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Tracking Islamic State

U.S. servicemen stand near military vehicles, north of Raqqa, in Syria earlier this month

On the afternoon of August 31, 2013, French Rafale fighter jets bristled on their runways, readied for war. As far as French President Francois Hollande was concerned, D-Day had arrived; at 3 a.m. his planes would begin air strikes against missile batteries and command centers of the Syrian Army's 4th Armored Division -- the Syrian military's most trusted military unit, and the one in charge of chemical weapons.

The reason: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had crossed U.S. President Barack Obama's "red line" when, just 10 days earlier, he had apparently used chemical weapons in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, against the rebels battling him and the civilians who, as usual, bore the brunt of Assad's fury. According to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, it was the regime's third -- and deadliest -- use of sarin gas to date. Now it was time to for the United States and its allies to make good on the president's word.

But at the last minute, Obama called Hollande to tell him the strikes were off; he would instead seek the backing of Congress before any military action was taken. It was support he most likely knew he would not get; at nearly the last possible moment, he had changed course.

This development was perhaps not entirely unsurprising. A key tenet of Obama's first presidential campaign was to withdraw the United States from its costly and bloody adventurism in the Middle East, a promise that was well received by an American public that had been at war since the 2001 intervention in Afghanistan and the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Since then, Obama has largely managed to keep his country out of the Middle East despite the region's descent into sanguinary chaos as Libya, Iraq, and Syria have steadily disintegrated while the militant group Islamic State (IS) has murdered its way into global headlines.

The United States has conducted air strikes against IS targets in Syria and Iraq, while it has "advisers" on the ground supporting the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) and various groups battling IS in Syria. But, despite the White House's seeming refusal to be drawn into battle on the ground, U.S. involvement may go deeper than many Americans believe. This month an improvised explosive device (IED) killed a U.S. Navy bomb-disposal technician in the town of Ain Issa, less than 60 kilometers from the de facto capital of IS's self-proclaimed caliphate -- making Senior Chief Petty Officer Scott C. Dayton the first U.S. serviceman to die in Syria and the fifth to be killed while fighting IS since 2015.

Many Americans -- especially those of an isolationist bent -- fear IS as a global terrorist threat and support an air campaign against the extremist group but discount its direct threat in Syria as of little concern. This is wrong. U.S. soldiers are indeed involved in the fight on the ground. America's sons and daughters in Syria are personally at risk from IS -- a fact that has so far been downplayed in the public discussion.

As Michael Weiss, senior editor at the Daily Beast and author of The New York Times bestseller ISIS: Inside The Army Of Terror, puts it: "U.S. Special Forces have been recorded embedded with Pentagon-backed rebel forces, such as Liwa al Mutasim, in northern Aleppo, where they were shouted at by Islamist rivals. Their remit may be to 'advise' or to help call in air strikes but it's naive to think that they won't, or don't, engage in combat."

He continues: "Their counterparts in Syria have traded direct fire with [IS] militants who have ambushed Kurdish Peshmerga (one incident previously resulted in the death of another U.S. soldier). The Pentagon likes to fudge this with terminology but the fact is: American boots are on the ground, and American servicemen are in an active state of war against [IS] -- and potentially any other hostile parties they come in contact with."

U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter echoed Weiss's point, albeit more obliquely, with a public statement on Dayton's death: "I am deeply saddened by the news on this Thanksgiving Day that one of our brave service members has been killed in Syria while protecting us from the evil of ISIL," he said, using another shorthand term for IS. "It is a painful reminder of the dangers that men and women in uniform face around the world to keep us safe."

War By Any Other Name

There are around 500 U.S. troops in Syria -- in April, President Obama sent 250 to add to the 50 that were already in the country. The number since then has, accordingly, almost doubled. Earlier in November, Carter announced that the U.S.-supported coalition of Kurdish and Arab forces fighting IS known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) had begun the task of retaking Raqqa. As Iraqi forces meanwhile close in on the city of Mosul, in Iraq, the dual IS losses could signal the end of the last pretenses of its purported caliphate.

The numbers may be small, but evidence of "mission creep" is clear. Again, Weiss is unequivocal: "We are involved on the ground," he says. "We have CIA operatives in Iraq and Syria and U.S. soldiers. About 300 in Syria, close to 5/6K in Iraq. It's just not an occupation or 'major combat role,' but this is where 'war' is given to sort of Orwellian euphemisms that U.S. bureaucracy loves to use to deny it is doing exactly what you think it is doing."

The United States is fighting IS in Syria and Iraq in all but name. And as IS becomes increasingly besieged in both countries, it will become more desperate -- and more violent. Traditional warfare will be forsaken in favor of greater use of insurgency tactics. More booby traps and IEDs will lie in wait for both the SDF and ISF; and more U.S. servicemen may die.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has promised to bomb IS heavily and has talked about "extreme vetting" of Muslims traveling or potentially immigrating to the United States for fear of terrorist infiltration. But these views do little to address the reality on the ground that IS poses a threat not just as a worldwide militant group that can inspire atrocities on U.S. soil but also as a military threat to U.S. soldiers already fighting in Syria.

As much as some may deny it, the United States is once again fighting a war in the Middle East.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL
Kurdish pop star Helly Luv recounted the almost daily torrent of death threats and abuse she received -- from Islamists, jihadists, and IS sympathizers -- and, most critically of all, her repeated reporting of all of it to both Twitter and Facebook.

