and recruiting methods that tempt young Muslims into radicalizing and serve as communications focal points for terrorist networks planning attacks, and to prevent ISIS from communicating and conducting basic business operations.[18] In doing so, we can also work to trace the locations of terrorists and defeat them before they strike.[19]

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-anti-muslim-rhetoric-of-trump-and-cruz-only-helps-terrorists/2016/03/24/9440114c-f1ea-11e5-89c3-a647fcce95e0_story.html?utm_term=.bd2b254d4c4e

[2] http://warontherocks.com/2016/03/open-letter-on-donald-trump-from-gop-national-security-leaders/

[3] “The Global Coalition to Counter ISIL.” US Department of State.

[4] “Sunni States’ Contribution To Anti-ISIS Coalition Lags, Pentagon Says.” NPR, 04/07/16.

[5] http://www.ibtimes.com/amid-fight-against-isis-nato-european-military-spending-questioned-pentagon-following-2220760

[6]https://www.cnas.org/files/documents/publications/AfghanIntel_Flynn_Jan2010_code507_voices.pdf

[7] “San Bernardino shooting: Couple radicalized before they met, FBI says.” Michael Martinez, Catherine E. Shoichet, and Pamela Brown, CNN, 12/09/15.

[8] “U.S., France to Strengthen Intelligence Sharing.” Cheryl Pellerin, Department of Defense News, 11/16/15.

[9] “How the Islamic State makes its money.” Ana Swanson, The Washington Post, 11/18/15.

[10] “How the Islamic State makes its money.” Ana Swanson, The Washington Post, 11/18/15.

[11] “How ISIS Acquires Weapons: Islamic State Benefits From Region Overflowing With American, Russian Made Arms.” Michael Kaplan, International Business Times, 11/17/15.

[12] “How the Islamic State makes its money.” Ana Swanson, The Washington Post, 11/18/15.

[13] “Cutting off ISIS’ Cash Flow.” Charles Lister, The Brookings Institute, 10/24/14.

[14] “How the Islamic State makes its money.” Ana Swanson, The Washington Post, 11/18/15.

[15] http://www.nytimes.com/2016/04/25/us/politics/us-directs-cyberweapons-at-isis-for-first-time.html

[16] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/us-militarys-digital-war-against-the-islamic-state-is-off-to-a-slow-start/2016/07/15/76a3fe82-3da3-11e6-a66f-aa6c1883b6b1_story.html

[17] “Radicalisation in the digital era.” Ines von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, RAND Europe, 2013.

[18] “Radicalisation in the digital era.” Ines von Behr, Anaïs Reding, Charlie Edwards, and Luke Gribbon, RAND Europe, 2013.

[19] “NSA surveillance: A guide to staying secure.” Bruce Schneier, The Guardian, 09/06/13.

John Plumb is a member of the United States Navy Reserve. Use of military rank, job titles, and photographs in uniform does not imply endorsement by the Department of the Navy or the Department of Defense. Paid for by Friends of John Plumb.

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