TIME Military

An Extraordinary Pentagon ‘Bull Session’ Over ISIS

DOD Chief Ashton Carter Travels To Middle East
Jonathan Ernst—Pool/Getty Images New Defense Secretary Ashton Carter begins Monday's anti-ISIS strategy session in Kuwait.

New defense chief convenes Kuwait confab to confirm war plans

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.

TIME Terrorism

Read an American ISIS Hostage’s Last Letter to Her Family

Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.
Mueller Family—Reuters Kayla Mueller, 26, an American humanitarian worker from Prescott, Ariz.

Kayla Mueller said she was "remaining strong"

An American who died while held captive by the militant group Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS) wrote in her final letter to her family that she was “OK, healthy, remaining strong and being treated kindly.”

“Do not worry… I love you all,” Kayla Mueller wrote in the letter, revealed Monday on NBC’s Today show. “My heart longs to be with you all as… I have never felt before, but praise be to God you are in my dreams almost every evening and for just those brief moments in my sleeping conscious that we are together I am given a warmth.”

The Obama Administration confirmed earlier this month that Mueller, an aid worker who was 26, had died. ISIS said she was killed in a Jordanian airstrike, but U.S. officials haven’t confirmed that.

Read the full letter at NBC

Read next: What Kayla Mueller’s Life Reveals About Her Generation

TIME Australia

Australian Leader Outlines Tough New Anti-Terrorism Measures

Prime Minister Tony Abbott Announces Changes In National Security Speech
Stefan Postles—Getty Images Prime Minister Tony Abbott during his speech on National Security at the Australian Federal Police headquarters on February 23, 2015 in Canberra, Australia.

Abbott decried the spread of Islamic extremism in Syria and Iraq as a “new dark age”

Australians who hold dual nationality and flout antiterrorism laws will have their citizenship suspended or revoked, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott announced Monday during an address on national security.

Even those born in Australia could have citizenship privileges taken away if they are involved in terrorism, reports the BBC.

“These [measures] could include restricting the ability to leave or return to Australia, and access to consular services overseas, as well as access to welfare payments,” Abbott said at the federal police headquarters in the capital, Canberra.

The 57-year-old Premier stressed that the new legislation would also target preachers who incite religious or racial hatred.

“By any measure, the threat to Australia is worsening,” he added, calling the spread of Islamic extremism over Syria and Iraq a “new dark age.”

Abbott said that many of his compatriots were becoming radicalized and lured into the “death cult” of terrorist groups. About 90 Australian nationals are believed to have traveled abroad to fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

During his speech, Abbott also announced the appointment of a new counterterrorism chief and seven new financial analysts to crack down on terrorist financing.

The move comes in the wake of the Sydney siege, during which a lone gunman, Man Haron Monis, held 18 people hostage at a café in the city center. Three people including Monis, who had pledged fealty to ISIS, died at the scene.

TIME Military

The Pentagon Spills the Beans: Stupidity, or Strategy?

Dozens of ISIL militants killed in Iraq's Mosul
Emrah Yorulmaz / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images ISIS members set fire to tires Sunday to mask their escape after clashing with Kurdish peshmerga forces outside Mosul.

Lawmakers pounce on disclosures, which have been known for months

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.

TIME National Security

Homeland Security Chief Warns Mall of America Shoppers After Threat

BLOOMINGTON, MN - JULY 16: (FEATURE STORY ON THE MALL OF AMERICA, 11 OF 15) A large sign hangs above an entrance to the Mall of America July 16, 2002 in Bloomington, Minnesota. The Mall of America is the largest shopping mall in the United States, seeing between 35 and 42 million visitors each year and employing more than 12,000 people. Approximately 520 stores occupy the mall's 4.2 million square feet. The Mall of America will celebrate its 10th anniversary this August. (Photo by Mark Erickson/Getty Images)
Mark Erickson—Getty Images

FBI says there is "no indication" of any specific threat

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson warned visitors to the Mall of America on Sunday to remain vigilant after the massive shopping center near Minneapolis was singled out for attacks in a new video posted by an Islamist extremist group.

Somalia-based al-Shabab, which claimed responsibility for the deadly siege at the Westgate shopping center in Nairobi in 2013, called for terrorist attacks against malls in the United States, United Kingdom and Canada.

“If anyone is planning to go to the Mall of America today, they’ve got to be particularly careful,” Johnson said on CNN’s State of the Union. “There will be enhanced security there, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important.”

FBI spokesman Rich Quinn said “there is no indication of any specific, real threat” against American malls. Still, Tanya Bradsher, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Homeland Security, aimed to clarify Johnson’s remarks: “Sec. Johnson didn’t say that they should not go to the mall, he told shoppers to be extra vigilant and that security was increased.”

