The ISIS Problem Expands

Nov. 23, 2015

Stronger action is needed to eradicate the well-financed terror group that is now exporting death and destruction far beyond Iraq and Syria.

People seem just as confused about how to respond to the group called ISIS, ISIL, the Islamic State, or Daesh as they are about what to call it. Coming to a consensus on a name can wait. International action to destroy ISIS cannot wait.

For more than a year, there were reasonable views for and against the United States attacking ISIS. In fact, this July’s editorial argued that the Administration needed to make up its mind and either walk away from ISIS or commit to destroying it.

The US was hardly alone in its ambivalence. ISIS’ Middle Eastern neighbors have failed to prepare for the threat they face, while most of Europe acted as if ISIS were someone else’s problem. French President François Hollande said ISIS in Syria is “the biggest factory of terrorism the world has ever known, and the international community is still too divided and too incoherent.”

ISIS’ stronghold is far from the United States, but recent events show that walking away and letting this group operate unhindered is no longer an option. During a two-week span, ISIS terrorists repeatedly brought indiscriminate death to far-flung communities previously unaffected by the group’s wanton destruction.

First, on Oct. 31, an ISIS bomb destroyed a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. The attack killed 224 and was the deadliest aviation mishap in Russian history.

Then, on Nov. 12, a pair of ISIS suicide bomb attacks struck Beirut, killing 43 and shattering years of relative peace in Lebanon.

That attack was overshadowed by a larger series of coordinated ISIS attacks in Paris the next day, which left more than 120 dead in the French capital.

ISIS is still increasing its reach, but its recent actions may have gone too far. These atrocities may finally snap the world community out of its lethargic response to ISIS.

In the immediate aftermath of the Paris attack, Secretary of State John F. Kerry said, “I even had a member of my own family email me. … ‘More bombs aren’t the solution,’ they said. Well, in principle, no. In principle, if you can educate and change people and provide jobs, … sure. But in this case, that’s not what’s happening. This is just raw terror to set up a caliphate to expand and expand and spread one notion of how you live and who you have to be,” Kerry said. “So this is not a situation where we have a choice.”

ISIS promptly threatened additional attacks, including against the United States, although this should surprise no one. Islamic State propagandists released videos shortly after the Paris and Beirut attacks threatening strikes against New York and Washington, D.C. In one, a spokesman for the group said, “We swear that we will strike America at its center, in Washington.”

CIA Director John O. Brennan said shortly after the attacks that ISIS has more attacks in the pipeline. The group has improved its operational security, he said, and has managed to hide operatives among the large number of people travelling between Europe, Syria, and Iraq.

French and Belgian authorities quickly responded to the Paris attacks by conducting hundreds of raids on suspected Islamic militant locations in the two countries.

France soon also began launching air strikes against ISIS targets around Raqqa, Syria, effectively the group’s capital. Hollande said of his nation’s response, “It’s not about containing but about destroying that organization.”

Russian aircraft also appeared in the skies over Raqqa. After spending weeks attacking enemies of Syria’s Assad regime under the pretense of a counterterrorism operation, propping up Syria’s brutal dictator, Russian warplanes and missiles hit ISIS targets in Raqqa the same day the French did. Russian officials said President Vladimir Putin and Hollande agreed to coordinate their anti-ISIS attacks.

President Obama said the current US approach is the correct one, despite ISIS’ recent success and reach. The US strategy “focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground, systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, … and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we’re able to defeat them,” Obama said.

This will be an air campaign to its core. “We have the right strategy, and we’re going to see it through,” he said. Although Obama doubled down on his decision to keep ground troops out of the war against ISIS, the US quickly expanded its air war.

ISIS funds much of its operation though stolen oil revenues, which a DOD spokesman said the US Treasury estimates might total $1 million a day. After steadfastly avoiding attacks against ISIS fuel trucks for fear of causing civilian casualties, Air Force A-10s and AC-130s destroyed 116 oil trucks in one mid-November night. The attacks on the fuel trucks were preceded by warnings, including a leaflet drop, to prevent innocent bystanders from coming under attack.

The Pentagon dubbed the anti-oil campaign Operation Tidal Wave II. This is an homage to the World War II Air Force bombing missions against Nazi-held Romanian oil fields that were vital to the German war effort.

Obama is rightfully wary of entering into another ground war. After 15 years of land campaigns providing uncertain long-term benefit, the American public has little appetite for more. Ultimately, if there is to be peace and prosperity in the Middle East, the people terrorized by ISIS must drive out the insurgents and establish inclusive, peaceful governments.

But even with all of these qualifiers, the US can do much more to defeat ISIS. The US, France, and Russia have all shown the efficacy of airpower in recent weeks, and the US-led air campaign is still a highly limited affair. USAF operates the preponderance of the strike, surveillance, communications, and refueling aircraft and spacecraft needed to defeat ISIS on the battlefield. Airmen will be at the forefront of any successful effort to destroy the Islamic State.