Five Top ISIS Officials Captured in U.S.-Iraqi Sting

Iraqi state television broadcast images of four of the men arrested in the operation.

New York Times, by Margaret Corker, May 9, 2018:

BAGHDAD — Five senior Islamic State officials have been captured, including a top aide to the group’s leader, in a complex cross-border sting carried out by Iraqi and American intelligence, two Iraqi officials said Wednesday.

The three-month operation, which tracked a group of senior Islamic State leaders who had been hiding in Syria and Turkey, represents a significant intelligence victory for the American-led coalition fighting the extremist group and underscores the strengthening relationship between Washington and Baghdad.

Two Iraqi intelligence officials said those captured included four Iraqis and one Syrian whose responsibilities included governing the Islamic State’s territory around Deir al-Zour, Syria, directing internal security and running the administrative body that oversees religious rulings.

Iraq’s external intelligence agency published a statement confirming the arrests, but did not mention any details of the role played by the Americans or the Turks. The two Iraqi intelligence officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss details that had not been made public.

Turkey did not immediately comment on the operation. The White House and the C.I.A. declined to comment.

The developments quickly took over many Iraqi news broadcasts on Wednesday night, with news anchors praising Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi for what the intelligence service called a “major victory.” The news came at an opportune time for Mr. Abadi, who faces a tight parliamentary race on Saturday.

The two Iraqi officials said that they had been tracking several of their targets for months, but the breakthrough came at the start of the year.

An Iraqi intelligence unit responsible for undercover missions had tracked an Iraqi man, Ismail Alwaan al-Ithawi, known by the nom de guerre Abu Zeid al-Iraqi, from Syria to the Turkish city of Sakarya, about 100 miles east of Istanbul, these officials said.

Mr. Ithawi, described by the Iraqis as a top aide to the Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi, had been in charge of fatwas, or religious rulings, in the Islamic State’s so-called caliphate. He was also in charge of the education curriculum, and was a member of the body that appointed security and administrative leaders for the Islamic State’s territory, which had included large parts of Iraq and Syria.

He had been living in Turkey with his Syrian wife under his brother’s identity, one of these officials said.

The Iraqis sent the Turks an intelligence file they had amassed on Mr. Ithawi, and the Turkish security forces arrested him on Feb. 15, and extradited him to Iraq, this official said.

Iraqi and American intelligence officials then spent weeks interrogating him, learning the details and whereabouts of other ISIS leaders in hiding, the officials said.

The American-led coalition used this information to launch an airstrike in mid-April that killed 39 suspected Islamic State members near Hajin, in the Deir al-Zour district of Syria, the second official said.

The joint Iraqi-American intelligence team then set a trap, according to these officials. They persuaded Mr. Ithawi to contact several of his Islamic State colleagues who had been hiding in Syria and lure them across the border, the officials said.

The Iraqi authorities were waiting, and arrested the group soon after they crossed the frontier, the officials said.

Those arrested included Saddam al-Jammel, a Syrian who had been the head of the Islamic State territory around Deir al-Zour, and Abu Abdel al-Haq, an Iraqi who had been the head of internal security for the group. Two other Iraqis were also arrested, the officials said.

Iraq’s state television broadcast images of four of the detainees. Wearing yellow prisoner jumpsuits, the men, some with long beards and some clean-shaven, explained in short statements their responsibilities in the Islamic State. Each appeared to be in good health.

It was unclear where they were being held or whether they had been given access to a lawyer.

Turkey made no public comment on the arrests, but frequently announces arrests of Islamic State suspects in Turkish cities. Last week, Turkish news media reported the capture of three people in Sakarya who were accused of being members of the Islamic State. The reports said one of the three was the group’s leader in Deir al-Zour.

It is not known if those arrests were related to the arrest of Mr. Ithawi.

Relations have been strained between Turkey and the United States recently, in particular over American support for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

But counterterrorism cooperation between the two countries remains close. Turkey, which was criticized for allowing jihadists from all over the world open access to Syria in the early years of the Syrian war, has closed its border and rounded up hundreds of suspected Islamic State members in Turkey over the past two years.

Falih Hassan contributed reporting from Baghdad, Carlotta Gall from Istanbul, and Eric Schmitt from Washington.

John Bolton’s Appointment Rattles The Muslim Brotherhood Echo Chamber

The Trump administration ought not to concede one inch to those who wish to sideline the personnel and stifle the policies that would make its counterjihadist agenda a reality.

