Lone wolf attacks will soon morph into guerrilla war inside Europe - ex-Pentagon adviser

The war in Syria and Iraq has turned into a stalemate. Everyone fights for themselves, and neither US airstrikes, nor Assad's army efforts are able to deal with Islamic State. However, the jihadist group itself has lost its former power and cannot carry out massive offensive operations. But the situation is not stable, with radicalized groups brewing in the heart of the Western world, getting ready to strike at civilians. With the UN Security Council failing to settle differences and adopt a decent plan on how to handle Syria and Iraq, what will finally break the terrorist group? We ask a former counterinsurgency advisor to the Pentagon and US State Department strategist. David Kilcullen is on Sophie&Co today.

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Sophie Shevardnadze:David Kilcullen, former counterinsurgency advisor to the Pentagon, U.S. State Department strategist, welcome to the show, it's really great to have you with us. Now, David, we've heard more than once, and most recently, from President Obama, that there will be no ground war in Iraq and Syria. You've said a larger, conventional war with ISIS is needed, but no occupation or counter-insurgency operation - so, if it's not boots on the ground in sufficient numbers, then what do you mean by conventional war?

David Kilcullen: I'm primarily talking about expanding the air campaign to the level where it would be roughly on par with the kinds of operations that we conducted in places like Kosovo, Libya, Afghanistan during the intervention in 2001. So, by comparison, when the U.S. and it's allies invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the average number of airstrikes per day was about 110 - that's roughly ten to twelve times the number of strikes that have been going on in Syria and Iraq over the last year. So I think it's wrong to talk about putting troops on the ground and a major ground operation until we've really tried to make the air campaign work - and I don't think we've done that yet.

SS:So, basically, you're saying "bomb them like they're a state", but won't the civilian casualties and collateral damage and moral fallout negate any gains such an air campaign may make or bring?

DK: I don't know, that would be an interesting question to pose to Russian commanders as well, because, I think, we're seeing two very different philosophies of air targeting between the Russian engagement in Syria and the U.S. and its allies; and it's a little bit unclear, of course, because it's still pretty early in the Russian intervention to know which is going to turn out to be more effective, but I do think we obviously need to be paying very significant attention to avoiding civilian casualties and collateral damage. I've seen some Republican presidential candidates here, in the States, for example, talking about "carpet bombing" ISIS - that is in no way what I'm talking about. What I'm suggesting is that ISIS works in Iraq and Syria by controlling a network of cities that are connected by road routes and smuggling routes, by electronic means - you know, electricity connections, rivers and so on, and we need to both break the connections among the cities and we also need to break the ISIS group's control over the population of these cities. So, it's really not about targeting the civilian population,, it's about rescuing them from what amounts to hostage status under, you know, very small number of people that are controlling large cities now.

SS:Tell me something, who should be getting involved - can Western countries bear the brunt of this effort, and should they?

DK: I think it depends on what are you talking about: air, or ground operations. Obviously, the only players in the region that have the kind of air capability that you need to mount this kind of operation, you know, Iraq and Syia themselves don't have those kinds of capabilities, so that air campaign really needs to be something that external players take charge of. Obviously, in coordination with the governments concerned. But, on the ground, foreigners coming in on the ground in large numbers... you only have to look at recent history, in fact, in any history in the region, to realize that it's a pretty bad idea. So, I think, what we're looking for, and I think you see this in both the Russian strategy in Syria and the U.S. strategy in Iraq, is we're looking for external air power supporting a local ground force - and of course, there are very significant difficulties in getting a ground force together, that's capable of taking on ISIS; that's, in part, why we're seeing delays and challenges both in the Russian operation and in the operations that U.S.-led coalition has been conducting.

SS:So, just lately, Saudi Arabia has caught the coalition fever, announcing their own ground muslim alliance against ISIS - however, it seems like some members weren't even informed they were in it. So, with such a rocket start, can we count on this newest alliance making a difference in this war?

DK: I really think it's too early to tell. So, as you referenced, countries like Malaysia and Lebanon have apparently not been informed that they were part of the alliance. There were also some puzzling omissions - for example, Indonesia, which by population is one of the largest Muslim countries in the world and has been at the forefront, ever since its transition to democracy in the early 2000s, it's been at the forefront of the campaign against jihadi terrorism, but for some reason it hasn't been included so far in the alliance. The other big omissions are Iran and Iraq, which of course, are Shia-majority countries. So, I guess the hope is that this new alliance will bring a new set of forces into the mix, that will unify people from among the OIC, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation against jihadist terrorism. The fear, on the other hand, is that it may turn out to be kind of an extension of the Saudi Sunni attempt to further the rivalry with Shia nations, kind of a political adjunct to the conflict that's going on in Yemen. As I said, I hope it's not that, and it's too early to really to be sure, but the fear is that what it may in fact turn out to be.

