How to Face Up to the Intelligence Challenge Posed by Daesh

We are truly entering the era of ‘retail’ terrorism – attacks launched by individuals or groups who consider themselves to be ‘franchisees’ of ISIS.

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or Daesh – short for Dawlat al-Islamiyah f’al-Iraq wa al-Sham – was responsible for three terrorist attacks in quick succession in a span of just two weeks.

First, a Russian jet bound for St. Petersburg was downed over the Sinai on October 31, killing all 224 persons on board. Then, on November 12, in the worst incident of violence in Lebanon in many years, 42 persons – mostly Shias – were killed in twin suicide bombings in Beirut. This outrage was eclipsed by the horror of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris on November 13, in which 130 persons were killed. The Paris attacks in particular have made the world wake up to the threat from Daesh.

These attacks, though horrific, should not come as a great surprise. The surprise, if any, is that a successful major attack took so long in coming. From indications available, the security agencies in France and elsewhere have thwarted earlier attacks. The prompt action by the French authorities after the Paris attacks – as evidenced by the searches, seizures and arrests in many locations – is indicative of many ongoing operations to track suspicious elements. Besides the warnings reported to have been passed on by other countries to the French, these operations would have been fairly indicative of the threat of terrorist attacks.

The Islamist recruits who have been drawn to Syria have different motivations for joining Daesh. Many are understood to have returned home, some due to disillusionment but others with a greater resolve to wage jihad. The latter represent a grave threat of terrorist actions worldwide. Earlier, security agencies used to dread ‘lone wolf’ attacks, perpetrated by individuals who relied on the Internet not just for self-radicalisation but also for learning terror tactics. But now we are truly entering the era of ‘retail’ terrorism – attacks launched by individuals or groups who consider themselves  to be ‘franchisees’ of ISIS.  The lone wolf was comparatively a novice. In contrast, the Daesh returnee could well be a battle-hardened veteran, trained in the use of sophisticated instruments of terror. These individuals represent an important challenge to the intelligence agencies, requiring identification, monitoring, tracking, interception and debriefing of not just own nationals but also ostensible refugees from the Levant.

The attacks in Paris have shaken the world community in a fashion that the unending succession of gruesome videos of beheadings never did. France and the French seem to be baying for revenge. Despite almost universal condemnation, the international community is no closer to evolving a coherent approach on how to deal with the Daesh. It is unlikely that a clear strategy shall emerge easily.  Not much progress seems to have been made since September 2014, when President Obama had candidly admitted, “We don’t have a strategy yet.” Repeated assertions of “No boots on the ground” can hardly be considered a strategy.

A grand alliance or a comprehensive strategy may or may not be enunciated in the immediate future, but it is to be expected that Intelligence shall have to play a major role in containing and eliminating the threat from Daesh. Appropriate efforts need to be made individually and severally by all countries if the world is to be protected against many more 13/11s.

For a proper appreciation of the potential for intelligence efforts, it is first necessary to appraise the key features of Daesh.

The name of the enemy

The present day ISIL or Daesh has evolved from 1999 onwards.  The developments in Iraq and Afghanistan affected the process profoundly. The culmination was the announcement of the formation of the ‘Caliphate’ on the first day of Ramzan (29th June, 2014) by Abu Bakr Baghdadi, who anointed himself as Caliph Ibrahim. Whereas organisations such as Al Qaeda subscribe to the belief of extending Dawa – an invitation – to wage jihad, Daesh subscribes to the tenet enunciated by Abu Musab al Zarqawi – namely that if a believer is not prepared for jihad, he should be coerced into it. Thus while the Taliban and Al Qaeda never called for ‘exporting’ jihad, Daesh gave a call to all jihadis to kill coalition forces’ members or nationals anywhere in the world. Quite suddenly, countries and communities which heretofore thought they were safe could no longer remain complacent.

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Screengrab from a Daesh propaganda video

It is significant that group has acquired the trappings of a proto state. Unlike a ‘normal’ terrorist organisation, it holds territory. It has significant sources of raising revenues, mainly through clandestine sale of oil as also through sale of minerals, through extortions, kidnappings for ransom and a host of social media-based strategies. It has an administrative structure and pretensions of having a regular fighting force.

An important issue to be addressed is the very name of the organisation. Quite unfortunately, the media progressively started referring to ISIL/ISIS as simply IS – the Islamic State. From being referred to as the Islamic State to being referred to as THE Islamic State – the Caliphate – was but a step away.  Quite serendipitously for Daesh, the repeated use of the abbreviation IS has given it the recognition as a state that it so desperately seeks.  In a belated attempt to contain the damage, the French and others have reverted to using the term ‘Daesh’ after the Paris attacks. A concerted campaign is required to refer to the organisation as Daesh, rather than conferring the status of the Caliphate on it by default.