The Federalist, by Ben Weingarten, APRIL 5, 2018:

The attacks on former ambassador John Bolton following his appointment as National Security Advisor (NSA) have inadvertently served as some of his strongest endorsements.

First there were the hysterical cries of “neocon warmonger!” This would come as news to the NSA-designate, who was never a “liberal mugged by reality” but a self-identified “Goldwater conservative” from the start; explicitly rejects the belief in democracy-building as imperative to achieving America’s national interest under democratic peace theory; and suggests, exaggerating for effect, that following the removal of Saddam Hussein, as soon as practicable he would have told the Iraqis, “You’re on your own. Here’s a copy of the Federalist papers. Good luck.”

Although the “neocon warmonger” moniker is inapt, to say the least, maybe it is not such a bad thing if our enemies buy this line. In fact, this may be part of President Trump’s strategic rationale as a dealmaker for elevating a “peace-through-strength” realist portrayed as a cantankerous cowboy to the top of the National Security Council.

Then followed another narrative: Bolton is not only a real-life Dr. Strangelove, but worse. He is actually an adroit bureaucrat—“crazy and dangerous.” Then-senator Joe Biden, a man prone to malapropism, actually put it best when, in Bolton’s retelling, Biden said of him in 2005: “My problem with you, over the years, has been, you’re too competent. I mean, I would rather you be stupid and not very effective.”

But the truly revelatory attacks concern Bolton’s positions on Islamic supremacism, which reflect an understanding that jihadists pose a mortal threat that must be countered using every element of national power. You know these attacks are meaningful partly because they have been made under cover of a smear campaign.

Opposing Jihadis Isn’t the Same as Opposing Islam

Bolton has been cast as an “Islamophobe” for the thought crime of being a counterjihadist who supports other counterjihadists. The charge of “Islamophobe” is a baseless, intellectually dishonest, and lazy slur. Although it does not deserve to be dignified with a response, it goes without saying that there is nothing to indicate Bolton harbors an irrational fear of Islam, and everything to indicate he holds the very rational belief that we must defeat Islamic supremacists who wish to subject us to their tyrannical rule or destroy us.

“Islamophobe” is being lobbed at Bolton to try and discredit him and ultimately scuttle policies he supports intended to strike at the heart of Islamic supremacism. The “tell” is that the articles raising such accusations frequently cast counterjihadist policy positions themselves as de facto evidence of Islamophobic bigotry.

As the representative par excellence of the position that America should exit the Iran deal, it should come as no surprise that the Iran deal echo chamber in exile has sprung into action in savaging the ambassador with the most outlandish of insinuations. For the Islamophobia campaign, the lesser-recognized and perhaps more insidious Muslim Brotherhood echo chamber has been activated. Bolton is on record as supporting its designation as a terrorist organization, and Brotherhood apologists and true believers cannot abide this.

Either We Work With Terrorists or We Don’t

Recall that the national security and foreign policy establishment has long held that as a “political Islamist” group, the Muslim Brotherhood ought to be treated as a legitimate diplomatic partner. The theory is that we have to choose between violent and seemingly peaceful Islamic supremacists, ignoring the fact that their differences are tactical and strategic, not ideological. They are all still Islamic supremacists.

Most infamously, the Obama administration supported the ascension of Mohamed Morsi, leader of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, to president during the Arab spring, with predictably horrific consequences in particular for the nation’s Christians that persist even in the era of the much-maligned counterjihadist Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

Such disastrously naïve policy pushes ignore that the Muslim Brotherhood is the tip of the Sunni jihadist spear. It’s the ideological fountainhead from which violent jihadist groups from Hamas to al-Qaeda and ISIS spring. The “political” element of the Muslim Brotherhood is, if anything, more pernicious precisely because its adherents do not goose-step, guns in hand, in the public square.

No, the political arm engages in political and ideological warfare, tactfully seeking to impose its will through policy and subterfuge. “Social welfare” activities provide a convenient cover for the group’s ultimate aims. As the Brotherhood put it in its 1991 Explanatory Memorandum on the General Strategic Goal for the Group in North America:

The Ikhwan [Muslim Brothers] must understand that their work in America is a kind of grand jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and sabotaging its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.

