TIME

Don’t Take the Bait: The U.S. Should Not Send Troops to Fight ISIS

Karl Vick is a TIME correspondent based in New York. From 2010 to the autumn of 2014 he was the Jerusalem Bureau Chief, covering Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories with occasional forays into other lands. He came to the magazine after 16 years with the Washington Post, in its bureaus in Rockville, MD, Nairobi, Istanbul, Baghdad and Los Angeles. Also spent a lot of time in Iran, and a year at Stanford as a Knight Fellow.

The group was, after all, spawned by the occupation of Iraq

In December 2001, when the war on terrorism was only weeks old, victory appeared at hand with the fall of Kandahar, the southern Afghanistan city Osama bin Laden had called home. Now that the question is how best to confront a fresh horror, it’s worth noting that the city was taken not by U.S. troops but by the same tag team that liberated the rest of the country: scruffy Afghan militias advancing in pickup trucks behind U.S. air strikes. As Christmas approached, there couldn’t have been more than 50 Americans in town, most of them Special Forces so at home in local clothes that they were easier to spot by the bumper stickers on their pickups: I ♥ NY. The rest of us were reporters haunting public venues like the central market, where one morning I noticed a man standing apart. He wore a black turban and a knowing look, both markers of the Taliban, and had a question. “Why didn’t you come on the ground?” he said. “It would have been lovely if you came on the ground.”

I knew what he meant, but not nearly as viscerally as I did two years later, in Iraq, where we came on the ground. Why we came at all is a bit of a mystery, but it was pretty clear pretty early that our physical presence created its own reality, armored up yet vulnerable both to labels–“occupier” at best, but also “crusader”–and constant ambush. “If you’re trying to win hearts and minds,” a Marine major told me in Najaf, “maybe sending 100,000 19-year-olds with machine guns isn’t the best way to go about it.”

Not massing U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 9/11 was a masterstroke, even if it came about mainly because the Pentagon lacked a ready war plan for the country that had sheltered bin Laden. It’s not just that Afghanistan has a way of swallowing armies. (Ask the British; ask the Russians.) There is an essential elegance to using what the military calls standoff weapons in a fight made infinitely more difficult by your actual presence. Which is why it’s fortunate that Americans have shown little appetite for a large-scale ground war against ISIS.

The group was, after all, spawned by the occupation of Iraq. Many of its leaders are veterans of the U.S. military prisons that turned out to double as universities for jihad. But their aim is no longer to expel the invader. Just the opposite. Now they want to lure us in. The fundamentalist narrative embraced by ISIS calls for a return of U.S. forces to Iraq, modern legionnaires fulfilling the role of “Rome” in the end-time narrative the group believes it has set in motion. It’s a millennialist vision as complicated as the Book of Revelation, but the U.S. role is pretty simple: show up. For anyone seeking a logic behind the gruesome decapitations of American journalists and aid workers, there it is–provoke a reaction.

The bloodletting does summon the associations of terrorism, barbarity and peril that have beset Americans for more than a decade now. But associations are almost all they are. To date, ISIS has demonstrated no particular ambition to attack the West at home. (That remains the raison d’être of al-Qaeda, whose Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra harbors the elite al-Qaeda bombmakers dubbed the Khorasan group.) ISIS eyes another prize. Having declared a caliphate on the river valleys and desert land it has conquered in Syria and Iraq, it aims to turn the clock back to the 7th century. It functions both as a government and as a sectarian killing machine, slaughtering Shi’ites and many others in the name of purification.

To retain its sense of inevitability, however, ISIS must expand–something it’s been unable to do in Iraq since U.S. air strikes began in August. Recent growth, such as it is, has all been virtual, via pledges of fealty from existing jihadi groups in Sinai, Libya and other ungoverned dots on the map. The mother ship itself is hemmed in. Shi’ites and Kurds man the bulwarks to the east. To the west lie Syrian state forces that ISIS–nominally a rebel group–has mostly left alone.

What to do? The U.S. clearly has a national interest in preserving Iraq. (We broke it; we bought it.) But sending Americans back into Anbar and Saladin provinces would provide ISIS with pure oxygen and fresh waves of volunteers, while feeding the narrative that the U.S. is in a war against Islam. We have the planes, but this looks like a fight for guys in pickups who want to take their own country back.

Vick is a TIME editor at large and was previously the Jerusalem bureau chief

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Congress

What Nancy Pelosi’s Visit to Havana Means

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Bill Clark—CQ Roll Call/Getty Images House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi holds her weekly news conference in the Capitol in Washington D.C. on Dec. 5, 2014.

Members of Congress have been traveling to Havana for a while, preparing the ground for the coming rapprochement between Cuba and the United States. But Nancy Pelosi’s arrival on the island Tuesday adds a certain weight to the process. Pelosi, the San Francisco Democrat who leads the House minority, has become the most senior congressional leader to visit Cuba, a nominal milestone in every sense of the word but one that nonetheless helps to sustain the momentum begun with the Dec. 17 joint announcements of Presidents Obama and Raul Castro.

And momentum matters on the Cuba question. Obama has moved with real dispatch, first with the surprise announcement that he intended to re-establish diplomatic ties with a state that has been regarded as an outlaw by previous administrations dating to 1961 and then by taking less than four weeks to publish new rules allowing U.S. citizens to travel to the island and send money there. But there’s a limit how much any president can do. The matrix of legislation that together are known as the Embargo can be undone only by Congress, a constitutional reality not lost on the Cuban officials working closing with the Obama administration to sustain the sense the countries stand on the cusp of a new era.

