The video was apparently recorded at a museum in Mosul+ READ ARTICLE
ISIS released a new video purportedly showing the destruction of several ancient artifacts in a Mosul museum. Watch Know Right Now to find out more.
ISIS released a new video purportedly showing the destruction of several ancient artifacts in a Mosul museum. Watch Know Right Now to find out more.
Every U.S. military official says degrading and defeating the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria isn’t a job that can be done by the Pentagon alone. But it also cannot be done without the Pentagon. That’s the bind President Obama finds himself in as he seeks a way to cripple ISIS without putting U.S. combat boots on the ground inside Iraq and Syria (beyond the 3,100 now there to train Iraqi forces and protect the U.S. embassy and other facilities).
So far, the American heavy lifting in the fight against ISIS has come from the skies, where U.S. warplanes have dropped more than 8,200 bombs and missiles on ISIS targets in 2,500 air strikes in Iraq and Syria dating back to August. While Syrian rebels, largely Kurdish, have been able to hold on to the town of Kobani, they haven’t regained any ground. In Iraq, the Pentagon estimates that the Kurdish pesh merga forces have retaken a scant 1.3% of the contested territory ISIS has seized in the past year.
But U.S. officials believe, with sufficient training—and continuing allied airpower—the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and moderate Syrian rebels will be able to defeat ISIS and take back the territory it seized over the next several years.
The key test of the strategy will come as early as April, when the Pentagon hopes to launch an offensive to retake the northern Iraq city of Mosul, which ISIS seized last June after it drove out the Iraqi army in a humiliating defeat. The Pentagon estimates a 25,000-strong force made up of Iraqi army and Kurdish pesh merga units will be able to overwhelm the up to 2,000 ISIS militants believed to be in control of Mosul. The fight is so vital to validating the U.S. approach that Pentagon officials have made clear that if the Iraqis aren’t adequately trained—and if the aerial bombardment around Mosul hasn’t done enough damage—the assault could be delayed by months.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria represents a villain “right out of central casting, just like in a James Bond movie,” says Thomas Donnelly, a defense expert at the American Enterprise Institute. It’s an apt analogy: while there’s no doubt these fanatics are murderous thugs, how much of the shadow they’re now casting around the globe is really theirs, and how much is media magnification due to crafty use of their horrific YouTube videos?
For that matter, the anonymous warning from a senior U.S. military official Feb. 19 that the Iraqis could be willing to try to retake Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, from ISIS as early as April shows the U.S. and its allies also are playing the perceptions game. While propaganda has long been typical in war, it’s playing an increasing role in the clash between ISIS and the civilized world because the conflict now underway isn’t a traditional war.
In today’s wired world, lone wolves striking in Copenhagen and Paris—or small groups in Afghanistan and Libya—can give the impression of ISIS spreading like wildfire. But that’s misleading because in all those places it represents a sliver of the local populace that, while a clear and present danger to the locals, isn’t a threat to their political control.
THE PENTAGON VIEW
Let’s start with a couple of givens, from the Pentagon’s perspective. First of all, the U.S. military is now engaged in its third war in Iraq since 1991 not because ISIS represents a clear threat to U.S. soil. Rather, it’s simply in keeping with 1979’s Carter doctrine, when that President made clear that the Persian Gulf was a vital national-security interest that the U.S. would go to war to protect. It came on the heels of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan, and the edict was clearly aimed at Moscow’s thirst for petroleum. The flow of oil from the region continues to lubricate the world’s economy, and ISIS, by destabilizing the states in the region, could disrupt it.
Yet if the Pentagon’s top spies disagree over what to do about ISIS, what hope is there for the average citizen to figure it out? “We are in a global war with a radical and violent form of the Islamic religion, and it is irresponsible and dangerous to deny it,” retired Army lieutenant general Michael Flynn said in a Jan. 20 warning published in Politico. Flynn was pushed out of his job early as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency last August for his management style and views on Islamic terrorism. “There is no cheap way to win this fight,” he wrote, saying the U.S. must treat ISIS, and Islamic groups like it, the way Washington dealt with Germany and Japan in World War II, and the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact during the Cold War.
His successor is far less concerned—striking, given that he’s a Marine, a breed rarely given to understatement. While ISIS “can do us harm, they don’t pose an existential threat to the United States,” Lieut. General Vincent Stewart, told the House Armed Services Committee Feb. 3. While the U.S. military could launch more robust attacks against ISIS, Pentagon officials stress that if allied military successes outrun political progress in the region, there will be nothing positive to fill the gap left by ISIS’s destruction. “If I were to map out what ISIL would love to do, ISIL would love to have the United States and western countries out of the region and slowly take apart those other moderate nations who would counter their radical ideology,” Stewart said. “And if they could do that, then they could have a fairly easy opportunity to create the state that they think is appropriate for the region.”
The split over options goes beyond DIA. “If American combat troops are not committed to destroy that standing army, the Islamic State will grow and prosper,” warns retired Marine colonel Gary Anderson. “Young Muslim men world-wide, and some women, are flocking to their banner because they are successfully defying us and mocking us.” Anderson’s solution is nasty, brutish and short. “Go in hard with overwhelming force and destroy their standing army,” he argues. “It would be a relatively short and bloody fight.” Repairing the rubble would be left to the surviving residents.
