ASPEN, Colorado — Officially, the Obama administration is still committed to defeating ISIS. But at the annual gathering of national security chiefs in Aspen, no one was talking about beating the terror army and its adherents. Instead, grim resignation and dark warnings of a long hard fight to come dominated the discussion, with every official predicting a global rise in terror attacks, including in the United States.
“Do we expect more attacks? Regrettably we do, both in Europe and the U.S.,” said Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee.
While some here held out hope for a military triumph over ISIS in Iraq and Syria, they acknowledged that any such advances would represent the first stage in a years-long battle against a group that’s already spread to unstable parts of the Mideast, Africa, and Southeast Asia—and already inspired attacks from Paris to San Bernardino, Orlando to Istanbul.
“If we destroy [ISIS] in Syria and Iraq so they don’t have a territory anymore, of course that reduces their influence. But the virtual caliphate has not been destroyed,” said European Union Counterterrorist Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove in an interview, referring to ISIS’s prodigious online presence. “The capacity to inspire in the West will remain for some time.”
It was a far cry from earlier gatherings of the Aspen Security Forum, where officials and experts hailed the killing of al Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden as a death blow to Islamic extremism. And it was a markedly different tone from President Obama’s statements of just a few months ago, when he redoubled his commitment to “defeat [ISIS] and to eliminate the scourge of this barbaric terrorism that’s been taking place around the world.”
In contrast, national security officials at Aspen didn’t really speak of ISIS as an enemy that could be taken out. They talked about the terror group like a long-term problem to be managed—a chronic illness in the global body politic.
The debate over remedies centered around just how much ISIS might be damaged once driven out of Iraq and Syria, denting the group’s prestige by stripping it of its so-called caliphate.
One European official predicted that once deprived of its de facto state after a bloody and protracted battle, ISIS would lose support, collapsing like a punctured balloon. But most said the group would simply move operations to other unstable areas, a process already underway.
“It’s necessary, but it’s not enough,” White House counterterrorism advisor Lisa Monaco said of depriving ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria, in comments to The Daily Beast. She called ISIS a combination of terrorist group, insurgent army and social phenomenon in her address to the forum. Defeating the army is the easiest part of a near-impossible task, akin to eradicating the drug trade or stopping human trafficking.
NCTC chief Rasmussen said there might be a lag between coalition battlefield wins, and signs the group has weakened.
“Even if they lose territory, it doesn’t mean striking outside their boundaries will be limited,” he warned. “Even with a significantly shrunken and reduced footprint, the ability is still there to carry out operations globally,” he said.
One thing all agreed on is that terrorism is a symptom of a dangerous brew of global instability driven by local conflict, sparked by resource fights including climate-change-driven food and water shortages, and fueled by a rising youth bulge. Many of those young people feel they have either no opportunity to move ahead, or no sense of loyalty or mission toward corrupt and weak governments unable to provide for them. That makes them vulnerable to the false sense of mission and belonging offered by militant ideology.
And as there’s no short-term solution to any of these global issues, the best the countries under attack can do is attack the symptom, with military and intelligence forces targeting the finished frustrated products but not the machine of global dysfunction that’s producing them.
Despite predictions of years of counterterrorism operations to come, administration officials were loath to call it the new normal.
“I think people rightly have a sense of unease, because it is so unpredictable,” Monaco said in answer to a Daily Beast question. “I don’t think the type of carnage or depravity, like the type in Nice, we should never consider that normal. If we’ve gotten to that point, I think we’ve lost our way.” She was referring to the French national who drove a truck through a crowd of revelers on France’s national Bastille Day in July, killing more than 80 people.
She and others did concede ISIS has ushered in a “new phase,” by encouraging would-be attackers to stay where they are and use whatever weapon they can find to attack whichever target they choose.
“Get a truck, mow down a bunch of people, get a weapon, get a rifle, shoot people,” said Director of National Intelligence Jim Clapper, describing ISIS tactics in his remarks to the forum. “The more brutal, the more mindless the better.”
“These smaller attacks… have way more psychological impact” than a large 9/11-style plot, the retired general said. “They do have a contagious effect. That helps incite others.”
There was a sense of frustration coupled with exhaustion from some of the officials who have battled militants in one form or another since the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.
“I have watched us evolve from terrorist directed attacks from al Qaeda affiliates,” said Homeland Security chief and the Pentagon’s former top lawyer Jeh Johnson, who used to help determine which targets were legal for the U.S. to strike. “The answer there was take the fight to the enemy overseas in places like Yemen and Somalia. Get them before they can get us.”