SS:The Saudis said that the alliance is aimed to train and equip forces that will fight terrorism - but is this an attempt to actually keep their foot in the war they're being forced out of? I mean, with their former Islamist proteges being on the defensive lately?

DK: It's more complicated than that, I think, because the Saudi government, the government of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia has not got a close relationship with many of the groups they're talking about targeting, but individuals inside Saudi Arabia do - and some more extreme religious figures in Saudi Arabia have been promoting exactly the kind of ideology that the Kingdom is now saying that it wants to target. So, it's kind of a mixed picture. It is certainly true that Islamist groups, some of which allegedly have relationships with Saudi Arabia and other Sunni nations, by the way, have been loosing a bit of ground in Syria of late, but I think that when you think about the new Islamic alliance that Saudi Arabia is putting forward, it's really got a global focus, it's not just thinking about the war in Syria or the war in Iraq, it's thinking about a much broader set of issues. You just have to look at the number of African countries that are, allegedly, within the alliance. So, again, it's a little bit early to tell, but I think we will start to see the outlines of that pretty quickly, when we see the kinds of decisions that the Saudis and the other groups that are in the alliance begin to make about operations in Yemen and in Iraq and in Syria, and in further field on things like financial cooperation and the war of ideas against extremism.

SS:Now, with the invasion of Iraq, bombing of Libya, a murky strategy in Syria, failures in Afghanistan - it does seem like the American policy in the Middle East only deals with tactical issues that have to be solved right now, but ignores a long-term consequences of its decisions in the region - why such disregard for the future, for realities on the ground? Why this lack of foresight, of sort of a long-term planning?

DK: I kind of reject the premise here, I think it depends on what we're talking about. So, the Bush administration had an agenda which was very much focused on the extension of democracy, and the idea was that the extension of democracy would, in theory, make the region more safe and sort of create less of a permissive operating environment for terrorist groups, such as those who attacked the U.S. on 9\11. There was a fairly long-term vision in the way that the U.S. thought about things, but of course, we all know that it didn't work out, and not only did it lead to very significant...

SS:But don't you think it didn't work out because it wasn't a thought-through strategy? I mean, without taking into consideration the realities on the ground? You can't just think you can export democracy to a country like Iraq...

DK: If you look at the documents that were published and the way that people spoke about it early in the game - I am talking about the first two-three years after 9\11 - there certianly was a long-term agenda, but that whole agenda was derailed by the adventure in Iraq, and I think as we look back on the last 15 years, it's really no exaggeration to say that the invasion of Iraq was an extraordinarily serious strategic error, in part because it pushed the U.S. away from any kind of long-term vision to the tactical realities of getting itself out of the problem that had been created in Iraq, and it's really been only 2008 or 2009 once the surge had stabilized, the situation on the ground in Iraq, that U.S. policy makers really had the bandwidth to start thinking in long-term focus again, and of course, it was a short-lived window of opportunity, because things went bad again very quickly after 2011.

SS:So, when the world was dealing with Al-Qaeda, you argued it needs to be viewed as a global Islamic insurgency. With ISIS, you're saying we need to start treating ISIS as a state - what does that mean, treating ISIS as a state? Why not treat ISIS as a global insurgency which, you know, with Nigeria, Somalia, and now Afghanistan, it is beginning to become?

DK: I think that it's somewhat of a technical point, but there is, in fact, a significant difference between the way that Al-Qaeda operated and operates, and the way that the IS operates. A lot of the support that the Islamic State is generating, a lot of the credibility that it's created and a lot of the kind of an attractive force that it has with people is founded on the idea that it is in fact a state, that it controls territory, it has a government, it has a population, it has relations with other states - you know, the basic criteria to be considered a state in international relations; and, motto of the Islamic State is “Baqia wa tatamadad” - "remaining and expanding". So, in a way, its ability to hold territories and its ability to operate like a state gives it the credibility that attracts lots of other groups. So, whereas Al-Qaeda has been building insurgent groups up from the ground, what ISIS is doing is acquiring pre-existing terrorist groups and incorporating them into their structure, largely on the basis of its authority as a state, and I think we need to think about that as a different kind of approach. So that’s a strategic comment. At a tactical level, Al-Qaeda runs around with small arms, in groups of 5-10 people and engages in terrorist activity. ISIS has tanks and artillery pieces, it controls cities, it has hundreds of armed vehicles. It fights like a state, it thinks it's a tate, it projects itself a state, and I think we need to, while not recognizing its legitimacy, I'm not suggesting that we do that, we need to target it as a state.