[CNN]

 

TIME United Kingdom

British Anti-Terror Cops Hunt 3 Teen Girls Feared Bound for Syria

The girls, aged 15 to 17, flew to Istanbul Tuesday

U.K. counterterror officials were urgently searching for three teenage schoolgirls they feared had run away from home to travel to Syria, police said Friday.

The girls, all good friends aged 15 to 17, boarded a Turkish Airlines flight at London’s Gatwick Airport at 12:40 p.m. (7:45 a.m. ET) Tuesday and arrived in Istanbul later that evening, police said in a statement. Thousands of wannabe ISIS rebels have crossed into Syria through Turkey since the civil war there started four years ago.

The girls were last seen at their homes at 8 a.m. (3 a.m. ET) that morning, where they made plausible excuses to their families as…
TIME Innovation

Five Best Ideas of the Day: February 20

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

1. Hollywood’s diversity problem goes beyond “Selma.” Asian and Latino stories and faces are missing.

By Jose Antonio Vargas and Janet Yang in the Los Angeles Times

2. Shifting the narrative away from religion is key to defeating ISIS.

By Dean Obeidallah in the Daily Beast

3. Innovation alone won’t fix social problems.

By Amanda Moore McBride and Eric Mlyn in the Chronicle of Higher Education

4. When the Ebola epidemic closed schools in Sierra Leone, radio stepped in to fill the void.

By Linda Poon at National Public Radio

5. The racial wealth gap we hardly talk about? Retirement.

By Jonnelle Marte in the Washington Post

The Aspen Institute is an educational and policy studies organization based in Washington, D.C.

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 Terrorism

What the War on Terrorism Can Learn from the War on Gangs

A member loyal to ISIS waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria June 29, 2014
Reuters A member loyal to ISIS waves a flag in Raqqa, Syria June 29, 2014

Dangerous street gangs and violent extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria both depend on recruiting disaffected youths with the promise of a sense of belonging.

Because of those similarities, community leaders involved in the effort to fight extremism—many of whom gathered in Washington this week for the White House’s summit on the topic—are drawing lessons from the nation’s decades-old fight against gang violence.

After cities failed to arrest their way out of the problem of gang violence, law enforcement agencies such as the Los Angeles Police Department began taking a different approach. By engaging in “community policing” and shifting the focus from making arrests to building relationships, officers across the country learned to fight crime by finding allies in the community.

Paired with community outreach, devoting resources to educational and economic opportunities and, sometimes a little luck, the efforts worked in some communities. In Los Angeles, for example, the total number of homicides in 2012 was nearly half the number of gang homicides the city faced in 1992.

“You can’t declare war on gangs, you can’t declare war on this ideology,” says Michael Downing, the deputy chief of the Los Angeles Police Department’s counter terrorism and special operations bureau. “But what you can do is develop a balance.”

Los Angeles is one of three cities chosen by the federal government to host pilot programs to counter terrorist groups. The L.A. program, which Downing says is based on prevention, intervention and interdiction, draws inspiration from anti-gang models, as do the other pilot programs.

Outside of law enforcement, though, the stakes are just as high, if not greater. One of the key factors in countering extremism is keeping it from happening in the first place through prevention. “We’ve got a lot of disengaged youth,” says Steve Weine, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago who researches anti-extremism. “They’re just ripe for being picked-off by recruiters.”

A major criticism of the White House summit from members of the Muslim community, who have found themselves at the center of this discussion due to the savvy recruitment techniques of groups such as ISIS, is that these tactics will end up being a new excuse for law enforcement communities to target people based on their faith.

“We’re in very dangerous territory when law enforcement agencies are leading the effort,” says Hina Shamsi, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s national security project. “I don’t think anyone is arguing to take away community outreach, but it’s got to be community outreach that’s open where the hand of trust isn’t accompanied by the hand behind the back that is taking down intelligence information.”

Weine says one of the best lessons the efforts to counter violent extremism can learn from the efforts to stop gang violence is that it takes a person with credibility and trust within a community to really get through.

“You need to be able to identify people who can reach down deep into pockets where these young people who are more isolated, more susceptible to radicalization and recruitment are,” says Weine.

The Chicago-based anti-gang violence effort Cure Violence, formely known as Ceasefire, is a good model of this approach. But the most important aspect of its efforts is trust. “It’s not just someone who looks like you or shares the same language, or is part of the same church or mosque or synagogue,” says Dr. Gary Slutkin, the founder and Executive Director of Cure Violence. “You can’t fool people into thinking you’re not associated with law enforcement.”

