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ISIS started capturing America’s attention in 2014. At the time it felt to many like the group had popped up suddenly, as a result of the Syrian civil war. But counterterrorism expert Brian Fishman says that’s not the right picture. While it may feel new to us, the origins of the group known as the Islamic State go back at least a decade. Because it has overcome numerous obstacles since then, Fishman says, ISIS sees itself as highly resilient, and the U.S. has failed to recognize this in its strategy to combat the group. Fishman and ISIS expert William McCants take us inside the hidden past of the organization, and talk about what the new U.S. administration needs to know about ISIS moving forward.
- Brian Fishman Counterterrorism research fellow, international Studies program at New America; author of the new book "The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory"
- William McCants Director, Project on U.S. Relations with the Islamic World, Brookings Institution; former State Department Senior Adviser for countering violent extremism; author of "The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State” (September 2015)
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Years before ISIS came on the global scene, al-Qaeda's security chief created a seven-stage plan for jihadis to conquer the world by 2020. Despite the divide between the two terror groups, that vision has proved prescient. With the help of newly declassified documents, author and research Brian Fishman has traced a new history of ISIS, its ties to al-Qaeda and what we can learn about the future of jihadis strategy by looking at its past. His book is titled "The Master Plan." He joins us from a NPR studio in New York City.
MS. DIANE REHMHere in the studio in Washington, William McCants of the Brookings Institution. He takes a somewhat different view of the ISIS story. His recent book is titled "The ISIS Apocalypse." And throughout the hour, I'll look forward to hearing your thoughts, your opinions. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow us in Facebook or send us a tweet. Thank you both for joining us.
MR. WILLIAM MCCANTSThank you for having me.
MR. BRIAN FISHMANThank you.
REHMBrian, I'd like to start with you. The title of your book, "The Master Plan," explain to us what you mean by "The Master Plan."
FISHMANSure. I think there is this perception among many policymakers and many in the public that the Islamic State is somehow a new organization that grew up perhaps during the Syrian civil war. It became prominent, I think, globally in 2014 and we sort of think about it and debate it on those terms. The real point of the book, "The Master Plan" is to provide folks a deeper history of the organization and really to get folks to understand how ISIS thinks about itself because it thinks it is an organization with at least a decade of tenure under its belt and it believes that that decade gives it resilience.
FISHMANI believes when it thinks about itself that it has taken the best the U.S. military can offer, survived and then thrived. And so as we think about the contemporary campaign against the Islamic State, I think we need to always remember that the enemy gets a vote and it believes that it is going to survive. Now, the master plan itself is a plan, a strategic plan, that was developed in 2004 at a time when al-Qaeda was finally integrating itself with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's organization, the man that was sort of the leading terrorist of the early years in Iraq and the founder of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
FISHMANIn 2004, after the invasion, Zarqawi was finally swearing allegiance to al-Qaeda and the master plan was a document and a strategic vision that was designed to integrate these two different viewpoints. Al-Qaeda had this very long term strategic vision that was premised on the idea that it needed to attack the United States in order to separate the United States from local regimes in the Middle East primarily that it wanted to overthrow.
FISHMANBin Laden's assumption had been that the U.S. would prop up those local regimes and would prevent them from being toppled. Zarqawi had a much more urgent sort of perspective. It wanted to topple these regimes very quickly. And what the master plan, the most prescient thing that it said was in stage five of this seven-stage plan, stage five was to take place between 2013 and 2016, it said the caliphate will be redeclared in Syria during that time period, which it was in 2014.
FISHMANNow, that's a good hook. It's a good headline. The most important thing there, I think, is not actually the timeline. I think they got lucky on the timeline, but their analysis of why Syria was a place where they could redeclare the caliphate was extremely insightful, I think. And what they saw in Syria was an exception to the geopolitical analysis that had lead al-Qaeda to this long term strategy of attacking the United States. They saw that in Syria, that this was a place and this was a government that the United States would not prop up, that if jihadis were able to foment insurrection in Syria, the U.S. would not back it up and therefore, the Assad government would be vulnerable.
