Washington's Islamic State-saturated foreign policy narrative is misguided

Washington's Islamic State-saturated foreign policy narrative is misguided
5 min read
25 Apr, 2016
Comment: An obsession with fighting militants distracts from the wider issues at play across the Middle East, writes James Denselow.
At such security-focused events, refugees are presented very much as a ‘security risk’ [Getty]

The Aspen Security Forum, a conference series that has become a fixture on the national security calendar, last week travelled abroad for the first time, to London.

What the packed agenda and discussions in the gilded corridors of Lancaster House revealed was the sheer weight of priorities faced by Washington and how the Middle East was seen almost entirely thorough the lens of defeating the Islamic State group.

FBI Director James Comey opened the conference with a talk that moved from how expensive it is to crack an iPhone to an appraisal of the threat potential coming out of Baghdadi's movement in Raqqa.

Comey presented the domestic US security concern with IS' central message of what he described as "crowd-sourced terrorism" that urged its remotely radicalised recruits to either come to Syria or "kill anybody". The director spoke of the contrast between Al Qaeda and IS and his main concern about how quickly people were "moving along the spectrum from consuming messages to taking action".

At such security-focused events, Syrian refugees were presented very much as a "security risk". Intelligence agencies don't like large numbers of people without documents moving across multiple borders.

The audience and panellists were former senior diplomats, soldiers and intelligence chiefs among a smattering of media, think-tank and corporate types. The first five panels were all male and tackled the globe through the lens of Russian foreign policy, changes to Latin America and meta-trends in the intelligence world.

Perhaps surprisingly for those who'd been watching the Russians take centre stage in Syria, the main concern, as outlined by Douglas Lute, the US ambassador to NATO, was how to manage Russia as a power in decline.

Lute thought it was "too soon" to see if Russia could play a positive role in the political process, but admitted that Moscow's stakes in Syria "are higher than ours".

Twitter and social media at large found itself in the crosshairs of frustrated security professionals

IS was never far away from the conversation, and certainly not the panel that asked if confronting violent extremism was "the security challenge of our time". From the security perspective, the key strand was the domestic threat posed by radicalisation.

There was consensus around the complexities that underpin "the drivers of radicalisation", but perhaps the most interesting question that flummoxed the panel was around how previous policies never sought to "de-radicalise" Irish Republican terrorists - but, rather, simply "de-operationalise" them and prevent them from causing harm.

Twitter and social media at large found itself in the crosshairs of frustrated security professionals.

Mark Simmonds, a former MP and now CEO of the Counter-Extremism Project, spoke of Twitter as "the gateway", and that it "needs to do much more" to clamp down on the 46,000 accounts linked to IS.

A former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, emphasised how intelligence agencies had to ensure that they were far ahead of IS in the technology stakes but admitted that "it's harder in the era of Silicon Valley".

Peter Ammon, the German ambassador to the UK, warned his American colleagues that Europe was becoming a vital battleground in the war against IS. He painted a gloomy picture of "more ugly hydra heads" emerging once IS was defeated - suggesting that we've not yet seen the worst.

Europe's position, on the border of the "zone of instability" often used to describe the Middle East, is more confused by the potential of a British departure from the EU. Rob Wainwright of Europol explained how 90 percent of migrants who arrived in Europe last year were facilitated by criminal networks and warned of an intelligence black hole if British voters vote to leave the bloc in June.

So much of the discussion was on IS that at one point the BBC's security correspondent, Frank Gardner, remarked "I'm sure ISIS are watching this [the live stream], sitting in Raqqa drinking mint tea".

Nuclear drills during the Cold War felt distant and unimaginable compared to the 'active shooter drills'


The impact and the fear of terrorism, both from IS or other sources, was touched on by many involved but most powerfully by Alejandro Mayorkas, the deputy secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security. He described how nuclear drills during the Cold War felt distant and unimaginable compared to the "active shooter drills" his children had to do at school on a regular basis.

The biggest takeaway from the conference was not actually about IS itself - but rather what its impact has had on others, and the US in particular. Of course, this is a far longer response stemming from 9/11 - but you can't help but feel that we're at a tipping point of sorts, between changing the ways we live our lives in the face of such a changing and globalised threat.

Charles Farr, the chairman of the UK's Joint Intelligence Committee, praised public reticence to build "fortress cities" as a response to terror threats. However, even in such elite circles it felt that the perception of terrorism was disconnected from the reality of what caused it - and that the focus remains very much on the symptoms not the root causes.


James Denselow is an author and writer on Middle East politics and security issues. He is a former board member of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU) and a director of the New Diplomacy Platform. Follow him on Twitter: @jamesdenselow


Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.