SS:So, David, the tactics of ISIS also have changed. As I read in your analysis, they went from tight, mobile, offensive formations to lose smaller units, moving about at night, more guerilla-style. Does this mean they won't be able to score victories like Mosul anymore, where a more massive force is needed?

DK: Historically, ISIS grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was a terrorist organisation and operated in small groups, as you've mentioned. During 2013-2014 they really went conventional. So, if you think about capture of Mosul in June of 2014, 800 ISIS fighters turned up in one column with armored vehicles and sort of took the city in a conventional fashion. That was tactical system that they evolved in an environment with no air threat. There was no significant air campaign against them, until U.S. intervention. Now, with the Russian intervention in Syria, and the U.S. intervention in Iraq and Syria, we're looking at a much more dangerous air environment for them, and so what they've done is that they haven't dropped back completely to the very small groups, they're sort of a hybrid now, so they're operating in groups of 20-40, 3 to 5 vehicles, maybe an artillery piece. They try to hide in urban environments, they move by night and that has really blunted their ability to do sort-of blitzkrieg maneuver warfare. But as we saw in Palmira and in Ramadi and as we saw in other places in 2015, that hasn't stopped their ability to seize terrain. They're doing it in a different way, and I think that this speaks to something we spoke about earlier - which is that until you krank up the level of air effort to the point at which it really can contain the expansion of a group like ISIS, you're not going to be able to build up the ground forces that you will ultimately need to roll them back. So, I think, what we've done is to some extent attenuate or limit their ability to expand, but we haven't fully contained them at this point.

SS: Recently, it seems ISIS has stepped up its battle: the Paris attacks, the assault on Beirut, the take down of the Russian plane over Egypt - all attributed to IS elements. A year into the bombing campaign that was supposed to contain that group - why are we seeing so many attacks now?

DK: ISIS operates at three levels. There's the caliphate, or the central state-like element that we've been talking about; then there are the wilayats, the external territories that are associated with ISIS; and then there's sort of much more loose, atomized band of small cell groups and individuals - I call it "the ISIS International" and it operates very much autonomously. It's given direction in a very broad sense by the ISIS leadership who make calls for certain kinds of attacks, but then they plan the attacks themselves; nor do they sponsor them in a classic Al-Qaeda-kind of way. They just let it be known what they would like to see happen, and then individuals and cell groups act on their own initiative. That's a very... it's not a new technique, but it's a very dangerous technique, because what it does, it makes it much harder to predict these kinds of attacks, and it also means that for us to contain ISIS, every time we strike them in the central state area, in Iraq and Syria, they can retaliate somewhere else, and that's what we saw in the case of Paris, and potentially what we're seeing in the case of San-Bernardino, the attack in California. Now, I think from a Russian standpoint, which I'm sure your viewers will be particularly interested in, there's certainly the risk of increased ISIS-sponsored activity in the Caucasus, in European Russia, in other parts of Russia's sphere of influence - and I think that's a concern that the downing of the aircraft over the Sinai really underlines... it's a real concern that we need to be worried about.

SS:You played a key role in developing  a strategy that kicked Al-Qaeda out of Iraq, the "Awakening" strategy of working with local Sunni tribes to drive extremists out. Why can't this be repeated now? Why isn't anyone doing it? Are Iraqi Sunnis okay with ISIS governing them?

