Israeli-Egyptian cooperation is the key to confronting the threat posed by ISIS Sinai, former director of the US National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) Nick Rasmussen told The Jerusalem Post in a recent exclusive interview.
Rasmussen, who was the center’s chief from 2014 until December 2017, straddling the Obama and Trump administrations, complimented the reports of quiet-but-effective cooperation between Cairo and Jerusalem.
Currently director of the McCain Institute’s Counterterrorism Program, he said that, “given the extensive capabilities of Israel’s intelligence apparatus,” this would make it harder for ISIS to attack Israel from Sinai – although it has clearly tried.
While some have looked at Sinai as one of the new key bases of operations for ISIS, he said that the jihadist organization is “not moving en masse to set up the caliphate” in a single, specific alternative spot.
Rather, there are many alternatives, he said, noting that “the Sinai is not the only one.”
Rasmussen added the Philippines and, even more so, Libya. In addition, he said that he personally is most concerned about reprisal terrorist attacks within other Arab countries.
The NCTC has over a thousand intelligence professionals working for it across 20 US agencies, analyzing and carrying out strategic planning to fight terrorist threats to America.
It was formed after 9/11 based on expert recommendations, which stated that, had an agency existed to ensure that all of the dozen or so US intelligence agencies cooperated better in sharing intelligence, the attacks might have been foiled.
Discussing the potential of ISIS to make a comeback less than two months after its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, came out with a video showing he was still alive despite rumors otherwise, Rasmussen said that with ISIS routed from its capitals in Iraq and Syria, everything “is linked to the question: How do we successfully address the political aspirations of the broader Sunni community in Iraq or Syria?
“To the extent the Sunni population still feels marginalized and disenfranchised, this creates a pool of potential adherents or recruits, the same as it did a decade ago with Islamic State 2.0,” he stated.
Continuing, he said: “That is a population from which they were allowed to become a mass movement, and not just a clandestine terrorist organization… Though the caliphate has been destroyed, ISIS is perfectly able to convert to embed into the broader Sunni population.”
From there, he said that ISIS can “bide its time until an opportunity presents itself to capitalize on the grievances, to expand again into a broad-based insurgency campaign.”
To combat this possibility, Western government and intelligence officials must be asking themselves, “How do we create a more inclusive political system in Iraq to stop the Sunni community’s feeling of being marginalized?”
Regarding the group’s resiliency, he pointed out that “ISIS had quite a bit of time to prepare for the current phase. The campaigns against Mosul, Raqqa and smaller pockets in the Euphrates River Valley took a long time. It was the world’s longest telegraphed punch.”
Since ISIS “knew what the coalition was doing, they had plenty of time to prepare for the outcome,” he said.
Fundamentally, he said that it is crucial for the US to have learned that “we don’t turn away and think the Iraqis can handle it all on their own. That is not a recipe for success. There is plenty of room for debate about what presence the US should have, but it must have some role.”
One area where the ISIS threat has been less than expected has been that fewer of its fighters from the West have returned to Europe and beyond.
Following comments last week by a Syrian Democratic Forces commander that England could still face a large number of ISIS sleeper cells perpetrating terrorism there, Rasmussen said that “we were very focused in my tenure” on the volume of ISIS returnees to the West.
Now, he said, “the analysis has shifted. It is not as much a quantity problem, as a quality problem… Most foreign fighters have chosen or been compelled to stay in conflict zones to fight and die, or go to the countryside… and our defense against outflow of fighters [to the West] is better than before.”
But the “SDF commander’s words are something to worry about,” he said. “Maybe not hundreds of ISIS fighters will return to the UK, but should the UK be concerned if the wrong three to five fighters are returning?… If they are very capable and highly trained?… We still have a quality problem, so we need to find out who we should be the most worried about and get the right intelligence.”
MOVING ON to American and Israeli intelligence cooperation, such as tips Israel’s Mossad has taken credit for relating to sabotaging ISIS plots to explode airplanes using laptop computers, Rasmussen demurred.
“I’m constrained; I was in government too recently,” to discuss specifics, but he said that in general, “we have a very robust dialogue and intelligence exchange with Israeli intelligence services on the full range of terror-related issues in the Middle East. ISIS has featured prominently in those discussions. We looked to Israel as helpful partners.”