Earlier this month I attended the Web Summit conference in Lisbon where, among an assorted crowd of politicians, coders, and Silicon Valley millionaires born in the 1990s, I sat on a panel discussing the role narratives play in 21st-century terrorism. Speaking alongside me was Helan Abdulla -- known as Helly Luv, a Kurdish-Finnish singer, dancer, and actress -- who told our audience a story.

As a Kurd, Luv told us, she had taken an interest in the Syrian civil war from its beginnings. In a February 2014 music video titled Risk It All and filmed inside a Syrian refugee camp filled with Kurdish refugees fleeing the war, Luv proudly sang about Kurdish independence dressed in high heels and a short dress, while backing dancers held AK-47s.

Luv received a barrage of online abuse -- including death threats -- both for its political content as well as its supposed provocative imagery. Things only worsened with her next video, Revolution, which continued the central themes of Risk It All.

But it was with the emergence of the extremist group Islamic State (IS) into the global consciousness -- with its capture of Iraq's second-largest city, Mosul, in June 2014 -- that things got really bad for her. It was Mosul's fall that prompted the autonomous Kurdish regional government to expand its borders, seizing vital oil areas as the Iraqi military retreated in the face of the IS's blitzkrieg across the country.

Just weeks after Mosul fell, she posted photos to her Facebook account of her visiting Kurdish Peshmerga troops, who had recently been involved in fighting IS, and told Reuters she had been close to Mosul, which lies less than 10 kilometers from Kurdish territory.

As we sat on the panel in Lisbon, Luv recounted the almost daily torrent of death threats and abuse she received -- from Islamists, jihadists, and IS sympathizers -- and, most critically of all, her repeated reporting of all of it to both Twitter and Facebook. Despite the clear threats against her life, nothing was done. No accounts were taken down; the threats continued.

Luv's story is a key to a central problem of battling terrorism in the age of social media. IS has become arguably the most effective and globally renowned terrorist group in history because of its effective use of social-networking sites. IS is not just an extremist organization, it is a brand -- and a global one at that. Its ability to recruit members everywhere from France to the United States and to get its message into the international mainstream media is only possible through the ability of sites like Facebook and Twitter to do two things above all else -- to mobilize people and to amplify messages.

IS understood this from the beginning -- and it also understood something else, too. Social-media sites, from which we increasingly get our news and information about the world are, above all, capitalist enterprises. Facebook and Twitter may be so ubiquitous as to seem a part of the fabric of life, but they are not neutral -- they are designed to generate as many clicks and shares as they can, to encourage as many users to join. The more of these they get, the more advertising revenue they generate, the more their shareholders benefit. It's a story as old as capitalism itself.

Using West's Freedom Against It

Social-media platforms also have something else of great use to extremist groups like IS: A libertarian ethos; the belief that people should be free to say what they want is more or less the idea at the heart of the founding of social networks. If there is any doubt over this fact then a quick scroll through Islamist or alt-right Twitter accounts should rapidly assuage it. The idea is especially embedded given the censorship of the Internet that goes on in countries like Iran and China. No American company wants its practices to be compared to those of a totalitarian state. And rightly so.

So in its early days IS was able to rely on a vast network of thousands of "fan boys," sometimes deemed -- with grandiose hilarity -- the "Knights of the Uploading" to promote the group's content; everything from fatwas and pronouncements to videos showing idyllic life in the caliphate to, of course, barbaric videos of killings. The fan boys would also, of course, threaten and harass anyone, especially high-profile targets, deemed to be pushing against their narrative.

U.S. government officials involved in anti-IS counter-messaging have spoken to me of their frustration at this: at how their adversary was able to wage information war using Western technologies to promote their narratives so successfully. But Facebook and Twitter, which have more users than most countries have populations, carry huge lobbying power in Washington and the major European capitals. Until recently, the social-networking giants largely left these accounts alone, and there was little that U.S. officials could do to change that.

Thinking began to shift with the horrific video of the beheading of journalist James Foley on August 19, 2014. There had been beheading videos before, of course, but this was of a different order entirely. This was an American civilian beheaded in a video with high production values that went global. Almost every major news network carried the story, with many showing the video as well.

The uproar was international and -- critically -- much of it came from tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter users, many of whom castigated the companies for allowing the video to be broadcast on their platforms, while others vowed not to retweet or share it.

Pressure from the U.S. State Department was one thing, but criticism from users was another. Finally, Facebook and Twitter began to dramatically up the rate at which they took down pro-IS accounts. For every one taken down a new one would invariably spring up -- it became a game of cat and mouse between users and the platforms -- a war of attrition.

Finding The Limits Of Online Behavior

And to a degree it has worked: Many pro-IS accounts still undoubtedly remain; but the fan boys can no longer act with near impunity on Twitter and Facebook and have been forced to take refuge in services like Telegram, the private messaging app. Recruitment still goes on as before but spreading propaganda virally across networks has become more difficult.

But not, alas, impossible: High-profile anti-IS tweeters and Facebookers are still harassed and attacked with regularity. The propaganda still flows. Freedom of speech is sacrosanct but many think the time has come for governments and the networks to come together to create a formal, legally binding code of conduct of what is acceptable behavior on social-networking sites.

The freedom to offend and to discomfort must remain -- this is an inviolable element of free speech, and one guaranteed by law in the constitutions of countries like the United States. At the same time, terrorists must not be given a platform through which they can manufacture more murderers.

The task is a difficult one. But the time has come to face it.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect the views of RFE/RL

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.


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