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On July 4, bombings rocked three cities in Saudi Arabia. Two days earlier the deadliest car bomb this year exploded in Baghdad. On July 1 in Dhaka, Bangladesh gunmen held hostages at a bakery killing 22. Just over a week ago, three suicide attackers killed 41 people at Istanbul’s airport. ISIS claimed responsibility for some of these attacks. For others, they did not — but officials suspect the terrorist group’s involvement. ISIS had vowed to make the holy month of Ramadan deadly and as it came to a close, they have done just that. Diane and her guests discuss new attacks from ISIS and security questions for the U.S.
- Rukmini Callimachi Reporter, The New York Times.
- Michael Weiss Senior editor, The Daily Beast co- author, "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror"
- Matthew Levitt Director, Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. ISIS-related attacks across the globe have left hundreds in the past week, including a suicide bomb in Baghdad that killed at least 250 people. The spate of violence comes as ISIS is losing ground in Iraq and Syria. Here to discuss the new attacks and security questions they pose for the U.S., Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Joining us from the NPR studios in New York City, Michael Weiss of The Daily Beast and co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror."
MS. DIANE REHMJoining us by phone from Paris, Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times. And throughout the hour, we'll welcome your comments, questions. Join us by phone at 800-433-8850. Send an email to email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And thank you all for joining us. Michael Weiss, I'll start with you. Talk about this spate of attacks in the last several days. Why do you think there has been this increased activity?
MR. MICHAEL WEISSWell, I think it's a combination of factors. First and foremost, it's been Ramadan, which is typically when jihadi groups tend to escalate their foreign operations or terrorist attacks. Every year, the ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani issues an injunction calling upon Muslims, whether they are -- have already pledged fealty to ISIS or not, to strike at the infidels, at the kafir or the great crusader Zionist conspiracy against which ISIS claims that it is ranged throughout the world.
MR. MICHAEL WEISSThe second factor is ISIS is what I like to call the aspirational sub-editors of the international news cycle. So when they lose a city like Fallujah in Iraq, which they lost in the last two weeks, they want to change the conversation. They want to take the headline away from their battlefield losses and pivot back to their perceived prowess on the international stage. And the way to do that is to create or conduct these spectaculars, kill a lot of civilian, blow up an airport, massacre tourists or holiday makers in some remote and exotic locale.
MR. MICHAEL WEISSAnd indeed, I mean, we're sitting here talking about ISIS attacks and not talking about the shrinking of their so-called caliphate, which has been reduced by about a third, depending upon who you ask. I would agree with the CIA director, John Brennon, however. Fighting them and battering them militarily in Iraq and Syria, there's an unintended consequence of that, which I think matters more to Westerners and certainly to the American electorate which is facing a presidential cycle.
MR. MICHAEL WEISSThat is to say, as they lose ground in the Levant and Mesopotamia, they are going to lash out like this. They are going to try and hit Western targets in the West and that is absolutely going to change the way people think about ISIS. They have not lost and they have not had their capacity to do harm abroad really diminished by two-years and change of operation inherent resolve as the coalition wars on.
REHMMichael Weiss of The Daily Beast. He's co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." Matthew Levitt, so ISIS has claimed responsibility for some of the attacks, but not all of them. Are they behind all of them?
MR. MATTHEW LEVITTSo the Islamic State has reasons to claim responsibility for some attacks and not for others. And Turkey, for example, it traditionally does not claim responsibility for attacks in an effort maybe to limit the Turkish governments response and maybe use those attacks in some way to dissuade the Turks from targeting them. I think it actually is going to have the opposite consequence. But when we talk about Islamic State attacks around the world, I think we really need to break these down into at least three categories.
MR. MATTHEW LEVITTYou have your foreign-directed attacks, like we saw in Paris, like we saw in Brussels. Traditional attacks by organized terrorist groups and their cells. You have attacks that are enabled by the Islamic State and then you have, at the other end of the spectrum, the lone offenders or the lone wolves who are inspired by the Islamic State and I'd include in that even people like Omar Mateen who carried out the attack in Orlando, who claimed some affiliation with the Islamic State, but really ultimately wasn't anything to do with the Islamic State.
