As President Obama discusses terrorism strategy with European leaders, he can claim credit for the progress being made in the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. ISIS is losing territory. It is losing money. Its cyber network is being attacked, which will make its recruitment efforts more difficult. All signs point toward a significant diminishing of ISIS in Iraq and potentially Syria.
While efforts in Syria and Iraq are essential components in the battle against ISIS, the overall war against ISIS and other terrorist organizations is by no means limited to Syria and Iraq. ISIS is morphing from an organization that was primarily focused on establishing a caliphate in Iraq and Syria to being more operational globally, and in Europe in particular, but also in Sub-Saharan Africa and East Asia through its nodes or affiliates. It is also establishing a base of operations in Libya.
Additionally, Al Qaeda (AQ) still remains a force to be reckoned with. In some ways AQ is becoming more dangerous as it both competes for the spotlight with ISIS and is seen by some in the Syrian opposition as a legitimate ally in the fight against Assad, where Al-Nusra, AQ affiliate, has been an effective counter-puncher against the Assad regime.
ISIS is the next generation terrorist group with more sophisticated and diverse tactics than AQ under bin Laden. ISIS has land, money, digital age propaganda and a regular stream of recruits from around the world. Its so-called piety is laced with technical savvy and a no-holds-barred brutality that appears to have enhanced its appeal.
While the threat of terrorism in the US may not be as immediate as it is in Europe, it only takes one big incident or several smaller ones to turn it into an existential issue. Even more frightening, a NATO official said that terrorists are trying to obtain biological and nuclear materials. This means two things: the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq can only be part of the strategy in how to defeat it, particularly as it continues to change and adapt, and there has to be vigilance in staying two steps ahead of ISIS and AQ no matter where they operate if they are to be defeated.
The US has greatly improved its intelligence collection and coordination among government agencies since 9/11. This has been invaluable, but that was then, and now we have a problem with ISIS and a possibly rebooted AQ that will require even more resources and outreach to friends and allies. Starting with the Europeans, we need to help them with their internal coordination effort. As long as they have open borders, they need to do more intel sharing vis-à-vis organizations like Europol, which just established a European-wide counter terrorism coordinating center at the beginning of this year -- the European Counter Terrorism Centre (ECTC).
The EU member states need to quickly implement the recent agreement to establish an airline passenger name recognition (PNR) information system and over the longer term, consider moving to a centralized data base. The European Parliament is concerned about protecting privacy, but there has to be a balance between security and privacy as part of an effective strategy to prevent further attacks like the ones in Paris and Brussels.
We also need to help the Europeans to develop more effective internal and external border control mechanisms. The issue of admitting migrants is already complicated and will only become more so if there is no confidence in the ability of individual nations and the EU at large to control borders. While the US, like most nations, struggles with the most effective way of making sure its borders are secure, it does have best practices it can share with the EU.
In addition to fighting ISIS and AQ now with tools like the intelligence surge recommended by Secretary Clinton, this fight has to be viewed, as it is by President Obama and others, as a long war. This means dealing with root causes that may be political, economic and even theologically based. Working with communities rather than alienating them is essential to having a sustained and successful fight against terrorists.
During her tenure as Secretary of State, Secretary Clinton's Ambassador for Counterterrorism, Dan Benjamin, had an effective program to connect the US and EU on countering violent extremism. This is the sort of effort that has to continue as part of the battle against ISIS and AQ.
The US is making progress against ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but the terrorist threat continues in Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and East Asia. Worst of all, if NATO officials and others are right and ISIS and other terrorist groups are focused on acquiring WMD then the battle against ISIS and others is not necessarily getting better. Instead, it may be only becoming more dangerous.
Fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria is only part of the war. The US must push its allies, particularly in Europe, to adopt a much broader and nuanced counter terrorism strategy. There should be no doubt that the President and his national security team are working constantly to stay ahead of ISIS and AQ. His message to the American people that we will protect you and we will defeat ISIS and AQ is the right one. That said, it's easy to get support and public attention in the aftermath of an attack. It is more difficult to sustain support and focus for the day to day hard work of fighting a war that is unconventional and largely without boundaries. But that's what needs to be done.
This is a global fight. It is a complicated fight. The US and its allies will have to continue to be creative with their strategy. There will be a constant call by the public and pundits for immediate results. There will be a need for more resources, which can be difficult at a time of tight budgets and rising deficits. But this cannot be done on the cheap. It will require making tough choices and exercising patience, which in this case is not only a virtue but a necessity. This is a battle for the long haul.