An important difference between Daesh and other terrorist organisations is access to finances. Efforts must be made by financial intelligence agencies to track the funds finding their way to its coffers. Assistance by agencies of all countries to inter-governmental bodies like the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is essential to identify and choke sources of funding for the terrorist organisation. Equally intense efforts are needed to unearth the commodities trade which is sustaining Daesh.

A net spread wide

Daesh has successfully exploited every dimension of the Internet, be it chat-rooms, online videos, email, eBooks and lectures, Facebook, Twitter or underground blogs.  It has very effectively used the Internet as a tool for propaganda, from preaching so-called Islamic teachings to publicising gruesome beheadings. Cyberspace has also been used for communications, generating resources, radicalization of youth and, vitally, for recruiting new members to its ranks. There is also ample evidence to show that the Darknet is regularly used for communications and routing finances. An intense war shall, therefore, have to be fought in cyberspace. Law enforcement agencies, however, are generally at a disadvantage due to the complexities of software and hardware, as also the legal provisions and issues related to privacy concerns. The oversensitivity of disparate rights groups and squeamishness of political parties might need to be addressed to ensure an effective monitoring architecture.

The significant use of the Internet by Daesh for propaganda purposes makes it imperative that the same medium is used for counter-propaganda. The most important battlefield shall be the minds of devout Muslims. Perceptions have to be corrected in order to dull the siren song of an Islamic State and this counter-propaganda requires not just secular reasoning but theological arguments as well. Disinformation and misinformation need to be used in equal measure, as are being used by the adversary. Deradicalization has to remain a continuing activity among vulnerable sections of the Muslim population. Persistent monitoring of the social media is essential to thwart self-radicalization and plans of terrorists to effect strikes in different parts of the world.

Time for tradecraft

Intelligence agencies need to employ different techniques to monitor the physical movement of militant elements. The whole repertoire of tradecraft needs to be drawn upon for successfully neutralising Daesh. Infiltration operations, though fraught with risks, are likely to prove to be the most effective. With the prevalent view of relying on strikes from remote locations, intelligence from different sources is essential. The required inputs to neutralise leaders, command centres and logistics can be generated through multiple sources such as satellites, aerial platforms, electronic eavesdropping and ground-based assets. The most reliable inputs would always be provided by eyes and ears on the ground, be it through infiltration or penetration.  Analysis of information derived from interrogations and debriefings can similarly prove invaluable.

An attendant aspect of remote strikes is the need to ensure that there is no collateral damage. While every strike can be claimed as successful, each can equally be projected as responsible for unintended damage, especially for causing the death of innocents. Hence, every strike needs not just precision to hit very specific targets but also substantial propaganda effort to counter any allegations that innocents were killed. It also needs to be borne in mind that the use of conventional force against Daesh might not be effective in the long term. Besides the aversion of many states to putting boots on the ground, we need to realise that holding territory is incidental to the Daesh – it is not vital for its continued existence. A terrorist movement or group does not need to hold territory and it would be more than possible for Daesh to project the existence of a Caliphate within the ‘Ummah’ across geographical boundaries of several states.

The intelligence community has to remain prepared for a variety of scenarios that might emerge in time. It is not inconceivable that it might become necessary to reach out to Daesh. In such an eventuality, conventional diplomacy is unlikely to serve any useful purpose. Given the prevailing circumstances, it would prove difficult, if not impossible, for any official emissaries to build a communication channel to the power structure of Daesh. The world would need to fall back on stratagems like back channel discussions and Track-II initiatives.

It could be constructive to envisage a situation in which it might pay dividends to prop up a parallel organisation to challenge the hegemony of Daesh. This might appear convoluted, but quite often it takes a fire to check another fire. Another possibility that needs to be envisaged is the likely benefit of vilification of the organisation and its prominent personalities.  It might seem difficult to heap greater condemnation on an organisation such as Daesh, but its macabre acts should provide adequate ammunition for denunciation from a theological perspective.

It needs to be remembered that while intelligence and intelligence products are required for different strategies against Daesh, they are of no use in isolation. Intelligence has value only if it is married with the will of the political leadership and the people at large to execute the required actions. The Paris attacks seem to have evoked an initial reaction in the international community to display the steely resolve necessary to counter the danger represented by Daesh.  How far a coalition of different nations with disparate stakes will succeed remains to be seen.

K.C. Verma is a former Chief of R&AW, India’s external intelligence agency. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at k.c.verma@hotmail.com