That level of trust is why Cure Violence boasts its success rates in parts of Chicago and cities across the globe, including in parts of Honduras, Iraq, and Kenya. The Institute for Strategic Dialogue, which presented at the White House Summit,is working in the private-sector agencies to engage former extremists—from gang members to white supremacists—to foster one-on-one interactions between those seeking out terror groups and those who have stepped away from that environment.

Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, who also works on the Los Angeles program, has helped develop a model that helps community leaders focus on providing healthy alternatives and outlets for people who may feel cast out or may be at risk of feeling that way, while also working with people who may be on the path to extremism. It too, draws from efforts used to fight gangs, but Al-Marayati notes there are some major differences between those at risk of joining a gang and those in the Muslim community who could be lured into joining an extremist group.

For one, though the threat of ISIS brought the Muslim community to the center of the conversation on extremism, in the United States it’s not the only potential cause of terrorism. Experts note that there is also a threat of militia movements, such as the men behind the Oklahoma City attack, or those based on other ideologies, such as the anti-abortion beliefs of the man behind the Atlanta Olympics bombing.

“You know where gangs are and where they’re going and who they’re recruiting,” said Al-Marayati. “In this case it’s an amorphous issue. It’s tougher to pinpoint when there’s going to be a problem.”

TIME Australia

Former Gitmo Inmate ‘Relieved’ After Terrorism Conviction Quashed

Former Australian Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks, right, in Sydney on February 19, 2015
Saeed Khan—AFP/Getty Images Former Australian Guantanamo Bay inmate David Hicks in Sydney on February 19, 2015

U.S. court says Australian David Hicks did not commit a war crime

Australian David Hicks announced relief after a U.S. court overturned his terrorism conviction Wednesday.

The court declared that the former Guantanamo Bay inmate did not commit a war crime, therefore his conviction was not eligible to be heard in a military court, reports the BBC.

“It’s a relief because it’s over,” Hicks said in a Sydney news conference.

Hicks, 39, pleaded guilty in 2007 to charges of providing material support to terrorism. In 2000, Hicks trained with Lashkar-e-Taiba in Pakistan and participated in an attack against Indian forces. In 2001, the Northern Alliance captured Hicks in Afghanistan, where he met Osama bin Laden and enrolled in Al-Qaeda training camps, the BBC reported.

In a rare move, the U.S. Court of Military Commission Review overturned his conviction in a unanimous ruling. Under new rules, providing material support for terrorism no longer qualifies as a war crime for events prior to 2006.

Hicks was sentenced to seven years in Guantanamo Bay, but after pleading guilty, he was allowed to return to Australia after nine months. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott has said, “Let’s not forget whatever the legalities… he was up to no good on his own admission.”

[BBC]

TIME National Security

Obama Calls for International Unity in Fight Against Terror, Extremism

"We come from different countries and different cultures & different faiths… [but] we are all in the same boat" Obama said Thursday.

President Obama echoed Wednesday’s call for unity in the global fight against violent extremism in his final speech before a White House summit tackling the issue.

After two days of talks with community leaders from across the U.S., the State Department on Thursday hosted a group of high-level international leaders as a part of the Countering Violent Extremism Summit. During his speech, Obama again called on leaders to dispute extremist ideology that claims the West is at war with Islam.

“The notion that the West is at war with Islam is an ugly lie and all of us—regardless of our faith—have a responsibility to reject it,” Obama said.

In the wake of terror attacks in Paris and Egypt, and ongoing battles against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, the summit has largely focused on extremist activities related to the Muslim community. The focus on Muslims has drawn ire from both conservatives—who say the administration hasn’t gone far enough to call out terrorism carried out through the faith—and American Muslims, who say the counter violence efforts being proposed will lead to further targeting and discrimination.

Obama on Thursday acknowledged that the targets of ISIS and al-Qaeda propaganda are largely members of the Muslim community and the terror organizations claim they are driven by Islam. He said that that countries had a responsibility, however, to lift up the voices of millions of Muslims around the world who actually represent the faith, and frankly, are just like everyone else. “A lot of the bad is absorbed,” Obama said. “Not enough of the good.”

Obama also said by confronting religious conflict, political, economic, and educational issues—all of which he said terrorists exploit in their efforts to recruit—countries can counter extremist messaging in a meaningful way.

The summit and gathering of international leaders piggybacks off of a call to action against extremism Obama made in September before the United Nations Security Council.

Read next: Obama Urges Americans to Keep Calm in Fight Against Violent Extremism

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