ISIS Beheadings – What We Can Do
By Lana Duffy
It started with Daniel Pearl.
On 21 February 2002, the video was released of Pearl’s beheading in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. None other than The Blind Sheikh, Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, has since claimed to be the one wielding the knife that sawed, slowly and methodically, through the neck of Pearl.
My company watched the video when we arrived in Afghanistan two years later. Then, while we were conducting small team operations in the mountains and plains of the country, Nick Berg was captured and beheaded. We watched that one, too. As interrogators and investigators and intelligence collectors, we needed to understand the enemy.
I felt like I understood a little too much. This wasn’t a guillotine, this was a knife that might be sharp enough to cut a slice of goat and some tomato for lunch, but it took time – too much time – to get through the sinew and bones. This was the stuff of nightmares.
But as I talked to government officials and watched the news from home, something interesting occurred with each video: while they induced horror, they also brought anger. Al Qa’eda didn’t seem to understand that while they wanted to bring terror, they only would find wrath. These videos united people around the world against them.
Our turn-around from Afghanistan to Iraq was less than six months, so I found myself in the old Republican Palace turned temporary US Embassy in January 2005. My days were mostly spent conducting political liaison and working with high level officials in addition to building a network. Never one to sleep much, I soon started moonlighting, helping the Hostage Working Group: a US Embassy-led joint initiative to slow the epidemic that was hostage-taking in Iraq. They had zero collection assets while working dozens of cases.
Can we wrap our heads around that for a second? Zero collection assets. They had an Embassy liaison, an analyst from another agency, and a contractor who lived a double life as a career Navy SEAL. That’s it. No trucks. No dedicated, trained collectors. No… nothing. We were trying to find the body of SGT Keith Maupin and looking for Roberto Torongoy and Roy Hallums before they met a tragic end. Also missing: Timothy Bell, Kirk von Ackerman… the list goes on and I knew every one of them, coalition and non-coalition. But no collection assets were designated to help.
See, while the HWG was formed with the intent to combat the hostage crisis, they were left at the mercy of the time others could spare to find the information needed. While Al Qa-eda was making poor decisions to conduct barbaric killings with the opposite effect of what they said they wanted, government support was also short of what officials stated as their desired outcome.
It took some serious work and protest, and me getting on the bad side of several officers, to help get the HWG a dedicated team. It seemed counterintuitive: you wanted the problem solved, but you didn’t want to designate the resources. And once they had assets, they could get some real work done. We cracked the major kidnapping ring in a few short months. We saved people, real people.
Hopefully we’d learned our lesson.
Why did we need that lesson at all? Well, maybe because the foreign nationals were disappearing at a rate of maybe one every few months whereas Iraqis dealt with several a day in some cases, so maybe at some level the hostage crisis was believed to be more of a local problem.
Maybe they thought that we collectors would come across the information over the course of our regular activities. The Army started teaching basic techniques to everyone, and more caches and local targets turned up so they thought it was successful. These basics almost never yielded the high-level targets hoped for, but there was that lucky chance. Maybe that’s what they were hoping for to solve this crisis: luck.
Maybe it was because we had a history of not always putting assets where the assets were needed and it coming back to bite us in the ass. I mean, we were also putting Korean linguists in Bayji instead of near the ROK Army up north, and Arabic linguists deep in Kurdish territory, and not enough trucks and old weapons and… we ramped up quickly and were still figuring some things out. Maybe we just hadn’t learned yet.
The political and logistical game was complex; I don’t pretend to know why they made the decisions that they made when it came to intel, only that we on the ground saw what was needed and it was frustrating when resources weren’t there. I did what I could for the HWG; it was important work, well worth the extra hours. I left with the nightmares of the videos and the weight of those we couldn’t find in time, but the joy of those we could.
And the hope that we’d all learned.
But fast forward a few years and we come to today. Journalist James Foley, beheaded not for fighting against this garbage pseudo-organization ISIS or even for speaking out against the travesties and atrocities committed in Syria and the middle east recently but for being American. That’s all he did. He showed up trying to help but having been born in the wrong place.
Then some imbecile in a crappy ski mask decides that in order to make a nation which has NEVER caved to terrorist hostage pressure finally cave, they need to take a knife to Foley’s neck. In the same video of his execution, ISIS then threatens another unarmed, unaffiliated, journalist hostage for the United States to stop air strikes against ISIS targets or they will kill him the same way.
Okay. So aside from the nightmares returning after watching the video (I shouldn’t have, but I did), this is infuriating.
First, ISIS. Get it together. What you did was take a war-weary country and do the impossible: you pissed us off again. Now we will do what we did after Pearl and Berg and Maupin and all the others who ended up dead on your watch: we will come for blood. Your efforts have the opposite effect of what was desired. You didn’t learn from Sheikh Mohammad, you didn’t learn from al-Zarq’awi, you just went ahead and repeated the same actions. Congratulations, you just brought the party to your door. Again.
We, of course, have a few tasks at hand. The first is to use every PSYOPS drone in the air to distribute the message to every citizen of Iraq and Syria and beyond: if you kill the unarmed citizens of another nation or of your own people, you are going to invoke fury, not negotiations. We need to be clear. We aren’t brokering peace anymore. Airstrikes are the least of your worries, ISIS, because you can’t seem to learn the lessons of your predecessors. You kill Steven Sotloff and it will only get worse for you. We stopped your advance, ISIS, and we will stop a lot more if you touch a hair on his head. We need to be so clear in that message that even though their addled minds won’t grasp it, the people will. And then they won’t be on the side if ISIS, if they ever really were, and ISIS will lose.
The other task we have is to get Sotloff out of there. So let’s find him.
But wait! Collection assets were removed with the drawdown in Iraq, and that was foolish. Do we still have trainers? Do we still have anyone on the ground to protect? Do we still have Americans and coalition partners held hostage in the region? If these answers are yes, and they are, then we need more than just a few three-letter agencies throwing money around. We need focus. We need to remember the lessons learned in 2005 at the height of the hostage crisis: Intelligence assets are critical.
There are rules to play by in countries during peacetime, and even rules during conflict, but there are times when all bets are off. We were fools to withdraw our intelligence assets, to draw them down to just the squirrely types. When we do this, we leave ourselves open to our enemies gaining the upper hand. ISIS hasn’t learned the lessons of their predecessors, so we need to learn ours. We relied on Iraqi assets to do it, and they just aren’t there yet. We don’t have a dog in the fight anymore, and this will only end in bloodshed.
So of course we don’t cave and continue airstrikes. But more importantly, get the assets back on the ground that need to be there. That area should be crawling. ISIS shouldn’t be able to take a piss without us knowing if they are hydrated.