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Op-Ed: The Need for a Global Strategy for Fighting ISIS

The question of whether or not we should fight ISIS has now been rendered irrelevant. ISIS has decided to engage us. In Paris on a Friday night, November 13th, 2015, people went off to celebrate the end of the work week, to do errands, to spend time with family and friends, and to relax and have fun. They were confronted by a monstrous, ruthless evil.

After a series of terrorist attacks in Paris some 130 people are dead and more than 350 wounded, some still in serious condition. There were at least six sites attacked by as many as eight terrorists (seven were suicide bombers) including: the Bataclan concert hall; Stade de France; La Carillon bar, and the cafes La Petit Cambodge, La Belle Equipe, and La Casa Nostra –  all in the 10th and 11th arrondissement. To have carried off this level of attack it is very likely that there was a planning cell either in France or outside and a logistics cell in France to house, equip, and hide the attack cell that carried out the deadly rampage. Reports from Israeli sources suggest that the attacking force was at least double the reported size. Suicide vests, bombs and assault rifles had to come from somewhere; you just don’t cross the French borders with them or wander the streets of Paris with them out in the open.

It has been reported that a vehicle containing more firearms and ammunition was found near the site of one of the attacks and raids on the alleged mastermind’s home led to the find of another weapons cache.  French security forces carried out a raid days after the attack on the suspected terrorist ringleader, Abdelhamid Abaaoud’s hideout, in an operation that ended with eight detained, two dead and other attacks pre-empted by direct action. The French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, said Abaaoud was behind four of six failed attacks since the spring. The Belgian prosecutor’s office stated the Belgian police carried out a total of nine raids, and nine arrests.  The Raids in central Brussels and the districts of Jette, Ukkel and Molenbeek were centered on associates of one of the suicide bombers killed in the attack.

While the size of the area, the number of attackers, and the casualty rate suggests that it was likely a larger team of attackers, what is not in question is who carried out the assault on innocents. The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant has claimed responsibility for the attack and one of the terrorists’ bodies was found with a Syrian passport, said to be a forgery likely obtained in Turkey. Arrests have reportedly been made in Belgium and people have been taken into custody in Paris and elsewhere in France. The French government has said categorically that it was ISIS and declared war on the group. It was reported that Iraq warned Coalition partners of a pending attack by ISIS a day in advance of the Paris attacks. Turkey reportedly foiled a plot by ISIS to carry out attacks in Istanbul the same day. The degree of the violence, its ruthlessness, the degree of sophistication and coordination speaks to a larger terrorist organization like Al Qaeda or Hezbollah. In this case, it was ISIS.  It appears that ISIS now has grown and matured to the point that it has the command and control capacity to launch out-of-theatre operations in Europe, and likely even farther.

There will be many questions in the aftermath of this attack. Many will ask whether French intelligence and police agencies failed. There are reports that one of the attackers was known to French authorities. Could France have been better prepared? Should public sites have armed guards? Are there ISIS extremists mixed in with the refugees who are by and large men of military age, not families with children? Lastly, what of the radicalization of France’s Muslim population? These questions and many more will resound in France and in most Western democracies. The truth is France is one of the best defended, best policed, best prepared countries from a security and intelligence perspective in Europe and among the best in the world. But it is a democracy and an open cosmopolitan society. Democracy is the very environment that ISIS will use to its own military advantage. They simply have to pick their targets and bide their time to strike with deadly effect. The French have a long history of battling terrorists yet it did not help them stop Friday’s attack.

ISIS has had a busy and successful few weeks as a terrorist organization. It battles the illegitimate Syrian government and its Iranian, Hezbollah, and Russian allies on the ground in Syria. The group assaults the Iraqi government and Kurdish forces in Iraq along with their allies and faces Western, Russian and Arab air power throughout the depth of its theatre of operations. They hold a large swath of territory and they commit genocide within it against anyone not like them. Their goal is total victory and war on their terms is without limits. They have made no secret of the fact that they will strike their enemies wherever and whenever they can. On October 31st a bomb brought down a Russian Airbus airliner over the Sinai with 224 people on board. ISIS claimed responsibility and said that they had smuggled a bomb on board and showed photos of the alleged device. On November 12, 2015, ISIS terrorists went after Shia Muslims in the heart of Hezbollah’s territory in Beirut. Some 50 people were killed and 250 more were wounded.

