Better Late than Never

The FBI Director warns that defeated Islamic State terrorists could flee to U.S.  Is anyone listening?

The Director of the FBI, James Comey, recently warned that a “defeat of Islamic State in the Middle East could prompt a migration of the group’s 2040_matters_13fighters to Europe and the U.S.”  He further warned that those fighters that survived the battlefield could “commit attacks like the recent ones in Brussels and Paris.”

This warning represents a clear case of better late than never.  In December 2015, I described the many shortcomings in the Obama Administration’s purported strategy for defeating the Islamic State (IS, ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh), including its failure to plan for the leftovers”:

“When we defeat IS on the battlefield, our work will be far from over.  We will not kill every IS fighter in Iraq and Syria.  Many will return home before the fighting on the ground begins (as is already happening).  Others will flee to safe havens, such as Libya, once the fighting is underway.  Some will be captured.

What is our plan for these leftovers?  Do we have the defenses in place to prevent attacks by these hardened, embittered, and desperate terrorists?  How will we locate, prosecute, and incarcerate those who have returned home?  Do we have the legal ability to incarcerate them for decades, until the fire of fanaticism has completely burned out?  Do we believe any returning fighters could be rehabilitated?  What will we do with those captured on the battlefield?  Are we prepared to track down and kill or capture those IS operatives that have fled to safe havens?  IS cannot be defeated simply by dislodging it from Syria and Iraq.”

Given that the Administration has adhered to its flawed counter-terrorism strategy over the past 8 months while ISIS-inspired terror attacks have continued across Europe and elsewhere, it is clear that no one was listening this past December.  Is anyone other than the FBI Director listening now?

There is virtually no reason to believe that the Obama Administration will change course in its last 5 months.  The key question, therefore, is whether any of the presidential candidates has an actual strategy for addressing this core national security concern.  Sadly, the answer is “no.”

As a xenophobe who thrives on fear, Donald Trump has an obvious pitch for preventing the migration of fleeing foreign terrorist fighters:  He has proposed a ban on all Muslims entering the U.S.  In addition to being inconsistent with our national character, unworkable in practice, and unlawful, this proposal would make us less secure.  It would substantiate, rather than undermine, the ISIS narrative that the West is at war with Islam, particularly when coupled with his unlawful proposals to torture suspected terrorists and kill the families of terrorists.  We cannot defeat fanatical Islamic terror without winning the war for hearts and minds.

As a Libertarian and non-interventionist, Gary Johnson does not believe in placing troops in Iraq or Syria to defeat ISIS.  To defeat ISIS, he prescribes cutting off its finances, countering it in cyberspace, and encouraging others to defeat it on the ground.  Unfortunately, as we have seen, minimizing our overseas military footprint does not guarantee that ISIS fighters will not migrate west.   In many respects, Mr. Johnson offers a less robust formulation of the Obama Administration’s “strategy.”  And like the President, Mr. Johnson does not have a plan for returning or migrating foreign terrorist fighters.

Hillary Clinton, by contrast, advocates a slightly more robust version of the Obama Administration’s strategy. In particular, she is more willing to use air power and support Kurdish forces on the ground (likely over the objection of Turkey).  Her strategy, therefore, is designed to hasten ISIS’ defeat on the battlefield.  This corrects one of the many flaws in the Obama Administration strategy.  However, it also leads to the very scenario raised by the FBI Director, for which she has no plan.

In an election where national security and counter-terrorism concerns will weigh heavily on the minds of voters, we deserve more thoughtful and comprehensive strategies for combatting fanatical Islamic terror from the three leading candidates.  Add this shared shortcoming to the long list of reasons this is a deeply disturbing presidential election.

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