Whatever the world has been doing about ISIS, it’s not working.
A Russian passenger jet blown up over Egypt. Beirut’s deadliest suicide bombing in 25 years. A Friday night in Paris transformed into a bloodbath–the worst in France since World War II. Those attacks, the work of a mere fortnight across three countries and all claimed by the terrorist group, killed nearly 400 people and wounded even more.
The synchronized mayhem in the City of Light on Nov. 13 shook the foundations of the European Union, with its wide-open borders and paltry defense budgets. A gloating ISIS spokesman released a statement saying the attack was but “the first of the storm.” A former CIA chief predicted grimly that America’s turn is coming. A raid in a Paris suburb on Nov. 18 that left two people dead–including one woman who blew herself up as police approached–may have narrowly prevented the next attack in France. “We are all afraid,” says Zinbab Hadri, a Paris resident who witnessed the raid. “We are all victims of these madmen.”
It was another turning point in ISIS’s history of mayhem and misery. Previous turns since the movement caught fire include the capture of the Iraqi city of Fallujah–where over 100 American troops gave their lives during two key battles of the Iraq War–in early 2014, the seizure of oil-rich Mosul five months later, the proclamation of a restored caliphate and the escalating sadism of ISIS rule. All these turning points, it is now obvious, turn in the same direction.
A downward spiral.
That’s how things appear to most of the reeling world, which is why people search for a leader to tell them what happens next. The early results were dismaying. French President François Hollande promised to “eradicate” ISIS, but everyone knows that France lacks the military tools to deliver the all-out war he promised. Other European officials look nervously at the tide of Syrian refugees streaming onto the Continent–whom one of the plotters may have posed as en route to Europe, according to a possible match of a passport found outside the soccer stadium after the Nov. 13 attacks–and put up their fingers to test suddenly shifting political winds. In the U.S., Republican governors, lawmakers and presidential candidates jockey to see who could be tougher on both ISIS and the traumatized Syrian refugees suddenly considered a dire threat.
Which leaves President Obama, who has always been wary of leading the free world. Facing the press at an international summit in Turkey, he was weary and querulous when the world wanted galvanizing. The carnage in France he called a “setback”–albeit a “terrible and sickening” one–on a path where “there has been progress being made.” In the fashion of struggling commanders down through history, he found solace in data amid the smoke of an apparent defeat. Many bombing runs have been flown. Some square miles have been liberated. And if you think three major terrorist plots in two weeks is a lot, try counting all the plots that have been prevented.
Obama promised “an intensification,” but no changes, in “the strategy that we are putting forward,” which is, he insisted, “the strategy that ultimately is going to work.” Liberty-loving people would like to believe him, but the passionless Obama seemed barely convinced himself. In the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in the West in over a decade, the President came across as impatient and irritable. “I just spent the last three questions answering that very question, so I don’t know what more you want me to add,” he groused to reporters.
What was wanted was the same thing people always want when they face a threat to their way of life: a leader who gives voice to their shared strength and lights the path to victory, however arduous. Barack Obama used to know this. The man who was elected in 2008 had an instinctive feel for inspirational leadership. Somewhere along the way, his disdain for his audience took over.
But Obama’s problem in rallying the world was not, as some aides suggested, a lack of understanding by his listeners. People can see that ISIS persists despite Obama’s dismissal of it, nearly two years ago, as a terrorist “jayvee team” to al-Qaeda’s varsity. They can see that a regional disaster has metastasized into a global menace, thanks to its sophisticated, agile, often highly encrypted Internet operations, which woo young, disaffected recruits with a thrilling mixture of torture videos, stirring music and calls to join a world-historic cause.
People learned, even as the bodies were being counted in Paris–129 dead in the immediate aftermath, with many others badly wounded and fighting for life–that France is home to far more terrorism suspects than French authorities can keep track of. At least two of the killers had been flagged as suspicious by authorities, yet neither was being watched: it takes at least 20 agents to keep track of each potential terrorist.
People learned that Belgium is so lax in its antiterrorism efforts that a neighborhood just across a canal from Brussels–the capital of the E.U.–has become a hotbed of European terror plots. As Belgian Minister of Security and Home Affairs Jan Jambon put it disconcertingly, “We do not have things under control at this moment.”
