2015 was one of the most lethal years for Europe in decades, coinciding with the rise the so-called Islamic State (ISIL) militant group. What will 2016 hold and how does one combat this threat?
Point of view
"It seems now that they (ISIL) are invisible...that they are everywhere. The truth is, with the right kinds of intelligence work we can...find them"
To discuss these issues, retired US Marine Corps four-star General John Allen, the US-appointed coordinator at the Global Coalition to counter ISIL until last year, joined euronews’ Isabelle Kumar on the sidelines of the Globsec security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Isabelle Kumar, euronews: “Given the gains that ISIL is making, do you get the impression that we are in this for the long run?”
General John Allen, Former anti-ISIL coalition coordinator: “We have to be. And I would make sure we’re clear that there are areas where they (ISIL) are not making gains, there are areas where they’re experiencing some significant reverses. But the difference of where this organisation is today than where it was 18 months ago is that there has emerged a constellation of what they call distant provinces, ‘wilayats’, and those range from North Africa all the way to South East Asia. That’s a troubling development, we’re going to have watch that closely and probably deal with it in a regional manner. But the challenge, I think, will come from the global network that ties those provinces together to the centre in Iraq and Syria. That’s really what we have to watch closely.”
Isabelle Kumar: “When there is a clamping down on Syria and Iraq and the stronghold there, will this group then lash out in its global network, in Europe for example, as just happened recently?”
General John Allen: “We’re seeing it now. That’s exactly what is happening. The more we pressure them, the more they will want to relieve that pressure by attacking in other places. If they attack in Western Europe, for example, they’ll bring terror to the populations of the (global anti-ISIL) coalition. They will seek to bring a fracture, potentially, in the coalition or at least disturb the cohesion of the coalition, so we should expect it. And that’s another reason why we have to understand this network.”
General John Allen
- John Allen is a retired United States Marine Corps four-star General
- He retired in 2013 but continued to work as an advisor to the US government
- Allen was named as the Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL in 2014
- He stood down from this post just over a year later
Isabelle Kumar: “If Syria and Iraq are anything to go by, one can’t help but assume that terrorists like a vacuum. And if we see this hot bed of terrorism in Brussels, in Belgium – which is by many accounts a dysfunctional state at the moment – would that seem a coincidence to you that this group have embedded themselves there?”
General John Allen: “I’d would put it a little differently than a vacuum. I think what these groups look for our seams between countries, seams within countries – between capabilities, potentially intelligence organisations or law enforcement or counter terrorism – and where they can find these seams, which might be called cool spots, they’ll look for those and they will look for those to be support bases for planning, and assembly areas potentially for attacks.”
Isabelle Kumar: “If we look at traditional forms of warfare, say, if a decisive offensive was launched against the caliphate what impact then would that have upon this global network that you were describing?”
General John Allen: “The decisive offensive has to be all inclusive, it cannot just be about the caliphate in, what we call, the core region in Iraq and Syria. So, the decisive offensive would seek to simultaneously disrupt the network at the same time that we continue to pressure the core, so that the entire entity – the provinces, the network and the core – all of them under pressure simultaneously.”
Isabelle Kumar:“But how is that possible? Because if we look at this network, we look at these groups that have hidden themselves – you’re dealing with an invisible enemy at times, acting beneath the radar, able to make bombs at home…”
General John Allen: “It seems that way now. We’re still working the process through the intelligence services of the region in corporation with our intelligence, to understand the network. It seems now that they are invisible. It seems now that they’re everywhere. The truth is, with the right kinds of intelligence work we can both find them, we can figure out what will be the key nodes that are valuable to them – or the critical pathways that they must tread in order to be effective – and the comprehensive attack that you’ve talked about is a relentless effort to interrupt that network and disrupt that network, so that they’re constantly on the defensive, not us. That process continues right now. We have to build the intelligence on the network, and that’s really only begun recently.”
Isabelle Kumar: “Our response to this seems to have been quite slow…”
General John Allen: I would simply say that the organisational approaches that we have to pursue need to understand where these seams are, seams between functions, seams between organisations.”
Isabelle Kumar: “Are you satisfied with the offensive?”
General John Allen: “We’re not in the offensive yet. What we need to do is organise in a manner that is comprehensive, where we can share the kinds of information that is important – work closely with the security services in countries, law enforcement, counter-terrorism in a comprehensive way – so that as we understand this network we can attack it relentlessly. And that’s important and that’s just beginning to emerge now.”
Isabelle Kumar: “Were you frustrated when you were in your post (as coordinator for global coalition to combat ISIL) with a lack of intelligence sharing on this issue?”
General John Allen: “I won’t say I was frustrated, but I was certainly attentive to the fact that we needed to do more and I think that process is unfolding now.
Isabelle Kumar: “Were you given the tools by US President Obama to be able to do what you wanted to do in order to stop this group?
General John Allen: “We did, but the process that we are understanding unfold now, this network process, had really only become visible as I was leaving the job. But otherwise, I was satisfied with the support.”
Isabelle Kumar: “We’ve seen that there have been attempts with the Taliban to negotiate with them. Do you ever see a point where we could negotiate with the Islamic State (ISIL)?”
General John Allen: “I don’t think that is going to be the case. They are relentlessly in the attack against the West, it’s inherent in their doctrine.”
Isabelle Kumar: “You’ve talked of a many pronged attack on this group. Given the likelihood that that is going to be quite difficult to put into place at least in the short term, what would you advise military leaders to do?”
General John Allen: “This (the rise of ISIL) didn’t start in a very short period of time, it is not going to end in a short period of time. Many of the reasons that Daesh exists at all is a long term dissatisfaction of hundreds of thousands of individuals who have been radicalised and can find a home in an extremist organisation. So, at the very same time as we are dealing with this organisation as a threat, we need to be dealing with the underlying causal factors that alienate and disenfranchise such large segments of the populations in the region. So this is a long term solution, and we have to recognise that, we’ve got to organise for that, and we have to begin the process of a comprehensive approach that deals with the underlying factors while we deal with the groups and defend ourselves in the process.”
Isabelle Kumar: “Are you confident that Daesh (ISIL) can be beaten?
General John Allen: “I think so. The challenge for us is not about beating Daesh in the physical space. The challenge for us will be beating Daesh in the information space. They’ve got a very powerful message. We’ve worked hard in the first year and a half (of the anti-ISIL coalition) to oppose that message. And I think in the end – both in terms of addressing those underlying causal factors and also competing directly against that message – that’s going to be the challenge. And when we can compete with that message and overcome that message, then Daesh will be defeated.”