FPI Conference Call: Paris Attacks and the Global Terror Threat

The Foreign Policy Imitative (FPI) hosted a conference call November 20 on the terrorist attacks in Paris and Mali, as well as the state of the global Islamist terror movement.

FPI Executive Director Christopher J. Griffin moderated a discussion between Thomas M. Sanderson of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and Dr. Gary J. Schmitt of the American Enterprise Institute.  Key quotations follow below, and an audio recording of the call is available on our website.

ISIS’ Intentions with the Paris Attacks

“What I think ISIS is doing is pointing a finger in the chests of other countries that are part of the anti-ISIS coalition or broad assault, and telling them, ‘you’re going to incur penalties and costs for doing this.’ And they are pushing back against those who are bombing them, who are conducting operations across the region — whether [against]  ISIS or not — but are engaged in the global counterterrorism effort. So I think this amounts to a shove to the chests of the French, the Russians, Hezbollah, groups that have been imperiling their project: the state in the Syria-Iraq battlezone.” – Thomas M. Sanderson

“We’ve been engaged in conflict — war — with ISIS, and they’ve punched back like anyone else in a war. And so, the result’s going to be that this can’t remain a domestic counterterrorism problem, it’s going to be something close to global in scale. Not that it wasn’t that way previously, but I think now that’s going to be the obvious point on both government’s levels, but also on the level of population. We’ve entered a new era, at least openly, when we’re talking about this kind of conflict.” – Dr. Gary J. Schmitt

How to Respond to the Paris Attacks

“What are the potential actions here? More forward basing of U.S. special forces with local units in Iraq, for one thing, where they go out at the brigade or battalion levels and actually assist with the guys targeting [airstrikes] and direct action. … I also think we need to put more people on the ground in Syria to develop targeting packages with better intelligence. And that is a clear problem there with just not enough information. … The other thing is loosening the ROE [Rules of Engagement] on the airstrikes.” – Sanderson

“The key end goal at least in the near future has to be breaking what I would call the ‘success narrative’ for ISIS. It has to begin to look like they’re on the losing end of things. I think that should determine the tools that we put in place to make that happen. … I think the strategic goal has to be making ISIS lose territory and begin to have a sense that they’re losing. Just because the success that ISIS can claim is actually helping draw in the fighters and also inviting people within France and Belgium and others to put forward the jihadist plans.” – Schmitt

“There’s nothing that I’ve looked at in the last 15, 16 years of doing [counterterrorism] work that has presented more difficulty in the realm of choices and ripple effects. This is really remarkable. No matter what you choose, there are two or three negative impacts from that choice. There is often no good choice A and there’s never a plan B that seems even remotely relevant.” – Sanderson

“There’s even more need to create safe zones in Syria that potentially you begin to expand and expand so that you create an alternative narrative for Syria’s future that … isolates the Damascus regime.” – Schmitt

France’s Capabilities

“The French counterterrorism capabilities are quite robust. … It’s a combination of a number of factors, some having to do with the laws. The French laws on investigations are much broader than what we have in the United States. There’re provisions for detaining people and holding people in jail for weeks and sometimes months without actually bringing them to trial. They have broader surveillance capabilities and broader license to engage in surveillance. They spend an immense amount of effort on HUMINT in the streets. And then they have, institutionally, these unique capabilities because they have these investigative magistrates who have these broad, sweeping powers to bring intelligence and law enforcement capabilities together. And these magistrates are in place for years and years and built up an expertise and have very close personal ties to all those security elements within France. So it’s a multi-faceted capacity that they’ve developed.” – Schmitt

“Over the past year plus, when talking to the French, you had a sense that even though they had this capability and were quite successful in the past, we’ve never seen them be as anxious because the numbers that they were facing in terms of target jihadists, suspected terrorists, and suspected plots was so high that even their capabilities were being out-matched by just the sheer numbers of problems that they were facing.” – Schmitt

“The French right now have about 10,000 of their soldiers abroad. … In addition with the number of French military now doing homeland security, there’s not much capacity for them to do much else. … They try to maintain a fairly ready force of a certain size, but that force is pretty well deployed. … So the French are stretched about as thin as they can possibly be, so if they need help, it’s going have to come from the U.S.” – Schmitt

ISIS’s Resiliency

“They are really, really good in countering our ability to track them electronically. It’s not an area we should back off, but I just think it’s a very, very tough area in which to succeed. But the more we press there, and the more we force them to use new phones, to better their encryption packages, that incurs costs and time penalties on them, which is good in the overall battlefield. So encryption is definitely a big advantage for them, and without a greater presence on our part in the area, it’ll be harder to hit them.” – Sanderson

“The operation in Paris was big, involved a lot of moving pieces, involved people moving across all kinds of borders. In that sense, it should have left a fairly significant trail for the security folks to be able to follow. … Obviously the operational security that they engaged in was just really taking a step beyond what we’ve seen in the past. … Post-Snowden, the jihadists are just much more careful about operational security when it comes to electronic communications, and it’s going to make our security folks much more nervous about whether they can provide the security that we’re hoping they can do.” – Schmitt