“The power in the United States is not the President,” a senior Cuban official informed me late last month, in the corridor of the Havana hotel and convention center where a U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and her Cuban counterpart had just concluded a day of talks on re-opening embassies. “Don’t be fooled,” the official said with a knowing look. “There’s what he’s allowed to do.”

Re-opening embassies is one thing a president is allowed to do, and the talks aimed at doing that had evidently gone well, not least because the Cubans themselves gave every indication of understanding that the real challenge was not about ambassadors but the congressional battle that lay ahead. U.S. policy on Cuba had been largely dominated by the Cuban exile community that fled the island after the 1959 revolution. And if Obama’s overture to Havana was based on a calculation that the exiles’ time has come and mostly gone, the lobby’s clout remains a formidable thing on Capitol Hill, where, for instance, the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee is New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the son of Cuban emigrants.

In meeting with government officials, Pelosi’s codel, or Congressional Delegation, will no doubt be quizzed on the prospects for rolling back the Embargo. The answer is partly evident in the presence of a Democratic with a reputation as partisan as Pelosi’s: Support for the outreach to Cuba, while not defined cleanly on party lines, skews Democrat. But part of the answer lay in list of non-official Cubans the five House Democrats meet with on their visit. One stop will be Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the local leader of the Catholic Church whose leader, Pope Francis, played a crucial role in persuading the longtime enemies to come together, and afforded an ecclesiastical cover for a political change.

More importantly, the Americans will also meet with what Pelosi’s news release referred to as “members of civil society,” code language for political dissidents who cycle in and out of detention in Cuba, a one-party state that insists that criticism can occur only “inside the system.” Hence the inclusion of Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachusetts, co-chair of the congressional Human Rights Commission. Conspicuous demonstrations of support for these lonely dissenters were a key element of the State Department delegation, and will be for all U.S. officials — not only out of principle, but to show skeptics watching on the Hill that renewing ties to Havana does not meaning letting the Castros declare victory. And since the next round of talks is slated to take place in Washington next week, Pelosi’s visit also offers the opportunity to keep the focus on the island in question.

With reporting from Dolly Mascareñas in Mexico City.

TIME Cuba-US relations

Cubans Appear More Relaxed in Smooth U.S. Talks

US Restores Diplomatic Relations With Cuba
Chip Somodevilla—Getty Images Roberta Jacobson, U.S Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, arrives to speak to the media before taking questions during diplomatic talks with Cuba at the Palacio de las Convenciones de La Habana on Jan. 22, 2015 in Havana, Cuba.

The visit of the most senior U.S. official to Cuba in 38 years was a delicate—but well-rehearsed—maneuver

HAVANA — The visit of the most senior U.S. official to Cuba in 38 years gave every appearance of doing what it aimed to, drawing the nominal enemies into a distinctly Caribbean embrace, complete with broad smiles, warm body language and actual language commodious enough that everyone could fit together for a group photo.

It was a simple dance, but required coordinated footwork, which both parties appeared to have practiced in private. The good feeling on display appeared to be partly genuine and partly a concerted effort to maintain the momentum that surged up suddenly on Dec. 19, the day President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneously announced their intention to end a half century of what one U.S. diplomat termed “diplomatic estrangement” and, finally, re-establish formal ties. As formal talks proceed toward making the changes that the Cubans and Obama are free to make on their own—such as re-opening embassies in one another’s capitals, a primary topic in Havana on Thursday—officials of both governments privately acknowledge a secondary, over-arching intention. That would be to aim to sustain if not further swell the wave of public enthusiasm, leaving the U.S. Congress scant alternative but to repeal the 1960 Cuba Embargo Act that barred almost all exports to the emerging communist state.

Which made for some peculiar sights at the colorless Havana convention center where the delegations spent most of Wednesday and Thursday. Scores if not hundreds of journalists had gathered in the Hotel Palco waiting for something that has never happened in any previous U.S.-Cuba talks: a press briefing. Longtime Cuba watchers were gobsmacked by the spectacle of a room crowded with video cameras and reporters’ laptops. On the sidelines, senior Cuban officials smiled sheepishly. This was after all the land of the Central Committee communiqué, not to say diktats. “Usually,” said one senior official, “we don’t have a culture of informing the press.”

And yet, they proved pretty good at it—better than the Americans, on this day at least. Havana put forward youthful Josefina Vidal, head of the U.S. Division in the Foreign Ministry, and though she was never less than correct, she was also warm and apparently at ease. She spoke first in Spanish, then in English. The English was more direct: “It was a first meeting,” she said at one point, cutting what could have been four paragraphs into one. “This is a process. So we just made a list of things we have to do, when.”

By contrast, the top U.S. diplomat stood stock-still before the cameras, answered questions in detail, but betrayed not the merest hint she was happy to be here. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roberta Jacobson appeared to recognize her most dangerous audience was the anti-Castro Lobby that for five decades had blocked the kind of rapprochement of which she has been made the face. It was as if she had the sense that the merest smile line would create traction for naysayers watching from Capitol Hill, calling it evidence democracy had been undermined.

