How To Better Analyze the Intelligence War Against ISIL

on December 11 | in Bureaucracy, Congress, Homeland Security, Intelligence Analysis, War of Ideas

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Following the Paris attacks, there were myriad references to “intelligence failures” and that political candidates would prioritize “intelligence” in countering ISIL. While it’s not uncommon to hear political leaders voice vague support for the defense and intelligence communities as they counter ISIL, missing from the rhetoric (unsurprisingly) is the analytic capacity of the intelligence community, and in particular how policymakers might use intelligence to form their views on what they would have done differently. Hence, we need to understand the problem, understand how we’re doing to counter it, and share information with partners to counter it together.

The San Bernardino and Paris attacks may very well be “the new normal.” America might need to rely on the intelligence community now more than ever to shape our decision-making on how to counter this “new phase” of terror. They may have a reputation based on covert operations, online but less sexy for mainstream consumption is how valuable intelligence analysis is for policymakers, not to mention the increased demand for collection and analytic services that a crisis such as ISIL’s expansion requires

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Those who argue the Paris attack was an intelligence failure are likely thinking of an intelligence-informed-law enforcement gap. But the threat from foreign fighters returning from Syria and Iraq has been outlined by the intelligence community for some years, remedy and the alleged mastermind was already on officials’ radar.

More broadly, there is debate about the success or failure of the fight in-theater against ISIL and how we are faring – recall intelligence assessments themselves have been fodder for debate. The constant churn of intelligence assessment and re-assessment has no doubt put enormous pressure on intelligence professionals, as policymakers leverage their products.

Evaluating priorities

The strategy against ISIL, the President has conveyed, will be largely unchanged. In recent testimony, Secretary Carter outlined the new priorities to “[adapt] our campaign to do more” as Raqqa, Ramadi, and raids.

However, these priorities –ISIL’s headquarters in Syria, the provincial capital of Anbar province in Iraq, and direct operational activities (respectfully) – is hardly surprising, and in fact says very little about this new shift in priorities. After all, weren’t those already priorities?

Carter also noted the Coalition is not focused on re-taking Mosul (the fall of which marked the uptick of ISIL’s momentum in June 2014), but to “build momentum to eventually” address Mosul. And of course, even if the Coalition had already re-taken Mosul, that would have done little to impact the ISIL-inspired attack in San Bernardino and ISIL-coordinated attack in Paris.

Prioritize sharing intelligence with partners 

Here at home, any shift in approach will likely look more like a doubling-down on existing efforts. Obama has, however, identified a need for European leaders to broaden information sharing in light of the Paris attack. The Coalition recently welcomed Nigeria as a new partner, and undoubtedly it will be difficult to downgrade information for them while still protecting sources and methods. Further, it is unlikely that more trusted Coalition partners like France and the UK were deprived of battlefield information previously.

This new shift for sharing within European borders, however, represents a prioritization of ISIL-inspired attacks, which had seemed – in terms of publicly-declared priorities – secondary to in-theater interests, even though ISIL has been calling for attacks in Western countries for over a year. The Paris attack’s coordination and death toll no doubt has led to European to downgrade more intelligence to share with each other to counter regional and homeland threats, rather than just those in Syria.

How are we doing?

With an ISIL alumnus having previously snuck into Europe to commit an attack in Belgium, and with Turkey having infamously sent returning French foreign fighters to the wrong airport, the need to downgrade and share information within Europe has long been apparent but has only now shifted to become a broadly-voiced top priority.

The results of the broader effort against ISIL have been of some debate. Secretary of State John Kerry recently pointed out there have been 8,000 coalition airstrikes – more since France has increased its tempo – that have destroyed a great deal of ISIL infrastructure from the battlefield, and taken out 70 “senior and mid-level ISIL leaders since the beginning of May.” That could be framed as progress, but Iraq is certainly looking no more secure than it was a year and a half ago, and ISIL no less potent a foe, so it may be best to withhold judgment.

Furthermore, intelligence officials are not omniscient, so they may not even know whether those 8,000 strikes accomplished what was intended. More significantly, they almost certainly would have difficulty saying how many more recruits ISIL gained since the beginning of the air campaign, never mind a full cost-benefit assessment of whether the our efforts have reduced the threat more than they have increased it.

ISIL’s globalization beyond Syria and Iraq

In the end, the verdict on the Coalition is still very much out, but policymakers are finally seriously prioritizing the threats from ISIL-inspired or foreign fighter threats. In the meantime, the assessment given to our policymakers has suggested we “stay the course” in our military effort, and suggesting that at least it has produced enough gains to be worth it.

What remains to be seen is whether the threat has gone beyond Syria despite military efforts there and is now in the West, or if, because of a military-focused approach, Coalition activities have stirred up a threat within the West that would not have existed otherwise.

Either way, our policy community is not well positioned to weigh that assessment against the battlefield progress. If the intelligence community is asked to provide such an analysis, however, one would hope that our political leaders will prioritize an increase in analytic resources to support it. As our leaders have been saying – we need the intelligence community. But what we need as much or more than the find-fix-finish approach to covert operations is analysis that tells us whether we’re doing the right things, and where gaps are, and in a way that we can share that information with partners.

Decision-makers need to know how we’re doing – they need to comprehensively understand the costs versus the benefits – because point-and-shoot isn’t sustainable as a strategy. Analysis, boring as it may sound to politicians, is critical in this fight.


Ryan B. Greer is the Founder and CEO of Vasa Strategies – a community risk and civilian security analytics and impact advisory firm – and a Fellow with the Truman National Security Project: the views expressed are his own and not those of previous employers. Ryan recently left the State Department, where he served as a Policy Advisor for counterterrorism, focused on preventing foreign fighters from joining groups like ISIL.

Photo: Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testify before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Dec. 9, 2015. DoD photo by U.S. Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Tim D. Godbee.

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