Paris fallout: Why the West has to recalculate its ISIS strategy

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Story highlights

  • Gohel: ISIS convinced West doesn't have the appetite to send in ground troops to defeat it
  • Western strategy to defeat ISIS has depended virtually on the air war
  • Air strikes have not stopped or deterred ISIS from replenishing their ranks

Sajjan M. Gohel is International Security Director for the London-based Asia-Pacific Foundation, a policy assessment think-tank monitoring emerging geopolitical threats and analyzing the radical ideologies that feed violent extremism. The opinions expressed here are his own.

London (CNN)The timing of the Paris attacks was perhaps deliberately orchestrated to coincide with an anniversary that serves part of ISIS's propaganda machine. In November, 1914, as World War I raged, the religious ideologue Sheikh-ul-Islam declared jihad on behalf of the Ottoman Caliphate, urging his followers to take up arms against several countries including France, Russia and the United Kingdom. That conflict eventually resulted in the defeat and collapse of the Ottoman Caliphate -- a grievance frequently cited by al-Qaeda and ISIS.

In addressing the French nation and the rest of the world about the Paris attacks, President Francois Hollande commented, "It's an act of war, committed by a terrorist army Daesh [ISIS], an army of Jihadists, against France." He added, "We will lead the fight and we will be ruthless." The French President's bold declaration was followed up by statements of support and unity from U.S. President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron.
    However, strongly worded statements of solidarity and vows to defeat ISIS by Western leaders are simply platitudes and soundbites unless they're actually converted into a tangible strategy -- which is currently not the case. Up until the Paris attacks, ISIS has successfully called the West's bluff. They are convinced that the West doesn't have the appetite to send in ground troops into Iraq and Syria to dismantle the ISIS infrastructure. The terror group also believes the West will not go beyond the current campaign of air strikes.
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    Dependence on air strikes

    Indeed, the Western strategy to defeat ISIS has depended virtually on the air war and training Iraqi troops and secular Syrian rebels. Understandably, Western forces have avoided striking at some ISIS targets because the group's fighters often operate from within civilian populations that could lead to collateral damage. The terrorist group also holds hostages in some of their buildings as human shields to deter air strikes.
    Because Western forces do not have a noticeable footprint on the ground in Syria, it makes the job harder to develop intelligence on potential ISIS assets. ISIS commanders are also skilled at varying their methods of communication and traveling to avoid being detected. The air strikes have also not stopped or deterred ISIS from replenishing their ranks with a constant and steady stream of volunteers from the West.
    ISIS are also astute about the territory they control. They prioritize on towns connecting Iraq to Syria where they can also ensure a consistent supply line. Air strikes have not severed these key routes. Despite the desire of Western governments to degrade ISIS's operational capability, the group has ironically grown, proliferated and expanded its activities, and is now aided and abetted by franchises in Egypt, Afghanistan, the Maghreb and Nigeria.
    The only effective fighting force on the ground in the region is the Kurdish Peshmerga. Recently, in a ground assault against ISIS, aided by U.S. air strikes, the Peshmerga re-took the strategic northern Iraqi town of Sinjar. This enabled the Peshmergas to sever an ISIS supply line, Highway 47, that connects Syria to Mosul, Iraq's second largest city, occupied by the terror group. That could impede the free flow of ISIS fighters, fuel and other supplies, forcing them to use more vulnerable and less secure smuggling routes. Sinjar is an example of where air strikes can produce results but only if accompanied by an effective ground operation.
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    Following the events in Paris, the West has three stark options. Firstly, they can pursue the current strategy against ISIS which has proved ineffective. Secondly, initiate ground troop operations in conjunction with local allies in Syria and Iraq to pull apart ISIS's network. Thirdly, the West can simply give up entirely on Iraq and Syria and go into further isolation, which would be much to ISIS's delight. None of these options are risk-free and all carry consequences but an urgent recalculation from the current approach is required.

    Management of Savagery

    It is important to understand that behind the violence ISIS perpetrates is an ideological message that directs recruitment, strategy and tactics. ISIS's ideology and plan of action is based on the treatise "The Management of Savagery," which serves as its playbook and provides an insight into its agenda. The end goal is to inflict significant political, economic and social consequences through "savagery."
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    The Management of Savagery is a conceptual doctrine that enables operations to be conducted with unity of purpose without constant communication. This has enabled ISIS commanders to give cadres general directions of what needs to be achieved, allowing them the freedom to determine how to carry out these directions. Often this would comprise of self-starters, or lone wolves. Yet, it can also involve clusters of people specifically trained and in communication with ISIS's leaders. Like the lone wolves, they are equally motivated by ISIS's ideology and doctrine and their attacks are designed to visualize the violence and perpetuate the fear factor. The recent attacks in Paris form part of this modus operandi.
    Paralleling the ineffective air strikes in Iraq and Syria, ISIS has utilized The Management of Savagery with deadly effect turning theory into practice. Since September 2014, the ISIS ideologue, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, has issued three messages with each one inciting an escalation in the ferocity of ISIS attacks and mentioning specific countries and branches of Islam as acceptable targets. There have been targeted attacks against the police and armed forces in Canada, United States and France; hostage siege operations in Australia and Tunisia; suicide bombers killing Shiite Muslims in Lebanon and Kuwait; marauding attacks in Tunisia and France. The ISIS affiliate, Wilayat Sinai is also now accused of bringing down a Russian Metrojet airliner on October 31, killing 224 people.

    Pipeline of terror

    Improving intelligence is important but it is a defensive measure designed to foil plots. For every attack thwarted, or aborted by the terrorists, there are at least another five in the pipeline. Some plots will inevitably bypass the security apparatus.
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    Does the West have a red line or threshold for the volume of unacceptable fatalities orchestrated by ISIS before they consider direct on-the-ground intervention aimed at dismantling the ISIS infrastructure?
    The Paris attacks come at a critical juncture in the battle against ISIS and draw eerie parallels to the al-Qaeda attacks in 1998 against the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as well the attack on the U.S.S. Cole in 1999 off the coast of Yemen. Both incidents resulted in a limited U.S. response with ineffective air strikes preferred over decimating al-Qaeda's leadership in Afghanistan. The lukewarm reaction by the U.S. gave al-Qaeda the impression that the red line had not been crossed and this encouraged them to develop their plans further to hit the U.S. mainland culminating with the September 11, 2001 attacks.
    If ISIS continues to follow The Management of Savagery's doctrine and program, and the West does not back up its intentions to defeat the terrorist group following the attacks in Paris, then we should expect to see significant acts of terrorism in the United Kingdom and the rest of Europe as well as the United States.