The Cubans acknowledged the peculiarity of their side appearing more transparent than the Americans, but also signaled they understood why. The official offered an explanation on the relative powers of the U.S. system of government so often lost on Americans: “The power in the U.S. is not with the president,” the senior official observed. “It’s with a class. Don’t be fooled.”

And so, let the momentum go forward, from Havana to Miami and up the seaboard to Washington. After the Dec. 17 joint stunner, both governments moved with unusual dispatch—exchanging prisoners, papers, and statements of good will. President Obama took only a few days to re-write regulations that now allow Americans to fly to Havana without Washington’s permission—no great rush evident quite yet, but demand is clearly there—and opened previously closed gateways to electronics and other goods. “That’s what he’s allowed to do,” the senior Cuban official observed. Another executive action, Cuba’s place on the State Department’s list of states sponsoring terrorism, is already under review.

At the same time, in a sop to the Miami lobby, the American delegation conspicuously made good on Obama’s vow to continue to harp on Havana’s human rights record. On Friday morning, Jacobson had seven Cuban dissidents to breakfast at the splendid tropic compound that will once again be the ambassador’s residence if Washington and Havana re-establish formal diplomatic ties—the move perhaps most easily accomplished, despite the nations’ complex history. Prominent in the sculpted garden of the dining room was a broad wooden American Eagle said to be salvaged from the USS Maine, the destruction of which became the casus belli for the Spanish-American War.

The attention to human rights clearly irks the Cubans, who blame their government’s paranoia on a long and colorful history of U.S. intelligence operations aimed at bringing it down. But like both sides, they appear prepared to file the dispute under “profound disagreements” that can be addressed from embassies at least as well as Interests Sections, the cumbersome arrangement through which Cuban and American diplomats operate now in each other’s capitals, beneath the protection of the Swiss. No timetables were offered, but the next round, perhaps in DC, may address technical matters.

For the moment, the focus remains on keeping things clicking along toward a kind of “normality.” At a news conference at the residence on Friday, after the breakfast with dissidents, Jacobson thawed a good deal answering a question on the Embargo Act, projecting sympathy if not empathy for anyone trying to square Obama’s executive changes with persistent existence of that legislation.

But the Cubans have patience. “”It’s a good sign,” said one other senior official, smiling wryly. “We have nothing to lose.”

TIME Turkey

Turkey’s Awkward Place in the Paris March

World leaders attend Unity March in Paris
Hakan Goktepe—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, center right, talks to French President Francois Hollande, center left, during the Unity March 'Marche Republicaine' in Paris, France on Jan. 11, 2014.

Not only does its president hate cartoonists, but a terror suspect passed through it to get to Syria last week

Prominent among the foreign leaders marching through downtown Paris on Sunday was Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, one more leader from a Muslim nation making a show of solidarity with the victims of Islamist extremism. In many ways it was a good fit: Turkey’s population is overwhelmingly Muslim, but its government is avowedly secular. The country was founded, in fact, on the principles of separation between church and state embedded in modern France, where its founding father studied. Turkey is also a member of NATO, and a long-standing applicant to the European Union.

But in other ways, the Turkish presence was incredibly awkward. Though the Paris march honored journalists killed in the attack on the monthly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, Turkey currently has more reporters in jail, 40, than any other country, even Iran and China. And the country’s increasingly autocratic president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, has a particular problem with editorial cartoons: He’s repeatedly sued Turkish cartoonists, claiming damages for being portrayed variously as a giraffe, a monkey, and an elephant. In 2011 the German ambassador to the country was summoned to the Foreign Ministry after a Berlin newspaper printed a panel showing Erdogan’s name on a doghouse.

But that wasn’t the only problem in Paris. It turns out that, mere days before Davutoglu traveled to France, a Parisian suspect in the terror attacks was making her way through Turkey. Hayat Boumeddiene, 26, said to be the accomplice of Amedy Coulibaly, who shot dead four people at a suburban kosher supermarket on Friday before police killed him, flew to Istanbul on Jan. 2. She was videotaped having her passport stamped at Sabiha Gokcen International Airport, and crossed into Syria on Thursday, Jan. 8. She may have been on her way to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, the extremist group Coulibaly claimed as his own.

Turkish officials point out that Boumeddinene entered Turkey well before the Charlie Hebdo attack, and that no government flagged her until after she had entered Syria. Davutoglu noted his government has deported more than 1,500 individuals suspected of using Turkey as a corridor to Syria, and placed restrictions on 7,000 more. “We support every kind of intelligence not to accept foreign fighters,” he said at a joint news conference on Monday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Still, the episode pointed up the treacherous ambiguities that linger around Turkey’s involvement in Syria. Though keen to avoid involving its own armed forces in the civil war, Turkey has long encouraged rebel groups opposed to Syrian president Bashar Assad, allowing them to establish rear guard headquarters in Turkish border towns, and turning a blind eye to illicit crossings to carry the fight to the regime.

Ankara says it has tightened up since the rebellion has become dominated by Islamist extremists, but some critics question its resolve and, in any event, Boumeddinene’s experience demonstrates the practical challenges of enforcing any policy. And while Davutoglu was in Europe making nice, Erdogan was back in Ankara, preparing to lash out. “The West’s hypocrisy is obvious,” Erdogan said on Monday while receiving Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who had traveled to Turkey after attending the Paris march. “Games are being played with the Islamic world, we need to be aware of this.”