FISHMANThat was a very accurate analysis and I think it has driven a lot of what has occurred in the last couple of years. The other piece of this that I think is important is that that master plan was designed for an alliance that no longer exists. It was designed for an alliance between al-Qaeda and the Zarqawi-ist movement that ultimately became the Islamic State. That has famously fallen apart in the last couple of years. I would argue that it was much more tenuous from the very beginning. But what's key to this is that both of those elements, both the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, which we don't talk about as much today, had a vision at one point of establishing the caliphate and believing that Syria was the place to start it.
REHMBrian Fishman, he's counterterrorism research fellow at New America. His new book is titled "The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory." Now, Will McCants, you have a new book as well. It's called "The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State." You take a somewhat different view from Brian's.
MCCANTSYeah, and probably better to say in this case in terms of "The Master Plan," I would augment it a little bit. It's striking to me that in "The Master Plan," this seven-stage plan for global domination, it's focused on Syria and Iraq, partly for the reasons that Brian says, but as also, as he documents in the book, because in Islamic prophecy, Iraq and Syria is where the end times battle with the infidels are supposed to go down. So there is a scriptural religious reason as well for jihadist who formulated that plan to focus on that region.
MCCANTSI would also say that even though an operative associated with al-Qaeda helped formulate this plan, in conjunction with Zarqawi and his folks, they differed a lot over when and how to establish the caliphate. Al-Qaeda's leadership wanted there to be popular support for establishing the caliphate. Zarqawi and his people had a very different theory of the case. They believed you establish it first. You don't ask for permission. And then, you go from strength to strength. And as Brian documents in his excellent book, this really had to do with different conceptions of who was a Muslim and how you should win them over.
MCCANTSThe Zarqawi-ist faction drew that circle very narrowly, very small. They believe most Muslims are not authentic Muslims so you don't need to win them over.
REHMBut how do you define them?
MCCANTSYou define them by whether they think Zarqawi is doing a good job or not and after the Islamic State declared itself a caliphate, you define a good Muslim as someone who signs up for the caliphate. Everyone else, all the 95 percent of Muslims who have rejected it, they are not true Muslims and they can be killed with impunity.
REHMSo does it make a difference as to how old ISIS is? There seems to be some difference of opinion here.
MCCANTSIt does matter in terms of the organization. It matters a lot. They have a lot of experience fighting an insurgency, raising money. They pioneered some of the early techniques for distributing jihadist propaganda online. All of that experience, a decade of experience, as Brian said, helped them take advantage of the Syrian civil war in 2013/2014.
REHMWilliam McCants is director of the project on U.S. relations with the Islamic world at the Brookings Institution. He's a former state department senior advisor. His new book is called, "The ISIS Apocalypse." You are welcome to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to email@example.com. Brian, in looking at your work, it seems to me one word becomes a defining word about ISIS and that is resilience. No matter what happens, it seems to hold together around those basic ideas.
FISHMANI think that's right. Building on what Will just said -- and, you know, I can't recommend his book highly enough, and even though we come at this from two different angles, I think we wind up in a similar place in terms of our analysis going forward. The interesting thing about ISIS is that it does, it has this very narrow conception of what and who constitutes a true Muslim. That limits its ability to actually build a functioning state with a functioning bureaucracy and achieve its ultimate goals, right?
FISHMANAnd it tries to sort of square this circle in a variety of ways. I really think about the differences between al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in two ways. One is this notion that Will pointed to, where ISIS just has a tighter, smaller definition of who counts as a true Muslim. The other thing that the Islamic State has done historically or the Zarqawi-ist movement has done historically is they've rejected clerical hierarchies. And al-Qaeda has done that, too, but they've tended -- and jihadis generally have done that when those hierarchies were connected to established political states.
FISHMANWhat's interesting about the Islamic State and the sort of Zarqawi-ist movement is they rejected the jihadi clerical hierarchy if it didn't endorse their sort of violence. And I think that that gives it a sense of resilience because many of those people actually criticize it vehemently.
