The beheading of James Foley was shockingly reminiscent of Iraq of a decade ago when the graphic beheading of Nick Berg was aired on the Internet. At the time, most Americans were still reeling from the grisly “Proof of Death” video of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. Most Americans could not stomach watching either and wanted to forget that such malevolence existed in the world, and they still had not come to terms with the ideology that killed thousands on 9/11.
Al-Qaida in Iraq posted hundreds of execution videos during the height of its kidnapping and beheading campaign when I served as the coordinator of the U.S. Embassy’s Hostage Working Group in Baghdad from 2004-06. I didn’t have the luxury of being squeamish; I had to watch them all. Beyond the intelligence they provided, the videos were a constant reminder of why I had returned to military service after 9/11 to confront this evil. That also is why I watched the entire James Foley video posted by Islamic State last week.
The recent IS beheading campaign against Iraqi Shia, Kurds, Christian and the ethnic Yazidis is a flashback to 2004 on a much wider scale. AQI from a decade ago has metastasized into IS — the personification of evil. Will America confront the IS menace by sending more troops back into Iraq or allow this genocide to continue and this threat to the West to grow?
The Obama administration is finally admitting to the expansive level of peril that the Islamic State’s “convert or die” Salafist ideology poses to the West. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel unequivocally described IS as an “imminent threat to every interest we have.” They are no longer running from U.S. drone strikes. Instead, they are running toward Baghdad.
If IS is able to establish an Islamic caliphate, we will have the same scenario that allowed the Taliban to rule Afghanistan according to strict Sharia law (Islamic jurisprudence). More ominous, they will have another safe haven and staging ground for AQ 2.0 to plot and execute attacks in America on the scale of 9/11 or worse.
White House leaks to the media and Hagel’s news conference last week to confirm rumors of a failed American hostage rescue mission to save the life of Foley were wrong on many levels. Not only were they a breach of operational security, it sent a flawed message that served no tactical or strategic purpose, especially considering that there are remaining hostages whose lives are still hanging in the balance.
Releasing any details about hostage rescue efforts undermines future missions by exposing standard operating procedures about how these missions are conducted.
For years, America has told the world that there would be no U.S. troops on the ground in Syria. This “plausible deniability” allows us to protect potential future missions in that country and elsewhere. One never wants to reveal your intentions because planning and executing classified operations are like high-stakes poker — you never show your cards until the end of the game.
That Hagel called the failed rescue operation a “flawless mission” is troubling. If this is the new definition of a faultless operation for our ranking Pentagon officials, we should all be concerned about our current military leadership’s standard for success.
More difficult to counter is the troubling perception that our commander in chief is weak, disinterested and disconnected. Not only will his flowery words not defeat IS, he appears oblivious to the power of perception in international politics. Instead of going back to Washington after the Foley news conference, he immediately went back to the Martha’s Vineyard golf course, seemingly more interested in hobnobbing with professional athletes and celebrities than facing a national security crisis.
The rules of hostage rescue missions are similar to those of “Fight Club”: You don’t talk about hostage rescue missions. The goal in ongoing deliberations is to lower the perceived strategic value of the hostage(s) while raising their perception as fellow human beings who should be kept alive and not murdered. That news conference only supported the latter, not the former. There are no operational advantages to be gained by releasing any information about classified hostage rescue missions — especially while the hostages are still being held.
The extremist ideology of AQ appeared to be on the ropes just a short time ago, but IS has shown that it has grown in size and strength thanks to new leadership and the lack of ours. The threat posed by their jihadist dogma beyond Iraq is real and growing. Hundreds of IS fighters carry Western passports, including American and British recruits. On the video, a jihadist spokesman with an East London accent passes judgment before putting the knife to Foley’s neck.
IS fighters reject Western capitalism and materialism. They are armed to the teeth with U.S. military hardware, from Kevlar helmets and bullet-resistant vests to armored Humvees captured when the Iraqi army abandoned bases across Anbar province to the northern border with Syria. The Islamic State’s public relations and psychological warfare efforts are winning hearts and minds. It is gaining more believers and Western recruits to its vile interpretation of the Koran than we are killing or deterring. Like a phoenix, AQI has risen from the ashes on steroids in the form of IS, and it controls the narrative at the moment, not the world’s remaining superpower.
When compared with the coordinated terror campaign of genocide and disciplined propaganda efforts of IS, the only “jayvee team” appears to be the White House strategic communications and national security advisers guiding the president on critical issues of foreign policy.
A bombing campaign that does not call for boots on the ground, like embedded combat enablers (i.e., special operations troops), might slow IS but certainly won’t defeat it. Did airstrikes alone force the Taliban from power alone after 9/11? The answer is no.
Dan O’Shea is a former Navy SEAL officer and coordinator of the Hostage Working Group at the American Embassy in Iraq from 2004-06, managing the interagency coordination for hundreds of international hostage-taking incidents. He is the vice president for Kidnap & Ransom for GROM Technologies, a security and risk management company based in Tampa.