All of this, and more, shadows Turkey’s stubborn effort to join the European Union, an increasingly unlikely development as Erdogan clamps down on press freedom and tightens judicial controls. But then, as Davutoglu pointed out in Berlin, some 3 million Turks already reside in Germany, many descended from guest workers recruited in the 1960s to fill labor shortages. Their presence may well present challenge enough for Europe, given the continent’s limited success in integrating immigrant populations. Just as Davutoglu proved in Sunday’s march, Turks in Europe often make for an uneasy fit.

TIME Terrorism

Al-Qaeda Group Claims Responsibility for Paris Terror Attack

Attack killed 12 at the office of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo

An al-Qaeda affiliate in Yemen claimed responsibility late Friday for the deadly attack on a satirical newspaper in France this week, not long after French police killed the suspects to end a three-day manhunt.

A statement provided to the Associated Press from the group al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) said “the leadership of AQAP directed the operations and they have chosen their target carefully.” The statement said the attack, which killed 12 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, was intended as “revenge for the honor” of the Prophet Muhammad, the depiction of whom is forbidden by Islamic tradition. The magazine had repeatedly mocked him—and other religions—in cartoons.

The claim, which the unnamed spokesman said was delayed two days after Wednesday’s attack for “security reasons,” did not come as a shock. One of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack shouted, “You can tell the media it was al-Qaeda in Yemen” during the assault, according to a witness. And the French news channel BFM Television reported that two of the suspected attackers, Said and Cherif Kouachi, made the same claim in a phone call from the printing plant where they held a hostage and were later killed in a police assault Friday. Earlier reports indicated Said Kouachi visited AQAP for several months in 2011 and 2012. AQAP was among the extremist groups that had explicitly threatened the French magazine for publishing photos holding Islam up to ridicule.

It was not the kind of attack AQAP is known for. The group, founded in 2009, is notorious for stealthier, more diabolical efforts against the West. The underwear bomb worn by the Nigerian passenger on a Northwest Airlines jet in 2008 was an AQAP effort. So were the explosives secreted inside printers cartridges shipped by air cargo to the United States a year later. While other al Qaeda franchises have grown preoccupied with local affairs or sectarian battles, AQAP has remained focused on what Osama bin Laden referred to as “the far enemy,” meaning the West. As the Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstrop put it last year, “They almost have an autistic obsession with striking civilization.”

Yet as a military organization, AQAP does what pretty much every group does as it assembles under the black flag of jihad—it trains young men to handle automatic rifles. If, as multiple reports say, Said Kouachi was trained in light weapons and perhaps explosives, that would explain the disciplined movements and comfort with weapons evident in the movements of the black-clad figures captured on video images from the center of Paris. More broadly, the apparent link between AQAP and the Paris attack points up the growing danger posed to Western countries by extremist groups holding territory anywhere around the world, as so-called safe havens become destinations for disaffected young Muslims looking to put themselves to use.

Over the last three years, Syria, not Yemen, has become the primary destination for jihadis as the civil war there has spawned a constellation of fundamentalist militias. Today the largest, Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), operates multiple training camps in the vast tracts of land the group holds in western Syria and eastern Iraq. “I was mainly with Syrians, but there were also Saudis, Tunisians, a handful of Brits and French,” a British-born former recruit known as Abu Dujana told Brookings Institution researcher Charles Lister a year ago. The foreign volunteers arrive in numbers that have increased since the leader of ISIS declared a Caliphate, or governing body for all the world’s Muslims, on the land it holds. The foreigners also die prodigiously. In 2014, foreign fighters accounted for nearly 17,000 of the deaths in Syria, more than half of the fatalities suffered by Islamist rebel groups there, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the unofficial scorekeeper. Only civilians died in greater numbers.

Another jihadi force operating freely in Syria, the al-Nusra Front, is directly linked to al-Qaeda, and is plotting to hit targets in the West, the head of Britain’s foreign intelligence agency MI-5 warned on Thursday. Al-Nusra hosted the Khorasan group of al-Qaeda operatives that U.S. warplanes targeted in the first wave of airstrikes on ISIS inside Syria last year; U.S. officials feared the group was nearing development on a bomb that would escape detection by airport screening. But unlike ISIS, al-Nusra maintains a nationalist as well as religious posture, and a military effectiveness that has made it popular with other less extremist fighters. When the United States designated al-Nusra a terrorist orgaanization in 2012, other rebel groups chanted, “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra.”

In Yemen, meanwhile, events have conspired to distract AQAP from its focus on “the far enemy.” In September the capital city of Sana’a fell to a Shia tribe backed by Iran, the Houthis, who effectively took over Yemen’s government. By then AQAP had declared an “Islamic emirate” in one of Yemen’s more remote provinces, Hadramout. It’s now at war with both the Houthis and Yemen’s military.

In fact, on the very day two men killed a dozen French civilians in downtown Paris, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula detonated a car bomb in Sana’a. The blast killed 31 police cadets, but brought the organization the merest fraction of the attention that came with reports that one of the Paris attackers had spent time with the group three years ago.

-Additional reporting by Vivienne Walt / Paris.

TIME Hizballah

Hizballah’s Failures Go Well Beyond an Alleged Israeli Mole

Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags as they attend a rally to commemorate slain top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.
Hussein Malla—AP Hezbollah fighters hold their party flags as they attend a rally to commemorate slain top Hezbollah commander Imad Mughniyeh and two other leaders, Abbas Musawi and Ragheb Harb, in the Shiite suburb of Beirut, Feb. 22, 2008.