But that remains a minority view in and around the Pentagon. The measured persistence of the U.S. campaign ultimately will pay off, says a retired four-star general who commanded in Iraq, and was willing to speak only so long as he was not identified by name. “The Americans have shown tremendous patience,” he says, “just as long as there’s not an endless stream of casualties without achieving progress.” While it doesn’t show up on the evening news—ISIS kills Western reporters—the Islamic militants are “getting hammered every day, except when there are dust storms or some other weather event that prevents employment of the intelligence assets,” the retired four-star says. “Imagine the morale in a force where they’re driving down the road and 21 vehicles are taken out very quickly.” Clearing ISIS from Iraq “is doable,” he says; Syria less so until Bashar Assad’s fate is sealed.
ISIS’S ORDER OF BATTLE
The core of ISIS consists of between 25,000 and 35,000 fighters in its self-declared caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria (all of these numbers, Pentagon officials stress, are rough estimates, and can vary from day to day and person to person). About half of them have journeyed to those two ancient lands specifically to fight. Its ranks include about 3,400 from the West, an estimated 150 of them American. The U.S. believes it has killed 6,000 ISIS militants. That suggests the U.S. and its allies have killed about 20% of ISIS’s forces.
Prior to air strikes restricting their massing and movements, ISIS generally operated in motorized companies of about 100 men, largely aboard pickup trucks—and U.S.-built Humvees, once they plundered them from the Iraqi security forces following the fall of Mosul. Their trained units are capable of basic military tactics, along with the ability to plant IEDs and conduct quick raids. “ISIS is a movement that would be hiding in caves if it did not have a professional cadre of trained, internationally recruited professional light infantry occupying towns and cities in Iraq and Syria,” retired Marine Anderson says. “They are very good at what they do, and the rabble of Iraqi/Syrian/Kurdish militias opposing them—and I include the Iraqi army here—is not going to dislodge them, even with American air support.”
WHAT SHOULD OBAMA DO?
Pentagon officials bridle when asked why progress in the now seven-month old campaign against ISIS seems to be moving so slowly. The nearly 2,500 air strikes are small bore compared with earlier air campaigns conducted by the U.S. military. Allied support is spare: U.S. warplanes are responsible for 80% of the air strikes. And the U.S.-led effort to train only 5,000 moderate Syrian rebels a year to reclaim Syrian soil from ISIS has yet to train a single one. So far, the Pentagon has vetted 1,200 of them for training, which is slated to begin next month in Jordan.
There are now 3,100 U.S. troops in Iraq, limited to advising Iraqi troops and protecting the U.S. embassy and other sites. “Our campaign design does not require the introduction of large numbers of U.S. forces,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said at Texas A&M University Feb. 19. “The campaign design does not lend itself to the introduction of large forces which will then immediately take ownership of the issues. Rather, it calls for the introduction of a coalition which includes Iraqis, Kurds, Jordanians, Saudis, Emirates, Qataris, because that’s their issue. They are closest to it and have the most at stake.”
This seemingly-slow pacing is deliberate, Pentagon officials say. They want to make sure that whatever they achieve militarily can be backed up politically. “Clearing is easy,” the retired four-star general who commanded in Iraq says privately. “Clearing and holding the land you’ve taken is hard.” That requires a political infrastructure in place to fill the governing gap once ISIS is ousted.
But progress is puny. While Iraq is nearly 170,000 square miles in size (437,000 square kilometers), the Pentagon has assessed who controls only the 73,000 square miles (190,000 square kilometers), or 43%, that it deems to have value because population and infrastructure are there. In the less than half of Iraq assessed by the U.S. military, the U.S.-backed central government in Baghdad controls 30,000 square miles (77,000 square kilometers), or 18%. The Kurds control 22,000 square miles (56,000 square kilometers), or 13%. ISIS controls 21,000 square miles (55,000 square kilometers), or 12%.
A senior Pentagon official says that including all of Iraq in the calculation would give ISIS a greater share of Iraqi territory, but declined to offer an estimate. The U.S. and its allies, primarily the Kurdish peshmerga, have retaken about 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of territory—about 1.3%—once held by ISIS in northern Iraq.
There’s only one way to take land, and that’s with well-trained ground forces. That’s why retired Marine general Anthony Zinni thinks the time is right for Obama to acknowledge reality and tell the nation he is sending 10,000 American troops into the fight. Zinni ran the U.S. military in the Middle East and Persian Gulf regions as chief of U.S. Central Command from 1997 to 2000, and still has business dealings in the region. He’s just back from a trip to Cairo, and he says he’s hearing a growing willingness among regional powers to put troops on the ground to fight ISIS—so long as the U.S. is alongside them.
Rumbles from Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates all suggest those nations are willing to fight on the ground. “I think this is all designed to try to push the United States to put something on the ground,” Zinni said Feb. 23. “If we put a couple of brigades in, I think you’d get five or six regional countries. And I think you could twist the arms of the French, the Belgians and maybe even the Brits.”
Two U.S. brigades, with their supporting personnel, would total about 10,000 troops. Zinni says the nations in the region are not coordinating their efforts in an effort to lure the U.S. into the fight on the ground. “But they’re getting scared, and have gotten angry at ISIS’s atrocious behavior and they’re willing to step up,” he says. “It would have to be a whole set of bilateral relationships, and we would have to pull it together.
The U.S. would have to act as the catalyst to make this happen, says Zinni, who was an early advocate of sending U.S. ground troops into the fight. “There’s an opportunity now to put a small piece in terms of ground forces in there, and get a lot more from these countries, and be the glue that puts it together,” he says. “There is no unifying structure and no single entity out there that can bring this all together—it has to be the United States,” Zinni insists.