As for those bombing sorties on the President’s spreadsheet, which supposedly kill 1,000 terrorists per month? They haven’t stopped the flow of ISIS recruits to and from the caliphate. That $500 million U.S. project to train pro-Western fighters to take on ISIS in Syria? Abandoned as an utter flop. The Pentagon plan to rally an Iraqi army to liberate Mosul last spring? A figment wrapped in a pipe dream.
Because people understand these facts and others, it will take more than a grouchy recitation of his strategy for the President to convince the world that his plan is the best available. Yet what makes this situation so unnerving, and the need for leadership so acute, is that in spite of all the signs to the contrary, Obama may actually be right.
A PROBLEM FROM HELL
ISIS is a particularly difficult problem because it starts with this distressing fact: the forces closest to it aren’t sure they want to solve it.
The Islamic State is a fibroid of territory enmeshed in a cat’s cradle of ethnic, tribal, religious and geopolitical strands so densely tangled as to defy solution. Part of it lies in Syria, a chaos of competing factions trying to overthrow a murderous tyrant, Bashar Assad. Assad is propped up by Iran and the anti-Western Vladimir Putin of Russia. Assad is clinging to power in the face of Western demands for his ouster. ISIS might help him do it, because as long as the caliphate exists, he looks arguably less monstrous by comparison.
Iran, the leading Shi’ite Muslim nation, is preoccupied with shoring up allied governments in Damascus and Baghdad, and lacks an impetus for a full-scale assault on the jihadists. As for Lebanon, which also shares a border with Syria, the dominant Hizballah faction will take its cues from Tehran. Saudi Arabia is Iran’s wealthy nemesis. The kingdom might be able to rally Sunnis against ISIS–but probably won’t if the outcome could be a stronger Iran.
Other rivalries loom large in the infected region. The ethnic Kurds of northern Iraq and Syria have raised the only effective anti-ISIS force to engage so far. But Kurds have long been enemies of the Turks, so much so that Turkey, a member of NATO, is using the pretense of war on ISIS to bomb them. Forced to choose between honoring the Western alliance and preventing the rise of a Kurdish nation, Turkey would likely stick to old hatreds.
Analysts and candidates who fill the airwaves with easy talk of “taking out ISIS,” “establishing safe zones in Syria” or “strengthening the Kurds” are skipping the most difficult questions. For every key player in the region who might join in one of those projects, there is sure to be at least one other key player adamantly opposed. And unlike the U.S., those players are in the region forever. Which means that temporary solutions won’t do.
Furthermore, ISIS is different things in different places: in Syria and Iraq it is a military force and quasi-state; in North Africa and Southeast Asia, it is a loose network of radical movements like Boko Haram in Africa, the ISIS affiliate in Libya and the Sinai insurgency in Egypt; in Europe and the U.S., ISIS is an extremist ideology binding would-be terrorists and their hangers-on.
Eradicating ISIS in Iraq and Syria, even if it could be accomplished, would likely demoralize its far-flung satellites but would not wipe it out. Nor would the loss of money and security that comes with having a home base kill it off. The three recent terror plots were not expensive. And the Internet provides a virtual space in which ISIS operates fluidly.
Consider this: so far in 2015, more than twice as many U.S. residents have been linked to Islamic extremist plots as in either of the previous two years, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The total, 69, is small compared with the thousands of Europeans who have been lured to the caliphate. But it’s a clear spike.
And ISIS has emerged as the key recruiter. In past years, extremists were associated with a variety of groups, including the Somali organization al-Shabab and various al-Qaeda franchises. So far this year, all but two of the suspects were tied to ISIS. They discussed a total of 15 plots, compared with only one domestic plot uncovered in 2014, according to the ADL.
ISIS’s command of the online battlefield rests on its use of social media to attract and indoctrinate. This is “the dark side of globalization,” said anthropologist Scott Atran, who testified on ISIS recruitment at the U.N. Security Council. Young people–especially immigrants and children of immigrants–identify less with their physical communities and nations and rely more on their online connections, which can be penetrated by ISIS propagandists. Atran reports that some recruiters spend hundreds of hours in virtual communication with a single target, steadily tailoring the movement’s message to fit the individual.