On account of the Brotherhood’s nature and activities, it has been designated as a terrorist organization from Egypt to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. A bill first introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz in 2015, calling for the U.S. secretary of state to submit a report to Congress on designating the Brotherhood as a foreign terrorist organization in America, lays out several other reasons the group merits this, including:

The [group’s] explicit calls for violent jihad, with the end goal of imposing Islamic law over all the world of the group’s founder and spiritual leader Hassan al-Banna, and the consistently violent Islamic supremacist content of the Brotherhood’s core membership texts

The terrorist efforts of numerous jihadist groups explicitly tied to the Muslim Brotherhood, and the efforts of individual Muslim Brotherhood members designated as terrorists by the U.S. government themselves

The litany of terrorist financing cases involving the Muslim Brotherhood, including the…Holy Land Foundation case [the largest terror financing case in U.S. history]…

Do What We Like or Get Smeared as a Bigot

On the campaign trail and in its early days the Trump administration indicated an interest in designating the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. But within months it shelved these plans. What happened? The Muslim Brotherhood echo chamber deployed.

The Brotherhood undertook an extensive lobbying and information operation designed to dissuade the administration’s plans, reportedly backed by millions of dollars. The U.S. foreign policy establishment quickly proliferated articles and comments in prominent mainstream publications defending the Muslim Brotherhood against charges of being a jihadist group, adding that designated it as such would be impractical and impracticable. Notably, The New York Times went so far as to print an op-ed in the Brotherhood’s defense written by Clinton Foundation-linked Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Gehad el-Haddad.

In the midst of this flurry of articles, it leaked to the media that the CIA and State Department both produced memos against Muslim Brotherhood terrorist designation. Concurrently, counterjihadists throughout the Trump administration were subjected to a barrage of attacks. Many would ultimately be sidelined, though some like Secretary of State-designate Mike Pompeo survived. He, like Bolton, is being attacked as an Islamophobic bigot as well.

Bolton recognized at the time that these events were not random. During a July 2017 interview he noted:

There’s been an amazing campaign. It’s always amazing to me how these stories and op-eds and lines of chatter appear simultaneously, all very well-coordinated…The argument being the Muslim Brotherhood is a complicated organization, not every part of it is devoted to the support of terrorism. Some of them do humanitarian work and so on; a declaration that the entire Brotherhood is a foreign terrorist organization would actually buttress the cause of the jihadis; so, therefore, don’t do anything.

Bolton’s riposte?

Let’s take the notion inherent in that argument as having some validity, that there are pieces of the Muslim Brotherhood that don’t qualify under the statutory definition we have of a foreign terrorist organization…My response to that is, ‘Okay, we need some careful drafting based on the evidence we have now that excludes some affiliates, some components of the Muslim Brotherhood from the designation.’ I’m prepared to live with that, of course, until we get more complete information.

This position is what really draws the ire of the Brotherhood echo chamber. CAIR, the unindicted co-conspirator in the previously mentioned largest terror financing case in U.S. history, published a press release condemning the appointment of “Islamophobe John Bolton” as NSA, citing corroborating articles from such non-biased sources as Think Progress, The Nation, Islamophobia.com, Vox, and Huffington Post.

As I have written previously, CAIR’s Muslim Brotherhood and jihadi ties are numerous and longstanding, involving not only its founders and present leaders to Hamas, but its harboring of apologists for Islamic terrorism, and alleged impeding of counterterrorism efforts.

Bolton’s endorsement of designating the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization illustrates a keen understanding of the size, scope, and nature of the Islamic supremacist threat that the national security and foreign policy establishment lacks. It is a proxy for a worldview that if followed to its logical conclusion would turn our largely futile efforts to beat back jihadists over the last 17 years on their head. This view takes Islamic supremacists at their word in their desire to impose upon us the Sharia-based, totalitarian theopolitical ideology to which they adhere. Hence the pushback.

Applying this worldview would lead to decisions antithetical to the progressive Wilsonian internationalists and political Islamists on myriad issues in the Middle East, including:

  • Treatment of Israel versus the Arabs
  • The Iran deal
  • Iran policy more broadly, including appropriate measures against its proxies in Syria and Lebanon
  • Qatar’s bellicosity
  • Turkey’s behavior under Islamic supremacist Erdogan

The Trump administration ought not to concede one inch to those who self-evidently wish to sideline the personnel and stifle the policies that would make its counterjihadist agenda a reality. This specious and slanderous smear campaign reflects all the better on the appointment of Bolton as NSA.

Ben Weingarten is a senior contributor at The Federalist and senior fellow at the London Center for Policy Research. He is the founder and CEO of ChangeUp Media, a media consulting and production company dedicated to advancing conservative principles. You can find his work at benweingarten.com, and follow him on Twitter @bhweingarten.

When will Congress finally debate our strategy in Middle East?

