Missing the signs

Vox’s Jennifer Williams wrote an excellent and very brave piece for Lawfare yesterday called “We Were Wrong About ISIS.” As the title suggests, she does something very rare in the field of People Who Write About Stuff for a Living: she admits to getting something, specifically ISIS’s shift from state-building to foreign terrorism, wrong:

Many terrorism analysts, myself included, have argued that the Islamic State poses only a limited terrorism threat to the United States homeland, and to the West in general, because the group has primarily focused on its caliphate-building project in Iraq and Syria and, unlike its rival al Qaeda, has little interest in attacking the West. Even though ISIS propagandists frequently called on “every Muslim in every place” to “fight in his land wherever that may be,” this call to arms was almost always offered as a secondary option. The first and best option was to travel to the lands of the Islamic State to fight there. Since the Islamic State had been around in various incarnations for over a decade and had not prioritized attacking the West, the track record seemed clear.

Some analysts also argued, and many more of us agreed, that the potential terrorism threat from the thousands of foreign fighters emigrating from Western countries — including hundreds from France — who have traveled to Iraq and Syria to join the Islamic State was not as serious as some suggested. This was in part because it seemed the Islamic State was more interested in using these Western foreign fighters as suicide bombers in Iraq and Syria than in taking the time to train them and send them back to the West. There is an opportunity cost with every martyr, after all.

Sure, we acknowledged, terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe were almost certainly going to occur, but they would most likely be small-scale, amateurish, low-casualty attacks of the kind carried out by untrained — and often unhinged — lone wolves. Big, complex, high-level terrorism spectaculars like 9/11 or the London subway bombings were likely beyond their reach.

Then the Paris attacks happened.

I don’t know if I’m a terrorism analyst, or even how one gets that title. I started out as a freelancer writing about Ukraine and the Iran negotiations. But I write often enough about this stuff that I’d like to add myself to the “we” in the title of Williams’s piece, because I certainly didn’t see anything like Paris coming.

As Williams writes, in the aftermath of the Paris attacks we all need to reevaluate our assessments of what ISIS is and has been about. Were the analysts who said it was, at least for the foreseeable future, only a regional, Middle Eastern threat right all along (obviously not, we now know)? Were they wrong all along? Or were they right before but missed a shift in ISIS’s orientation? My thinking is that it’s the last of these.

Nearly everything about ISIS, including its very name, has, since its inception, been oriented toward building a “state” in eastern Syria-western Iraq, and then building out from there. The group’s first propaganda video, for Pete’s sake, was called Nihayat Sayks-Piku, or “The End of Sykes-Picot,” which is the kind of clarion call that only a group trying to build a physical political entity bridging that border would make. Before Kogalymavia Flight 9268, the only actions ISIS had taken “abroad” seemed intended to sow discord and expand its organization to other places–its efforts in Libya, Egypt, and Afghanistan, for example, or its frequent attacks on Shiʿa mosques in the Persian Gulf–with the occasional and generally ineffective “inspired lone wolf attack” in a Western country sprinkled in for good measure. There was nothing like Paris or Flight 9268 in there. People were certainly warning about the danger of foreign fighters coming back to their homes in the West and launching attacks there back in 2014, but then those foreign fighters just kept going to Syria and, well, not coming back and launching any attacks at home. And ISIS kept insisting that it wanted followers to go there, portraying “stay home and do terrible things there” as second-best on the list of “things a good Muslim should do.”

But there were signs of a shift, and people like me mostly seem to have missed them. Most glaringly, there was an empirical fact about hybrid insurgent-terrorist groups like ISIS–specifically, that when the insurgency starts to go badly, the risk of terrorism goes up–that never really registered, even as people were talking about how ISIS had been slowly losing territory in Iraq and Syria for the better part of a year. That fact alone should have raised some alarms. But there were other signs as well. For example, while discussion of this “shift” in ISIS’s tactics has focused on the Kogalymavia downing and the Paris attacks, I think you have to consider that attacks like the Sousse resort shooting in Tunisia in June also signaled that ISIS was starting to change its orientation.