For the traumatized children of war-torn regions, the message might be: join us and kill your enemies before they kill you. For the disaffected loner in a European or American suburb, it might be the fellowship of a movement of strong Muslims. For a history-minded dreamer, it might be the promise of restored Islamic greatness.
It works. Young people from an estimated 90 nations have been drawn to ISIS. (The terrorist group itself is far more international than the coalition fighting it.) And as travel to Syria becomes more difficult, a growing number of them have been urged to wage jihad in their homelands. “If you are not able to find an IED or a bullet, then single out the disbelieving American, Frenchman or any of his allies,” an ISIS spokesman announced last year. “Smash his head with a rock, or slaughter him with a knife, or run him over with your car.”
THE SHADOW WAR
The Obama strategy tries to take this complexity into account. As he put it in his dismal press conference, he sought “a comprehensive strategy using all elements of our power–military, intelligence, economic, development and the strength of our communities.” When he announced the strategy during a low-key speech at the recent U.N. General Assembly, he was fully aware “that this would be a long-term campaign.”
Comprehensive and long-term: this makes Obama’s strategy the antithesis of the “shock and awe” approach to Middle East dysfunction adopted by the previous Administration. And that’s no accident. ISIS has its roots in the disastrous nonchalance with which the Bush Administration toppled Iraq’s existing order with no plan for a government to take its place. Much of Obama’s foreign policy can be summed up as: watch George W. Bush and do the opposite.
This reactive mind-set leads him to a pragmatic resignation that is different from Bush’s impulsive idealism–but perhaps just as insufficient in its own way. Humans have both hearts and minds, and both must find expression. Obama’s primary determination is to avoid the fly trap that is Syria. He recognizes the very real logistical problem of inserting an allied army into a country surrounded by problematic neighbors, and also the political problem of creating a stable order post-ISIS in the midst of Assad’s train wreck.
The logistics, he acknowledges, are probably solvable. U.S. forces could “march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out” the enemy, Obama allowed. Two successful invasions of the region in the past 25 years are proof of that brag. But what then? Is the U.S. ready to stay forever in Syria, and Iraq, and Libya, Yemen, Mali–the list of terrorist sanctuaries is not shrinking, alas–conducting “a permanent occupation of these countries,” as Obama put it?
The answer, as polls of Americans clearly show, is emphatically no. So what is he doing instead? He is eavesdropping on terrorist phone calls, capturing emails and texts, trolling websites: all the sadly indispensable surveillance activities that unsettle civil libertarians. He is plugging special-ops teams into dark locations and firing record numbers of missiles from whispering drones. The muscle of the Obama strategy is all hidden from public view, because it involves sneaking and spying and cold-blooded executions, not the sort of thing that Obama likes to talk about–or that Americans like to hear.
But that doesn’t mean this shadow war is without effect. During the same fortnight that ISIS turned so bloody, U.S. drone strikes apparently took out the head of the ISIS franchise in Libya and may have eliminated the notorious executioner known as Jihadi John. Meanwhile, U.S. commando forces are raiding across a broad range of the Middle East, according to sources, as silent as butterflies and as deadly as cobras.
The Obama strategy also involves chasing terrorist money, although this is a part of the effort ripe for “intensification,” to borrow his own term. It was heartening that U.S. pilots destroyed more than 100 oil-tank trucks in eastern Syria recently; strikes aimed at disabling ISIS oil refineries were also welcome. ISIS takes in an estimated $40 million a month from oil sales. But why this took more than a year is the sort of question that makes Obama’s strategy so uninspiring.
And the topic of oil points to the thornier question of Saudi support for radical Islam. The petro kingdom has for decades funded the spread of the Wahhabi strain of Islam that underlies violent Sunni jihad, whether al-Qaeda’s brand–Osama bin Laden was a Saudi national–or ISIS. Oil-addicted U.S. Presidents have long chosen to ignore this issue while looking to the Saudis to counterbalance Shi’ite Iran’s own brand of Islamic revolution. But the money must be stopped.