“Now we see… the rise of the terrorist-inspired attack where the operative may not have met, may not have trained with the organization, may not have ever received a direct order but is inspired by internet social media to go carry out an attack,” he said. “It’s more complicated.”
Brett McGurk, the president’s special envoy against ISIS, said there was “little or no way to spot” such radicalized individuals even if they express their support for ISIS on social media.
“We’re working with Twitter, Facebook, YouTube. Twitter has taken down more than 125,000 pro-[ISIS] handles,” he said, but the ability of terrorists to keep inspiring followers is “off the charts.”
“When Obama came into office, there was about 2½ million tweets a day,” he said. “Now there’s 500 million tweets a day.”
National Counterterrorism Center Director Nick Rasmussen said it was increasingly clear that relying on the FBI to get inside a cell through traditional investigative work isn’t going to stop all plots.
The security net built to detect terrorist networks and plots in the aftermath of 9/11 wasn’t built to detect that, Monaco said—a common refrain from every counterterrorist official.
“How do you detect when something goes wrong in someone’s mind?” she asked.
She and the other administration officials all spoke of working with local communities as one of the few ways to spot such potential attackers, especially those with a history of mental illness who are more prone to ISIS influence—a logical but somewhat disturbing call of “see something, say something” applied to one’s family, friends and co-workers.
McGurk downplayed ISIS’s spread to other countries, mainly via co-opting existing groups like Boko Haram, that change their names and pledge allegiance to the new group.
“There are eight self-declared affiliates of ISIL,” he said, using the government’s preferred acronym for the self-proclaimed Islamic State. “We can’t get upset every time a group flies the flag of ISIL,” because these were groups that were already being tracked and countered by U.S. counterterrorism forces.
He said Libya, once feared as the next ISIS stronghold with some 5-7,000 fighters, has at least “plateaued and is now going down.”
Al Qaeda, too remains a threat, though a smaller one. NCTC chief Rasmussen said al Qaeda was trying to stay relevant by building up Bin Laden son Hamza as “a spokesperson as someone who could pick up the reins of the organization,” but that al Qaeda seemed to understand it couldn’t keep pace with the sweeping influence of ISIS. The officials said the two groups cooperate sometimes on the battlefield but remain competitors on the militant stage, which fuels a continuing competition to outdo each other with attacks where they are based, and on the West.
Monaco was also at pains to warn that the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria remained dangerous, able and likely to plot attacks against the U.S. and Europe from its perch in the war zone despite its name change and apparent attempts to distance itself from its parent group.
“It has established a growing safe haven in Syria and they have taken advantage of the chaos,” she said. She reminded the audience that when the administration launched operations against ISIS in Syria in 2014, it also launched simultaneous strikes “against a group of al Qaeda veterans who had moved quite deliberately from the Afghanistan Pakistan region to Syria for the express purpose of taking advantage of that ungoverned space.”
Gilles, the European Union official, agreed: “The recent statement of [al-Qaeda affiliate] Jabhat al Nusra that they were not linked to an external organization is a delusion. It remains an al Qaeda franchise and a very dangerous group.”
U.S. Central Command’s Gen. Joe Votel’s job is to defeat both. But he warned not to expect “a big victory parade” signaling the end of the ISIS fight, which was met by nods from a crowd that included current and former officials from the White House, Pentagon, and CIA.
He did have a plan—a campaign to plague ISIS with “multiple dilemmas.”
“We are coming after you in Anbar… We are coming after you in the Tigris River valley… We are on top of you in northern Syria. We’ve got efforts in southern Syria. We’re doing high-value strikes across both of those countries,” he said in answer to a Daily Beast question.
“This is very much a wrestling match,” he continued, calling the enemy “extraordinarily savvy and adaptive.”
“I think of this very much as a wrestling match,” he said. “We wrestle, we score a point and move on to the next move. You do that enough, and eventually you end up prevailing.”
“I would venture the guesstimate that we are perhaps 25 percent of the way toward neutralizing the worst threats ISIS poses,” said John McLaughlin, former deputy director of the CIA in an essay written for the forum in the online intelligence journal, The Cipher Brief, comments he repeated in a brief interview. “But the remaining 75 percent will be harder,” as the militants scatter and blend into the local populations in dozens of countries with weak governments and weaker security forces.
“I don’t think it’s a forever war,” Votel said. “I think this is a protracted fight and we have to stay with it.”
No administration official, on record or otherwise, would dare put a timeline on the fight.