Whitney Hunter mourns the loss of her husband. Army Sgt. Jonathon Hunter was killed in Afghanistan during an attack on a NATO convoy. | Chris Bergin | AP Images

Conservative Review, by Daniel Horowitz, Sept. 14, 2017:

The only thing worse than not having a strategy in the Middle East is sending our troops into harm’s way indefinitely without a strategy or even an understanding of who we are fighting and who we are supporting. The lack of concrete guidance from Congress has allowed the war on terror to drift and self-immolate.

Over the past few decades, our foreign policy has operated much like our domestic policy — it has been an utter failure. Much like domestic government programs, our foreign policy is completely backward and harms our national interests, but we continue to perpetuate the same policies because of the incumbent powers and special interests in charge.

Moreover, we are called upon to further bail out and treat the endless symptoms of those policies, rather than reviewing the source of the problem. Much like federal intervention in housing, education, and health care, our nation-building in Baghdad and Kabul have become too big to fail, even though the region has changed completely since the original mission.

It is in this vein that Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., offered an amendment to the defense authorization bill (NDAA), in order to inject a much-needed debate over our involvement in the Middle East after 15-16 years of failure. Sen Paul’s amendment would sunset the twin authorizations of military force (AUMF) Congress originally granted the president for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The amendment was defeated 61-36.

Some conservatives might not want to carte blanche remove reauthorization without proposing a new one refocusing our military’s priorities. However, even those who opposed Rand’s tactic or are concerned that he might not be tough enough on the true threats of Iran and North Korea, must agree that the time has come to update the AUMF and finally force a national debate on what we are doing in the Middle East.

The world has changed immensely over the past 15 years — Iraq and Afghanistan in particular

Let’s put the original debate over our investment in those two theaters on the shelf for a moment. The authorization of military force in those two countries was clear: kicking out the Taliban in Afghanistan and removing Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Fifteen years later, we have a muddled mess in Afghanistan and a complete opposite dynamic in Iraq than the one that originally involved our military.

While the 2001 AUMF also tasked the president with destroying the terrorists behind 9/11, between regime changes, changes in terrorist organizations, and multiple civil wars between various groups (all enemies to the U.S. but not all posing equal strategic threats) the entire geo-political structure has changed so much. The time has come to properly articulate on paper what and who we are fighting or supporting, as well as a strategy to place our interests first.

The notion that a 15-year-old AUMF for the removal of Saddam would now suddenly authorize the endless use of the military to prop up an Iranian-puppet government in Baghdad is unconscionable. The Pentagon has no understanding of who we are fighting for, who we are fighting against, how the ground will be held, and why it is in our interests (and not harming our interests).

Afghanistan is no better. Trump recently announced a mini troop surge, but as we noted at the time there is still no clear strategy as to how we put the country together after 16 years of failure with just 4,000 more troops (when 150,000 coalition troops and others have failed for 1,300 years).

If anyone has answers to these questions, now is the time to air them out through a national debate. We have spent several trillion dollars in those two countries only to hand over the Middle East to Iran and waste our time in the mud huts of the Hindu Kush while Iran, Turkey, and Qatar pose greater threats and North Korea can hit U.S. soil with nukes. This debate must not be off limits.

Also of importance is the fact we stand at a crossroads in both theaters. The Taliban controls more territory than ever and the Afghani government is more corrupt (and Islamist) than ever. Ironically, they are already negotiating with the Taliban.

This is no longer about 9/11, and while technically any fight against the Taliban is covered by the 2001 AUMF, shouldn’t Congress have a new debate with so many changes on the ground?

In Iraq, we are now at the point where ISIS (which, for argument’s sake, let’s say is covered by the AUMF against terrorism) is on its last legs. And almost all of the territory vacated by them has been handed over to Iranian proxies on the tab of our military.

So yes, we are following the 2001 AUMF to fight terrorists, but doing so is arguably only benefitting the bigger threat — Iranian hegemony and Hezbollah (which has a vastly greater network in the Western Hemisphere than any other jihadist organization). Iran was certainly more behind 9/11 than Saddam Hussein and also harbored terrorists.

Mattis and McMaster have prevented our soldiers from fighting Iranian proxies and downright view them as allies in the theater, just like Obama did. Thus, we are now fighting in Iraq on behalf of a government that should be an enemy under the first AUMF, in order to fight a new enemy that is on the decline and not included in the 2002 AUMF.