“What I think ISIS did from the outset was look at some of the travails of previous terror groups and their own activities and recognize that if you have a leash on you from the Gulf — you’ve got heavy Gulf funding — that leash can be yanked. … So I think these guys said, ‘Look, we’re essentially going to be like preppers: We’re going to have everything sourced locally so that we will be durable and resilient.’ … That’s the oil, that’s the granaries, that’s the kidnap for ransom, that’s the antiquities, the extortion, the taxation — all of those things that give them significant funding.” – Sanderson

The Refugee Crisis

“I think we do have an obligation to provide a route for Syrian refugees to come to the United States. It’s a moral obligation, just because in some large respects it’s the absence of the U.S. taking decisive action against ISIS that has led to the refugee crisis. … That said, of course, we’re obviously going to have to deal with the fact that ISIS will try to put in place folks who will want to do harm to us. I don’t think the numbers will be incredibly great, but on the other hand it doesn’t take many folks to conduct serious operations that would do damage here. The idea that we’re going to be able to screen these folks in a significant way I think is also very difficult to imagine. There’s just no enough intelligence to understand who these people are going to be and the like. So there’s a risk. On the other hand, I think the larger obligation is to provide safe haven for them.” – Schmitt

“We do have a duty to accept these folks. … The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior. And what have we seen in terms of refugees coming into the U.S. conducting attacks? Negligible amount. We should do it. We have to do it. It’s against our DNA not to do it. And if you’re looking at the scorecard between terror groups and liberal democracies, you’ve got an immigrant nation, the United States, talking about monitoring Muslims, not letting in Syrians, only letting in Christians. At the same time, you’ve got Europe with its open borders experiment and transparency — rolling that back. You can’t help but see that terrorist groups are pushing us backward in terms of our own democratic experiment. And to me that’s a huge defeat if we accept that and move backward in that direction.” – Sanderson

Speaker Biographies

Thomas M. Sanderson directs the CSIS Transnational Threats Project, where he investigates terrorism, transnational crime, global trends, and intelligence issues. He has conducted field research in more than 60 countries and has authored or coauthored 15 reports, as well as opinion pieces, debates, and articles in The EconomistNew York TimesWashington PostWest Point Counterterrorism Center Sentinel, andHarvard Asia-Pacific Review. He engages a variety of sources including journalists, terrorists, traffickers, foreign intelligence officials, business leaders, nongovernmental organizations, clergy, and academia. Sanderson leads a multiphase study of emerging trends in terrorism covering South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa through 2015. He has also codirected an al Qaeda futures study and numerous studies on Central Asia. From 2004 to 2009, he directed studies on violent extremism in Europe and Southeast Asia. He serves as a course instructor and consultant for the U.S. government and the private sector on terrorism, geopolitics, and global threats. He provides expert commentary for the media and courts of law. From 1998 to 2002, he worked for Science Applications International Corporation, conducting research on weapons of mass destruction and terrorism for the Defense Intelligence Agency’s office of counterterrorism. In 2005, Sanderson completed a fellowship at the American Academy in Berlin, Germany, and in 2001, he held a fellowship at Fudan University in Shanghai, China. He holds a B.A. from Wheaton College in Massachusetts and an M.A. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

Dr. Gary J. Schmitt is the co-director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at AEI and the director of AEI’s Program on American Citizenship. Mr. Schmitt is a former staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. He was executive director of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board during President Ronald Reagan’s second term. Mr. Schmitt’s security work focuses on longer-term strategic issues that will affect America’s security at home and its ability to lead abroad, while his work in the area of citizenship focuses on challenges to maintaining and sustaining a strong civic culture. His books include Of Men and Materiel: The Crisis in Military Resources (AEI Press, 2007), to which he was a contributing author and editor with Tom Donnelly; Silent Warfare: Understanding the World of Intelligence (Brassey’s, 2002), coauthored with Abram Shulsky and now in its third edition; and U.S. Intelligence at the Crossroads: Agendas for Reform (Brassey’s, 1995), a coedited volume to which he is a contributing author. His most recent books, to which he is also editor and contributing author, are  The Rise of China: Essays on the Future Competition (Encounter Books, May 2009), Safety, Liberty and Islamist Terrorism: American and European Approaches to Domestic Counterterrorism (AEI Press, 2010), and A Hard Look at Hard Power: Assessing the Defense Capabilities of Key US Allies and Security Partners(Strategic Studies Institute, 2015). Schmitt has also coedited Trendsetting Charter Schools: Raising the Bar for Civic Education (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) with Cheryl Miller.

Christopher J. Griffin joined the Foreign Policy Initiative (FPI) as Executive Director in January 2013. Previously, he served as legislative director to Senator Joseph I. Lieberman (ID-CT), advising the senator on the full range of legislative proposals and key votes. Between 2008 and 2011, he was Senator Lieberman's military legislative assistant, in which capacity he developed the senator's legislative agenda as a senior member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and chairman of its Airland Subcommittee. Prior to joining Senator Lieberman's staff, Mr. Griffin was a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy (2005-2008), where he focused on U.S. foreign and defense policy toward the Asia-Pacific. During his time at AEI, Mr. Griffin was also a contributing editor to the Armed Forces Journal, writing feature articles on international defense industrial cooperation and a monthly column titled the "Blogs of War." Mr. Griffin's writings have been published in the Washington PostWall Street Journal, and New York Times. Mr. Griffin received a B.A. in international studies from Austin College in Sherman, Texas, and an M.A. in international studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, DC.

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