The so-called "A-Team" of terror has had a run of failures since the 2008 assassination of its mastermind. And Iran hasn't done any better.

In the last months of 2011 and first half of 2012, Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hizballah, put on perhaps the greatest show of rolling ineptitude in the history of modern covert warfare. Hopscotching the globe, their operatives tried and failed to strike Israeli or American targets perhaps two dozen times—in Azerbaijan, in Georgia, in Kenya, in Nigeria, in South Africa, in Turkey, in Greece, in Cyprus and, most spectacularly, in Thailand, where after blowing up an apartment while trying to make a bomb, an Iranian agent scrambled into the street and blew off his own legs.

What could account for such a formidable string of failures? According to Hizballah itself: an Israeli mole inside the militant group. A senior official with the Shiite militia this week acknowledged “some major infiltrations” in its ranks. Speaking to a Hizballah radio station on Sunday, Naim Qassem offered oblique but rare on-the-record confirmation of earlier reports that one of its most trusted operatives was on trial for treason, along with four others reported to be compromised by Israel’s Mossad.

“It appears to be the real deal,” says Matthew Levitt, a former U.S. Treasury official and author of Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God. “And they clearly are freaking out about it.”

The alleged culprit, identified as Mohammad Shawraba by the Lebanese English-language Daily Star, was in a position to know. The newspaper and other reports say he headed the “external operations” unit of Hizballah, the very group responsible for carrying out the bombings, assassinations and other terror strikes that the Shi’ite militia has long been known for conducting—and almost always without leaving behind evidence that it was responsible. Hizballah may not have quite invented terror strikes as a tool of modern warfare. (The first car bomb, actually a horse-drawn carriage, was exploded on Wall Street in 1920.) But by 2002, when the West felt wobbly from the attacks of 911, Deputy U.S. Secretary of State Richard Armitage was calling them “The A-Team” of terror.

And yet, since the man hailed as Hizballah’s terror mastermind, Imad Mughniyah, was killed by a booby-trapped car headrest in 2008, his successors have been unable to deliver the revenge they repeatedly promised. Mughniyah’s assassination was, of course, laid at the feet of Mossad, as almost everything that happens in the Middle East is. The Israeli spy agency glories in its reputation for bloodless omniscience (Google the list of animals that neighboring Mideast states have named as Israeli spies), a notoriety that acts as a force multiplier. But as TIME and others have reported, Mossad has also a long run of real marquee missions, including the assassinations of Iranian nuclear scientists on the streets of Tehran in 2010 and 2011. Those attacks in turn ignited a response from Iran’s own elite covert operators, the section of the Revolutionary Guards’ Qods Force known as Unit 400. Though, like Hizballah’s external operators, Unit 400 soon proved less formidable than its reputation.

The full extent of the collapse became evident on February 13, 2012. Hizballah and the Qods Force were brought together by the anniversary of Muniyah’s death, four years and one day earlier, and the latest scientist assassination in Tehran, just a month previous. In what was intended as a one-two punch at “hard” Israeli targets, operatives tried to detonate bombs attached to Israeli diplomats’ cars in Tbilisi, Georgia, and New Delhi, India. The Tbilisi bomb was discovered. In Delhi, a man on a motorcycle managed to attach a “magnet bomb” to the side of a car carrying the wife of an Israeli diplomat.

It’s the method of assassination that Israeli operatives had repeatedly used on the streets of Tehran, targeting Iranian nuclear scientists on their way to work. But there was a hitch. “I was in New Delhi when it happened,” says Ely Karmon, a senior scholar at International Institute for Counter-Terrorism at the Inter-Disciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “They put the bomb on the right side of the car, because it had to explode on the fuel tank. But in India they ride on the left side, and the tank is on the left side.” The mistake gave the chauffeur time to eject his passenger, a diplomat’s wife, who survived.

Shawraba, the alleged Israeli mole, would have been involved in both attacks, as well as the July 2012 bombing that killed a handful of Israeli tourists on an airport bus in Bulgaria, where Hizballah resorted to a soft target. Evidence of his presumed loyalty was offered in reports that he had earlier served as a bodyguard to Hizballah’s charismatic leader, Hassan Nasrallah, long assumed to be No. 1 on Israel’s hit list. The newspaper reports said he had betrayed five secret operations, and implied that his removal, along with four men working in his unit, had freed Hizballah from the shadow of suspicion.

“The idea is that they’ve stopped the sole source that was responsible for everything,” says Levitt, now a researcher at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he produced a 2013 report on the “Iran’s Shadow War with the West” that detailed operational incompetence in the string of failures under the heading, “Amateur Hour.” In an interview Monday, he noted that intercepted communications played a significant role in thwarting “many of these operations.”

“The Israelis are pretty good at what they do,” Levitt continues. “We’re pretty good at what we do. Nobody has one source for everything.”

Indeed, Israel has recruited Hizballah officials in the past, and likely has sources in the Iranian establishment as well, says Karmon. The Israeli army occupied southern Lebanon for 18 years, with its security services developing human assets that sometimes emerge only after decades, if ever. In 1973, the surprise Egyptian attacks on Israeli positions that became the cataclysmic Yom Kippur War was in advance tipped by the son-in-law of Egypt’s president. (His warnings were ignored, proving that Mossad isn’t omniscient after all.) What makes an insider turn? “Clearly money is very important,” says Karmon. “Also safe haven, in case of need. But sometimes it can be an issue of revenge, infighting in an organization, some personal dispute with one of the leaders.”