But what about Obama’s pledge to keep U.S. combat boots out of the fight? “They have a moment here and it’ll blow by if they’re not careful,” he says. Obama “could always say that the situation on the ground has changed, and the willingness of the Arabs to stand up to this gives us this moment,” says Zinni, showing why he’s a better general than a politician.
ANOTHER BIG WAR?
But Pentagon officials say Zinni and others advocating a bigger U.S. role in the conflict overlook key questions: While Iraq has allowed 3,100 American troops on its soil, it hasn’t granted permission for a larger force. And those pushing for a special-forces decapitation strikes against ISIS leaders ignore the fact that intelligence on their whereabouts is sparse (it took the U.S. a decade to find Osama bin Laden, and nearly a year to launch the attack that killed him once his suspected lair had been located in Abbottabad, Pakistan).
Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month that the U.S. push against ISIS has stalled. “The area that they control, have influence, has actually grown and there’s not a lot of prospect in the near term of pushing that back,” he said. He dismissed the President’s options as binary. “I think the President is misleading when he says it’s either sending in a bunch of ground troops or `doing what I want to do’,” Thornberry said. “I do think our approach has to be working with regional allies. They are looking for more U.S. leadership, and part of the challenge is when you place restrictions on what our people can do, how much they can help, then obviously you’re going to be limited.”
Thornberry echoes a GOP refrain: that Obama is leery of using force. “I’m just worried, given the track record, that the President puts political constraints on what we can do rather than just focused on how to get this job done,” he said. “Political constraints are not going to get this job done, even if everything goes well. This is hard enough, even if we don’t tie our own hands.”
Neither the U.S. nor the rest of the world has done a good job convincing young Muslims that ISIS isn’t a good option, Thornberry added. “There is widespread agreement that the ideology is enormously appealing to huge numbers of Muslims, not a majority, but yet especially those in poor economic circumstances, those who feel depressed,” he said. “The appeal of that ideology to those young males in particular is something the world has not come to grips with.”
The international community, Thornberry said, is looking at ISIS through 20th Century eyes. “Part of our problem is that we tend to look at this country by country, and it is not a country by country issue,” he said. “It is a global issue that we’re not dealing with.” How should it be handled? “I’m not going to say an Arab NATO, but some sort of way that countries can work together to confront the ideology as well as what they’re doing on the ground militarily.”
Unlike al-Qaeda, with its plan to create a caliphate, “these guys short circuit that and go right to the caliphate, start behaving like a state, providing social services for their people, send out ambassadors,” Thornberry said. “It just reminds us, we’ve got to be careful about looking at things the way that we want to see them and not seeing what’s really happening.”
The AEI’s Donnelly believes that a determined President could—and should—get a green light from Congress to wage a bigger fight against ISIS. “If the President made the case forcefully, the American people would say, `Hell yea—this is behavior we cannot tolerate,’” Donnelly says. “A President can get what he wants from Congress in wartime.”
But some maintain that Republican calls for a bigger U.S. role—including getting rid of Assad—would likely lead only to a replay of the unsatisfying U.S. efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq. “Greater U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil war is increasingly portrayed in political circles as the main alternative to the Obama Administration’s current approach,” the liberal-leaning National Security Network think tank said ina Feb. 18 report. “But…strategies for the United States to fully enter the Syrian civil war would most likely draw the United States into an unwinnable quagmire and unsustainable nation-building project.”
THE CURRENT CAMPAIGN
A U.S. war planner from Central Command expressed confidence in the seven-month old war’s course during a Feb. 19 background Pentagon briefing. “Our mission has not changed in terms of the degradation, dismantle and eventual defeat of ISIL,” he said. “It remains true to form. And it is generally unfolding as we had planned.” But he stressed, as the Pentagon has repeatedly, that the fighting will likely continue well on into the future, with no termination date yet penciled in. “This is going to take time,” he said. “The degrade phase alone we knew would be a long period of time.”
Dempsey estimated Feb. 19 that it would take up to three years for Iraq to regain its territorial integrity (he didn’t offer a timetable for Syria). “But I think the issues will be generational—20, 30 years—because there is an internal conflict within Islam, and within the Arab world, between moderates and radicals that just isn’t going to end because they stop fighting,” he added.
The U.S. strategy is plain: halt ISIS’s advance by pounding it from the air until local ground forces, with some U.S. help, are ready to attack and retake the land, and—most critically—the cities, under its control. The initial goal is to push ISIS out of Iraq, and then go after them inside Syria.
The U.S. and its allies have dropped more than 8,200 bombs and missiles in close to 2,500 air strikes on ISIS targets, roughly split between Iraq and Syria. The weapons range from 20-pound warheads atop Hellfire missiles fired from Predator and Reaper drones, to 2,000-pound GPS and laser-guided behemoths dropped from B-1 bombers and other warplanes.
The U.S. and its allies attack ISIS targets wherever they’re found, Pentagon officials say. But there weren’t that many to begin with, and many have been destroyed. ISIS fighters hide amid civilians in towns, which reduces the chances they’ll be attacked. “Militarily, ISIL is in decline,” the Central Command briefer said. The constant bombardment has curbed ISIS’s plans to expand, and its options. “He’s in the land of `ors’ versus `ands’ now.”
The U.S.-led air strikes, and the Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces, have penned in ISIS. “This is an enemy that we still assess to be in a defensive posture,” Rear Admiral John Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Feb. 13. While ISIS boasts of its expanding caliphate, it only represents moves “into more ungoverned spaces in Syria,” he added. “The way you govern is you’ve got to have people to govern. So the population areas are the most important areas that we’re focused on.”
