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The Composting of ISIS: Let it Rot

Yesterday the Islamic State group (ISIS) released a grisly video of Jordanian First Lieutenant Moaz al-Kasasbeh being burned alive in a cage like something out of a cheap horror film. But this was real, and it may well mark the beginning of the end for a group that will eventually rot from the inside out.

This is by no means ISIS’s first atrocity – the group has been carrying out crucifixions, beheadings, mass murders, trafficking in women and systematic rape for some time now. Indeed, the group understands that the more barbaric its actions the more media attention it will garner, and seems to believe that will lead to still greater flows of foreign fighters and financial supporters. That may have been the case before, but the grotesque murder of al-Kasasbeh may turn that tide.

Why? Because, as Secretary Kerry quickly underscored, al-Kasasbeh was not a Western journalist but “a devout Muslim, one of eight children, just months into married life, with the hopes of his own family in front of him.” Around the world, people can identify with al-Kasasbeh; #JeSuisMoaz.

But even more than the murder of American and Japanese hostages, this act will backfire on ISIS. More than anything we in the West can say or do, more than any counter-radicalization campaign, it is ISIS’s own actions that undermine its credibility and standing among fellow Muslims and blunt its magnetism.

This is a group primarily engaged in the wanton killing of fellow Muslims, including fellow Sunnis like al-Kasasbeh. Indeed, the group jails or murders its own foreign fighters who tire of the group’s brutality and want to go home and it extorts the local populations it purports to govern to fund its sectarian bloodlust.

More than anything else, two things will herald the beginning of the end for ISIS, and both are furthered by al-Kasasbeh’s tragic death:

First, the group is beginning to decay from within as reports emerge detailing the ISIS abuse of local populations; the stories of disappointed foreign fighters who return home to debunk the myths of this so called true “Caliphate”; and the anger of the vast majority of Muslims around the world reacting to the group’s barbarism. Burning a fellow Muslim alive checks that box is a very graphic way.

Second, losses on the battlefield, such as the defeat at Kobane and the blows ISIS is surely about to suffer from Jordan and its allies severely undermine the group’s appeal. Success breeds followers, fighters and funds – it is the group’s single greatest draw – both for radical true believers and “5 star jihad” followers on. Defeating ISIS on the battlefield will speed up that decay from within. Let it rot.

ISIS has publicly killed another man, burning him alive. Now is the time to double-down to ensure the consequences of such actions begin to consume the so-called “Islamic State.”

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and Director of the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and a Senior Fellow with the GW Center for Cyber and Homeland Security.

Remembering Three Americans who were Murdered in Gaza, 11 Years Ago Today

Eleven years ago today a U.S. diplomatic convoy was bombed in Gaza leaving three Americans dead – though most readers will remember little or nothing about the case.  Palestinian officials said long ago that they knew who was responsible but would not arrest them, and Washington has done little about the case.  Here is the background on the case, which I first laid out 10 years ago on the first anniversary of the attack.  Most of what follows comes from that decade-old, still painfully relevant editorial.

The terrorists targeted a convoy bringing State Department officials to Gaza to identify potential Palestinian recipients of Fulbright Scholarships.  The three Americans killed — John Branchizio, Mark Parsons and John Martin Linde Jr. — were security contractors. While the Oct. 15, 2003 attack marked the first successful roadside bombing of a U.S. convoy, it followed a similar one in June of that year that targeted another U.S. convoy, which narrowly escaped.

After the attack, Palestinian security chief Jibril Rajoub announced he was “100 percent sure that we will be able in the coming days to reach who planned and carried out this attack.” Within 24 hours, Palestinian security forces arrested several suspects, including members of the Popular Resistance Committees (PRC).

The PRC, a motley crew of loosely associated radical Palestinians from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Fatah and the various Palestinian security services, claimed responsibility for the attack, though the claim was later rescinded. The PRC is known for its skill with the kind of powerful remote-controlled roadside bombs that targeted the U.S. convoy. The State Department has long maintained that the PRC remains the primary suspect in the attacks.

A hastily arranged military trial for three PRC members — convened less than 48 hours after Washington offered up to a $5 million reward for information on the attack — charged the three not with murder or attempted murder but with manslaughter in connection with possessing explosive devices. The trial was convened on only a few hours’ notice; the defendants had no attorneys, and neither their families nor the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv were informed in advance.