On the Iranian side, things have quieted down. Israel has greatly reduced its tempo of detectable attacks, and the Quds Force has eased off as well, likely in order to allow nuclear negotiations to go forward, Levitt says. But from Hizballah, the hits keep coming. Last April, another planned attack on Israelis was thwarted in Bangkok. And at the end of October, Peruvian authorities arrested a Lebanese man who admitted to working for Hizballah, and taking photos of apparent targets. Traces of nitroglycerin reportedly were found in his Lima apartment. The A-Team evidently remains on hiatus.

TIME Cuba

Fidel Loses the Race to the Grave

Castro Leads Massive Anti-U.S. Demo
Jorge Rey—Getty Images Fidel Castro delivering a speech in Havana on May 14, 2004

It's fitting that the thaw was brokered by a president who wasn't alive when Castro came to power

The world now has the answer to a question as old as the New World Order: Which would die first? Fidel Castro? Or the chokehold his angry critics maintained on U.S. foreign policy since El Comandante came to power in Cuba 55 years ago? It was entirely fitting that the answer was delivered by an American president whose own age is 53. As he noted in his historic address from the White House on Wednesday, Barak Obama was born two years after Castro’s Communist guerrillas swept into Havana. Like the children and grandchildren of the Cubans who fled to Miami after the Communists arrived, the events Obama actually lived through were the ones that steadily reduced the island from a marquee venue of the Cold War — the thrust stage from which, in the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, armageddon was nearly launched — to whatever the place qualifies as today: basically a scenic relic of Marxism, with beaches and cigars.

Other stout lobbies remain as present as their animating issue: The NRA likely will be around as long as gun owners are, and the Israel lobby as long as the state. But the U.S. government’s determined, and solitary isolation of Cuba was, as Obama alluded, a victim of generational change. The collapse of the Soviet Union, so thrillingly dramatic, was followed by the more gradual senescence of those who had invested most in opposing its most famous client state.

Time waits for no man, not even Fidel. El Commandante, now 88, is still around, and as recently as 2010 was still capable of stirring the pot. He opened the Havana Aquarium and commanded a dolphin show for a visiting U.S. journalist, Jeffrey Goldberg, whom Fidel then told, “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us any more.” The regime that Fidel once made a model of resistance to U.S. dominance is now run by his 83-year-old kid brother. It was Raul Castro who spoke from Havana at the same moment Obama made his historic address at noon Wednesday, the two speeches pre-arranged by the leaders’ staffs to begin at the same hour, signaling both sides’ commitment to a new era of cooperation.

But the Cuban side appeared to be locked in that other era: Raul Castro was seated between dark paneling and a massive desk. The framed snapshots at his elbows were in black and white — the kind of vintage photographs that adorn the Hotel Nacional at the edge of the magnificent ruin that is Havana’s Old City. The glossies in the hotel are there for the tourists, images of the like of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack making themselves at home in a version of Havana glamour familiar to Americans who — forbidden by the travel restrictions Obama says will be pushed away — last saw the city in The Godfather Part II, or any other movie set in Cuba before Castro took over.

The reality just outside the hotel’s doors is far more compelling, from the ardent struggles of human rights activists and artists, to the joyously sensual quality of street life in what may well be the sexiest capital city in the world. Americans who dared to visit — it wasn’t hard, routing through Canada or Cancun — returned with enthusiastic reports of a poor but intensely vibrant society. Its economy may be a shambles now, but the island’s physical features alone, including 2,300 miles of Caribbean coastline not an hour from the U.S., all but assure development, especially by American retirees. Which would be fitting as well, since they would be old enough to appreciate just how time can change things.

TIME Sydney Siege

ISIS Casts a Shadow Over the Sydney Hostage Crisis, Connected or Not

A bouquet is pictured under police tape near the cordoned-off scene of a hostage taking at Martin Place after it ended, early on Dec. 16, 2014.
Jason Reed—Reuters A bouquet is pictured under police tape near the cordoned-off scene of a hostage taking at Martin Place after it ended, early on Dec. 16, 2014.

Before ISIS, the self-proclaimed Sheikh behind the 16-hour hostage drama might have been called a crank instead of terrorist

On Sept. 3, two weeks and one day after James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), the U.S. official in charge of preventing terrorist attacks against the homeland said he saw no evidence of a threat to the U.S. from ISIS. That apparently remains the case today, even after the horror of the siege in Sydney, where in the course of the 16 hours he held the Lindt cafe hostage, the self-declared sheikh named Man Haron Monis sent out for the black flag associated with ISIS; he had not brought one of his own. All preliminary indications are that Monis, who reportedly died in the hail of automatic weapons fire that ended drama, was acting on his own, a lone wolf like Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, who shot up the Canadian parliament building in Ottawa Oct. 22 or Mehdi Nemmouche, the veteran of Syrian fighting who killed four people at a Jewish museum in Brussels May 24.

