It is very unlikely, given the number and coincidence of the incidents and clues over the last few weeks, that the events we are seeing are unrelated. But recognizing that the war this time is already underway is one of our biggest problems today.
A total of seven Afghan trainees have gone missing from programs at U.S. military bases in September 2016. Three of them disappeared at the same time, the weekend of the bombing (and bombing attempts) by Ahmad Rahami in New Jersey and New York, and the mass attack by Islamic terrorist Dahir Adan in Minnesota. Those attacks were all mounted on Saturday, 17 September.
According to Bill Gertz at Washington Free Beacon, a military source had this to say about the three Afghans who went missing the weekend of the attacks:
Two of the missing Afghans had been training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, and one was training at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
An Army source said the Afghans who left the weekend of the New York area bombings appeared to be part of a coordinated effort. The three men are being probed for possible connections to Rahami. “Initial assessment is that there is no relation and the timing is coincidental,” the source said.
This latter point is a narrow and misleading view. The Afghans going AWOL may have no specific connection to Ahmad Rahami. But concluding that the Afghans and Rahami are not loosely part of a larger, centrally motivated jihadi effort would be an intellectual absurdity. It’s much more likely that they are than it is that they are not.
Four other Afghans have gone missing this month. (Which incidentally speaks poorly of America’s vetting prowess in general. If we can’t vette uniformed Afghans for participation in military programs any better than this, how are the American people supposed to believe we can really vette random “refugees,” regardless of how long we spend trying to do it?)
The other four disappeared around Labor Day.
Four other Afghan military trainees fled over the Labor Day weekend, two from Fort Benning, Georgia, one from Fort Lee, Virginia, and one from an Army facility in Little Rock, Arkansas.
A defense official said two of the Afghans were accounted for and suggested the two men may have fled the United States.
If we know where those two are, and don’t have them under positive control, I certainly hope they’ve fled the country.
It’s possible that none of these seven Afghans poses a security threat to the U.S. But given all the other factors in play, it would be actively stupid to pooh-pooh the likelihood that they do constitute a threat.
Strategic shift by ISIS
Since May 2016, ISIS has been calling for “lone wolf” attacks on the West, couched as attacks against the “Crusaders” in their homelands. ISIS referred to this call in its celebration (in the magazine Dabiq) of the Orlando nightclub terror attack on 12 June. The vehicular massacre in Nice, France on 14 July was a similar attack.
At the end of July, in the issue of Dabiq in which both attacks were commemorated, ISIS laid out in some detail its ideological case for making war on Christians. The groundwork was laid not merely for opposing Christianity, but for warring against Christendom, the still-living progenitor of the modern West.
The Clarion Project noted at the time a “change in tone” in Dabiq. Its overall theme shifted to a very combative stance against Christian beliefs specifically, with the focus on justifying war against the Christian nations and peoples.
The timing of this development in ISIS thinking is informative, considering the beating ISIS has been taking over the past 3-4 months in northern Iraq and its stronghold of eastern Syria. ISIS has also lost some key territory in Libya during the same period.
Libya was ISIS’s main safety valve, once the pushback along the Euphrates Corridor from Fallujah to Raqqa began in earnest. Afghanistan and Pakistan – territorially part of the “Khorasan” province concept – served in that role as well. But Libya is where some of the top leadership fled in late 2015 (after the Russians arrived in Syria), reportedly including Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
The nature of ISIS’s strategic style
The grand strategy of ISIS has been highly dynamic and adaptable, basically responding to territorial setbacks at each new level with an expanding circle of instability. ISIS avoids concentration and annihilation by yielding territory under attack, and exporting instability elsewhere, wherever it can find opportunity. Under pressure, the guerrilla-terror group seeks to flank its enemy – which is everyone else – by enlarging the enemy’s terror problem beyond the local theater of battle, instead of putting everything into the head-on fight.
The ISIS measure of success in this current phase of its strategy is not how much territory it holds at the moment, but over how much territory it is managing to sow chaos, terror, and instability.
So when ISIS came under unprecedented pressure from the campaign in Iraq (here and here as well) orchestrated by Qassem Soleimani in 2015, it expanded its terror operations significantly to Libya and South Asia.
Now ISIS is coming under unprecedented pressure from the Russia-Iran coalition in both Iraq and Syria. What we appear to be seeing, in response, is the early stage of ISIS’s effort to flank the Syria-Iraq battle space, and the main outside actors in it, by expanding the geographic scope of terror and chaos in the West.
It is fair to predict that this effort will include the East as well, although there has been less visible activity there so far, and Christianity will not be the same “hook” there for sowing conflict. (It will certainly be in play in places like the Philippines and Australia. But the island geography and different political arrangements there militate against the kinds of opportunities ISIS can take advantage of in Europe.)
Impact of the game-change in Syria
The timing, again, is worth noting. ISIS would have recognized that the entry of Turkey as an armed participant in the Syrian civil war – on 24 August – was a game-changer. It had to mean that Russia and Iran would respond by organizing and acting more urgently. Which is exactly what they have done. Iran sent Soleimani to Aleppo in early September, and reportedly has him concentrating on Mosul now. Russia, Iran, and Assad launched a genuinely concerted, all-out effort to retake Syria, starting about 15 September (although the West didn’t register the assault until it expanded to Aleppo this past weekend).