MR. MATTHEW LEVITTAnd these are different types of attacks. In the United States, our biggest threat right now is from these inspired individuals. They have lesser capabilities, but can still be very deadly, as we saw in Orlando, as we saw out in California in San Bernardino. In Europe, when they're dealing with a large number of foreign terrorist fighters, somewhere around 6,000 now, a large number of who have already come home, returned to Europe, they're dealing with foreign-directed and enabled attacks, which can be much more sophisticated, simultaneous shooting and bombing attacks like we saw in Paris and in Belgium.
MR. MATTHEW LEVITTAnd are all of these to be considered Islamic State? The Islamic State will claim responsibility for them so that, as Michael said, it can create this perspective that it is everywhere, reaching everywhere, when, in fact, it really isn't. And I think we have to put it in perspective.
REHMSo even as we report that it's losing physical space, what it's doing, Michael Weiss, is reaching out in different places?
WEISSYes. And, you know, as Matthew was saying, there's a difference between ISIS-directed or ISIS-coordinated attacks such as the one in Istanbul, which was essentially planned in Raqqa, their defective capital. And ISIS-inspired or what is variously known as the self-radicalized phenomenon, such as Omar Mateen or the massacre in Bangladesh, which looks like a bunch of well-to-do kids who decided to do jihad, if not on a lark, then, you know, certainly without any kind of real time liaison with ISIS operatives in Syria and Iraq.
WEISSBut, look, this is the invisible army of the caliphate. They are relying upon -- and much in the same way, frankly, that Marxist Leninism did in the 20th century. I mean, we had this phenomenon, excuse me, known as the fellow traveler. ISIS is doing much the same. Their ideology is meant to brainwash and to convert and to proselytize those who may not even be pious or practicing Muslims. And, in fact, if you look at many of the FBI cases here in the United States that have been started to interrupt, and many of them have successfully interrupted these would-be ISIS attacks or ISIS-inspired attacks, in many instances, you're talking about white converts to Islam.
WEISSOr in one infamous example, a cheerleader from Mississippi State University, the daughter of a police captain. Why are these people being drawn to a world historical messianic movement like that? And I keep coming back to Orwell's review of "Mein Kamf" in 1945, you know. How comes it that the most industrialized power in Europe, one that has lead the way in terms of enlightenment philosophy, submits itself to a death cult, essentially?
WEISSOne that calls for the extermination of an entire population. One that fetishes violence for its own sake and for its own end. And ISIS is doing much the same thing. There is something, Diane, in the ether in the Zeitgeist and it doesn't just have to relate to the Arab or Islamic world. I mean, look at Europe right now with the rise of far right authoritarian regimes. You're seeing the collapse of the post war, post Cold War order. And ISIS, in many respects, is capitalizing on that.
WEISSNot to be too, you know, mushy about it, but people are drawn to this grim death cult for various reasons and not always just because they're inclined toward fundamentalist religion.
REHMMatthew, would you agree?
LEVITTI really do. I think it's very important to recognize there is an ideological component to this, but a great many of the operatives we're looking at are not actually drawn to the radical ideology in the first instance. When people go to Syria and Iraq, that's the first training they get is ideological. But if you look not only at the inspired individuals, like Michael just talked about, but even some of the foreign directed plots, like those in Belgium, I've spent a decent amount of time in Belgium recently, just came back a week ago, and if you go into places like Molenbeek and you talk to the police there, as I have, many of the individuals who are involved in these more foreign directed ISIS plots, more low level criminals from broken homes.
LEVITTEven after they "join" the Islamic State, they were still doing drugs and drinking alcohol and they were lady-killers and I was really important to them what Armani clothes they were wearing. This is something that is beyond just a radical religious ideology. That's what they're plugging into because it gives them purpose, because it enables them to go, as one Belgium official put it to me, from zero to hero. And if you think about it, it kind of -- recruiters are offering people a sense of family to people from broken homes, people who feel disenfranchised from society, empowering people who feel discriminated against.
LEVITTAnd not only that, they believe that they're part of a higher calling and a purpose. Think about it this way. Al-Qaida always told you what they were against, but never what they were for. And we may think if the Islamic State in terms of its brutality, it's ultra violence, its sexual enslavement of women. But for kids who are being given this recruitment pitch, they're being told, you don't have purpose? How would you like to get in on the ground floor for the reestablishment of the caliphate just like the original followers of the Prophet Mohammad.
LEVITTThat's inspiring. You're part of something bigger than yourself, which is why the military defeat on the ground back in Syria and Iraq does have an effect on what's happening abroad because I think it does a lot to undermine some of their radicalization pitch, but it doesn't undermine all of it. For example, it doesn't address the problem of Assad who, I think, is just as big a part of the problem.