REHMBrian Fishman, his new book is titled "The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda, and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory." Short break, right back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about ISIS, its foundations, its growth, its membership and its ultimate goals with two people. Brian Fishman is at New America. His new book is titled "The Master Plan: ISIS, al-Qaeda and the Jihadi Strategy for Final Victory." William McCants is at the Brookings Institution. He's the author of the recent book "The ISIS Apocalypse."
REHMAnd what I'd like to understand and perhaps most of our listeners are concerned about, what are ISIS' ultimate goals? To you, Will McCants.
MCCANTSThe ultimate goal of the organization is to reconstitute the early Islamic empire and to put at its head a single ruler who they call the caliph who would be both a political and a spiritual leader. Ultimately after they've reconstituted the empire in Muslim majority countries, they believe that prophecy says that they will conquer the entire world.
REHMIncluding Israel and many...
MCCANTSAnd the United States, everything.
REHMAnd the United States. Brian, do you agree with that?
FISHMANYeah, I do. I think that's exactly what they intend to achieve. I think the framework of the master plan is more focused on the first piece of that, which is re-establishing the sort of early Islamic empire and eliminating Israel. I think it's worth pointing out that that is a totally unrealistic goal. They are not going to be able to achieve that. And I think that sometimes we have these debates around their goals that are distinct from their actual capabilities.
FISHMANI do not think they are a threat to take over the Middle East, to reconstitute the early Islamic empire, but I do think that they are an extraordinarily resilient organization that is going to maintain the capability to be a virulent and highly dangerous terrorist organization on a global scale for the foreseeable future.
REHMI have an email here from Steven, (PH) who says I've read ISIS is actually less concerned with Iraq and Syria and are mainly seeking to claim Mecca and Medina, the caliphate they talk about, therefore a direct threat to Saudi Arabia. Will?
MCCANTSIt's true that Mecca and Medina rate high in the list of targets for the organization. Geopolitically, religiously, it matters a great deal who controls the twin shrines in Islam, but also in terms of the apocalypse, it's one of the major stage in the final end times drama that a savoir figure will appear in Mecca to lead the armies of the Muslims, the true Muslims, against the infidels. So it matters for a host of reasons to the organization.
REHMSo have they changed their strategy along the way as far as thinking about attacking this country?
MCCANTSIn attacking the United States I would say yes. Attacks in the West were not a high priority for the organization. As Brian documents in his book, there were various points in the organization's long history that they considered attacks in the West, had operatives in the West, but it was really after the United States began bombing the organization, first in Iraq and then in Syria, that they unleashed the dogs of war in Europe and began to really push the organization to carry out attacks against the Western countries fighting them.
REHMAnd indeed, Brian, many people saw Syria as directly responsible for ISIS. How do you respond to that?
FISHMANWell, the Islamic State believes that it was founded in October 2006 with the declaration of an organization called the Islamic State of Iraq. I remember this very clearly. I taught a course at West Point in the spring of 2008 to a group of cadets, and it was premised on the notion that there was this entity in Iraq that had declared an Islamic State, and what did that mean for the future of the jihadi movement.
FISHMANSo this idea that we've just come to in the last couple of years that they're trying to sort of put down roots and build a foundation for governance in my view is short-sighted. At the time they had a ministry of fisheries and agriculture. They were setting speed limits. They were collecting trash in places that they were able to.
FISHMANNow what was interesting, though, at the time was they declared this Islamic State of Iraq right before the famous surge and awakening, which occurred in 2007 and 2008, and that strategy really damaged the Islamic State of Iraq and set it back tremendously, maybe from 20,000 fighters down to about 1,000. And what's interesting about this dynamic is you get up to the sort of -- the days right before the Syrian civil war, and we in the United States sort of -- the Department of Defense, we held sort of two principles at the same time.