For all the fear ISIS inspires, one-off, lone wolf attacks are all the group seems to have attempted to do in the West—and not even by its own hand. ISIS essentially publishes its version of a feel-good bumper sticker: Practice Random Attacks and Senseless Acts of Terror. “If you can kill a disbelieving American or European – especially the spiteful and filthy French – or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way, however it may be,” the ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani urged Sept. 22, after the Obama administration announced an air campaign aimed at destroying the group before it destroyed Iraq. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car, or throw him down from a high place, or choke him, or poison him.”

Ugly and unpleasant, but a long way from 9/11. But then ISIS long has defined itself by not being al Qaeda. Formidable as the group may have proved itself in military terms, gobbling up large swaths of Syria and Iraq, that’s what a fighting force does in a war, and the war ISIS is fighting is very much located in the Middle East. It’s a war to establish its vision of Islam—extreme, yes, but sectarian above all. ISIS is Sunni, and in Syria it attacks the regime of President Bashar Assad, a member of the Alawite sect that Sunni extremists regard as apostates. In Iraq, ISIS made its gains against a Baghdad government that under then-prime minister Nour al-Malaki defined the state as Shi’ite, also deemed heretical by ISIS. Both governments are backed by Iran, the world’s only Shi’ite theocracy.

The largely Christian West simply does not figure so prominently, which is why al Qaeda has parted ways with ISIS. In 2o05, when bin Laden was still alive, his deputy Ayman al-Zawahiri wrote from his hideout in Afghanistan or Pakistan to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the jihadist who headed the Iraq al-Qaeda branch that would become ISIS. “Many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia,” wrote al-Zawahiri, who now heads al Qaeda. “And can the mujahedeen kill all of the Shia in Iraq?” The answer, delivered in gruesome video post after gruesome video post, is that they sure are giving it a try.

Stephen Cooper/Newspix/RexUSAThe self-declared sheikh named Man Haron Monis.

Monis was born in Iran as a Shia and reportedly converted to the Sunni tradition. But it’s unclear whether he was fired by a convert’s zeal. His Twitter account mentioned ISIS, and in generally positive terms, but more as a bystander than as a fanboy, the name for social media mavens who cheer on the Sunni extremist group online. “He’s posted things saying, ‘Oh my God, some people are saying the Islamic State is doing well,'” says Laith Alkhouri, research director for Flashpoint Partners, a private security consultant that made a copy of Monis’ Twitter account before it was taken down. “Even though he was pretty active on social media, he was trying to bring attention to what he saw as injustice to Muslims in Australian,” Alkouri tells TIME. “But he didn’t seem quite bloodthirsty like the ISIS guys.”

What he seemed, in fact, was the kind of figure who showed up in the news cycle long before anyone had heard of either al Qaeda or ISIS. Monis had written tasteless letters to the families of fallen Australian soldiers, but politics appeared to have gotten bound up with his quite personal complaints against the state. Australian news channels produced footage of him standing on a busy street corner in clerical garb and turban, wearing chains on his wrists and holding aloft a sign complaining he had been tortured in prison. His legal woes included charges for indecent exposure, and of involvement as an accessory in the murder by stabbing and fire of his ex-wife. In a Monday interview with Australian Broadcasting, Monis’ former lawyer called him a “damaged-goods individual” who had reached a breaking point.

Absent the frame of Islamist terror, the siege of the Lindt cafe might have looked like one more socially isolated middle-aged man, taking his private torment public at gunpoint. But the frame is indeed Islamist terror; it’s become inescapable. So even after the shooting stopped in Sydney, the number of hostages remains in the billions.

TIME Foreign Policy

Kerry Shadow Boxes in War Powers Debate

Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against IS."
Molly Riley—AP Secretary of State John Kerry testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec. 9, 2014, before the Senate Foreign Relations hearing on "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against IS."

Secretary of State talks military action against ISIS with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

The Obama Administration’s policy on Syria is frequently criticized as muddy — for opposing both the regime of President Bashar Assad and a major extremist faction in that country’s civil war, yet mounting military operations only against the latter, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS. So there was a certain thematic unity in the appearance of Secretary of State John Kerry before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday.

Kerry came to iron out the constitutional authorization for the administration’s military actions against the Sunni militants. Such weighty legal questions are never easy. In theory Congress could declare war, as Republican Sen. Rand Paul insists the Constitution demands. Tuesday’s proceedings, in fact, were sparked by Paul’s effort to attach a declaration of war to a water bill a few days earlier. “The Constitution is quite clear that this responsibility rests with Congress,” Paul told Kerry, nearly three hours into the marathon hearing.

But as Kerry pointed out in reply, the last time Congress declared war was for World War II. Conflicts since then have been authorized by other legal mechanisms, such as the War Powers Act, passed after the Vietnam War dragged on for more than a decade. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq went forward from separate Authorizations for the Use of Military Force, passed in 2001 and 2002, respectively. The White House maintains that those measures also authorize military action against ISIS, which has been going on since August in Iraq, and since September in Syria. So what was Kerry doing at Tuesday’s hearing?

Being diplomatic, apparently, as befits a Secretary of State. President Barack Obama has said that although he doesn’t really need a new authorization, a buy-in on any sustained military action makes good political and constitutional sense, and so he would welcome a measure specifically naming ISIS, or ISIL, as U.S. officials refer to the group. But as Foreign Relations Committee members complained at length, the White House has failed to provide language for such a bill. “The reason we’re here is a total failure of the President to lead on this issue by sending anything up here,” said Sen. Bob Corker, the Tennessee Republican who serves as ranking minority member, but will become chair next year, when the GOP becomes majority in both chambers. “And we all want the same thing.”