Furthermore, the Kurds may very soon declare independence, but our government is declining to support the only ally in Iraq and is kowtowing to the Iranian puppets in Baghdad. Are we going to continue supporting the Iranian-backed government that is not only an enemy of the U.S. in its own right but whose hegemony over Sunni areas will continue fueling Sunni insurgencies that we will continue refereeing with our military?

Shouldn’t we just support the Kurds and allow them to take as much land as possible while leaving our military out of the Iranian-Sunni fight? I have my views on this issue, but we at least need a robust debate to air out these concerns as we stand at a critical crossroads.

The founders had great wisdom in vesting war powers with Congress

This is not about tying the hands of the commander in chief, this is about empowering him with clarity of mission and the united resolve of the people.

Our founders vested the power to declare war in the hands of the legislature, not only to preempt an imperial presidency but as part of the social contract of consent-based governance — that such an important decision should have the buy-in of the people as expressed through their elected representatives.

In the words of James Madison, they wanted “strict adherence” to the “fundamental doctrine” that the power of “judging the causes of war” (not the actual execution) be “fully and exclusively vested in the legislature.”

A declaration of war, or at least the crafting of an AUMF, allows the entire representative body of the people to raise the important questions about all aspects and strategy of the mission. If Congress votes to pass a resolution, it serves as a definitive guide for what success looks like. This further serves the purpose of rallying the country behind a defined mission, because public support is always needed to achieve such victory.

Yet, we are stuck with a dynamic — much like with failed domestic programs — where the rent-seekers in government and failed military leadership are perpetuating the failing and rudderless status quo.

Clearly, the president himself doesn’t feel comfortable with what we are doing in the Middle East, but nonetheless feels compelled to simply “stay the course” because of the endless threats and arguments regarding “destabilization.”

The American people are left out in the cold while their representatives, and even the president, aren’t controlling the priorities of our military engagements. This is not consent-based governance. This is why it’s so important for the administration to send Congress a new request updating the AUMF.

Some have criticized Sen. Paul for trying to yank the AUMF without a new replacement. Fine, let’s propose one, but propose one we must. In the meantime, pursuant to the War Powers Act, the president can always act swiftly to respond to an immediate short-term threat.

Does this make me a pacifist? Just the opposite. We have certainly laid out a list of priorities and DOs and DON’Ts that should guide a new AUMF.

POMPEO SPEAKS

Powerline, by Scott Johnson, Sept. 12, 2017:

Bret Baier interviewed CIA Director Mike Pompeo yesterday afternoon for a segment of the FOX News Special Report. The interview was occasioned by the anniversary of 9/11. The questions were well informed and the answers were direct. Most striking to me was Pompeo’s contrast with his predecessor.

Baier, for example, asked Pompeo whether the intelligence assessments supported the proposition that ISIS constituted a junior varsity terrorist organization consistent with the advertised assessment of President Obama. “No,” Pompeo responded.

Baier elicited news from Pompeo with his answer to the question when the trove of documents captured in the raid on bin Laden’s compound would be released. Pompeo promised that they would be released in their entirety “very soon” — with the exception of pornography and copyrighted material. “Everything other than those items will be released in the weeks ahead,” he said.

Pompeo also acknowledged and discussed Iran’s collaborative relationship with al Qaeda. President Obama, you may recall, helped make billions of dollars available to the Iranian regime for its nefarious purposes. President Trump’s options with Iran may be limited, but at least he understands that we need a way out and means to do something about it. Iran seems to me to represent the single most sinister example of Obama’s efforts to bind those who would follow him to his warped vision.

Winning the longest war 16 years after 9/11

The Hill, by Sebastian Gorka, September 11, 2017:

On Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Americans were killed in the worst mass casualty terror attack of the modern age. No American war has lasted as long as the one that began on that dreadful Tuesday morning, 16 years ago today. Since then, we have engaged in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and deployed our military and intelligence assets across the globe to neutralize the threat of jihadi terrorism to America and her citizens.

We restructured our national security enterprise in a reform more drastic than any since the 1947 National Security Act, which created the National Security Council and the CIA. We have spent trillions of dollars to fund these campaigns and government reforms. And thousands of our servicemen and women have died in what some call the “never-ending war.”

Shockingly, three presidential administrations after 9/11, we still seem unable to answer the simplest and most important questions about America’s war with the global jihadi movement: Are we winning? Can we win? What will it take to win? According to one simplistic metric, we seem to be faring well: We have not suffered an attack similar in scale to the Sept. 11 attacks here in the United States. The most severe post-9/11 attack was the Orlando massacre of 49 people by an American citizen of Afghan descent.