REHMMatthew Levitt, he's director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. I do apologize. We are trying to get Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times on the line. We are having difficulty. We will do that after the break. Stay with us.
REHMAnd welcome back as we talk about the most recent attacks throughout the Arab world, in Africa and in Europe. Here in the studio, Matthew Levitt, he is with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Michael Weiss is at the NPR studios in New York City, and finally Rukmini Callimachi, reporter for The New York Times, is joining us. And Rukmini, let me come to you, please. There's been reporting recently asking why there hasn't been more attention to these attacks, especially those that happened in the Arab world and outside Europe. What if they had happened in Europe or in the U.S.? Rukmini, are you there?
MS. RUKMINI CALLIMACHIYes, I am, good morning.
REHMOh good, you are. Did you hear my question?
CALLIMACHII didn't, I'm so sorry. If you could repeat it.
REHMAll right, I asked you about the reporting recently that there has not been more attention to the attacks that have happened in the Arab world and in Africa. What if they had happened in Europe or the U.S.? Wouldn't there have been much more attention?
CALLIMACHIWell of course there would be more attention if they had happened in America or in Europe for the simple reason that there's a different expectation of security in those theaters. When Charlie Hebdo happened in January of 2015 in Paris, I was sent to cover that immediately, and I remember arriving at Charles de Gaulle Airport when the airport, on their intercom, announced a moment of silence.
CALLIMACHIIn the airport, everybody stopped with their luggage in their hand and observed a moment of silence for an attack that killed only a fraction of what we saw in Baghdad this past weekend. It's -- that doesn't mean that what has happened in Baghdad and elsewhere isn't tragic and awful. It is of course. But in those areas we have sadly become accustomed to a higher death toll.
REHMBut is there a certain amount of perhaps less empathy for the victims of attacks in Muslim nations?
CALLIMACHII think it's not so much a lack of empathy as it is a fatigue and a sense that this is an ongoing problem. In Baghdad, in Iraq, I would not be able to tell you how many suicide bombings have occurred in the last few years. In Paris, where I am today, I can say precisely there have been two terrorist attacks, Charlie Hebdo and the November 13 attacks, and then several small, you know, ISIS-inspired attacks. But they are so few here that therefore they become news.
REHMRukmini, you wrote that ISIS is tailoring its approach for different regions and different audiences. What do you mean?
CALLIMACHIISIS in the West, for example, has advised its adherence to carry out attacks anywhere they can against any target they can hit, the softer the better. If women and children are killed, fine. If Muslims are killed, fine. That’s a very different approach than they are taking in majority-Sunni nations, Bangladesh being a key example, Turkey being another example.
CALLIMACHIWhat analysts are saying is that in these theaters, because the population is the very group that they are attempting to impress and attempting to pretend that they are the champions of, in those theaters they need to make a greater effort and at least leave people with the impression that they are targeting their killings.
CALLIMACHISo take Bangladesh. The horrible café attack that happened a few days ago was the 19th attack claimed by ISIS in the last nine months. One through 18 were targeted assassinations of religious minorities, Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Shiite Muslims, whom they don't consider Muslims, Shiite mosques. Their message is they are attacking the people they consider disbelievers and infidels. They are not doing attacks as they do elsewhere, in a market where random Sunni civilians would be killed. And I think that's on purpose.
REHMMichael Weiss, talk about what ISIS was trying to achieve in Bangladesh.
WEISSWell again, I mean, this was -- seemed to me a spontaneous attack in the sense that these were localized Jihadis, people who took up the mantle of ISIS-inspired ideology by themselves. I don't think that there was any kind of coordination between those attackers and ISIS HQ. But I quite agree with Rukmini. I mean, look, Baghdad, there is almost not a week goes by, and this has been the case since 2004, where something isn't set off in the Iraqi capital.
WEISSAnd with respect to Iraq, this actually comes from 2004, the very same year that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of what we now call ISIS, pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden, and his rather dire Machiavellian strategy was as follows. Iraq is a Shiite-majority country. The Sunni minority feels embattled. It has (word?) aspirations because it feels like it lost its privilege and its power, which it did when we invaded.
WEISSThe only way to draw the Sunnis into the arms of AQI, al-Qaeda in Iraq, which was ISIS' first name, is to attack the Shiite in pathological, genocidal fashion. Zarqawi hated the Shiite for technological reasons, but he also hated them for geopolitical ones. Attack them to such an extent that they radicalize and form these militias and death squads, which will then go around conducting retaliatory violence against the Sunnis.