Not exactly, Kerry said: From the administration’s point of view, the measure written by the Democratic Chairman, Sen.Robert Menedez of New Jersey, is a good starting point. But the President would rather remove language that limits the circumstances under which he could send ground troops into action — even though Obama has repeatedly stated ground troops will not be used against ISIS, except to train the Syrian and Iraqi forces that should do all the fighting. “I don’t think anyone wants to get into a long-term ground operation here,” Kerry said. “But we also don’t want to hamstring our generals.” The White House has not produced specific language it desires, however, perhaps to avoid headlines suggesting Obama wants to keep boots on the ground as an option.

Whatever the reason for the reticence, it irks members of both parties. “If he wants authority to win the fight, he’s got to tell us what the fight looks like,” said Sen. Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican. Christopher Coons of Delaware, a Democratic Senator, complained the White House was turning its back on support from its own party: “We can’t go home and defend what the strategy is.”

The entire exercise, in a Lame Duck session, was academic at worst, and at best a dress rehearsal for the new year, when the Republicans will take control and — given the hawkish tenor of the GOP members — likely give Obama all the freedom he asks. Except for Paul, who scolded the administration on strict constructionist grounds, the harshest words were from Sen. John McCain, who called the hearing “kind of a charade.” The Arizona Republican stormed out after refusing to concede Kerry’s suggestion that more moderate Syrian rebels the administration has promised to arm are not, in fact, being left to die — owing, Kerry hinted, to secret measures that could not be discussed in a public setting. “More is being done, and more is being done than I can talk about in this hearing,” he said.

TIME Israel-US relations

U.S. Relations With Israel Remain in Frozen Embrace Until Elections

Joe Biden
Jose Luis Magana—AP U.S. Vice President Joe Biden speaks to the Saban Forum in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 6, 2014

The rule of thumb in Israeli politics has it that the moment new elections are called, affairs of state go into the deep freeze, not to thaw until a new government emerges months later. There have been exceptions — in 1981, Menachem Begin ordered the surprise strike on Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor three weeks before nationwide balloting — but none were in evidence at the annual conference of U.S. and Israeli leaders convened this past weekend at the Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disbanded his ruling coalition three days before the Brookings Institution’s annual Saban Forum, rendering the elite confab a showcase for the status quo: the alliance remains closer than at any time in history at the level of cooperation between the two country’s defense and security establishment. But at the more visible level of political leadership, there’s no longer even an effort to disguise the ugliness. It was only five weeks ago that an anonymous Obama Administration official referred to Netanyahu in an interview as “chickensh-t,” and no one from the Administration dispatched to the Willard over the weekend bothered denying either the quote or the judgment.

The message, rather, was that personal feelings simply don’t matter much in such an ironclad alliance, and no one should be distracted by “politics” or “differences over tactics.”

“Look, we’re close friends. The American people and the Israeli people, our governments,” said Vice President Joe Biden, the most senior official on hand to address the state of the relationship. “There’s absolutely no daylight, none, between us and Israelis on the question of Israeli’s security. But as friends, we have an obligation to speak honestly with one another, to talk about, not avoid the tactical disagreements we have. And we have tactical disagreements to lay out for one another each of our perspectives. I know none of you have ever — I assume none of you ever doubted I’ve meant whatever I’ve said to you. The problem is I sometimes say all that I think to you.”

Biden noted, as Administration officials often do, that he and President Barack Obama have met with Netanyahu more than any other world leader. But that’s a double-edged observation given what a live mic caught Obama telling his French counterpart in 2011 (“You’re tired of him? What about me? I have to deal with him every day”). For his part, Biden called Netanyahu a friend of 30 years, adding “we sometimes drive each other crazy” but that both sides acknowledge as much.

“Let’s not make more of what are normal disagreements that occur between friends than warrants,” the Vice President implored. “Israel disagrees with us on a number of tactics. They have a different perspective on how to proceed. But folks, that’s the downside of democracy. It also has an upside. We never have to wonder where the other guy is standing. Occasionally, politics on both sides of this divide, these tactical divides, is used to try to gain an advantage. But you’re all sophisticated enough to know that.”

Secretary of State John Kerry, who has endured a good deal of name-calling from senior Israeli politicians (the Defense Minister famously dismissed his enthusiasm for peace talks with the Palestinians as “obsessive and messianic”), read from the same talking points in his address Sunday, noting the record-high levels of U.S. military and intelligence support for Israel “despite whatever political disagreement there might be, or tactical disagreement.”

Obama was not present this year, and Netanyahu’s prerecorded address was delivered by satellite from Jerusalem, where he noted he has “one or two things” to deal with. The brief speech was heavy on Netanyahu’s preferred topic of security. “The entire region is hemorrhaging, ” he said, singling out the emergence of the extremist Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) — which, a new Brookings poll shows, is of far greater concern to the American public than the question of whether Israel will make peace with the Palestinians, who claim the same land. Seven out of 10 people said that of events in the Mideast, the rise of ISIS threatens American interests “the most.”

The poll also showed that, if negotiations fail to produce a Palestinian state beside Israel, two out of three Americans would prefer a single democratic state with equal rights for Jews and Palestinians — a prospect that most Jewish Israelis say they regard as unacceptable.

Elections are tentatively set for March 17.

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