ISIS has become a significant regional problem and it has a fertile ground for recruiting young radicalized Muslims worldwide based in large part on its successes. The recent Paris attack was one of several in France.  In August a lone gunman linked to ISIS went after a trainload of people in France but was stopped before he could execute his plan. In January of this year a man with links to ISIS killed four at a Paris kosher supermarket. Last year, Canada was witness to two ISIS-inspired terrorists, one who ran down and killed a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force in Quebec and another who murdered a soldier at Canada’s most sacred site, the national war memorial and then tried to turn our Parliament buildings into a killing house. The next target for an ISIS attack could be London, Washington, Moscow or Ottawa, again. By all accounts, ISIS is manufacturing and has used chemical weapons, Mustard gas to be exact, at least four times in Syria and Iraq. They are also reported to have obtained old, but deadly Sarin nerve gas from Libya. It is only a matter of time before they use chemical weapons abroad. Sadly, Paris could have been much worse. (Its head of state, President Hollande was at the sports stadium watching the game in progress.) France’s Prime Minister has warned of the risk of chemical warfare.

The global community needs to straighten its resolve and develop a comprehensive strategy to defeat and destroy ISIS. This calls for both a military and a political solution to a deadly scourge that includes nation building. So far, France has only sought out the support of the European Union in terms of collective defence but could turn to NATO.  The North Atlantic Council could then meet to debate and potentially invoke Article V as it did in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks on the United States in 2001. The UN Security Council needs to insist that Syrian President Bashir Assad vacate the Presidency and if Russia and Iran want to be rid of the ISIS menace then they have an obligation to tell Assad to relinquish power. A commitment to free and open, internationally supervised and verified elections would be a meaningful political benchmark. Strategic military cooperation against ISIS is Russian President Vladimir Putin’s way back into the West’s good graces after the Ukraine. Iran needs to demonstrate that its commitment to the nuclear accord is more than just lip-service as a prelude to covert activities. But further military strategic cooperation with those two powers may come at a price too high to contemplate  given the implications in the Middle East and Central Europe. There also needs to be some political-diplomatic resolution on Kurdistan’s status and to real legitimate governance in Iraq. The underlying political, social, and economic issues that allow ISIS to become a dangerous strategic threat need to be addressed.

At the same time, as civilized, law abiding, democratic nations we must be prepared to deploy those military forces needed to destroy ISIS in the field, both Special Operations Forces and local Arab ground troops backed by air power in such numbers as to defeat ISIS wherever it rears its head. This could be enabled by a substantial intelligence presence from NATO nations and the so-called “Five Eyes” intelligence community of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Australia. It would require satellite support, electronic, and superior human intelligence to enable the ground and Special Operations Forces to do their surgical job – just as we did in Afghanistan, when Al Qaeda and their Taliban allies met NATO military power first hand and were defeated in battle. Al Qaeda is now a mere shadow of itself in terms of capability and capacity to act. It is not totally eradicated but its defeat is more than apparent to all. Now it’s ISIS’ turn to face the community of nations and its very legitimate wrath.

The new Trudeau government was elected on a promise to do things differently than the previous government. Canadian voters handed the government a mandate to do just that and they are by all accounts inclined to live up to their campaign promises. One area of disagreement between the political parties in the general election was the realm of foreign policy. The Liberals promised to abandon the bombing campaign in favour of Special Operations Forces trainers and increased humanitarian aid striking a balance between the Conservative position of limited war making and the NDP position of complete withdrawal. The new government has suggested they will not withdraw from the bombing campaign before the current commitment ends in the spring of 2016. This is a sage decision knowing that things could change and that events may force decisions on the government. A six pack of CF-18 fighter bombers is a significant commitment in the fight against ISIS but there are other strategic options in addition to our work training Iraqi forces. Recent precedent suggests that government could hold an emergency debate in parliament on Canada’s involvement in the Syria and Iraq conflict and ISIS.  The government could enhance its position with its allies by increasing its training of Iraqi forces; improving a greater intelligence commitment; offering increased police training and building democratic institution in Iraq. It could also increase Special Forces training in Jordan and increase training in the realm of Chemical defence given ISIS’ penchant for using Chemical weapons.

These would be welcomed measures by our allies in both NATO and in the region without going back to the bombing mission and would further contribute to stabilize the situation and defeat ISIS.

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Joseph Varner
Joseph Varner is a former Director of Policy to the Minister of National Defence, Minister of Justice and Attorney General of Canada, a Professor in Emergency and Disaster Management at American Military University, and a CDAI Research Fellow.