- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Islamic State’s export of deadly terrorism to the United States, Europe and elsewhere was always part of its game plan once territory was secured in Syria and Iraq, military and outside analysts say.

Their assessment counters Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s assertions that the Islamic State’s wave of attacks in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the Istanbul airport and a Bangladeshi restaurant were desperate responses from a losing enemy rather than being part of a campaign plan.

The U.S.-led counteroffensive to take away the Islamic State’s territory, mile by mile, village by village, in Iraq and Syria is succeeding, Mr. Kerry said at the Aspen Ideas Festival, noting that the Islamic State has not launched a major counteroffensive inside those countries in a year.

“Now, yes, you can bomb an airport, you can blow yourself up,” the top U.S. diplomat said. “That’s the tragedy. Daesh and others like it know that we have to get it right 24/7/365. They have to get it right for 10 minutes or one hour, so it’s a very different scale. And if you’re desperate and if you know you are losing and you know you want to give up your life, then obviously you can do some harm.”

Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group, which also is called ISIL and ISIS.

But military people, some at the Pentagon, say that while the Islamic State is under intense military pressure, its attacks reaching all the way to the United States were always planned whether the U.S. bombed it or not. The Islamic State also is practicing a basic tenet of war — the counterattack — in this case using its best weapon: precision munitions in the form of suicide shooters and bombers.

Asked whether the U.S.-led war on the Islamic State caused it to branch out, Army Col. Christopher Garver, the top American military spokesman in Baghdad, said last week: “What I can say is, while there may be some correlation, what Daesh has demonstrated is the willingness to conduct attacks on us no matter what’s happening to them inside Iraq and Syria. The attacks are not something that just happened quickly. There’s clearly — there’s planning and time that go into that.”

He indicated that the Islamic State always planned to use the holy month of Ramadan, which just concluded, to persuade followers to become martyrs while killing others.

“They want to do that anyway,” Col. Garver said. “I mean, whether we were attacking them or not, they would look to incite attacks across the globe.”

Steven Stalinsky, executive director of the Middle East Media Research Institute, has been tracking the Islamic State since its rapid expansion three years ago.

He said the group’s No. 1 priority has always been to build an Islamic nation, or caliphate, and then increase its population by attracting foreign henchmen. Its second priority is to attack the nearby enemy, such as the Saudi royal family, Shiites and the Bashar Assad regime in Syria.

“Then expand and attack the faraway enemy,” Mr. Stalinsky said.

What Mr. Kerry referred to as “desperate” have been attacks around the globe: Paris, Belgium, the United States, Turkey and elsewhere.

Mr. Stalinsky wrote in a June analysis: “Since the March 22 Brussels attacks, ISIS has issued a steady stream of videos and news reports, in English, Arabic, and French, celebrating the attacks, giving the reasons for them, and divulging its plans for the future. These plans include more hits in France, Germany, Belgium, Russia, the U.K., Portugal, The Netherlands, Hungary, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere, including the U.S.”

Mr. Kerry’s theme of an Islamic State in retreat was repeated last week by Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken. He said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” that the Islamic State is “lashing out because against every way we measure this — the territory they control, the number of foreign fighters and fighters overall, the money, the propaganda — they are down against every single measure.”

He called the Islamic State’s target selection “indiscriminate.”

Terrorism analysts have told a different story: Rather than shrinking, the Islamic State is expanding beyond Iraq/Syria into Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. In that country, what began as a group of about 100 is now estimated to be in the thousands, requiring direct attacks by U.S. strike aircraft.

Asked whether the Islamic State is “desperate,” retired Army Lt. Gen. James Dubik, who commanded troops in Iraq, said: “One of the hardest things in war is understanding what is happening. Simple explanations are usually wrong. And certainty is usually just sloppy thinking.”

The nonprofit Institute for the Study of War, for which Mr. Dubik is an analyst, did not depict the Islamic State as being in the throes of defeat when it issued an update last month.

“ISIS will implement its global strategy with simultaneous and linked campaigns across multiple geographic rings,” the group said. “ISIS will likely select targets in neighboring states that relieve pressure from the group in Syria while setting conditions for future expansion in those states.”

Specifically, the institute said, the Islamic State wants to destabilized the government of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Egypt and capture Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia. It has assembled burgeoning irregular armies in both countries.

Less than a month ago, CIA Director John O. Brennan delivered the Obama administration’s most detailed assessment of the Islamic State as the U.S.-led war against it nears the two-year point. He did not characterize the enemy as desperate.

Yes, he said, the Islamic State has lost territory, oil revenue and fighters in Iraq and Syria. Yes, leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has not realized his dream of a broadening caliphate.

But al-Baghdadi is following his plan to expand globally and export death.

“Unfortunately, despite all of our progress against ISIL on the battlefield and in the financial realm, our efforts have not reduced the group’s terrorism capability and global reach,” Mr. Brennan told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. “The resources needed for terrorism are very modest, and the group would have to suffer even heavier losses on territory, manpower and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly.

“The group’s foreign branches and global networks can help preserve its capacity for terrorism, regardless of events in Iraq and Syria,” he said. “In fact, as the pressure mounts on ISIL, we judge that it will intensify its global terror campaign to maintain its dominance of the global terrorism agenda.”

The recent carnage that the Islamic State has inflicted globally is not new but part of a strategic plan, Mr. Brennan said.

“Since at least 2014, ISIL has been working to build an apparatus to direct and inspire attacks against its foreign enemies, resulting in hundreds of casualties,” he said.

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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