Why you should care
Because the Islamic State seems to have brought its war to the West.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “The Spy Who Told Me” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
Have we reached a state of “global war?” After Europe’s deadliest terror siege in more than a decade — with multiple attacks in central Paris, and the death toll reaching 129 when this story went live — it’s fair to worry that the Islamic State has spread its deadly tentacles far beyond Syria and Iraq.
For months, the Islamic State has ravaged the Middle East, gassing civilians, beheading innocents and unleashing such terror that millions of refugees have fled to Europe for a semblance of safety. The events of Friday night — bombings, point-blank executions and random shootings — have reverberated far beyond the City of Lights, as has the fear.
What it all means is this: It’s time for the West, including the United States, to come to grips with the terrorist threat. That’s according to former acting CIA director John McLaughlin, who is also a longtime OZY columnist. In an interview hours after the Paris attacks, McLaughlin weighed in on a bevy of questions, from whether a frightened citizenry should travel to the big one: Can we win this?
OZY: The French government is blaming ISIS for the tragic attacks in Paris this weekend. Do you think ISIS was responsible?
John McLaughlin: It will take sometime to nail this 100 percent, but this was almost certainly either planned by ISIS, probably in Syria, or inspired by them — or a combination. Some of the techniques, like mass casualties, have an al-Qaeda feel, while others are ISIS trademark tactics: drive-by shootings, suicide bombings. But terrorist tactics are increasingly merging due to the availability of virtual training and social media.
OZY: The synchronized nature of the attack, combined with other recent bombings and the downing of the Russian jetliner, suggest we are now in a state of “global war.” Would you agree?
J.M.: Yes, this war now stretches well beyond the boundaries of Syria and Iraq. We’ve seen in recent weeks ISIS-managed or inspired attacks in Turkey, Lebanon, France, Belgium, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and elsewhere. In fact, the number of ISIS or ISIS-inspired attacks against Western targets doubled, from 20 last year to 41 so far this year. About 4,500 fighters have joined ISIS from the West, which gives the group unprecedented mobility and access to Western targets.
OZY: President Obama is heading to Turkey for a summit of 20 global leaders. What immediate response should they take?
J.M.: The most important thing they can do immediately is to remove barriers to full exchange of intelligence. They should focus first on what is known about the identities and movements of suspicious individuals.
A more important forum at this moment might be the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). French President François Hollande has called the attacks an “act or war,” and as a NATO member, France is entitled to request a NATO consultation that could lead to invoking Article 5 of the treaty. Under Article 5, all 28 members must come to the aid of a member who is attacked. If approved, NATO would then have to decide on appropriate steps ranging from training missions to actual combat operations. This would be a big deal. The only other time Article 5 has been invoked was after September 11, when all of the members voluntarily said they would come to the aid of the U.S.
I think it would be a good thing if NATO got involved. It’s time the civilized world came together to stop this scourge.
OZY: In general, what is the most rational response to terrorist attacks — one that keeps people safe while preserving as much liberty as possible?
J.M.: You have to do three things to combat terrorism: Destroy the leadership, deny terrorists safe haven and change the conditions that give rise to the phenomenon. At this point, we have to focus on the first two, because the third is too complicated and long-range. We have let ISIS have a safe haven for too long, now we’re seeing the results.
We don’t have to sacrifice our liberties to keep people safe, although we have to tolerate more monitoring of suspicious activity than we have been willing to, judging from all the post-Snowden controversy. His revelations have alerted terrorists to communicate only with great caution and have made it much harder to stay on top of them. In the meantime, the Homeland Security advice — “If You See Something, Say Something” — is good advice to citizens.
OZY: We have never had an enemy quite like ISIS. Can it be defeated?
J.M.: Yes, but it is going to take something we’ve noted in OZY numerous times over the last year — first, taking back territory from ISIS to show potential recruits that ISIS is not invulnerable and has no caliphate. There may not be a military solution to this problem, but any solution needs a military component. And second, political reform in Iraq and Syria that meets the grievances of Sunnis, who constitute 70 percent of the Syrian population, and feel excluded and abused. More than anything else, Sunni disgruntlement is the magnet that draws adherents to ISIS.
OZY: Certainly, there are lessons we can draw from all this. In retrospect, is there anything the U.S. or global leaders could have done differently to prevent the rapid growth of ISIS?
J.M.: We’ve waited too long to organize an effective coalition against ISIS, largely because all the choices have been difficult, costly, dangerous and with a variety of downsides. But as we’ve said in OZY, no decision is often a decision — things just get harder. That’s where we are now.
That said, we’ve made some progress lately, like the liberation of the strategic town of Sinjar by Kurdish forces with U.S. support, which will make it harder for ISIS to connect between its Syrian stronghold and Mosul, its major urban conquest in Iraq. There’s also the decision to forward deploy some of our special operations troops to advise and assist the Kurds. Perhaps we can build on this. It’s not hopeless.
OZY: Looking ahead, what is the future of intelligence gathering over the next 20 years? What changes might increase security?
J.M.: Tough question. It’s going to be very challenging with the large number of problems existing now and looming on the horizon. It will be very important to set priorities — dividing effort wisely among issues that are truly urgent versus those that are less pressing but still important, and those that are emerging. It will be a constant battle to avoid surprise.
OZY: Returning to the crisis at the moment, what’s your analysis of the French response? What might the U.S. government or CIA have done differently?
J.M.: The French are among the best in the world on counterterrorism, given their years of experience with it. So it’s all the more impressive that the terrorists pulled this off. But the magnitude of the threat now stretches the security services too thin everywhere, and it’s a bit too soon to say if there’s something we or they should have done differently. France had already strengthened its intelligence and surveillance capabilities. Look for more of this.
OZY: What effect will the attacks have on the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe?
J.M.: Given that ISIS had threatened to infiltrate the groups of fleeing migrants, Europeans are likely to become even more wary of the new arrivals. Opposition to refugees is certain to rise, along with efforts to screen these populations more carefully.
OZY: As a U.S. citizen yourself, is there any change people should take themselves in the near term? Would you avoid traveling abroad or attending large events?
J.M.: I can’t give advice to others, but personally, I would not curtail travel plans. That’s what terrorists want us to do. When we start doing that, they win.
That said, it’s always wise to exercise caution and support and cooperate with those responsible for your security wherever you are, even when it’s inconvenient. And the advice to “say something” if you notice something suspicious is a good idea anywhere you are. You’d be surprised how many times that has made a difference. In Times Square in 2010, for example, a street vendor noticed and reported a suspicious truck that, had it exploded, would have sent deadly shrapnel through many blocks of New York City.