Palestinian judges delayed the trial a month so defense attorneys could be present and the case moved to a civilian court. When the trial reconvened, the court announced that the defendants would be released since “no evidence was offered against” them. They remained in jail despite the judge’s order, however, pending the approval of their release by then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. That approval never came, leading fellow PRC members to storm the jail the next month and free the suspects. A U.S. official cited the jailbreak as “another sign of the lack of seriousness that the Palestinians have shown in this investigation since the beginning.” Sadly, none of this should surprise. U.S., Israeli and even some Palestinian officials believe the attackers were at least tangentially tied to Arafat’s Fatah movement.

Indeed, the investigation — to the extent there was one — was doomed from the outset.

The attack occurred near a manned Palestinian checkpoint. Immediately after the attack, journalists photographed Palestinian police officers standing by as onlookers cheered and roamed the crime scene, destroying critical evidence.

Adding insult to injury, Musa Arafat, the head of Palestinian military intelligence in Gaza and a cousin of Mr. Arafat, announced in September 2004 that Palestinian authorities know the killers — “some Palestinian factions,” in his words — but would not arrest them because “clashing with any Palestinian party under the presence of occupation is an issue that will present many problems for us.” According to him, “the Americans have started recently to understand our position.”

A State Department spokesman called Musa Arafat’s comments “totally unacceptable and outrageous,” adding, “If it’s true that the PA knows the identities of the murderers, we expect immediate action to be taken to arrest, prosecute and convict them.”

Beyond such protestations, the United States has done little to press the PA to cooperate with the FBI in the investigation. In addition to the $5 million reward offer, the State Department banned travel to Gaza by U.S. officials and suspended funding for two water development projects there. Unfortunately, these meager actions incurred little cost for the PA — certainly not enough to compel Palestinians into action on an issue they appear keen to avoid.

Eleven years later, with Hamas and Fatah hammering out the details of a unity agreement, particularly regarding their respective security forces, the United States should press the PA to do its part to enforce the rule of law. And, at a time when the international donor community is being asked to foot the bill for another Gaza war, coupling such aid—especially PA budget assistance—with a demand for real judicial and political reform is entirely reasonable.  Bringing to justice those who kill Americans in premeditated attacks must become a Palestinian priority, not a matter of convenience.

Khorasan Group… Wolf Unit… What’s in a Name?

So it now appears that the Khorasan Group – the al Qaeda element embedded within Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria but targeting the West, not Assad – may actually be called the Wolf Unit. This doesn’t mean anything at all, since we already knew that US officials were aware of the group or cell’s existence but didn’t know what they called themselves so they came up with the Khorasan name so as to have a way to refer to the group. But the name game is going to serve as fodder for some intent on playing down the significance of this cell and pointing to the sudden revelation of its existence (but not its true name) as evidence the U.S. government is just making stuff up to justify airstrikes. I wish it were that simply or silly.

It is indeed odd that senior US intelligence, law enforcement and counterterrorism officials who testified before Congress just before authorities went public with the group’s existence made no mention of it whatsoever – explicit or otherwise – in their testimonies on the “Worldwide Threats to the Homeland.” I don’t think that was because they intended to mislead the public, however, I think they were still trying to make heads and tails out of this group, some of whose members they’d been following for as long as one or even two years.

In fact, the Khorasan Group is the real deal, as I laid out in a recent piece, though apparently with fewer members since airstrikes hit their facility in Syria killing their leader, Mohsen al-Fadhli, and others. Even so, the collocation of experience al-Qaeda operatives from around the world, together with the know-how of AQAP’s most skilled and ingenious bomb maker, and the ready availability of Western foreign fighters in Syria, combined to present a truly unique, and officials say near-term, threat to Western interests.

For example, though it was mocked at the time it was the threat presented by this group that led the Transportation Security Administration to ban uncharged mobile phones and laptops on flights coming to the United States from Europe or the Middle East. More recently, the Pentagon informed, the U.S. had “information on specific, concrete plotting” against aviation targets by members of this network, although there was no information of an “imminent” attack against any specific flight. But that’s not all. The Khorasan Group was apparently also considering low-tech plots intended to terrorize Western society. American and British sources are now whispering to the press about British and Australian intelligence suggesting “the real possibility” of a “knife and gun” attack by Western foreign fighters fresh from the battlefield in Syria.

