Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

December 17, 2015

Talking terrorism

Filed under: Strategy,Terrorist Threats & Attacks — by Philip J. Palin on December 17, 2015


Tuesday evening in Las Vegas the Republican presidential candidates all had something to say about terrorism… and immigration, refugees, cyber-war and whether or not we are already engaged in World War III. The following focuses on what I heard regarding terrorism.

Senator Paul said, “If we truly are sincere about defeating terrorism, we need to quit arming the allies of ISIS. If we want to defeat terrorism, the boots on the ground — the boots on the ground need to be Arab boots on the ground.” He also said,”every terrorist attack we’ve had since 9/11 has been [the result of] legal immigration… I want more rules, more scrutiny, and to defend the country, you have to defend the border.”

Senator Cruz said, “If I am elected president, we will hunt down and kill the terrorists. We will utterly destroy ISIS. We will stop the terrorist attacks before they occur because we will not be prisoners to political correctness. Rather, we will speak the truth. Border security is national security and we will not be admitting jihadists as refugees. We will keep America safe.”

Mr. Bush said, “We need to destroy ISIS in the caliphate. That’s — that should be our objective. The refugee issue will be solved if we destroy ISIS there, which means we need to have a no-fly zone, safe zones there for refugees and to build a military force. We need to embed our forces — our troops inside the Iraqi military. We need to arm directly the Kurds. And all of that has to be done in concert with the Arab nations. And if we’re going to ban all Muslims, how are we going to get them to be part of a coalition to destroy ISIS?The Kurds are the greatest fighting force and our strongest allies. They’re Muslim.”

Governor Kasich said, “Then here at home, there are things called the Joint Terrorism Task Force, headed by the FBI, and made up of local law enforcement, including state police. They need the tools. And the tools involve encryption where we cannot hear what they’re even planning. And when we see red flags, a father, a mother, a neighbor who says we have got a problem here, then we have to give law enforcement the ability to listen so they can disrupt these terrorist attacks before they occur.” In regard to operations against ISIS, the Governor said, “This is not going to get done just by working with the Sunnis. And it is not going to get done if we just embed a few people. We have to go massively, like we did in the first Gulf War where we destroyed Saddam’s ability to take Kuwait. We need to have a coalition that will stand for nothing less than the total destruction of ISIS and we have to be the leader. We can’t wait for anybody else.”

Ms. Fiorina said, “Why did we miss the Tsarnaev brothers, why did we miss the San Bernardino couple? It wasn’t because we had stopped collected metadata it was because, I think, as someone who comes from the technology world, we were using the wrong algorithms.”

Senator Rubio said, “ISIS is a radical Sunni group. They cannot just be defeated through air strikes. Air strikes are a key component of defeating them, but they must be defeated on the ground by a ground force. And that ground force must be primarily made up of Sunni Arabs themselves, Sunni Arabs that reject them ideologically and confront them militarily. We will have to embed additional American special operators alongside them to help them with training, to help them conduct special missions, and to help improve the air strikes… And beyond that, I would say we must win the information war against ISIS. Every war we have ever been involved in has had a propaganda informational aspect to it. ISIS is winning the propaganda war. They are recruiting people, including Americans, to join them, with the promise that they are joining this great apocalyptic movement that is going to defeat the West. We have to show what life is really like in ISIS territory, and we have to show them why ISIS is not invincible, by going out and conducting these attacks and publicizing them to those who they recruit.”

Governor Christie said, “What we need to do… is restore those tools that have been taken away by the president and others, restore those tools to the NSA and to our entire surveillance and law enforcement community. We need a president who is going to understand what actionable intelligence looks like and act on it.” The Governor said or suggested much more, but mostly by criticizing what others have done or propose to do and promising he will be stronger.

Mr. Trump‘s comments were, at least to me, incoherent. Every quote I begin to cut and paste seems ridiculous.  I sort of know what he means, but only by finishing sentences for him.

Much more was said, the Washington Post provides an annotated transcript.

Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio broadcaster, who CNN had asking questions initiated an exchange with Ben Carson regarding the role of healing violence. This is not the term used in Las Vegas by either man, but the work of surgeons, such as Dr. Carson, is sometimes described with this phrase. The pediatric neurosurgeon responded that in fighting terrorism he is prepared to practice extreme triage. Here’s one part of the exchange:

HEWITT: So you are OK with the deaths of thousands of innocent children and civilians? It’s like…

CARSON: You got it. You got it.

Dr. Carson and most of the other Republican candidates — many others as well — have situated the current terrorist threat as a particular thing in a particular place or places.  This diagnosis drives the treatment: complete eradication.