This may lead some to declare a partial victory. That would be a myopic conclusion. The fact is, we have seen more jihadist attacks and plots on U.S. soil in the last two years than any previous comparable period. In arrests as far apart as California and New York, we see an enemy that has moved from attempting to send foreign terrorists to America, to recruiting and indoctrinating U.S. nationals or residents already in the country, such as the Boston bombers and the San Bernardino killers. This is not an “improvement,” given that such homegrown terrorists are much harder for our domestic agencies to detect prior to an attack.

If we use a less parochial filter and look at what the jihadi movement has wrought globally since 2001, we cannot claim any kind of victory. It is not America’s job to police the world — this is especially true under the presidency of Donald Trump, who eschews the idea of the United States as “globocop” — but the fact is that global jihadism has increased, not decreased, and greatly.

ISIS may have lost the capital of its physical “caliphate” in Mosul, but the group which usurped and eclipsed Al Qaeda’s brand has more than 15 fully functional affiliates across the globe. Not only that, using simpler but deadly tactics such as vehicular attacks, ISIS has taken its “holy war” to the streets of our allies, from Paris to Berlin, Nice to Istanbul, Manchester to Brussels. Its wanton ability to do this undermines American interests and has led to the murder of Americans abroad.

The United States is the most powerful nation the world has ever seen. No longer a superpower, it is now the world’s sole “hyperpower.” How, then, can we explain the rise of ISIS and the spread of insurgent tactics onto the streets of our NATO allies? As with all significant matters, there is no one answer. However, certain policies have helped the jihadists to prosper.

First, all administrations since 2001 have focused almost exclusively on the “kinetic” aspects of counterterrorism: killing terrorists, either with invasion and occupation under President Bush, drone strikes under President Obama, or a new “strategy of annihilation” under President Trump. Killing terrorists is the right thing to do if you cannot arrest them or if your allies and partners can’t kill them. But if the dead jihadi can be easily replaced from a large and willing recruiting pool, the cycle is everlasting. As former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld asked in one of his now notorious “snowflake” memos, “Are we killing more of them than we are making?”

If we really want to win this war, which is in fact winnable, then we must stop young men and women from wanting to become jihadists. And this will not be done by killing more terrorists, given that the Al Qaeda and ISIS “incentive” narrative promises guaranteed salvation to the jihadi killed in battle. Victory in a war with adherents to a religiously fueled totalitarian ideology will only come when the message peddled by our enemy is undermined and delegitimized. This will require aggressive counter-propaganda measures, information and influence operations that leverage our Muslims allies around the world, especially those on the frontline of this war, such as Jordan and Egypt.

In the last 16 years, all U.S. administrations paid lip service to the need for a “war of ideas,” but they never engaged in a serious and strategic fashion akin to the way we did against the propaganda of our last totalitarian adversary, the Soviet Union. The Trump administration has yet to produce its national security strategy or its national counterterrorism strategy, in which a serious commitment to psychological warfare could be signaled, but the choice of a recognized expert, Ambassador Alberto Fernandez, to head the Middle East Broadcast Network of government-funded broadcast platforms is a positive indicator. Much more is, however needed, especially an indication from the White House that the West Wing cares for this issue and will coordinate and drive a counter-propaganda effort from the very highest level.

At a more operational level, after 16 years it is high time to understand where the true center of gravity is within counterterrorism in America. The focus on finding individual terrorists or cells before they execute an attack is fundamentally wrongheaded, leading as it does to a “mowing the grass” or “whack-a-mole” approach to keeping Americans safe. As the European experience (and our own) has shown us, it is almost impossible to find all the terrorists, or potential terrorists, before they initiate an attack. Instead, we must focus our attention on those who are the recruiters, indoctrinators and sanctioning authorities of jihad.

We have some amazing counterterrorism professionals working across thousands of law enforcement agencies and the federal intelligence community. But in a population of more than 300 million people, resources must be marshaled and prioritized for greatest effect. This means refocusing our attention onto individuals who may never pull a trigger or detonate an improvised explosive device but who, through their preaching and mentoring, encourage dozens or even hundreds of fellow believers to walk ever further down the path of jihad.

One such man is Ahmad Musa Jibril, who pushes the ideology of “holy war” to literally thousands of radical followers online. He is a far more valuable focus of our attention than the massive effort expended to find just one so-called “lone wolf.” In this, we will have to explore the most righteous mode for protecting our fellow citizens while protecting general First Amendment and fundamental freedom-of-conscience rights. Lastly, as we recalibrate our strategic focus to delegitimize the ideology of groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS, and target the purveyors of its heinous message at home and abroad, we need to take a step back and see the broader picture of modern jihad.