FISHMANOne was the Islamic State of Iraq had been militarily defeated, but we also said, and these are estimates from DOD, that it had 800 to 1,000 members. Now 800 to 1,000 members is far fewer at the time than they had had in 2006, and it's certainly far fewer than they have today or in 2014, but 800 to 1,000 members is four to five times as many members as al-Qaeda had on 9/11. So the framework and the vision that you use to try to understand these organizations really impacts how you interpret their strength, and I think that the reason I bring that up is because we're going to go through a similar process now.
FISHMANThe Islamic State is on defense in Iraq and Syria. They are losing territory, they are losing soldiers. They are going to look a lot weaker than they did in 2014, but I think we need to make very sure that we assess them based on their capabilities moving forward rather than just relative to them at their strongest point.
REHMDo you agree that they are weakening, Will?
MCCANTSOn they're certainly weakening. I think it's useful to think of the organization in three parts. One is a government that it has in Syria and Iraq. Second is an insurgency, which it has in various parts of the Islamic world, and then third is an international terror organization. The insurgencies are weak, and its government is weak. It's losing territory steadily. It's about to lose its two major cities, Mosul in Iraq, Raqqa in Syria.
MCCANTSBut you do not want to count out this organization. As Brian has said...
MCCANTSExactly, resilience, and it's noteworthy that between 2008 and 2011, when the organization was defeated as an insurgency, it still remained one of the world's most powerful terror organization, and they spent those years assassinating their rivals. One estimate has it that they killed something on the level of 2,000 people who had risen up against them in the tribal awakenings to prepare the ground for a comeback.
REHMHere's an email from Michael, (PH) who says you talked about how ISIS thinks about itself. Where are we getting that information? How do we know how they see themselves, Brian?
FISHMANThat's a great question. I think there are a lot of sources, and Will is familiar with many of these, some of this is what do they say about themselves both in their slicker propaganda pieces that are designed for widespread consumption but also in the longer and generally less easy to read, ideological tracks. But I think we also have a lot of access over time to their internal documents, whether it's from the Islamic State or some of the back and forth that they had with al-Qaeda.
FISHMANMuch of that has been declassified over the years after being captured by U.S. troops on the battlefield, and I think that that provides some insight, and mostly from my perspective, it corroborates what many of this group's leaders say publicly. I think when they talk about their ideological goals, when they've talked about how they think about themselves and what their ideology is over the long term, they're relatively honest about it.
FISHMANThe biggest thing that I think the Islamic State has gained ideologically from the sort of Zarqawi-ist movement previously that helps build resiliency is the notion that criticism actually -- criticism including from other Muslims actually is an endorsement that they're on the right path, right. They actually believe that. It's a very sort of cult-like vision, and that is a -- that is not a strong basis on which to build a globe-spanning caliphate, but that is a very useful ideological perspective if you were trying to build a core resilient terrorist organization that is going to be able to take a lot of hits and keep kicking.
REHMAll right, I want to open the phones and welcome our listeners in, first to Seth (PH) in Kings Bay, Georgia. You're on the air.
SETHHey Diane, great to hear your voice on the radio, as always.
SETHI am a member of the military stationed in Kings Bay, I'm a submariner, and I generally support the U.S. mission. I've spent two years of my life underwater helping to carry that out. But I think one of the main issues that we have is the way we talk about religion. I fully believe that the issue is not -- is obviously the fundamentalists but also the fundamentals of religion itself.
SETHAnd until we can acknowledge that, it's clear that they -- just like you said, they're following their religion, and they think they are right, even though other Muslims aren't. But the moderate Muslims are simply ignoring the Quran because it's very clear what they are supposed to do, convert, and if you can't, subjugate, and if you can't do that, then kill.
SETHAnd so to finalize my point, it's a lot of what Sam Harris has talked about, as well, but I think it's how we talk about religion, and it's not being a little -- too politically correct about it, thank you.
MCCANTSFirst let me thank you for your service. Second, I think you're right that -- in the sense that people are very skittish talking about the religious nature of the organization, its relationship to a major world religion. It's frustrating to me and to others who are familiar with the Islamic tradition that the organization draws on. It justifies many of its actions in terms of scripture.
