Former FBI Counter-terrorism Expert's Strategy to Fight ISIS

ISIS Strategy: Transitioning the U.S. Into Offense

As ISIS purportedly loses its swath of land in Iraq and Syria it is clear their strategy is changing. Moving towards a decentralized and non-hierarchical approach, they will now promulgate a message that resonates with ideological followers around the world – attack wherever and however. This approach is certainly not new to the Jihadists specifically via the Islamic concept of Ijtihad (Independent reasoning). Ijtihad in certain interpretations allows and enables Jihadist attacks without hierarchical or tacit approval. As such, Jihadist attacks will most likely increase throughout the world especially in those countries that are reactive in nature. Given this new asymmetrical environment, an irregular approach to the larger ISIS problem must be undertaken and in short order. In looking at the increasingly complex nature of decentralized Jihad, the U.S. could benefit from a more proactive approach. The following offers some long term options to not only thwart ISIS activities, but to send the much needed message that the U.S. will unapologetically deal with Islamic terrorists.

1. Raqqa: ISIS is headquartered in Raqqa, Syria. This is the center of gravity for hierarchical and strategic decisions. Although most likely an unpopular decision, a strategic strike of this city would cause the most damage, short and long term to the organization. It would also send a clear message to inbound or budding foreign fighters that the U.S. is serious about this fight.

2. Reallocate counter-terrorism funding from the military to federal law enforcement: Although the strongest military in the world has made great progress against terrorists in Afghanistan, given the increased operational tempo of Jihadists in the U.S. (100 plots and growing) federal law enforcement would be a better use of these funds. Counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan can continue through the use of Special Operations forces and drones while the regular forces can return to the U.S.

3. Reallocated funding to bolster Customs/Border Patrol and TSA: Given the constant influx of Jihadists into the U.S. both CBP entry points and all major international airports in the U.S. have to become proactive and investigative. In order to become proactive and investigative, both CBP entry points and major international airports should be reformed into an interagency task force under FBI leadership. Just as the Joint Terrorism Task Forces have become a formidable tool against the constant threat of terrorism, both CBP and TSA need aggressive investigative leadership to overwatch daily activities. This would also inter-network CBP and each major international airport with the operational JTTFs.

4. Exponentially increase the education and awareness of local police regarding the Jihadist threat. Currently, some states have educational programs that provide at best superficial information regarding pre attack flags and indicators. Looking for individuals purchasing explosives is common sense, but understanding the nuances of a Salafi cut beard, the meaning of rolled up pants, and the presence of a circular scar on ones forehead is more critical. Jihad is a secretive world, replete with a micro theology that is adhered to at a deeper level via each step down the road of radicalization. Educating local police on the irregular signs, how to develop informants with deep access into networks, and carrying out effective liaison with the mosques is critical to this fight. Some departmental leadership at the local level is attempting to be more successful in this realm, but overall the level of understanding and awareness is very low.

5. Exponentially increase the education and awareness level of federal and local prosecutors regarding the Jihadist threat. With many countries around the world having no prosecutorial options regarding counter-terrorism, the U.S. is in good stead with Title 18 violations concerning Material Support to Terrorism. U.S. terrorism law is far reaching enough to cover most efforts by individuals to join or assist burgeoning ISIS members. However, there has to be an appetite and backbone in DOJ’s local field offices to consider such cases. Currently, there is more emphasis on prosecuting “low hanging fruit” such as gun and drug related cases due to their simplicity. There is further a clear aversion to federal prosecutions involving Islamic terrorism due to potential political implications. An aggressive approach to prosecutions throughout the country has to be considered by both federal and local prosecuting attorneys. Without such a stance, investigators have no means of filing charges. As well, any filing of charges requires strong willed prosecutors that also have an educated view of the Jihadist enemy. Currently this is almost nonexistent.

6. Increased media coverage regarding the Jihadist intention towards the citizens of the U.S.: With each uncovered plot or attack on U.S. soil, there is a media splash regarding the basic chronology of events. Within days, this coverage becomes focused on which clues authorities may have missed. Then the coverage finalizes in the unending inquiry into the motive behind the attack or plot. What would be more productive and would bolster the citizenry’s understanding of what to look would be full disclosure into the perpetrator’s mindset and motivation. To know what a Jihadist thinks one simply has to conduct a short review of his verbal and written statements made prior to and as part of the plot. After 18 years of interviewing Jihadists it is very clear from my experience what their intentions are. Generally, they don’t want to breathe the air of the infidels, they follow the Qur’an verbatim, and are obsessed with the killing of those that don’t follow their specific theology. This mindset should be clearly and objectively exposed to the general public to include live coverage of trials which would unequivocally elucidate this mindset.

Overall, ISIS must be dealt with unequivocally and unapologetically. Without such a stance, attacks on U.S. soil will most likely increase with each governmental inaction. The key to thwarting the group’s activities is through resolve and education. Political authorities must proactively respond with a backbone and law enforcement and U.S. citizens must have a better understanding of the enemy. Without this, the threat will continue and solidify itself as an enduring problem that will erode all that the U.S. stands for.

Brig Barker is an ACT for America fellow and one of leading experts on counter terrorism and radicalization matters in the U.S. He is a retired FBI counter terrorism agent and former U.S. Army officer. Mr. Barker is the CEO of Counter terrorism Consultants International. He can be reached at

This article contains the opinion of Brig Barker and not the Federal Bureau of Investigation, nor the US Department of Justice.