If the activities of U.S.-assisted forces were the deciding factor, meanwhile, a battle for Mosul might not even happen before next spring. But U.S. arrangements aren’t the driver, at this point. Russia and Iran will make this call, and their eyes will be more on Turkey than on ISIS. If the fight in Syria goes well, the battle for Mosul could begin in a matter of weeks.
So now overlay on the timeline of these developments – which mean everything to ISIS’s geographic center of gravity – the emerging shock of incessant lone-wolf attacks, and other clues and precursors, in the West.
A little over a week after Turkey’s incursion into Syria, four Afghans go missing from U.S. training programs. Two weeks later, the same weekend as the simultaneous terrorist attacks in the U.S., three more go missing.
Attacks continue in Europe, like the violent, gate-crashing incendiary attack on a forensic lab in Belgium; “lone-wolf” stabbings in August in Germany, France, Belgium, Switzerland, and the UK; and a bombing in Budapest on 24 September.
Ominously, moreover, European police and intelligence agencies are warning the public this week that ISIS is actively planning more attacks, including “a wave of car bomb attacks.”
On Monday, Spanish authorities detained two Moroccans suspected of plotting an ISIS-linked attack in Europe. And Morocco detained four terror plotters last week who were reportedly targeting Tangiers, a major maritime connection node with Europe.
As distinct from the multi-operative, cell-based plots, the “lone-wolf” plots will by definition be less detectable. But both types are equally likely to be on the increase. ISIS will have more and more reason in the next few months to expand these operations, with a greater urgency than we have seen to date.
That may well mean trying to bring off bigger, more lethal attacks as well as encouraging more small ones. ISIS has no compunction, so if bigger attacks can be achieved, they will probably be horrific. Europeans are being warned that chemical agents may be used. And there is no reason why such resources won’t be available in North America as well.
The West is a path of least resistance for sowing chaos
Keep in mind: ISIS’s acquisitive, geopolitical orientation to territory is about its vision for a historically-tethered, apocalypse-ready caliphate. Beyond that, the ISIS vision is vague. There are parts of Europe that ISIS speaks of literally conquering (Spain, the former Ottoman holdings of Southeastern Europe). But don’t mistake ISIS’s interest in territory for some purposes as a rubric of geographic calculation for all purposes.
ISIS has no interest in flanking Russia or Iran, for example, by going after their territory. That is too linear a construct. Westerners will ask why ISIS wouldn’t do that, especially since its roots in Chechen and Dagestani terrorism against Russia are so strong. But that question misreads what expanding the overall chaos is about.
ISIS’s expansion to Libya wasn’t about bringing the fight to Libya, per se. It was about finding weak territory to exploit, and diffusing the enemy’s concentration by enlarging the overall chaos. The mere act of enlarging the chaos creates new options for ISIS.
The same dynamic is at work now. No one in ISIS’s position would attack Russia or Iran today as a means of diffusing the concentration of the outside force they bring to ISIS territory. Such an attack would focus their efforts.
But enlarging the overall chaos would open new opportunities for ISIS, at a time when ISIS needs that, in particular, as a dynamic option. It would also change the conditions of Russia’s and Iran’s strategic context.
That’s the role Libya has played, and that’s the role ISIS would like to use Europe for, and probably North America (in a hazy and grand long-term vision), if that can be achieved. Vis-à-vis ISIS, Europe and North America are weaker, less defended, less alerted, less girded for battle than Russia and Iran.
Surviving, as ISIS, might well be best achieved by hopping around North Africa, preying on poorly defended populations there, and using the territory to hold Europe at risk. Such a profile would, of course, mimic that of the Barbary raiders of centuries past. ISIS would envision using it only for as long as necessary – and continuing to press campaigns in South Asia and the core territory of ancient Islam (Arabia and the Levant) at the same time.
One additional point. I don’t see signs of this yet, and they may never emerge. But the smartest thing ISIS could probably do at this point is promote a confrontation between the NATO West and Russia, in Eastern Europe and/or the Mediterranean.
Get your mind around the point that ISIS’s vision is apocalyptic, and the purpose of such efforts is to de-stabilize the non-Islamic world, and you can begin to understand why it would be meaningful to ISIS to do this. ISIS isn’t thinking in terms of campaign progressions with linear, pre-defined end-states. Rather, ISIS envisions the generation of new, as-yet-undefined opportunities.
Think “unleash” rather than “conquer, hold, settle.” ISIS turns the counterpoint of these methods of war on its head. “Unleash” is the end-state; conquer-hold-settle is the interim method, to be spread as far as it can be until the pushback becomes too strong. Then “unleash” has to be spread further. The apocalypse itself will be the ultimate tiebreaker and vindicator.
ISIS doesn’t have to foresee exactly what might come of provoking a Russia-NATO conflict. The terror-caliphs only have to foresee that there would be chaos and political upheaval to take advantage of.
Don’t be too sure they lack the power to achieve such an effect. The entire battle for Syria and Iraq has been shaped by the emergence there of ISIS – in a way Iran and Russia could not orchestrate on their own. None of us is doing today what we would be doing if ISIS didn’t exist.
It doesn’t have to be that way. But the failure to use American power guaranteed that it would be, between 2012 and today. It can do so again.