Obama’s risky decision to thaw relations with Iran marks a turn in U.S. policy away from the Saudis, one aided in part by growing American energy independence. Having waded halfway into a confrontation with this imperfect ally, Obama may need to go all the way, dialing up pressure on the oil sheiks to douse the fire of religious zealotry that they have stoked around the world for years.
There is a law-enforcement piece to the strategy as well; perhaps this is part of what Obama meant by his tepid reference to “the strength of our communities.” One of the frustrations of fighting terrorists is that arithmetic is on their side. As the Irish Republican Army said after a 1984 bombing that almost took the life of Margaret Thatcher: “We only have to be lucky once–you will have to be lucky always.”
But the shocking laxness of police work in Belgium, so evident in the glare of the Paris assaults, shows that there is plenty of room to intensify in this realm. Molenbeek is a small Brussels suburb across a canal from more glamorous parts of Europe’s capital. In recent years, it has been allowed to become home to the Continent’s most disenfranchised and dangerous citizens.
Attracted by the location–about two hours or less to London, Amsterdam and Paris by train–terrorist plotters in Molenbeek face little of the closed-circuit television and wiretapping surveillance they would meet in more attentive European capitals. From the 2004 Madrid train bombing to the assault on Charlie Hebdo magazine to the thwarted attack on a passenger train bound for Paris last summer, the mayhem of Europe typically is linked to Molenbeek. Per capita, more Belgians have taken up arms in the Levant than any other country in Europe–twice the per capita number of France and four times that of the U.K., according to a report released in January by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. An estimated 30 of those battlefield veterans are in Molenbeek right now, the town’s mayor, Françoise Schepmans, told journalists.
Belgium’s head-in-the-sand response has “been a form of laissez-faire and laxity,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said. “Now we’re paying the bill.”
VICTORY AT ALL COSTS
Obama must start selling his strategy with passion and conviction because the next steps will involve some unsavory choices. Along with Putin will come Assad, who appears likely to survive in power despite gassing and barrel-bombing his own people. Obama will need to continue his embrace of Egypt’s military government. Meanwhile, Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon need massive support in dealing with millions of Syrian refugees. Given that one sure response to Paris will be a surge of antirefugee sentiment in Europe and elsewhere, these overtaxed countries on Syria’s borders can’t be allowed to become miserable incubators of future terrorists.
For some time now, there has been a palpable disillusionment in this enigmatic man, a self-indulgent sorrow that the world cannot afford. He took office genuinely believing that a more “humble” U.S. foreign policy would be greeted around the world with peaceful approbation. His theory that American hubris was like a flame under a boiling pot–turn the knob to “off” and the bubbling will stop–earned him a premature Nobel Peace Prize, followed by a stern schooling in the realities of power-vacuum politics.
Yes, terror is the new normal. There were 13,463 terror attacks across the globe in 2014, according to the U.S. State Department: 1,122 a month, on average; about 37 per day, or roughly one every 40 minutes. What the world needs from Obama is not his chilly acceptance, however, but a stirring call to action. If he believes in his strategy, and evidently he does, his job is to rally the world behind it. Just as the bad guys are drawn to ISIS by the magnetic pull of a cause worth dying for, so do the good guys need a leader who sets before them a cause worth living for.
“Intensification” ain’t it.
Here is Winston Churchill, speaking to the British people at the darkest moment of their long history, when their defeated army was facing destruction and their arsenals were bare. “We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind,” he said. “You ask, what is our policy? I can say: it is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalog of human crime. That is our policy.
“You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: it is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be.”
Where the Englishman said policy and aim, the American President prefers to say strategy. And where Churchill could use the prenuclear language of total war, Obama fights by stealth, drone and terabyte. ISIS is not Nazi Germany, but it is a dark force that unsettles freedom and must be defeated despite great difficulty. In such circumstances, real leaders explain themselves; they paint stirring images, which can be done only with utmost sincerity. They connect the dismal events of the moment to an ultimate victory up the road. And this is never more needed than when the road ahead is hard.
–REPORTED BY JARED MALSIN/BEIRUT, JAY NEWTON-SMALL/BRUSSELS, NAINA BAJEKAL AND VIVIENNE WALT/PARIS, MASSIMO CALABRESI AND MARK THOMPSON/WASHINGTON
This appears in the November 30, 2015 issue of TIME.