WEISSNow what we have we seen in the last fortnight? Well, ISIS has lost Fallujah, which apart from a symbolic defeat for them, and it's symbolic because this has been the sinecure of the Sunni insurgency since the early days of the Iraq War, but it's also a tactical defeat because it's about 40 miles away from the Iraqi capital and was thought to be, by the Iraqi government, a staging ground or a launch pad for many of these opportunistic terrorist attacks that have bedeviled Baghdad.
WEISSIt lost Fallujah, and then it blows up an enormous truck bomb in a crowded marketplace, killing more Iraqis than any single terror attack has done in modern times. How did the truck get into Baghdad? I'm sure that there was some corrupt official who turned a blind eye at a checkpoint. Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi had to come out, was pelted with rocks by angry Shiite in that neighborhood of Baghdad. He is being blamed for this failure, this complete and utter collapse in state security.
WEISSHe came out, and he said, well, now is the time to ban the use of bogus or dysfunctional bomb detection devices. Now is the time to ban the use of them? You know, what have you been doing for all these years? Money has been changing hands. This is Iraq, and Iraq is one of the most corrupt countries in the Middle East. ISIS is looking to destabilize this government. They are looking to get Shiite angry, up in arms, in a sanguinary mood and go after Sunnis. That will be the RSVP for ISIS, and it may not even be called ISIS by that point, it may be ISIS 2.0. They will come back.
WEISSThey're a very resilient organization, and even though their so-called remaining and expanding mantra, their nation-building has come to an end for the time being because of the coalition war, they are not losing in any meaningful sense. This again comes back to what John Brennan had said. They are unable to get foreign recruits across the border into Syria and Iraq, but that does not mean that locals on the ground in those countries are not still joining up with them.
WEISSI mean, my co-author and I, we've interviewed a number of Sunni Arabs living in the Euphrates River Valley, (word?) Raqqa who link up with ISIS not -- they hate ISIS. And we say, well, why are you joining. They say, well, the coalition war has destroyed the local infrastructure and the means by which we enrich ourselves, our source of income. When you join ISIS, you get a steady paycheck. You get subsidies for your families, for your extended families in some cases. You get free health care. There are pragmatic reasons for people wanting to link up with this organization, as dire and brutal as it may be, and this is the underlying social and political grievances that have empowered ISIS and continue to empower ISIS.
REHMRukmini, do you want to add to Michael's comments about the deadly bombing in Baghdad?
CALLIMACHII think Michael's analysis is spot-on. Where I would slightly disagree with him is on Bangladesh. The Bangladeshi government has said very loudly that they believe that the extremists that were involved were locals. There's -- there's a problem with that analysis, however. We know that local groups all over the world, in Bangladesh, in the Sinai in Egypt, in Libya, et cetera, have pledged allegiance to ISIS and by ISIS's definition have become part of their global caliphate.
CALLIMACHIIn the case of Bangladesh, the way I think that you can measure the closeness to their -- to the core and to their relationship with ISIS leadership in Syria is through their media releases. And in the case of the Bangladeshi café attack, they were releasing photos from inside the café, showing the slaughtered victims on the Amaq News Agency, which is ISIS' official news agency, as the attack was ongoing. I don't think that you have that access to Amaq News Agency unless you are in touch with ISIS core.
LEVITTI think it's important to add that Islamic state affiliates are not all the same. The Islamic state affiliates, and there are at least three in Libya, are kind of the first-tier Islamic state affiliate, in Sinai a very close second, and pretty much all the ones after that are varying degrees of affiliation, including affiliates or provinces, wilayats as they describe them, that exist only on paper and don't actually control territory.
LEVITTAt the Washington Institute we're about to publish a study on this, and one of the things that we looked at as we were trying to measure relative ties of affiliates to the core are things like sharing of people, so the Islamic State core sent certain leaders to the Islamic State elements in Libya for example, sending money in one direction or the other, or as Rukmini said, media.
LEVITTIn fact, the very first sign that there was any ties between the core in Libya in the first instance was that the Islamic State affiliates or provinces in Libya gave their entire social media platform control over to people in Syria and Iraq. The other thing I wanted to say is to follow up on what Michael was talking about, remaining and expanding. I think it's important to note that the Islamic State really is on the defensive on the ground in Iraq and Syria.