Despite what he called generally excellent intelligence cooperation, when pressed, Rasmussen acknowledged that sometimes the US and Israel, especially under different administrations, may even view intelligence differently, based on the differing threats and constellation of national priorities in play.
“Most of my career I was in the White House, the National Security Council and the US State Department. I was not a career intelligence professional. But at NCTC I was involved in intelligence. Even with our closest partners, we can have different perspectives. That happens with the US, Israel, England and almost any country you can think of, with whom you have a close intelligence relationship.”
He continued, saying that “I hope to be open and honest about differences, so we can evaluate what we are hearing from our partner” and understand each side’s policy choices and preferences, since “I don’t want to question the veracity of the information” itself, and “I never saw anything like that happen with the terror issues I dealt with.”
In addition, he said that “Israel is an aggressive and very direct partner in bringing terror concerns to the US. At meetings with Israeli intelligence officials, you knew you would get well developed and thoughtful presentations – for example, what is happening with Hezbollah – instead of just general comments.”
Rasmussen also got to know issues relating to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps intimately during his service.
Referring to the Trump administration’s recent decision to define the entire IRGC as a terrorist group, “I understood the political views for wanting to do it,” but questioned whether it was more effective than other moves.
He said that the US could have “designated specific entities and individuals associated with the IRGC, to make a point in a very direct and precise way about who was involved in terror-related behavior.”
In contrast, he said that “by designating the entire group as a terror organization, you set up a potential conflict where you are demonizing an entire segment of the Iranian national security apparatus.”
“While that may be politically useful to make the case about Iran… I am not sure it puts us in a better place,” implying that he would have preferred a scalpel in applying sanctions rather than a big machete.
RASMUSSEN HAS some cutting-edge ideas about redefining how we think about “international” terrorism.
“I am not sure we have all the answers. In some ways, my thinking on this started evolving after the Christchurch attack. It is almost embarrassing that I did not think about this before. This brought it home to me.”
His point was that attacks are perpetrated in the US by white supremacists and antisemites, with non-jihadist ideologies, where the attackers benefit from, coordinate with, or are inspired by domestic terrorists in other countries – even without an apparent ideological bridge between them.
After the Pittsburgh attack, he said, the US needed to explore the idea of international links between those individuals who share such violent ideologies.
Looking to the Christchurch attack, he said: “We noted from travel patterns that an attacker had some interaction with people who thought like he thought,” though they lived in other countries and were not part of a joint network.
“It doesn’t mean they have a network or organization like ISIS or Hezbollah, but maybe there can be an international dimension to domestic terrorism. This has not been completely explored,” he noted.
He said that recently, he was having dinner with his former British counterpart and that the two of them remarked how strange it was that they never dealt with sharing information about domestic terrorism with international dimensions as a strategic issue.
To properly combat this kind of terrorism, new questions need to be asked, such as “what kind of new intelligence and sharing do you need from German, French, Danish and Belgian security services? Until now this conversation related only to ISIS-inspired attackers,” but he said that making international connections needed to expand.
ENTERING THE cyber realm, Rasmussen said he was astonished by the level of detail in a recent New York Times story about the US planting cyber booby traps in the Russian electrical power system.
He said the US hack of Russia and the decision to leak it was a “signaling device to the Russians” that the US is degrading Russian capabilities.
“You need to find the art of striking” and sending whatever signal you want to send, while managing the level of detail that is leaked into the public domain, noting that he found the specificity of detail leaked in this case “troubling.” he said. He explained that the US wanted Russia to know that we “are working aggressively to develop these capabilities” of planting cyber booby traps. The purpose of these tools and of advertising them in public is to deter the Russians, though he said that, “I hope we do not need to use these tools.”
Having worked with US peace negotiator Dennis Ross from 1996 to 2001 during the height of the Oslo process, Rasmussen said that the current state of broken-down Israeli-Palestinian relations can be hard to take.
He worries that the next generation on both sides of the conflict may find it more difficult to continue to envision any kind of peace horizon.
At the same time, concluding on a positive note, he said that he hoped the next generation “will be more creative and find ways to peacefully coexist.”