There is an abiding sense of terrorism as an external epidemic or an internal cancer — perhaps some weird hybrid of both — that will continue to threaten if it is not entirely exterminated.  Dr. Carson is not alone in deciding that the threat is self-evidently sufficient to justify the most heart-wrenching triage.

Is a chronic coronary condition the more accurate analogy? There is a significant weakness in our global circulatory system. Blockages tend to form, threatening various ruptures that could kill us. This sort of diagnosis would tend to drive wellness, reinforcing therapies, and less drastic surgical interventions. Triage is much less relevant to this diagnosis.

Earlier in the evening at the undercard debate Senator Graham said, “This is a religious war between radical Islam and the rest of the world. And there’s only one way you’re going to win this war. Help people in Islam who reject radical Islam to fight over there and destroy this ideology. Donald Trump has done the one single thing you cannot do: Declare war on Islam itself. ISIL would be dancing in the streets, they just don’t believe in dancing. This is a coup for them.  And to all of our Muslim friends throughout the world, like the King of Jordan and the President of Egypt: I am sorry. He does not represent us. If I am President, we will work together and with people of faith all over the world to destroy this radical ideology. Declaring war on the religion only helps ISIL.”

Senator Graham is still using the language of destruction. But what I hear him describing is much more a matter of building up the strength of a whole system, not just for some to survive but for everyone to thrive.


UPDATE:  Mid-day on Thursday the President visited the National Counterterrorism Center.  His remarks on the terrorist threat can be found here.

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Comment by William R. Cumming

December 17, 2015 @ 7:22 am

One simple analytical tool to be applied in 2016 election is does the candidate support or oppose regime change and what do they mean by it?

A useful historical tract would be the timeline of efforts since 1792 by the US in its FP using regime change for its lodestar IMO!

Comment by Arnold Bogis

December 17, 2015 @ 1:54 pm

An interesting idea I’ve read elsewhere, though perhaps not one that holds 100%, is that the candidates can be separated into a homeland security and a national security axis – either eschewing calls for greater military involvement overseas while increasing border and domestic security or concentrating on defeating terrorists primarily through military force.

Comment by Sally Chapman

December 17, 2015 @ 1:58 pm

Maybe I’m naive but all these candidates appear to have plans to treat the “symptoms” of ISIS but none address finding the “cure”. None of their ideas are sustainable and until we have a thoughtful discussion of the success of ISIS, we can’t even start to address the response. I’m reminded of Malcom Gladwell’s book “The Tipping Point” (http://gladwell.com/the-tipping-point/) and an excellent commentary referencing it from The Cipher Brief titled “The Power of ISIS’ Message (found here: https://www.thecipherbrief.com/article/power-isis-message-0). Having our candidates explain the problem before they proclaim their solution would be an interesting debate.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

December 17, 2015 @ 4:56 pm

Ms. Chapman: I would stay up late to hear the candidates in a real discussion about the sources of ISIS’ success. I think that Senators Graham and Paul, Mr. Bush, and Mrs. Clinton have some informed judgments regarding this matter, opinions and predilections formed of some sustained engagement with the issue. I’m afraid the other candidates are more likely to have positions that mostly reflect their sense of domestic political currents.

One of the most interesting bits of any real discussion of the sources of ISIS would be the role that US policy and practice contributed to its rise. But it’s hard to imagine this sort of discussion happening. Which is, probably — to your point — one of the reasons for our current difficulties.

As Lakoff, Haidt, and — if I correctly recall — Gladwell, among others have argued, most humans, most of the time build our arguments around preexisting intuitions or heuristics. Tuesday’s “debate” suggested to me some general agreement that there are bad people who threaten us that need to be eliminated. The disagreement was mostly how many, how to identity them, and how to do (sometimes who should do) the eliminating.

This is the narrow scope of the current discussion partly as a result of judgments regarding what a critical mass of participants in the Republican nomination process may be willing to consider. Which, if true, you can blame on lack of leadership or lack of citizen engagement or — well — there are lots of potential contributing causes.

As we have also seen, it can be tough enough to have a real discussion in much less consequential settings, such as a blog or a family holiday gathering.

Comment by William R. Cumming

December 17, 2015 @ 5:02 pm

Many of the Republican candidates use the term RADICAL ISLAMIST EXTREMISTS” and believe that is not accurate and too simplistic given my view that Islamic sects often involved in intermal disputes with other sects.

Linguist Sessue Hayakawa always argued SEMANTICS is all so wonder what others thinking?

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