For 16 years we have been targeting the non-nation state entities headed by the likes of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi. Unfortunately, their Sunni-brand of jihad is not the most dangerous version today. With the disastrous consequences of the so-called “Arab Spring,” and the precipitous decision by Obama to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq just as that nation had been stabilized, a perfect situation developed for Iran to exploit instability across the Middle East and North Africa.

Iran remains the largest state sponsor of terrorism in the world today. With the rise of ISIS, the collapse of Syria, and the continued conflict in Yemen, the mullahs and the forces under their command have expanded their destabilizing actions in support of their Shia version of radical Islam. As a result, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Congress, the whole region is now victim to “a game of thrones for the crown of the caliphate.”

ISIS wanted to have the neo-caliphate be a Sunni one. The Islamic Republic of Iran has its own Shia version of the caliphate ready to expand beyond the borders of the modern Persian state, using a deadly combination of official Republican Guard Forces and proxy or irregular forces such as Hezbollah, the Shia militias of Iraq and the Quds Force.

The Trump administration’s strategy to defeat Sunni jihadism must not play into the hands of Shia jihadism. All the more so after the billions of dollars released by the last White House back into the coffers of Tehran. A nuclear caliphate informed by an apocalyptic vision of Islamic salvation will not succumb to the logic of nuclear deterrence and the prior stability of mutually assured destruction.

Action must be taken now to obviate the establishment of a nuclear-capable Shia Caliphate. Recertification of the Potemkin accord that is the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran deal, will not stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons but, at best, delay its acquisition. Now is the time to send a message to the religious dictators in Iran that America is as determined to halt a Shia caliphate as it is a Sunni one.

President Trump is not an ideological leader. He is a pragmatist. As such he is in the best position to jettison the subjective blinders of the past that undermined our response to the deadliest terror attacks in modern history. With clear-sightedness, he and his team can end “America’s longest war.”

Sebastian Gorka, Ph.D., is the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Defeating Jihad: The Winnable War.” He most recently served as deputy assistant and strategist to President Trump. The above is adapted from his address today to the World Counter-Terrorism Summit in IsraelFollow him on Twitter @SebGorka.

Address to the World Summit on Counter Terrorism:

Can ex-militants, and their redemption stories, stop anyone from joining Islamic State?

In this photo released on June 23, 2015 by a website of Islamic State militants, an Islamic State militant looks through the scope of his rifle in Kirkuk, northern Iraq. (Militant website via Associated Press)

Los Angeles Times, by Simon Cottee, September 5, 2017:

It seems like common sense — enlist disillusioned extremists as credible voices against terrorism and put them to work persuading others to rethink their flirtation with political violence.

Richard Barrett, a former counter-terrorism chief in Britain, told the Guardian: “Many of the people who have been most successful in undermining the terrorist narrative are themselves ex-extremists.” And in a recent report summarizing the stories of 58 Islamic State defectors, scholar Peter Neumann concluded that their narratives “can be important in helping to prevent young people from being radicalized and recruited.”

Yet the case for enlisting ex-militants to prevent the radicalization of others remains contentious; there is little or no empirical data to back it up. Neither Barrett in the Guardian nor Neumann in his report offered any evidence — not even anecdotal — for the effectiveness of former Islamic State members as agents against future radicalization.

A burst of tweets last year from Georgia State University professor John Horgan in reaction to a newsstory about Harry Sarfo, a reformed Islamic State recruit from Germany, made the problem explicit. “We all kinda say ‘their stories might prevent others…’ but we should (from a research standpoint) be getting clearer traction on this.” And in a follow-up tweet: “Can we find evidence that defector narratives dissuade initial involvement of potential recruits?”

Although there is a small body of research on how to best frame and disseminate “counter-narratives” against terrorist propaganda (spearheaded by Horgan and Kurt Braddock), it doesn’t speak to the issue of how effective these messages are with their intended audience. The one study that has tried to figure it out captured likes, shares and comments related to three different counter-narrative campaigns on social media, but that doesn’t tell us anything about who was liking, sharing and commenting, or whether minds were changed.