Sousse was easy to dismiss as “business as usual” for ISIS, because it was a simplistic attack, one that looked very much like a lone wolf thing, on an Arab nation not far from Libya that has had some recent political instability. ISIS has exploited countries whose political establishments were wracked by the Arab Spring, and the Arab Spring started in Tunisia. So Sousse had some hallmarks of a typical “create chaos that ISIS can then exploit” attack. But it also had a lot of elements in common with Paris–Sousse is a beach resort that caters to Europeans, so a lot of the victims were European nationals (mostly Brits); it’s a very soft target, like a restaurant or nightclub; and it was a very uncomplicated attack, just some guy shooting the place up. To be fair, there were suggestions at the time that maybe Tunisia was a sign that ISIS was changing, but those suggestions never got much traction in the media (I suspect, unfortunately, because although the victims were mostly European, Sousse is still in an Arab country).

There’s another reason why nobody saw Paris coming, whether we’re talking about analysts or security professionals: because the attacks were so simple. Any one of them could have been committed by a lone wolf, one inspired by ISIS or just looking to cause some death and destruction. Paul Pillar wrote about this on Saturday:

The terrorist attacks in Paris illustrate the point. Some organizational aptitude was needed to put together an operation that involved simultaneous dispatch of multiple attack teams, but this did not require organizing any more people than would be needed to put together a neighborhood soccer team. The death toll for all of the Paris attacks, as shocking as it understandably was, nonetheless was much less than a more skillfully conducted operation involving a comparable number of attackers would have inflicted. The attack team that went after the most target-rich location—a sports arena with tens of thousands of people—managed to kill only one other person besides themselves. The spraying of bullets in crowded places such as cafes or concert halls is not a high-skill endeavor, especially when the shooters have resigned themselves to being killed as well. Jack Shafer at Politico, who criticizes mainstream media for giving alleged attack organizer Abdelhamid Abaaoud too much credit by labeling him a “mastermind,” observes that earlier failed shooting attacks that Abaaoud was suspected of being behind “took about as much imagination and skill as ordering a pizza.”

Shafer also has done the math to determine that the Paris terrorists inflicted fewer deaths per attacker than did one deranged individual at Sandy Hook Elementary School. That is an apt comparison given the nature of the counterterrorist task that the FBI and other U.S. authorities currently face in trying to prevent mass-casualty attacks in the United States. Americans attempting to travel to ISIS-controlled territory in Syria and Iraq barely constitute a trickle: an average of only two persons a month since July. Battalions of radicals traveling to and from the ISIS mini-state clearly are not the core of any threat to American security. As a New York Times article about these patterns aptly puts it, “thwarting an Islamic State-inspired attack in the United States” is “less like stopping a traditional terrorist plot and more like trying to prevent a school shooting.” Washington Post editorial cartoonist Tom Toles illustrates the same basic point in another way.

If living in America in 2015 has taught us anything, it’s that you can’t stop lone assholes with guns/bombs from shooting/blowing places up, and it’s true in France as well even though access to guns there is far more restricted than it is here in the US. It’s particularly true, as Pillar writes, when the attacker isn’t looking to come out of the attack alive. Maybe you can stop one, or two, or a thousand, but given enough assholes with enough weapons, the odds of stopping all of them get pretty low. And if those kinds of attacks are impossible to stop, they’re also pretty near impossible to predict.

After 9/11, there was a lot of hand-wringing about how people failed to predict an attack of a level of sophistication and magnitude that far surpassed what happened in Paris 10 days ago. The fact that there were people warning that a 9/11-level attack was in the offing, and those warnings went ignored, only highlights the challenge facing people who do this stuff for a living. The fact is that terror groups have a lot of advantages over the people trying to predict what they might do next, even with all the invasive surveillance programs we Westerners have learned to accept since 2001 (now, what the Paris attacks say about the efficacy of those surveillance programs is another question entirely). The alternative to trying to realistically assess what’s happening is to just trade in worst case scenario fear-mongering constantly, and while that tactic is certainly safer professionally (nobody remembers the attacks you predicted that didn’t happen, but they definitely remember the attacks you missed), it’s not helpful–in fact, it’s downright counterproductive most of the time. All you can do is keep adjusting your analysis in the light of new evidence, which is inherently a postdictive, rather than predictive, exercise. That unfortunately, but inevitably, means you’ll occasionally miss the mark.

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