I enjoy checking my Twitter feed because of the serendipity of the things I learn about on the network. For the past few months there’s been a lot of discussion about the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or whatever they’re calling it this week). Most discussion focuses around ISIS’s threat to Iraq (now) and Syria (less discussed now) and the region. Today, there was even a map posted showing the extent of their desired Islamic Caliphate, their harebrained idea resembles the high water mark of various Islamic expansions, although apparently Charles Martel’s victory at Tour in 732 gave them cold feet, because southern France is not on the list of conquests.
One theme of discussion has been ISIS’s threat to the United States. Many are concerned that ISIS is about to attack, or perhaps infiltrating across our porous Mexican border as we speak One way to examine at this threat is through the lens of MOM-POP or Means, Opportunity, Motive and Past Operational Practice. MOM-POP can be applied to a solo actor (commonly called an offender in a criminal context) or an organization like ISIS.
From the MOM aspect, the potential threat to the United States is high. ISIS has transitioned from a movement to an army that can seize and hold territory. They have income, by one estimate at least two million dollars a day from illicit oil sales, and more from sources such as kidnapping and extortion. For opportunity, they certainly seem to have the smarts to infiltrate the United States, given the sophistication of their recruiting, information operations, and fundraising campaigns. As for motive, they clearly despise the United States, but would they rather focus on the “near enemy” in the Middle East?
I’m not in a position to give a full assessment of such a nuance in motive, but I find one data point very interesting.
Recently the Free Syrian Army gave evidence that an American, Douglas McCain, had died fighting in Syria. So an American, John Walker Lindh-style, successfully sought out and joined ISIS. So the most evil organization on the face of the Earth gets a native-born American, savvy enough to travel on his own, well versed in our customs and how our society operates. In the movies, ISIS would have turned him into a sleeper agent and sent him back to the United State. Instead they gave him a rifle and he got killed by the FSA. The story seems to be the same with ISIS recruits from other western countries. There is evidence via social media and other sources that Britons, Australians, and others are acting as riflemen or leaders for ISIS.
Of course, any good analyst will note that McCain’s presence in Syria as a rifleman does not rule out that other Americans have been recruited as sleepers. It is the dis-confirming evidence that kills a hypothesis, and it is hard to disprove a negative.
I feel we are left with two options. First, ISIS prefers to fight and massacre on the battlefield rather than hatch intricate Al Qaeda-style plots in the United States and Europe. This could change if they are stymied on the battlefield and need to regain momentum and cachet, but for the time being, they do not seem to be overextended and have plenty of fight to give their adversaries on several fronts. The second scarier option is that ISIS is pursuing sleeper agents as an additional line of operation to their ground combat and genocide efforts. Brash, active on social media, and un-apologetically Muslim, McCain may not have fit ISIS’s mold of sleeper agent, even in a society so open that the militant Boston bombing Tsarnaev brothers escaped notice before their attack. Their pick could be smarter, and blend in better, than either the Tsarnaevs or McCain.
Regardless of the option, our response should not be to sit and wait. As perpetrators of massive crimes against humanity that shock the conscience, ISIS deserves significant military attention. The United States has conquered entire countries for transgressions less than what these criminals have done. This is one instance where a good offense can be part of a good defense if one thinks the sleeper threat is valid.