A close examination of the stories told by reformed militants reveals that, in common with other kinds of “defector narratives” (from ex-cons, former cultists or reformed addicts), they are often exercises in self-justification. Because the ex-militant is in need of exoneration and self-forgiveness, he must come up with a suitably absolving explanation for why he joined the now-reviled group in the first place. This usually takes the form of a brainwashing tale in which he is more sinned against than sinning.

For example, many repentant female Islamic State supporters claim they were forced into traveling to Syria, or they insist — ludicrously, given the incessant news coverage of Islamic State atrocities — they were “lured” by promises of a paradise on Earth for Muslims, with bountiful markets, pristine hospitals and parks, and righteous justice. One French returnee conceded her own guilt but also blamed “those who manipulated me, exploited my naivety, my weakness, my insecurity.”

Stories of evil manipulation and exploitation may be psychologically useful for former extremists, but there’s little evidence that the radicalized (or those leaning in that direction) are buying them. As one British female Islamic State recruit witheringly put it in a tweet: “We’re not stupid young brainwashed females we’ve come here to syria for ALLAH alone.”

Nor do these retrospective atrocity tales do much to explain to the general public how normal people come to embrace violent extremism. The stories don’t “tell it like it is,” just how bad it is. They also tend to minimize the glamour and attractiveness of violent causes for young recruits. To the extent that studies tell us how radicalization works, far from being a pathological or passive process, it is the culmination of an active search for meaning and fulfillment, often undertaken with friends or kin.

Another argument used to justify belief in the preventive power of counter-messages is that former militants have the requisite street cred to be taken seriously by young Muslims. Only most don’t, because once, say, a member of Islamic State or Al Qaeda repents and rejects his former views, he relinquishes credibility with those who see truth in extremism. Worse, if the ex-militant is working with the secular liberal or moderate establishment, he’s considered a sellout.

Maajid Nawaz, who co-founded the Quilliam Foundation in London, the world’s first counter-extremism think tank, is an obvious case in point. For all his bona fides as a former member of the transnational Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, an association that earned him jail time in an Egyptian prison, Nawaz is regarded with suspicion among even moderate British Muslims, while those at the extreme end of the spectrum regard him with contempt as a traitor.

And yet, the ex-extremist, and his redemption narrative, finds eager supporters. This may have more to do with society’s need for catharsis than with any benefit he brings to fighting political violence. Like the one-time criminal who has found the right path after a lifetime of doing wrong, these repentant “formers” make the rest of us feel good. Their change of heart validates and reinforces our better angels. That’s especially satisfying in times of uncertainty, when we feel insecure about who we are and where we are going.

Simon Cottee is a visiting senior fellow at the Freedom Project, Wellesley College. He is the author of “The Apostates: When Muslims Leave Islam.”

The Gorka That Matters Isn’t Leaving The Trump Administration

C-SPAN / Via cspan.org

Sebastian Gorka is out at the White House, but his wife, Katharine, remains a force in government, wielding more power than her husband ever did.

Buzzfeed, by John Hudson, Aug. 29, 2017:

A wide array of progressive groups claimed victory on Friday following the dismissal of White House aide Sebastian Gorka, a staunch critic of Islam whose ties to anti-Semitic groups in Hungary made him the target of a public campaign dedicated to his ouster.

But the most effective advocate of Gorka’s brand of hardline policies on Islam is still in the government: Katharine Gorka, his wife and the coauthor of scores of his policy papers. She’s staying on in her role as an adviser to the secretary of homeland security, officials tell BuzzFeed News.

Though less high-profile than her husband, who regularly appeared on television to defend the president with his plummy British accent and distinctive half-beard, half-goatee, Katharine arguably has had a bigger impact on US policy.

Unlike Sebastian, whose failure to obtain a permanent security clearance barred him from some policy discussions, Katharine has dived into the weeds, advising top officials at DHS on counterterror policies, drafting the department’s reports to Congress on terrorism recruitment, and trying to instill her anti-Islamist philosophy throughout the department.

To her supporters, she is the intellectual forebear of President Donald Trump’s promise to call out radical Islam by name and shun political correctness. She is credited with convincing the department to claw back hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants for countering right-wing extremism and prioritizing the role of law enforcement in combating Islamic extremism. Her detractors accuse her of downplaying the threat of white nationalism and alienating Muslim communities who could be partners in US counter-extremism efforts.

“Katie is much more dangerous than Sebastian,” said Eric Rosand, a former senior State Department official responsible for programs on Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. “She played a significant role in denying CVE grant funding to groups that work to de-radicalize neo-Nazis and other far right extremists and Muslim-American groups that work to build resilience against violent extremism, but without the involvement of the police.”

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