MCCANTSBut I would say I don't -- I don't think it's quite right to dismiss the moderates as having a poor understanding of their own religion. They have a different understanding of their religion that arises from a different interpretive tradition, and I would say for outsiders I don't think it's wise to pick sides and say this one is right, the jihadists have it right, the moderates don't have it right. It's an internal religious discussion.
MCCANTSBut as a historian and a scholar of religion, you can look and see what traditions within that religion the jihadists draw on to justify their attacks, and they have many scriptures that they can turn to.
REHMDo you want to add to that, Brian?
FISHMANYeah, I'd really just like to endorse what Will said. I think we should be very circumspect about any effort to say that some faction, whether it's Islam or Christianity or Judaism, understands the true nature of the religion, particularly when the overwhelming majority of that religion's adherents don't see it that way. And from an outsider's perspective, I think we are better off allowing this to play out and that debate to occur within those sort of faith communities.
FISHMANI'd also say that we oftentimes hear that moderate Muslims don't speak out against the Islamic State. Well, it's quote-unquote moderate Muslims that are doing most of the fighting and dying against the Islamic State. So these are folks that are on -- literally on the front lines, and I think we should be very, very careful about -- and respect the sacrifices that they're making.
REHMAnd you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. And now to Jeremiah (PH) in Detroit, Michigan, you're on the air.
JEREMIAHHello, Diane. I just wanted to bring up something that you were talking about earlier. You were talking about the Islamic State and their ability to adapt to the modern world and their inability to make their conquests a reality because their goals do not fit the status of the world, right. Well, I was in the Army for 15 years, five of it as a cavalry scout. I went to Iraq in 2004-2005, and the rest of the time I spent as an intel guy.
JEREMIAHSo one of our jobs as a senior NCO was to talk about or brief the commander on the contemporary operating environment, and as the -- you know, if we're talking about the contemporary operating environment, what's going on right now on the ground, you're absolutely correct. But the problem is that these ISIS people, they think about things in terms of 500 years or 1,000 years or whatever. And so you have to be able to predict the future operating environment, not only deal with the contemporary operating environment.
JEREMIAHAnd the biggest problem arises in our inability to adapt to that. And the United States, for example, is technically bankrupt. So if we have to predict what they will be able to do not just in our -- you know, in our timeframe but, say, in 50 or 100 years if the United States nuclear umbrella or our, you know, ability to project power via our, you know, 11 carrier groups is no longer present.
JEREMIAHIn that case, they will be able to survive, and it may be -- you know, you can't just simply count out, well, they can't do this or that.
MCCANTSI think anyone who has followed the region and its implosion after the Arab Spring is pretty humble about making predictions of what is going to happen in the Middle East. So it would be a tall order to predict what is going to happen in 100 years, and I absolutely take your point that nothing should be taken off the table in terms of discussion.
MCCANTSBut I would say it's worth highlighting that this organization would not have gained near the strength had the Arab Spring not happened. It was a powerful terror organization, but it never would have gained this kind of territory, and I see its success in many ways and the jihadist resurgence since 2011 as a function of the deeper dysfunction in the Middle East. And until those underlying dysfunctions are addressed, you're going to keep seeing an organization like ISIS or other re-emerge.
REHMBut don't you feel that what's happening in Syria, for example, is simply going to go on and on and on?
MCCANTSYes, it will. The best outcome in Syria will be a loose confederation of states. It's probably going to be much more like the wild days of Afghanistan with a series of warlords. This conflict will continue to drag on, it will continue to be a drag on its neighbors, so we will continue to see jihadist organizations like ISIS thrive.
REHMAnd what happens to Bashar al-Assad in the meantime?
MCCANTSI think he stays in power.
REHMWhat kind of power, if you have these various areas and warlords?