So, what’s in a name? Not a whole lot. Call this group, or cell, or network whatever you like. They apparently call themselves something other than the name given to them by some U.S. government bureaucrat. But whatever you call them, take the threat they pose seriously. No need for hysterics, but best not to pretend what appears to be a very real threat is made up either.

Show me the Money: Targeting the Islamic State’s Bottom Line

Speaking before the United Nations last week, President Obama pledged to lead a global coalition of countries committed to degrading and destroying ISIL.  Alongside airstrikes, train-and-equip programs for moderate rebels, and efforts to stop the flow of fighters into and out of the region, the President added that “we will work to cut off their financing.”  That, however, may prove hard work indeed.

The U.S. government has already kicked efforts to target ISIL financing into high gear.  Airstrikes targeted a few dozen small oil refineries in Eastern Syria which were processing oil seized by ISIS, and other strikes hit a building US Central Command described as an ISIS “finance center” in the Raqqa area. And there’s more to come: “This organization is still, even after the hits they’ve taken — and they have been hit — they still have financing at their fingertips,” Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby said after the refinery airstrikes. “This is just the beginning.”

That’s a good thing, because by virtue of controlling territory ISIL controls resources—oil, wheat, water, even ancient artifacts—which it plunders for its own financial gain.  It is also able to tax farmers, truck drivers, minorities and others.  Airstrikes aimed at pushing back against ISIL’s territorial expansion would have counter-terror finance benefits of its own.

Meanwhile, US Treasury continues to designate terrorist financiers and logisticians supporting ISIS (and other groups), including twelve “foreign terrorist fighter facilitators” from Georgia, Indonesia, Qatar, Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan.  One person Tarkhan Batirashvili, “coordinated closely with ISIL’s financial section,” Treasury reported.  Another, Tariq al-Harzi, “worked to help raise funds from Gulf-based donors for ISIL,” including a $2 million gift from a Qatari-based ISIL facilitator who stressed the funds were for military operations only.  The other ten funders and facilitators, however, worked for Jabhat al-Nusra, not ISIL. 

That, in fact, should not surprise—and is a big part of the reason why targeting ISIL financing may prove difficult. Unlike al Qaeda, which is heavily reliant on major Gulf donors, ISIL has been financially self-sufficient for at least eight years (harking back to when it was called al Qaeda in Iraq) by virtue of engaging in tremendously successful criminal activity enterprises on the ground in Iraq. According to a November 2006 U.S. government assessment cited in The New York Times, AQI and other groups had created a self-sustaining insurgency in Iraq, raising $70 million to $200 million a year from illegal activities alone.  Documents from the Department of Defense’s Harmony Database indicate that “outside donations amounted to only a tiny fraction — no more than 5 percent — of the group’s operating budgets from 2005 until 2010, when [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi took over after the deaths of two superiors.”

The problem is that we have tools—from military force to Treasury designations and more in between—to deal with oil smuggling and extremist sugar daddies in the Gulf, but our ability to counter ISIL’s local criminal enterprises is severely limited.  Coalition forces are no longer on the ground in Iraq today, and there is no interagency Iraq Threat Finance Cell (ITFC) to collect financial intelligence and feed operators timely targeting information to take down ISIL financiers.  Nor is are Iraqi law enforcement agencies able or willing to effectively combat what amounts to local criminal activity.

UN Security Council passed UNSCR 2170, passed in August to much acclaim, calls on all UN Member States “to suppress the flow of foreign fighters, financing and other support to Islamist extremist groups in Iraq and Syria.”  That is indeed a step in the right direction.  But at least as important will be pressing and empowering the Shia-led government in Iraq to forgo sectarianism and corruption in favor of governance and the rule of law.  The most complicated front in the financial fight against ISIL will be fought domestically against the vast criminal networks funding ISIL within Iraq.

Matthew Levitt is the Fromer-Wexler Fellow and director of the Stein program on counterterrorism & intelligence at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. An HSPI senior fellow, Levitt previously served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Intelligence & Analysis at the US Department of the Treasury.