LEVITTFor a group that laid out its own marker for success and remaining and expanding, it is doing neither, and it's telling that in Muhammad al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman's last big talk for Ramadan, he ditched that. It's no longer remaining and expanding, it's fighting the jihad. They're having a hard time not only with their loss of territory for that purpose but also for money because we've been blowing up their cash depots, their ability to make money from oil, and maybe most importantly extorting the local population. If they don't control the territory, they can't tax and extort. And finally, we really have been making a difference with foreign terrorist fighters.
LEVITTSo while I agree with Michael that it's not all rosy, it's not all good, we really do have them on the ropes, and as he said when we were first starting out, that does mean that they're likely to lash out, not that they weren't trying to carry out attacks in the West in the first instance, we know that they were plotting these at least by late 2013, but the lashing out and losing ground, they do need to compensate, they do need to change what's being covered in the media, and I think that that means that they are going to be pushing for more foreign-directed attacks, more enabled attacks and more ideologically inspired attacks.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Rukmini, would you agree with that, that perhaps the loss of actual territory could lead to their lashing out more and more at the West?
CALLIMACHII disagree with that hypothesis for the reason that the data doesn't support it. I spent several months earlier this year tracking the fighters that ISIS had trained in Syria, these were European fighters, and who returned to Europe at the earliest days of the rise of ISIS. The very first set of people that I was able to find left Syria in December of 2013 and arrived in France in January of 2014, that's six months before ISIS even declares a caliphate.
CALLIMACHIAnd from that point on, the group was sending a steady trickle of foreign fighters back to Europe. The reason we didn't notice them is because almost all of their plots failed. And the plots failed because of various errors that the operatives made. The very first one was in touch with his family on Facebook, and as a result, French officials noticed that something was amiss. They began wiretapping his mother, and they realized that he was on his way back to France and were able to intercept him.
CALLIMACHIPeople that came after became more and more sophisticated in terms of tradecraft, and we saw with the November 13 attackers, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was the supposed architect of that attack, was one of the most wanted men in Europe, and yet to this day we don't exactly know how he returned from Syria to Europe. We don't know where he entered. Was it Greece? We don't know. That's how good they became at evading law enforcement.
CALLIMACHISo in my opinion, what has happened is that ISIS' project of holding territory and having this caliphate went very much hand in hand with their project of attacking the West, and if you look at the earliest statements by Adnani, their spokesman, at the same time that they're declaring this new territory and asking people to join them, they're also calling for attacks in the West.
CALLIMACHIWhat I think has happened is that they've become better at it, better at evading law enforcement, better at making bombs, better at recruiting and better at inspiring people using nothing but their propaganda. And we are seeing the fruition of that now, with this month of Ramadan.
REHMSo for you Michael, in terms of a security threat to the U.S., should Americans feel more concerned right now?
WEISSYes because there has been an increase in these ISIS-inspired attacked in the last few years. Rukmini is quite right. In fact, the first global injunction to strike the kafir outside of the realm of the so-called caliphate that Abu Mohammad al-Adnani issued was issued before they lost Kobani. Kobani was seen as the tipping-point moment in the coalition. That was when we dropped, you know, more ordinance on that one town in Syria than we had I think in -- throughout the entire history of the war up until that point.
WEISSThey lost this Kurdish border town, and then things began to turn in the other direction, which is to say they started to lose. What did Adnani call for this? Well, going back to the early days of al-Qaeda in Iraq, it was always the aspiration of Zarqawi, the founder -- the founding father of the organization, to use Iraq as a starting point, as a locus from which you would then expand outward, not just encompassing the region of the Middle East but eventually the globe in the most feverish and messianic version of this story.
WEISSIn 2005, Zarqawi plotted two attacks in Amman, Jordan. The first was a chemical weapons attack that was interdicted by Jordanian authorities only at the last moment. The second was a series -- a successful series of hotel bombings that the Jordanians still consider to be their 9/11. It was always their global mission, and I think unfortunately as they continue to rack up these successes abroad, it is going to encourage others to take up the mantle and to wage attacks under the banner of the black flag.
REHMMichael Weiss of The Daily Beast, co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. President Obama is speaking now. He has said that the security situation in Afghanistan remains precarious. Quote, I will not allow Afghanistan to be used as a safe haven for terror to attack our nation again. He goes to say, instead of going down to 5,500 troops, quote, the US will maintain approximately 8,400 troops in Afghanistan into next year. What is the significance of that, Matthew Levitt?