A key challenge will be beefing up the now-disappeared Iraq-Syrian border to keep ISIS out of Iraq once it is pushed back into Syria. Even now, the Central Command briefer said, “the safe havens that he has in Syria, and his ability to migrate back and forth, still gives him that micro-offensive capability” shown by the recent attack on the western Iraqi town of Baghdadi.
Through Feb. 4, allied air strikes had damaged or destroyed 4,817 ISIS targets, ranging from tanks (62) to Humvees (257) to “fighting positions” (752), basically fancy foxholes. The strikes also focused on decapitating ISIS’s command, hitting 26 “leadership buildings” and 102 “HQ buildings.” The list isn’t the kind of “target-rich environment” the U.S. Air Force likes. There are few strategic targets listed—nearly two-thirds are troops, foxholes and the vehicles used to get the troops to those foxholes.
“Those are things that ISIL no longer has,” Kirby told reporters. “They’re gone. They’re destroyed. They can’t use them anymore. And this is an enemy that has a limited ability to reconstitute strength, at least material strength.”
But the notion of ISIS is a hierarchical organization misses a key point. Even as it is under daily attack, it has evolved into “a decentralized, diffused, aspirational social movement that follows few orders and few chains of command,” Dafna Rand, who served on Obama’s National Security Council staff, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 12.
Syria remains the big issue, just as Pakistan remained a key drag on the U.S. effort in Afghanistan because it offered sanctuary to Taliban militants fighting U.S. troops just across the border. “What we’ve learned from Vietnam forward is you cannot defeat an insurgent group if it has a refuge in a neighboring country,” James Jeffrey, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Iraq from 2010 to 2012, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee Feb. 12. “You have to do something about Syria, and you can’t do anything about Syria without having a better policy towards Assad.”
Training sites for the Syrian rebels are being established in Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Iraqi Sunnis also are being trained in Anbar province. “It may not be as fast as some would like, but the inclusion of the Sunni tribes, the inclusion of the Sunnis writ large is an absolute critical component to this all working,” the Central Command briefer said Feb. 19. “And the leadership in Iraq is moving in the right direction to accommodate that.”
Military force can’t defeat ISIS by itself. “U.S. military action must be tied to a civil-military strategy that offers the best possible hope of producing a stable and friendly nation as its ultimate outcome,” Anthony Cordesman, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote Feb. 13. “No amount of tactical victories in the field, and no amount of U.S. military force that merely defeats the immediate enemy threat, will create that stability.”
THE NARCISSISTIC VIEW OF WAR
Americans are skeptical of another military mission in Iraq following the years, and U.S. lives, expended in Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11. But one of the Army’s pre-eminent thinkers urges his countrymen not to take the wrong lessons from those campaigns. “The lesson is not that these kinds of missions are impossible,” Army Lieut. General H.R. McMaster told Time Feb. 19. “One of the key lessons is we made it just about as hard on ourselves as we could have, by not acknowledging the need to consolidate gains in either Afghanistan or Iraq.” McMaster, an incumbent member of the Time 100, says inadequate pre-war planning doomed the effort to preserve the “fragile victory” that the U.S. had achieved in Iraq.
He expresses concern that despite the videos, Americans aren’t paying enough attention to the foe. “I wish we could get the American people more interested in who we’re fighting,” he says, with a touch of exasperation. “When you hear statements like `Americans are weary of the effort,’ and so forth, sometimes we don’t spend enough time talking about the nature of our enemies.”
The Germans hid their death camps during World War II. But that’s not the case with ISIS, who uses video to recruit and instill fear in prospective enemies. “ISIL’s brutality is so apparent now because they’re promoting themselves,” McMaster says. “It’s not our reporting that got the American people to say, `Damn, it’s really worth fighting these guys!’—it’s their own propaganda!” Part of the problem, McMaster says, is that the U.S. public views war through too narrow a lens. “We don’t even focus on our enemies; we talk in terms that sometimes could be criticized as narcissistic,” he says. “We define these conflicts in relation to us, rather than pay due attention to the nature of our enemies, what’s at stake, and why it’s worth the effort.”
The first real test for the U.S. and its allies will be the fight to retake Mosul, which ISIS seized from the Iraq army last June. The Pentagon is “still shooting for” an April-May launch of the battle to retake the country’s second-largest city. But that’s optimistic, and “we have not closed the door on continuing to slide that to the right”—into the future—the Central Command official said Feb. 19.
Iraqi forces have conducted 20 smaller ground offensives in recent months, and most of them have been “very successful,” the Central Command official said. Small numbers of U.S. troops—dozens to hundreds—could actually accompany Iraqi forces on that mission, to call in air strikes, gather intelligence, and advise the Iraqi forces. That decision, assuming a late-spring offensive, is only weeks away.
“I would not rule out using American ground troops to take territory if that’s necessary to defeat ISIS,” Jeffrey said. But he would rule out a “long-term American presence on the ground, as we saw in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Vietnam. It does not work.” Obama “is clearly very nervous about the use of military force, particularly ground forces, without a lot of allies, without a lot of legal backing, without the support of you and everybody else,” Jeffrey said at that Feb. 12 hearing. “…he thinks that we have gotten very committed, almost like a drug, to using military force, rather than other means of national power.”
