Time to Take the Gloves Off Against ISIS

Atlantic Council analysts react to ISIS' attacks in Paris
Time to Take the Gloves Off Against ISIS
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Bullet holes are seen in a restaurant window in Paris on Nov. 14, a day after a deadly terrorist attack that left more than 120 people dead in the French capital. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) said it was behind the attack, which French President François Hollande described as an “act of war.” (Reuters/Pascal Rossignol)

The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has claimed responsibility for the terrorist attacks in Paris that killed more than 120 people on Nov. 13 — the deadliest attack in Europe since the 2004 train bombings in Madrid.

French President François Hollande said the attack was “an act of war.” A nationwide state of emergency has been declared.

Atlantic Council analysts share commentary on the attacks in Paris.

Barry Pavel is Vice President and Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security:

The horrors perpetrated in Paris on 11/13 confirm what only a few experts had predicted, and which most commentators (and the Obama administration) had completely missed: The full-throttle ascendance of ISIS as the most capable global extremist terrorist organization of our age, surpassing, at least for now, al Qaeda. 

By executing deadly, simultaneous attacks with military skill against numerous targets in the heart of a Western capital whose security forces already were on higher alert in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year, ISIS has shown remarkable resilience and lethal reach. 

The US-led anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq and Syria, while forcing a relative stalemate on the ground, clearly has had no effect on ISIS’ ability to recruit, plan, train, and inspire or conduct operations in far-flung places, including Paris, Tunisia, Kuwait, and the Sinai. It appears clear that there are no longer any limits on ISIS’ geographic reach — any country now may find itself the victim at any time of small- or medium-scale attacks conducted with ferocity and brutality by ISIS sympathizers or operators.

To make matters worse, the United States and its close allies should have seen this coming — two years ago, the United States was tallying numbers of foreign fighters flowing into and out of Syria and Iraq at levels that were double the peak of such flows at the height of the Iraq war. At that point, it should have been clear that it was just a matter of time before radical foot soldiers brought terror directly into allies’ and partners’ capitals. Thus, in 2013, these trends should have shocked the administration into action to prevent future terrorist attacks. This realization should have raised the urgency of ending the Syrian war from a humanitarian interest for the United States — saving thousands upon thousands of innocent Syrian lives — to a vital national security interest of this country — preventing a future terrorist attack on the United States and US allies’ homelands.

Now, perhaps the horrific consequences of the Paris attacks will add this much-needed urgency both to diplomatic efforts to end the Syrian conflict and effect a political transition to a legitimate, inclusive government in Syria that does not include Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad — and to the ongoing military campaign, which heretofore has not been conducted at the tempo and intensity proportional to the US interests at stake. 

The US-led coalition also has to strike at the heart of ISIS’ power base by launching a digital counterinsurgency, as advocated by Jared Cohen in a recent article in Foreign Affairs, to effectively terminate ISIS’ online activities that spread its propaganda and increase its funding and recruitment. It is time to take the diplomatic, military, and cyber gloves off, before we suffer more days of bloodshed like 11/13.

Jeff Lightfoot is a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security:

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Friday night’s bloody attack in Paris was that ISIS was able to perpetuate such a lethal and coordinated massacre in a country already on a high alert to a terrorist threat. To prevent against future such attacks, France will need to share information more effectively with its European partners and will need to be a leader in a more aggressive international coalition to fight ISIS at its point of origin in Iraq and Syria.

In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, Prime Minister [Manuel] Valls declared that France was “at war.” Since then, France has deployed 10,000 troops at sensitive sites across the country in hopes of preventing future attacks. And in the aftermath of the foiled attacks on a high-speed train over the summer, France began conducting airstrikes in Syria in recognition of the grave threat the conflict there posed to French security.

With these measures in place, it is difficult to argue that France’s security services underestimated the terrorist threat facing the country. And yet, Friday night’s attacks were the most devastating terrorist attack in French history and obviously required substantial coordination, training and advanced planning.

In the coming days, France will aim to further tighten domestic security and surveillance. The state of emergency may be tightened for a period of weeks, lasting through the COP 21 climate talks. But France is a republic and will not trade away its liberal values in this fight. And it cannot win this fight alone.

If the terrorist threat to France is to be defeated, much more serious action will be required on the part of France’s international partners. This starts in Europe, where huge inflows of refugees from the Middle East will require closer intelligence coordination among EU countries.

But the greatest threat lies further abroad in Iraq and Syria where ISIS has established a base to launch attacks like those on Friday night. France has already been an important part of the coalition to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria. Friday night’s attacks must not stem France’s resolve.

Instead, the United States, in particular, but also Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Russia must finally treat ISIS as the deadly serious threat that it is and not a secondary concern to other political considerations. This week’s G-20 summit would be the perfect place for these countries to show this kind of international leadership the world needs and which the victims in Paris deserve.



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