DK: No, they're not. There's actually a significant armed opposition to ISIS within Sunni Iraq. There's a group called "The Free Officers Movement" in Mosul, for example, which succeeded a few months ago in assassinating the ISIS governor of West Mosul. So, they’re dealing with Sunni opposition and people rising up against them. Just to clarify something in your question though, we didn't really... It wasn't really our strategy - the "Awakening". It was an idea of the tribes. The tribes themselves decided to rise up against ISIS, and when they succeeded in... I'm sorry, I said "ISIS", but I mean Al-Qaeda, their predecessor. When they succeeded in 2006-2007 in kicking out Al-Qaeda, that was actually the fifth attempt of those tribes to rise up. The previous four attempts they've been slaughtered. The reason they survived on the fifth occasion was that we finally had enough troops in Iraq to make a difference and protect them on the ground. We don't have that anymore. So what's happened is that since that "Awakening" period, the Iraqi government really heavily alienated the Sunni community and and I think that's the problem we're dealing with.

SS:So if Baghdad, Shia-dominant rule may seem worse to the Iraqi Sunnis than ISIS as you say, why not create their own separate North Iraq or Anbar, and let them live the way they want?

DK: So, you mean, why not go for a sort of partition of Iraq in different elements?

SS:A bit of federalization, yeah.

DK: There's been a lot of talk about federal Iraq, ever since the U.S. invasion. My position on this has always been the same, which is that the only people who can really decided that are the Iraqis themselves. That has to be a decision that is taken in a safe enough environment that it's a legitimate decision. It can't be one that's taken under duress. So, I think that the role of the international community in this discussion is to make Iraq safe enough and to get Iraqi politicians into a position where they can begin to resolve some of these differences in a peaceful fashion, and if the outcome - and if Iraqis decide this - if the outcome turns out to be a greater degree of federalisation - fine. If the outcome is something different, and Iraqis, again, have made that decision, then I think the international community needs to think about how to support that.

SS: You've also said that we’re seeing ISIS morph into paramilitary underground movement in Western Europe. So, what we saw in Paris was just a beginning? Is the war moving from Syria and Iraq into Europe?

DK: That's a theory. We don't know yet, and it's probably a little bit too early to tell, but I think we're going to find out soon. What I was referring to is that really, up until the Charlie Hebdo attack in January 2015, most of the attacks that we saw in Europe were individuals or self-radicalized small groups, operating more or less on their own. But the Charlie Hebdo attack emanated from a group called “Buttes-Chaumont” Network, which is a paramilitary group of young people training in a park in Paris in military tactics, weapons and so on. The attack in Paris in November, the Bataclan and Stade de France attack was apparently associated with an underground group that had as many as 20 or 30 people involved in it, possibly more. So, I think, we're seeing an evolution from self-radicalized individuals to something that’s more organised and looks like cell-based underground. Kind of like what we saw with left-wing terrorist groups in Western Europe during the Cold War, for example. I think that's a much more dangerous set of circumstances, and as I said, we don't know for sure yet, whether it's gonna end up that way, but I think that when the next attack happens - and there inevitably will be one - people need to be looking at was this just individuals or is this some kind of organisation associated with it.

SS:Not long ago I spoke to anthropologist and terror researcher Scott Atran, maybe you know him. He has addressed the UN about countering the Islamic State ideology and he told me that the Western response to ISIS ideas is extremely weak, that ISIS will continue attracting recruits and gaining ground unless something is done, meaning that our counter-message, the counter-message of the West and the rest of the world against ISIS is just simply not strong enough. Is the West right now not care too much about the war of ideas? After all, it has bombs and missiles, right?

DK: I wouldn't limit this to the West. Now, that Russia is engaged in Syria...

SS:Right, what I said - the whole world, yeah, of course.

DK: This is a problem that really affects everybody. Frankly, I don't think we have a huge amount of standing to be critiquing the ideology. I think it has to come within the Islam itself. What we can do is that we can limit the ability of individuals to travel, to join the ground - that's mainly a border security role. We can do our best to damage the group in Iraq and Syria, and then there's a lot of domestic policing and intelligence work to do with preventing attacks. One of the things that I think are interesting, and your viewers, I'm sure, will be aware of this - the British government has recently changed its approach, in a subtle but quite significant way: until quite recently, the British government said that "what we're worried about is violent behavior, we’re not worried about the ideas themselves". And in the last iteration of UK counter-terrorism strategy, the British government is starting to say: "Actually, there are some ideas which even by themselves constitute support for terrorism and need to be dealt with". I think, that's a shift, most prominently in the UK, but I think we may start to see that elsewhere, also.

SS:  David, thank you so much for this wonderful interview. We were talking to David Kilcullen, renowned military strategist and counter-insurgency expert, a senior Pentagon and State Department advisor, discussing the variety of international strategies against the Islamic State and what needs to be done to defeat it. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.