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The nation that invented social media can't outsmart Islamic State

by George Petrolekas

The Globe and Mail
December 8, 2015

The shock and gravity of the San Bernardino, Calif., terrorist attack has been so great that it occasioned a speech from the President from the Oval Office on Sunday night, only his third in eight years. There is no greater pulpit in the world. Its symbolic power has been groomed into our consciousness: None of us have been there, but we are all familiar with it.

And yet, given the power of that office and the relentless repetition of the past three weeks, the President offered no new plan, no new insight, no new mobilization of national purpose to defeat the Islamic State.

A great change swept over the American psyche this week with the terrorist attacks in San Bernardino. The fallacy that the past year’s military actions in Syria and Iraq were somehow containing the Islamic State has been shredded – as if the attacks in Paris, the downing of the Russian airliner over the Sinai and bombings in Beirut and Yemen had not already done so. IS cannot simply be geographically contained, as it sees its theatre of warfare wherever it can take the battle to its enemies in both physical and non physical space.

We can no longer believe that there’s a fight “over there” in Syria. Those erroneous beliefs were shattered in the staccato of bullets fired in San Bernardino. And in response, the West has not overcome its scars of Iraq and Afghanistan to understand that only the eradication of IS in Syria offers the possibility of removing the inspiration it provides.

Whether the San Bernadino attackers were somehow guided by IS masters - we don’t yet know. Their communications and travels have yet to be fully analyzed. The degree of preparation, the planning, the assembly of tools, bombs, bullets and weapons, the last minute reconnaissance of the target are different from any other such attacks by radicalized individuals. Supported, whether overtly or covertly by an digital network of easily accessible information on how to avoid public and official scrutiny, how to ensure operational security and how to build bombs from commonly available materials.

Battlegrounds are now holistic. On the physical plane, as countless of experts have articulated airstrikes alone will not suffice. Yet we have no battle plan for the physical space, other than to bomb.

The premise that regional nations - Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, among others - should fight IS in Syria without Western help and presence on the ground, is preposterous: They will not fight a war alone while we fly overhead.

The tempo, and volume of airstrikes can be trebled but unless and until a ground force is assembled IS might be degraded but not destroyed. That can only occur with both Western and Arab boots on the ground.

But it’s in the non-physical space - the online spreading of IS ideology and the instructions of how to terrorize - where we need a game plan.

Remarkable, isn’t it? The nation that invented the Internet and almost every social media application known to man has not conceived or articulated a battle plan for the medium’s capacity to convey means and propaganda.

After a year of both physical and psychological warfare, it was only last week that presidential contender Hillary Clinton spoke of mobilizing Silicon Valley to battle IS.

In his speech, President Barack Obama made only one concrete suggestion: to review visa programs and enhance electronic surveillance. Liberties will be traded for a sense of security while the source of insecurity remains relatively untouched.

The irony is that on the day of the President’s address, the Pentagon issued a warning that unless defeated, IS would continue to grow. The reluctant President who aimed to end America’s wars, paradoxically has consigned America and her allies to a long war.

George Petrolekas served in the military in Bosnia and Afghanistan and has been an adviser to senior commanders of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. He is a fellow with the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

 


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