MCCANTSHe controls -- he will control a rump state along the eastern Mediterranean coast. He'll control the major cities. If he's able to consolidate control there, he will push to the east to try and reconstitute the state. I don't think that's likely, but he will continue to control a kernel of that state.
REHMVery interesting. William McCants, he is at the Brookings Institution. His book is titled "The ISIS Apocalypse." We'll take a short break here. More of your calls, your email when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about ISIS, its history, its plans, its future. Will McCant, why is it so important to look at the history of ISIS, in terms of what's happening now?
MCCANTSWell, it gives you some sense of where the organization is headed. There has been a lot of change in the leadership of the group. It's lost several of its leaders. And there have been a huge change in terms of the organizational structure and the opportunities that they are confronted with. But amidst all of that, over a decade of change you can see some commonalities. And one would anticipate that those commonalities would continue into the future.
MCCANTSSuch as the organization's brutality. And its inability to make allies with other like-minded jihadists. Not just the broader Muslim world. So it will be difficult for it to thrive outside of Syria and Iraq.
REHMHere's an email from Bill. "We hear much about the technical aspects of fighting ISIS through drone strikes, cyber warfare. What importance do you place on human intel, specifically espionage within ISIS ranks in defeating them?" Brian?
FISHMANI think it's extremely important. Especially, if we are going to be able to -- ultimately these are human organizations. And so you need to understand the people that run them. This is going to become really important because this is an organization that has been able to suffer setbacks and get back on its feet. It's been able to replace leadership figures. And so one of the things that you can do with human intelligence, potentially, is sow problems within the organization.
FISHMANYou can say, you know, if we had chance, for example, to use a technical mean to kill Abu-Bakir Baghdadi, that's something that we -- the caliph -- that's something that we should do. But that would be even more effective if we were able to frustrate and confuse the process inside the Islamic State for selecting his successor. And that's the kind of process that would likely require human intelligence. Those are the kinds of things that are going to turn a tactical victory into a more strategic one.
REHMAnd here's an email from Raul, who says, "ISIS, Al-Shabab and others pose a substantial threat to our foreign service officer and all those serving overseas. How do our guests see their strategy changing with the Trump administration?" Will?
MCCANTSThe ISIS organization will continue to do what it's doing. It sees that it has an ally in Trump, in the sense that Trump's talking points about Muslims plays into the ISIS recruitment strategy. It hopes to polarize Muslims and to force them to make a decision between joining ISIS and being part of a West that rejects them. So to the extent that the Trump -- incoming Trump administration plays into that recruitment strategy, it will be a windfall to the organization at a time that it needs it.
MCCANTSIn terms of its on-the-ground operations, I don't think it changes much in light of a transition in the administration. It's going to continue to try and hang on to its big cities in Iraq and Syria. And it's going to continue to try and create some sort of strategic depth by moving into other countries in the Middle East and north Africa.
REHMInteresting. Brian, do you believe Donald Trump's words have actually helped to provide a recruiting technique for ISIS?
FISHMANIn general, the Islamic State has rejected al-Qaeda. One of the few exceptions to that is the American al-Qaeda ideologue Anwar-Awlaki, who is most famous for his efforts to recruit Muslims in the West to join the jihadi cause. Awlaki, one of his most famous speeches essentially goes something like this, he says to Muslims, you can't trust a kind word from your non-Muslim neighbor. You can't trust your government. The camps are coming.
FISHMANYou need to activate and operationalize now. That is a sense that the Islamic State has picked up on and they are going to take forward. And so I think Will is correct, that -- not just the Trump administration, any administration, any public leader in positions of authority in the West, need to be very wary that these jihadi organizations have, as a core component of their strategy to weaken the social bonds inside the West and convince Muslim citizens that they ought to take up arms, not just because they buy into the ideology, but because if they don't, they are under threat themselves.
FISHMANSo I don't think this is going to radicalize a lot of people, but it may take a few folks that are already sort of walking down a radical path, and convince them to operationalize. And I think that that to me strikes -- that strikes me as a more realistic option.
REHMAll right. To Ian in West Lafayette, Ind. You're on the air.
IANHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
IANSo the king of Jordan, whose country has been on the front line against Islamic extremism for years now, has stated that the Western world's philosophy in combatting Islamic extremism is fundamentally flawed. He believes that by waging a piecemeal, regional campaigns, like we've been doing, we are ignoring a reality that, say we were to defeat ISIS in Syria or Iraq and the caliphate, as it exists now, the fighters that get out would simply move to a new front in Africa or elsewhere and continue their extremism and terrorism there.
IANSo my question for your guests is do they agree with the king of Jordan, that we need to take a more wholesale global approach in our war against Islamic extremism, which would of course be more expensive and costly in lives, or do they believe that it is a viable strategy to continue to irradiate individual cells and organizations regionally, before moving on to the next one?
MCCANTSThere are a number of big structural issues that are driving the resurgence of jihadist organizations. As I said, the political implosion in the Middle East and north Africa is one of the big ones. I think over the past decade we have collectively learned about the limits of the United States' ability to nation-build in other parts of the world. The past two presidents, Obama and now Trump, were elected to get the United States out of the region.
MCCANTSSo as much as the king of Jordan is correct, that foreign fighters will go elsewhere and find a new conflict, the ability of the United States to chase them wherever they may be and to address the underlying problems that they are taking advantage of is not very realistic. I think in the long-term we're going to be playing a lot of defense.
REHMA lot of defense, Brian?
FISHMANYeah, I think that's right. You know, the primary example and in many ways the catalyst for modern jihadism and all of its forms, was the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the anti-Soviet war there, where many jihadis from around the world came to Afghanistan to fight. That's where al-Qaeda came from, etcetera. We're going to see a similar process out of the Syrian War, except it's going to be on a completely unprecedented scale, where veterans from that fight are going to scatter all over the globe.
FISHMANAnd many of those of folks will go back to regular lives, but a significant number will not. And they will attempt to foment unrest in those places. The issue is that's gonna happen on a scale that the United States cannot resolve alone. It's going to happen on a scale where local governments are going to have to better than they have been, both at law enforcement, intelligence, but also at governance more generally. And then this gets back to a point Will made earlier.
FISHMANWhich is that the fundamental problem here is a failure of governance. It's a failure to assert control. This is true in Iraq and Syria. It's a failure to have a sense of justice for all people that live in these places. And we're going to see the repercussions of that, not just in Iraq and Syria, but around the world.
REHMAll right. To Avon Lake, Ohio. Trent, you're on the air.
TRENTHello, Diane. Thank you for taking my call.
TRENTI just wanted to ask sort of as ISIS has established itself in these two main cities, Mosul and Raqqa, I would have thought that they would have kind of taken on a vulnerability from doing that, in that they've actually places themselves in one area. But they've sort of developed something of an atypical resistance. An itch you can't really scratch. Is there a reason behind this? You know, a strength, a clarity of their message or is the reason -- region just that disorganized that they were able to do this?
MCCANTSThe latter, definitely the latter. They have benefitted from the fact that all of their potential enemies do not see them as their premiere enemy. The Turks are more worried about the Kurds. Saudi Arabia is more worried about Iran. And so on and so forth. They have benefited from this inattention. The United States has patiently built a coalition now to take on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It's been slow-going, but it is now bearing fruit.
MCCANTSBut I don't think we should full ourselves that the problem is going away any time soon because those internal political fractures are going to reemerge when ISIS loses its grip on the government. And ISIS will be there to try and pick up the pieces again.
REHMDo you agree, Brian?
FISHMANYeah, and I think that's really key here. There is military operation underway that is doing great damage to the Islamic State, but the quite diplomatic efforts that have sustained this very tenuous coalition are perhaps even more important. And I think it's gonna be very, very critical as we transition administrations, that the incoming Trump administration understands how fragile that coalition is and can move to sustain it.