LEVITTTo be blunt, it's -- the significance is the election cycle. Afghanistan has experienced some instability to be sure, and there is an Islamic State wiliyah or province that is competing with the Taliban and Al Qaeda there, to be sure. But in the immediate, that's not what is contributing to the kind of terrorist attacks that we're seeing around the world. There is a need to try and make sure that Afghanistan doesn't revert to what it was, but the primary Al Qaeda threat today is from the Nusra front in Syria. And then from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
LEVITTAnd the Islamic State threat, primarily, is not, certainly not abroad, is not coming from Afghanistan. And so, it's separate from your question before the break about the threat to the United States.
REHMAnd that's what I'd like to get to -- how can US security be improved considering the kinds of threats that we've heard about this morning.
LEVITTSo I think it's important to start off to put this in perspective. Right, we hear about the Islamic State every time we turn on the news, including people who are turning on this program. And we need to put it in perspective that the total number of people who have either gone or tried to go, from the United States, to fight in Syria and Iraq, or more recently, in Libya, is about 280 people. That sounds like a big number, but in a country the size of the United States, it's not a big number at all.
LEVITTAnd while the FBI reports that at any given time, it has about 1,000 tourism cases, about 50 of which are real terrorism cases and the rest are kind of radicalization cases, that too is a big number. But again, across the entire United States, it's not so much. And so, there are threats, but the good news is that the FBI and the intelligence and law enforcement agencies are really quite good at intervening. And I think what we really need to see is the law enforcement and intelligence and abroad, the military effort for sure, complimented by the other elements of power across the government.
LEVITTSo for example, we're seeing now efforts -- the creation of a task force to combat violent extremism created at the Department of Homeland Security. How do we move the needle earlier in the process, before someone is about to break the law or blow something up. See that someone like an Omar Mateen is behaving in a way that is disconcerting and turn to violence, ideological or otherwise, and intervene with the kind of services that we as a country are used to providing, whether its psychological, social or otherwise.
LEVITTThat, I think, 'cause at the end of the day, where counterterrorism is going to have to move. And that means not employing more federal agents or intelligence officers, but social workers and psychiatrists.
REHMHow do you see it, Michael Weiss?
WEISSI would agree with that. I mean, look, I've interviewed ISIS defectors and people who are still in the organization and, you know, attacking the United States is the holy grail, so to speak, for them. But they know that their options here are limited for reasons that Matthew gave. And the geographical expanse that separates Raqqa from San Bernardino or Orlando is enormous. There's an ocean that divides us. Whereas you can drive from D Azur to Calais for instance. And that's why Europe is such fertile ground.
WEISSThere's another phenomenon here, too, which we haven't yet addressed. And that is ISIS has undergone several transformations in its 13 plus year history. The latest, as far as I can tell, and perhaps Rukmini will agree with me, is what I would call the Europeanization of the franchise. It was, heretofore, unprecedented for them to appoint to senior security portfolios anyone who was not Arab. Specifically in the last several years. Iraqi or perhaps Syrian. This is changing. The head of their (unintelligible) which is their foreign intelligence branch, the guy responsible for European operations.
WEISSHe answers to Abu Mohammad Al-Adnani, the ISIS spokesman who also runs all of Syria for the organization. But he is called Abu Suleman al-Fransi (sp?) and he's a Frenchman born in Toulouse as my understanding is, and apparently has now run away and has been captured by the Turkish government. We haven't heard more about that, but anyway, this guy had a central role in the Paris attacks and in the Brussels attacks. And he is a native son of France. ISIS is going to be leaning on non-Arab actors and fighters.
WEISSIt is not a coincidence to my mind that they relied on Dagastani, Uzbek and Kazik fighters or suicide bombers or (word?) to perpetrate the Istanbul attack. These are people who blend in a little bit better in quasi-European cities such as Istanbul. When it comes to the United States, ISIS is looking to recruit from the Somali Diaspora population in Minnesota. People who have been more loyal, shall we say, to Al Shabab or Al Qaeda. And they're drawing them into the ISIS fold to wage these lone wolf attacks on US soil.
WEISSAny kind of nut job or disaffected or disenfranchised former criminal element. I mean, you can, again, going back to the FBI case files, there was a plot on New Year's Eve that was aborted by the FBI using informants. It was a mentally ill, formerly homeless man who wanted to blow up or take hostages in Rochester, New York. Actually got so far as to going into Wal-Mart and buying all of the gear, including zip ties and hatchets to carry out this attack. And then was nicked by the Feds.
