Breakfast discussion with Andrew Liepman
ISIS has "no bounds to its brutality," but the Paris attacks on November 13th that left 129 people dead did not mark the beginning of a structured international campaign that has been carefully plotted out by their leadership, according to Andrew Liepman, a 30-year veteran of the CIA who now is a senior policy analyst at RAND Corporation. "Paris was mostly a local attack, the attackers were mostly born in France or Belgium, so in some ways this was a French problem overlaid by the propaganda of the Islamic State," Liepman told a Global Café breakfast meeting of LAWAC today, November 20th, just one week after the attacks.
Which is not to say that there is no threat to the US. "Will America be attacked by terrorists again? The answer is most assuredly yes." But Liepman, who was deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center until 2012, said that it is much harder for terrorists to get in to the US than Europe. "We put in place enormous obstacles to terrorists operating in the United States after 9/11 - we've been lucky and we've been good." He said that the recent hysteria surrounding terrorists posing as refugees to try to get into the US is way overblown. "When's the last time a refugee came to the United States and became a terrorist? I think never. How long does it take to process refugees coming out of Syria to the United States? Minimum 18 months, average 24- 32 months...There are lots of ways for people to sneak into the United States if they want to commit terrorism. The worst way in my opinion is to come as a refugee."
Although many in the media have taken up the narrative of the Paris attacks as marking the beginning of a new global strategy for ISIS, Liepman said the reality of the terrorist threat today has changed from 15 years ago, when all the attacks could be traced back to "al Qaeda Central". The US has done a good job of dismantling the al Qaeda network, but in the process a new array of smaller, more diffuse threats have emerged, without the clear lines of control back to a central leadership.
"They (ISIS) can recruit cells and send them out, or they can motivate people who are already in Paris, or Spain or Mali... And they don't even have to motivate them - some of these people are self-motivated....I don't think there's some sort of strategic campaign that ISIS lays out, like a chess game - first we are going to attack Paris and the we're going to attack Mali and in those moves we've got a New York piece - I just don't see that." In fact, says Liepman, their overriding goal is much more narrowly focused on the establishment of their so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, and at the moment things are not all going their way. "They are engaged on seven or eight fronts - they are fighting the Kurds and that is not going well and they are losing territory, they are fighting the Iraqi government, they are fighting the Syrian government in Homs, they are fighting other militant groups in Syria - they have picked a fight with just about everyone else in the region and they have no allies, no friends." ISIS is still very dangerous, but they are starting to test their limits. "I said a year ago I would not buy ISIS futures - they have too many enemies, too much mayhem and most importantly they don't have a lot of local support - most people living under them don't like them."
The real problem in France is not the fighters returning from Syria - although France has some 2,000 citizens who have gone to join ISIS - but the many tens of thousands of young, unemployed and alienated Muslim youths who live in areas like St Denis in the north of Paris and are easy prey for extremists who want to radicalize them.
When it comes to fighting ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Liepman says that our approach up to now has been "cautious", and while that can be advisable, "I do think at some point keeping a cautious approach reaches its limit and I think we've probably reached that limit. I think more pressure needs to be put on the Islamic State. And I think in specific ways. I was very happy to see the attacks on the fuel trucks (of oil being smuggled out of Syria by ISIS). ...We need to limit the money they can spend...Another tactic that worked [with al Qaeda] ... was eliminating leadership. The third thing is we need to do a better job of sealing our border.... The last thing we need is patience... it's going to last more than a couple years."
As for protecting Europe and the US from ISIS attacks or ISIS-inspired attacks, Liepman said intelligence is key. Despite the huge post-9/11 investment in protecting our airlines and major buildings, the recent targeting of cafes and restaurants in Paris presents such a long list of soft targets that "we could not protect them all without becoming a police state. "So if we can't protect ourselves, the best defense is to pre-empt. We need to understand what the terrorists are thinking, what their planning cycle is like, the targets they're thinking about, we need to understand who's talking to who. That's the role of intelligence."
In the fight against al Qaeda, Liepman said the US was fairly successful in penetrating their networks overseas, putting agents close to them who could give advance warning of what their plans were. The same approach will be needed against ISIS - albeit in a more challenging environment. The leaders of al Qaeda were mostly middle-aged - Osama bin Laden famously smuggled his messages out on videotapes to al Jazeera. "Today we have a bunch of millennials running terrorist organizations. They live off of apps I've never heard of....They have 50 platforms from which they can communicate. It's an entirely different universe out there and they're using it to their advantage."
For Liepman one of the most shocking things about the Paris attacks was that the intelligence services had no warning and the perpetrators were able to stay under the radar before the attacks. "You had about 20 operatives - all of them making phone calls, going to meetings, talking to each other - that is a lot of signals that were missed."
But Liepman said that the US is a much harder target for ISIS and other terrorists than Europe - America's borders are much better protected than Europe, and the surveillance and intelligence capabilities of the US are greater. Following potential terrorists "is very labor intensive - particularly if you go 24/7 on surveillance on someone. The FBI says it has 900 cases open in 50 states - the French have thousands of open cases" - with much fewer resources and a much smaller security budget than the US.
Finally Liepman said that "one of the things that I fear most about the current environment is the anti-Muslim, the Islamophobic response to the attacks because it will exacerbate those problems and not help resolve them." The ideology of ISIS depends on portraying the West as hostile to all Muslims and engaged on an anti-Islamic "crusade". To defeat ISIS, the West needs to act resolutely but calmly, and at the same time moderate centrist clerics and spokesmen for Islam need to be more vocal than they have been." Paris was terrible - but now is the time for rational action, not irrational hysteria.