In a bit of psyops, the Central Command briefer detailed just what the up to 2,000 ISIS fighters burrowed into Mosul will face when the fight kicks off. They will total up to 25,000, more than 10 times the defending ISIS force. That’s more than double the historic ratio needed to dislodge and defeat an enemy force in a city. “There will be five Iraqi army brigades, there will be three smaller brigades that will comprise a reserve force,” the Central Command official said. “There will be three pesh[merga] brigades that will help contain from the north and isolate from the west, and then there will be what we’re calling a Mosul fighting force, which will be compromised of largely police and tribal that are being put together right now of mostly former Mosul police.”
There’s no sign yet that ISIS fighters in Mosul are quaking in their boots. And while the Pentagon is guardedly optimistic the U.S. and its allies will prevail, critics have their doubts. “Retaking Mosul is going to be like Fallujah on steroids,” the AEI’s Donnelly says, referring to a pair of bloody battles in that western Iraq city that killed more than 100 Americans. “If I were President, I’d tell Martin Dempsey, `We have to win, and win faster.’ And if that means American boots on the ground, so be it.”
Last summer, British photographer Guy Martin stumbled upon an unexpected gift shop in the suburbs of Istanbul, Turkey. It sold memorabilia associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Martin speaks to TIME LightBox.
In Istanbul during the sweltering summer of 2014, I heard about a back street gift shop in the Istanbul district of Bagcilar.
In the Turkish city, gift shops are plentiful, offering a wide selection of plates, table coasters, badges, key rings and iPhone covers featuring the city’s Blue Mosque, Galatta tower, as well as photos of prime minister Tayip Erdogan and the young and iconic founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk.
I, however, was not on the hunt for the latest in Turkish gift shop trinkets. The gift shop that I wanted to find had a rather macabre, bizarre and terrifying premise: it sold memorabilia associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
The shape of Istanbul changes dramatically after you exit the city’s center with its towering mosques and century-old buildings. The hustle of the city gives way to grey, nondescript apartments, highways, overpasses and shopping malls.
Bagcilar looks like any of the city’s other outskirts with its kebab restaurants, mobile phone shops, and low-rise apartment blocks.
Walking to the end of a busy street, past a row of men’s clothing stores, which sold black skinny jeans, hoodies and knock off sneakers, and an upmarket Turkish restaurant serving fresh salads, mezze and barbecued meat dishes, I found it. The now infamous black flag, embellished with the seal of prophet Muhammad hung outside. In the shop windows: black t-shirts, key rings, cups and more flags.
My palms began to sweat as I approached the shop; images from gory and grainy YouTube videos fill my thoughts. But the shop was closed, and local residents didn’t seem to know who owned it.
I left that day, but for the next three weeks I returned to it again and again, hoping that it would be open. On my final visit, the shop was open. Sitting at the desk, were two women, their bare legs showing underneath a rolled up black Abaya, and their face veils thrown over their heads. They wore brand new, bright pink Nike trainers. They smoked and checked their Facebook accounts.
It took them a moment to realize they had a customer. When they saw me, they quickly covered their faces, stubbed out their cigarettes and walked towards me.
I was not allowed to photograph them or the inside of the shop, they said, but I could take pictures of various objects on a long white table.
I was aware of how rare an opportunity I had been afforded, but I also knew that I never wanted to return to this place again. It had been just a few days since James Foley’s brutal murder, and I could not help associating these items with the group’s vile acts.
Before we left, the two women denied any knowledge or association with terrorism, or that the products they were selling were funding terror groups.
I sat on these images for the rest of the year and with each week that passed, the brutality of ISIS’s acts just seemed to grow. I didn’t want to look them. I felt terrible for taking them. I felt, in some strange way, associated with these objects.
But as time passed and our understanding of ISIS grew, I needed to know more about those inanimate objects. What was striking about the objects I photographed was the variety of the symbols and iconography they featured. From the ‘Seal of the Prophet’ on a white flag – often used by Al Shabaab militants in Somalia and the Arabian Peninsula – to the green, white and red flags used by militant groups in the Caucasus. These logos and brands, as Arthur Beifuss and Francesco Trivini Bellini explain in Branding Terror – the Logotypes and Iconography of Insurgent Groups and Terrorist Organizations, are now an integral part of this global conflict. And, as I looked at the photographs I took that day, I was reminded not only of how global this conflict is but also what an integral role that marketing now plays to terrorist groups currently glamouring for attention in the “global war on terror”.
Guy Martin is a British photographer represented by Panos Pictures.
The Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) is deploying social media and the promise of adventure to enlist young British Muslim girls to wage jihad in the Middle East, a counterextremism think tank said Monday.
Police are currently searching for three young British Muslim girls they believe might have traveled to Syria to join ISIS after apparently being seduced by the group’s fanaticism.
The trio, ranging in ages from 15 to 16, boarded a flight to Istanbul from London last week without notifying their families, Reuters reports. Turkey is a common waypoint for young extremists aiming to reach neighboring Syria.
ISIS uses social-media tools like Twitter, Facebook and Ask.fm as recruitment channels, according to the Quilliam Foundation, which estimates women account for approximately 10% of the 600 British Muslims so far recruited. The foundation released a 2014 report saying “the promise of an Islamist utopia” drew women lacking agency in their own lives in the West.
“Many of these girls are not allowed out, or to do certain things in society,” said Quilliam’s managing director Haras Rafiq. “When they are online, they are being targeted with messages of empowerment.”
“These girls are going abroad because they are not really achieving what they consider to be much in Britain,” Rafiq added.