WEISSThese are the kinds of examples you can expect to see here. I do not see an ISIS sleeper cell operating on US soil. I could be wrong about that, and never say never, but it's far more difficult for them to carry that off here than it is...
REHMRukmini, would you like to comment?
CALLIMACHII think Michael's -- I think Michael's analysis is exactly right. There is this much greater role of European and foreign fighters in this organization than we've seen previously. With ISIS in its previous years as well as with Al Qaeda. But regarding the threat to America, I think we need to keep in mind that even though Orlando was a very big jolt and was frightening for all of us, the United States has done a much better job, I think, of containing this problem, than a nation like France or a nation like Belgium.
CALLIMACHIFrom where hundreds and hundreds of young men and women have gone and joined the Islamic State. Even with 280 people, if that is the correct number, we're really at a -- at a tiny fraction of what European nations are currently dealing with. As far as dealing with the threat, one issue that is coming up in the United States is that we don't seem to have a tool to deal with the radicalization of these young people beyond sending, you know, informants and doing sting operations and essentially arresting people at the airport before they book a -- before they board a flight to Istanbul.
CALLIMACHII'll tell you one example. It's the very sad story of a young man named Adam Schaffe, (sp?) a young man in his 20s. He was showing signs of radicalization and he came to the attention of officials, not from a well-placed informant or through a sting operation. It was his own father, who was concerned and looking out for his well-being, who went to the FBI. The result is Adam Schaffe has since been arrested and is in jail.
CALLIMACHIAnd his father is, of course, extremely angry and perplexed. And wondering if he did the right thing. There needs to be something beyond just jailing these people when they're in the early stages of radicalization. European countries are dealing with that now. They've created anti-radicalization programs in several nations. We don't -- it's too early to know if they're working, but it seems to me that we need to be looking for something of that nature. Arresting them can't be the only solution.
REHMI'd be interested in your reaction, Rukmini, to this email from Marcia. She says, please ask if worldwide income inequality figures into the attraction of ISIS.
CALLIMACHIYou know, for years, people have postulated that poverty is a driver of terrorism. And certainly, you can look at cells all over Africa, Boku Haram, Al Qaeda and the Islamic Maghreb and you can go and talk to the parents of those young men. And often find a financial motive for them joining that group. But the studies that have been done on jihadists, over the past 10 years and even longer, what they have found is that there isn't actually a profile of these people. And the Bangladeshi attackers are a case in point.
CALLIMACHIThey came from elite, private schools. They had -- they came from good families who had good jobs and who had an affluent background. So these people come from all over the place. And what I feel we need to be addressing is the ideology. That's the poison that is infecting all of these people.
LEVITTSo, I very much agree with that. You know, there's no profile, and the way I describe it to people is imagine we're all going to a salad bar and we all are at the same salad bar, but we're all going to walk away with a different salad. There's a combination of factors out there and what makes you laugh or cry is going to be different from what makes me laugh or cry. And what radicalizes one person will be very different from what radicalizes another. Can economic factors play some role? Yes.
LEVITTDoes -- do economic factors in and of themselves radicalize people to violence alone? No. Is ideology always the most important factor? No, not always, but have I seen a case in the radical Islamist space where it has played no role? No. And Rukmini's right that at the end of the day, something has to mobilize you beyond your frustration and anger to actually act, and that tends to be an idea. And so, the ideology is critically important here.
REHMYou know, in Sunday's New York Times, Michael Weiss, there was a chart showing the different countries and their security systems getting on to airplanes. Saudi Arabia had the most security and the US had the greatest gaps in that security. I wonder about those people who would like to interrupt what's happening here in this country, getting onto planes in various countries and coming here. What is your thought about airline security?
WEISSYou know, I don't really see that as the main threat to the United States. I mean, the Saudis might have great airline security, but that's not going to do them much good if native Saudis are setting things off. And I do want to talk about that bombing in Medina because it's an important and possibly hinge event by the way in the history of ISIS. But you know, look, 9/11 was a one off, I think, with respect to using planes as cruise missiles. I don't see them doing that again.