FISHMANThat's a lot easier said than done. I think there is one other piece to the structure of the Islamic State that's worth noting. When this organization was very resilient in 2009, 2010, it had this very bottom-up structure. Where it had local districts that were gathering money and designing attacks, recruiting, they would pass money up the bureaucracy to sectors who would pass it up to the central level organization. One of the great questions for me that I -- frankly, I don't think I have a good answer to -- is how does money flow and authority flow in the Islamic State today and is it really flowing top down?
FISHMANIt seems to be. If that's the case, then I think the organization is actually more vulnerable. But my suspicion is that they're going to be able to invert that. They're going to be able to operate as a cellular organization again, raise money from the population and local sectors. And that's gonna give them more resilience.
MCCANTSYeah, when they had to go underground in 2008, one of their strongholds was in the city of Mosul, where they're currently holding out. And they were able to maintain themselves, by basically functioning like a mafia organization, using extortion and kidnapping to keep hope alive. And one suspects that they will do a similar thing if they have to go underground again.
REHMHere's an email from Jacob, who says, "Please address the persistence of Western governments in using a modern Judeo-Christian paradigm to analyze the strategy, tactics and reasoning of ISIS and al-Qaeda. It appears our mental model makes no sense." And before you respond, you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Will, can you take that on?
MCCANTSYeah, I'm not sure which part of the analysis is drawing on Judeo-Christian background of the United States. I mean, if you're talking in terms of religion, I think Christians do have a misperception or misunderstanding of what Islam is, what religion is. They think it's just personal or private in nature. For the Islamic State they view their scripture and early Islamic history as providing a blueprint, a program for establishing and running a state.
MCCANTSAnd the analogy there would actually go back to early Judaism and its attempt to create a religious state based on tribal identity. In terms of strategy though, and tactics, I think a lot of people just get it wrong in general, regardless of what their background is because they don't read enough of what the organization has produced.
REHMI wonder whether either of you, during this period of transition here in the United States, would see ISIS as thinking this would be a great time to attack.
MCCANTSYes. And we know this from documents that Brian mentioned that have been declassified. From al-Qaeda, where periodically it tried to carry out attacks just before elections or carry out attacks just after to try and influence the new administration. It's the same sort of the thing the governments are doing all over the world, to try and set facts on the ground and to shape the incoming administration. And it's particularly potent in a democracy, where any small attack can create the fear that will drive an overreaction. It's the kind of overreaction that terrorist groups thrive on.
REHMBrian, how do you see it?
FISHMANYeah, I think especially in the case of the Islamic State, you know, they lean into attacks when and how they can conduct them. I think that they definitely, as Will said, you know, a lot of this is not rocket science for terrorist organizations. Terrorism is a strategy of the weak. That remains true with the Islamic State. And so it is fundamentally a strategy about trying to provoke a stronger opponent into doing things that are counterproductive to its own interests. Striking at a time when you can create a larger political impact is obviously part of that calculation for them.
REHMSo what kinds of missteps might the U.S. make under a transitional period that could provoke ISIS?
MCCANTSWell, the greatest misstep that ISIS is hoping for is that laws are put in place soon after the next administration comes in that puts American Muslims on the defensive. If there is a registry, if there is a ban on certain kinds of clothing. We have seen in Europe the number of foreign fighters increase when countries have debates or implement bans on the veil. And one anticipates in the United States we would see the same sort of thing.
MCCANTSAnd though the appetite, the public appetite for those kind of bans increases when there are attacks. And recruiters for the Islamic State, for al-Qaeda and other groups, are hoping that those kind of policies will be put in place, because it makes recruitment much easier for them.
REHMAnd your hope would be?
MCCANTSThat we do not put those policies in place. That we recognize that Muslim Americans are an ally in this fight, that they are part of the U.S. government that is taking this on, and they're part of private citizens that are also speaking out against this.
REHMWilliam McCants, he's at the Brookings Institution. He's the author of "The ISIS Apocalypse." And joining us from New York, Brian Fishman of New America. His new book is titled, "The Master Plan." I want to think you both so much for joining us.
REHMAnd thanks to all of you for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.
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