College, where new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has spent as much time as at the Pentagon, loves bull sessions. That’s just what Carter did Monday, summoning U.S. military and diplomatic brainpower to an unusual closed-door session in Kuwait where some of America’s finest Middle East minds gathered to debate how to defeat the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).
Sure, the more than two dozen attendees sat at a government-issue T-shaped table, complete with their names on placards, instead of sitting cross-legged on the floor. But, at the start of his second week on the job, Carter made clear he is as interested in listening as he is in talking. “This is team America,” he declared, before reporters were ushered out of the room.
At the end of the six-hour session, Carter declared ISIS “hardly invincible,” and gave no hint of any major change in U.S. policy, despite calls from some congressional Republicans for more robust military action. “Lasting defeat of this brutal group,” Carter said, “can and will be accomplished.”
No revamped war plan was expected to surface during the session, although Carter said the U.S. needs to step up its social-media duel with ISIS, and that certain unnamed allies need to do more. Rather, aides said, Carter was seeking to dive deeply into the current U.S. strategy, understand its logic and see if it can be improved.
While such sessions often happen without public notice in Washington, convening one abroad — and publicly detailing its purpose and attendees — marks a shift in how the Pentagon is conducting business under its new chief.
Those at the session included Army General Lloyd Austin, who as head of U.S. Central Command, oversees the anti-ISIS campaign, and Air Force General Philip Breedlove, NATO’s military chief. Diplomats attending included retired Marine general John Allen, now the White House’s envoy responsible for ISIS, and U.S. ambassadors in the region.
The Pentagon instructed those attending to leave their PowerPoint presentations at home and be ready to face questions from Carter. These kinds of sessions — especially when senior officials are visiting from the capital — often turn into subordinates’ show-and-tell rather than tough questions with frank answers. “We had an incisive, candid, wide-ranging discussion—there were no briefings,” Carter said afterward. “It was the sharing of experience and ideas and expertise and it made me very proud of the American team here in this region.”
Carter, a physicist by training, has spent much of his career lecturing on college campuses, including at Harvard, Oxford and Stanford. Between academic gigs, he also has served tours inside the Pentagon, including as deputy defense secretary from 2011 to 2013.
Carter plainly wants the war on ISIS to end differently than the wars the U.S. launched in Afghanistan (in 2001) and Iraq (in 2003), where battlefield successes turned into nation-building quagmires. “If we are to have a defeat of [ISIS] … it needs to be a lasting defeat,” he told U.S. troops at Kuwait’s Camp Arifjan before Monday’s session began. “What we discuss here, and what I learn here, will be important to me as I formulate our own direction in this campaign and as I help the President to lead it.”
Assuming Carter heard something that could help turn the tide against ISIS, getting the White House to listen to his advice could prove challenging. President Obama’s first two defense chiefs, Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, made no secret of their disdain for White House interference in Pentagon planning, and Pentagon officials cited such micromanagement as a problem during Chuck Hagel’s recently concluded tenure.
Back on Dec. 10, lawmakers wanted to know how many Iraqi troops would be needed to drive the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) from Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city. Brett McGurk, the State Department’s special presidential envoy for defeating the militant group, said a force of 20,000 to 25,000 would be a “reasonable” estimate of its size.
Spring was the goal for the timing of the counteroffensive, assuming the Iraqi army and their Kurdish peshmerga allies had enough troops and training by then. That timetable was a target freely, if privately, expressed by Pentagon officials since late last year, and surfaced in numerous press reports.
So why did a pair of influential Republican senators explode when they heard that an anonymous Pentagon official had relayed those same two key facts to reporters during a background briefing last Thursday?
“Never in our memory can we recall an instance in which our military has knowingly briefed our own war plans to our enemies,” John McCain of Arizona, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, also a member of the panel, wrote President Barack Obama on Friday. “These disclosures not only risk the success of our mission, but could also cost the lives of U.S., Iraqi, and coalition forces.”
Graham has served as an Air Force lawyer, so perhaps he can be forgiven for hyperbole. McCain, a onetime Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam and held as a prisoner for more than five years, surely knows better. There is only one way to take an enemy-held city: surround it with overwhelming force, and then attack it until the foe buckles, or choke it until he starves.
Everyone paying attention, on both sides of the fight against ISIS, has known for months that the battle for Mosul is going to be the climactic clash. “Certainly, ISIS knows that Mosul is the center piece of any counteroffensive,” Jack Keane, a retired four-star Army general, told Fox News on Sunday. “They know that. We’ve been knocking off lines of communications and isolating Mosul now for weeks, with air power, too. They know we would like to do that probably before Ramadan or do it after. So, timing is something that they can figure out themselves.”
Both sides also know that it’s better to launch a counteroffensive sooner rather than later, thereby limiting the defenses ISIS can dig and build, which narrows the timeframe down to the spring.
The U.S. military knows that it cannot support its Iraqi allies in that fight without being confident they will prevail. Their training and outfitting will take at least several more weeks. The arrival of the Muslim holiday of Ramadan (June 17) and summer (June 21), pretty much shuts the window on the operation about that time, Pentagon officials say, citing religious sensitivities and heat. By default, that leaves the April-May timeframe cited by the Pentagon briefer Thursday as the soonest the counteroffensive to retake Mosul could be launched if it is to be attempted before fall.
The official from the U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. forces in Iraq, heavily caveated the timing of the Mosul operation in his telephone Q&A with Pentagon reporters from Centcom headquarters in Tampa. “The mark on the wall that we are still shooting for is the April-May timeframe,” he said, implying the timing wasn’t new and wasn’t secret. Beyond that, he said more than once, the U.S. and its allies would delay the assault if the Iraqi forces are “not ready, if the conditions are not set, if all the equipment that they need is not physically there.”