WEISSThey tried to -- this was Al Qaeda, of course. They tried to set their shoes on fire. They tried to set their underpants on fire. That didn't work out so well for them. You'll recall, when the coalition went to war in Syria, claiming that it was only going to be bombing ISIS. It actually was bombing ISIS and also the Al Qaeda franchise in foreign intelligence branch or what was rather creatively known as the Khorasan group. These were guys from the AfPak region who had migrated over to Syria.
WEISSAnd what was the rationale for hitting them? Well, there was some chatter that was intercepted, suggesting that they were plotting another airline attack using explosive laden or chemically doused clothing that could be set alight on board an airplane and then blow the whole thing up. They haven't had much luck with that, and I think that the new model is going to be in the US, at least, perhaps combination gun and bomb attacks. It's obviously, you know, the gun issue and the gun debate is still very relevant here.
WEISSYou don't have to be a jihadist to buy an AR-15 and shoot up a school or a cafeteria. But if you're a jihadist and you want to kill the kafir, it's quite easy to do so under those circumstances.
REHMAnd indeed, there was a story today, Matthew, about the FBI stopping a man here in Virginia, who was plotting an ISIS style attack.
LEVITTYes. The main threat that we're facing here is not from the foreign directed plots by the ISIS external command under Adnani, but it's these inspired plots and the ability to get small arms here makes that much more difficult. We do, as Rukmini said, have better efforts at integration in this country. And post 9/11, we've law enforcement, intelligence things, fusion centers, joint terrorism task forces put in place that can -- that are well capable of sniffing these things out, but there's no such thing as 100 percent. We will not stop everything.
REHMAnd you're listening to The Diane Rehm Show. Let's take a caller in Tampa, Florida. Lorraine, you're on the air.
LORRAINEGood morning, Diane. I love your show.
LORRAINEI listen to it every morning.
LORRAINEMy question is why haven't we gone after the head of ISIS, Al-Bagdadi, I think his name. It seems to me like if you could get him, you know, to use a metaphor the Iranians have used, you could cut off the head of the snake and we got Osama Bin Laden. We got Saddam Hussein. What's the problem with Al-Bagdadi?
CALLIMACHII think we are actively trying to get Baghdadi and he's done a good job of evading strikes. When I was in Iraq last year, I interviewed three of the young women that he held as sex slaves. They were from the Yazidi minority. And they told me that at one of the locations where they were held, where Baghdadi was coming and raping them at night, they very narrowly escaped an airstrike. And so that suggest that at least one of the airstrikes came close, perhaps, to getting him.
CALLIMACHII would, however, just caution the caller. That what we have seen of this group and of Al Qaeda before it is that the metaphor of cutting off the head of the snake just doesn't work. This is -- let's imagine a hydra. You know, this is, this is one of these mythical animals that you cut off the head and it grows several more. Osama Bin Laden was killed in 2011. I won't have time to numerate all of the major Al Qaeda attacks that happened since then, including on the In Amenas gas plant in Southern Algeria.
CALLIMACHIIncluding on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi. Including Charlie Hebdo in France. So, the group remains very much alive today, despite the fact that the so-called head of the snake was cut off. Certainly, getting Baghdadi could be a deterrent to the organization, but it's -- I doubt that it would be a solution.
LEVITTFirst of all, what was Al Qaeda in Iraq and today is the Islamic State has shown, of all these groups, a particular capability to replace its leaders from Zarqawi on. We did get Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, but that did take some significant time. But you might have heard Brent McGirk (sp?) and other senior US officials in the past few weeks make comments in Congressional testimony and in media interviews. Just noting, kind of off the cuff, that it's interesting that we haven't seen much of Baghdadi recently. No one's willing to say that he's dead.
LEVITTNo one's willing to say that he's injured, but he hasn't made a Ramadan speech, he hasn't been heard from in some while. And US officials are kind of dropping that comment in interviews and testimonies recently, not willing to go beyond what we know, which is just that he's been absent.
REHMSo, we don't know who's leading which group at this point.
LEVITTWell, I think we know who's leading the Islamic State. I think not every one of these people, you know, is captured on telephone intercepts on a regular basis. They have good operational security. They've learnt from experience over the past few years that we're very good at tapping phones, et cetera. And so, it shouldn't surprise if someone like Baghdadi falls off the coms for a while, but we have a very good sense of who's leading the Islamic State.
REHMMatthew Levitt. He's with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Michael Weiss, Senior Editor at the Daily Beast and co-author of "ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror." And Rukmini Callimachi, a reporter for the New York Times. A very important program. Thank you all so much for being with us. And thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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