The fact is, the U.S. has routinely telegraphed offensive operations before launching them. There was a flurry of stories detailing the “shock and awe” bombardment that would open the 2003 invasion of Iraq before it began. “If asked to go into conflict in Iraq, what you’d like to do is have it be a short conflict,” Air Force General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in response to a question from TIME at a breakfast two weeks before it started. “The best way to do that would be to have such a shock on the system that the Iraqi regime would have to assume early on the end was inevitable.”
The U.S. military also offered previews of coming destruction before the battle for Fallujah in Iraq in 2004, and in advance of the offensive against the Taliban in Marjah, Afghanistan, in 2010.
Leaking word of such attacks in advance, Pentagon officials say, can convince enemy fighters to abandon the fight. But they concede it can also stiffen the backbone of others. Such a tactic can also encourage the non-ISIS population in Mosul to rebel against the occupiers.
So just how many Iraqi troops will retaking Mosul require? “We think it’s going to take in the range between 20,000 and 25,000,” the Central Command official said Thursday. He wasn’t risking the success of the eventual mission. He was simply echoing what McGurk told Congress more than two months ago.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush provided an early preview Wednesday of how he will address the central challenge of his all-but-certain presidential campaign: defining himself outside the shadow of his family.
“I love my brother. I love my dad,” Bush told an audience of business leaders and politicos during a foreign-policy speech at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “But I am my own man—and my views are shaped by my own thinking and own experiences.”
It was no coincidence that Bush picked a foreign-policy address to start the process of sketching the differences between his approach and those of the two Bush presidencies past. If he chooses to run, the former Florida governor will be saddled with the legacy of his brother, whose presidency was marred by two unpopular wars that sullied the family name.
Bush took tentative steps toward distinguishing his own views. “There were mistakes made in Iraq,” Bush acknowledged during a question-and-answer session, saying George W. Bush’s administration should have focused on ensuring security after the fall of Saddam Hussein. But he credited his brother’s decision to launch the 2007 troop surge that stabilized the war-torn nation, and said it had descended back into chaos because of President Obama’s decision to withdraw forces after his brother left office.
Ranging onto Obama’s home turf, Bush denounced the President for diminishing the nation’s stature on the world stage. Calling for a more assertive foreign policy that he dubbed “liberty democracy,” Bush skewered Obama’s approach as too passive toward America’s enemies and too murky for U.S. allies to rely upon. “The great irony of the Obama Presidency is this: Someone who came to office promising greater engagement with the world has left America less influential in the world,” Bush said.
“America does not have the luxury of withdrawing from the world,” Bush said. “Our security, our prosperity and our values demand that we remain engaged and involved in often distant places. We have no reason to apologize for our leadership and our interest in serving the cause of global security, global peace and human freedom.”
Bush criticized Obama for his handling of his “red line” with regards to Syria’s use of chemical weapons and his early dismissal of the Islamic State. He also whacked the President for failing to combat the threats posed by Russia’s escalations in eastern Ukraine, Boko Haram’s insurgency in Nigeria, and the personal distrust between the President and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“This administration talks, but the words fade. They draw red lines, then erase them,” Bush said. “With grandiosity, they announce resets and disengage. Hashtag campaigns replace actual diplomacy and engagement. Personal diplomacy and maturity is replaced by leaks and personal disparagement. The examples keep piling up. ”
But blistering Obama was the easy part of the speech. For Bush, the hard part will be drawing distinctions between his approach and that of his brother—particularly in light of the fulsome praise he has heaped on George W. Bush’s foreign policy in the past. “I’m the only Republican that was in office when he was in office as President that never disagreed with him and I’m not going to start now,” Jeb told CNN in a rare 2010 joint interview with his brother, who is seven years his senior. “I’m not going to start now. It’s just till death do us part.”
As he moves toward a presidential campaign, Bush is soliciting foreign-policy advice from a broad range of conservative thinkers, including many who advised the 43rd or 41st presidents and some who helped orchestrate his brother’s ill-fated endeavors in the war on terrorism. They include former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, former Secretary of State George Schultz, and former Deputy National Security Advisor Meghan O’Sullivan.
In a rare venture into policy specifics, Bush explicitly defended the National Security Agency’s telephone metadata program, which was exposed by leaks from Edward Snowden. “For the life of me I don’t understand the debate,” he said, calling the controversial program “hugely important.” The position pits himself against likely 2016 GOP primary opponent Rand Paul, a Kentucky Senator who has made the purported excesses of the U.S. surveillance state a cornerstone of his campaign and a rallying cry designed to attract independents and young voters.
In a question-and-answer session that followed his speech, Bush called for Obama to confront Russian leader Vladimir Putin—whom he described as a “ruthless pragmatist—and criticized Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba. “I think it was the wrong thing to do,” he said. Bush indicated that Obama should have allowed Cuba to feel the economic squeeze from falling oil prices, adding that he does not believe that Cuba’s dictatorship will make a transition to democratic government. “I don’t think it happens,” he added, “unless you negotiate the conditions for it to happen.”
As a governor, Bush lacks the day-to-day familiarity with foreign policy issues that some potential Senate rivals boast. But he sought to highlight his foreign policy bona fides by reciting his experience abroad, including trade missions conducted while he was governor of Florida from 1999 to 2007 and four annual trips to Asia in recent years.
A Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday found that Bush’s name could be a drag among some Independent voters in the swing states of Colorado, Iowa, and Virginia, but most say it will not alter their decisionmaking should he face former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. A CNN survey found that 64% of Americans associate Bush with the past, compared to 33% who say he represents the future. For Clinton, 50% associated her with the future, compared to 48% with the past.
Before Bush spoke, Democrats launched a preemptive attack that derided the former Florida governor for blaming the current Oval Office occupant for problems created by his predecessor. “The Jeb Doctrine seems to be to point fingers at the wrong Administration, cheerlead go-it-alone diplomacy, and put on blinders to the failures of the past,” said Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee.
Pope Francis on Monday condemned the killing of 21 Coptic Christians hostages in Libya by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), according to a Vatican Radio report.
“The blood of our Christian brothers is a witness that cries out,” he told a delegation from Scotland on Monday. “If they are Catholic, Orthodox, Copts, Lutherans, it is not important: They are Christians. The blood is the same: It is the blood which confesses Christ.”
The hostages, believed to be laborers from Egypt, are now “martyrs,” Francis said.
The Libyan extremist group, which swears fealty to ISIS, released a five-minute video Sunday showing militants with knives killing 21 people wearing orange jumpsuits on a beach.
Egyptian authorities confirmed the authenticity of the video, and President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi launched air strikes against targets in Libya hours after vowing to avenge the deaths.
ISIS militants donning Iraqi uniforms attacked a military base in Iraq housing U.S. advisers on Friday, but the Iraqi military largely repelled the attack. No U.S. or Iraqi service members were reported killed.
The assault was one of the most brazen in recent weeks by ISIS fighters. According to the Wall Street Journal, an initial wave of fighters attacked the base in suicide vests, followed by a second set of militants firing rockets and mortars.
Earlier this week, ISIS fighters captured al-Baghdadi, a town near the air base, which holds roughly 300 U.S. Marines.
ISIS has targeted the base for several months with mortar fire, which U.S. officials describe as largely ineffective. The U.S. military is training Iraqi troops and Sunni tribal members to fight ISIS at the base, according to ABC News.
Washington irresolution when it comes to waging war has become so feckless that the White House and Congress now engage in a paper chase that lets lawmakers vote on combat without the political risk that would accompany their declaration of war.
That’s why President Obama’s dispatch of his “AUTHORIZATION FOR THE USE OF UNITED STATES ARMED FORCES” is less than the capital letters might suggest. In fact, the draft makes clear that he is only seeking “the limited use of the United States Armed Forces against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.”
The war against ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, makes explicit a Presidential bet: “…in this campaign,” his draft resolution reads, “it is more effective to use our unique capabilities in support of partners on the ground instead of large-scale deployments of U.S. ground forces.”
His language expressly rules out “the United States Armed Forces in enduring offensive ground combat operations.” In an accompanying letter to Congress, he says U.S. ground troops would be restricted to rescuing downed allied troops, to “take military action” against ISIS leaders, and for “missions to enable kinetic strikes.” Small numbers, in other words.
“With our allies and partners,” Obama said Wednesday at the White House, “we are going to degrade and ultimately destroy this terrorist group.”
But his draft resolution also acknowledges that ISIS leaders “have stated that they intend to conduct terrorist attacks internationally, including against the United States, its citizens, and interests.”
Hard to understand—if Obama means what he says in that passage—why he thinks it wise to subcontract out the bulk of the responsibility for defeating this threat to America to non-Americans.
Then again, he may simply be appropriating such language because he’s caught in the threat-inflation mindset that has tainted much of the debate over the danger posed by ISIS. Fundamentally, it’s little more than a pipsqueak guerilla army outfitted with pickup trucks, AK-47s and a keen sense of the value of well-produced social-media posts. Congress is just as guilty on that charge, pumping the bellows of war against what basically is a barbarian horde.
“I’m concerned that the president is more focused on threading a political needle here rather than how to be successful in beating ISIS,” Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, told CNN.
If ISIS represents a threat to the nation, perhaps a declaration of war is warranted. If not, perhaps sitting on the sidelines makes more sense. After all, this conflict now roiling the Middle East boils down to a fight between the Shiite (Iran) and Sunni (Saudi Arabia) branches of Islam. Any role played by outsiders is likely to do little to change the ultimate outcome in such a religious war.
The founders of the U.S. intended that waging war would be a joint enterprise, with the President serving as commander in chief after Congress had declared war. Sure, there are times when a chief executive can’t wait, but Vietnam and Afghanistan each dragged on for more than a decade, and Iraq nearly as long, without Congress bothering to declare war (don’t worry, Iraq’ll be able to catch up in this latest iteration).
It may seem to be only a matter of rhetoric, but a declaration of war by the United States packs a profoundly different punch than a congressional resolution authorizing the use of force. It means the nation is committed to victory. The United States was committed to something in Afghanistan, and Iraq the first time around, but it surely wasn’t victory. The public senses this, and, as a result, the nation ends up fighting its wars tepidly.
Obama has made clear he believes he doesn’t need Congress to approve this retooled authorization for the use of military force. After all, he has been bombing ISIS for six months under authorizations passed by Congress in 2001 and 2002, shortly after the 9/11 attacks.
Both the White House and Capitol Hill get something out of the deal. Obama gets to outline his “limited” military goals. Congress gets to play warlord, without declaring war. The only U.S. party all-in on the conflict, as has become customary, are the young men and women who will risk everything to carry out their nation’s half-hearted orders.