WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Americans want the Obama administration to get tougher with the Islamic State following the carnage in Paris, but many of the measures now being proposed could actually make the threat worse, counter-terrorism experts said.
Republican presidential candidates, lawmakers and others are calling for deploying U.S. ground forces to the Middle East, using air power to create a Syria safe zone to train anti-Islamic State fighters and barring Syrian refugees.
“There is no compelling reason to believe that anything we are doing will be sufficient,” Republican Senator John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, declared on Tuesday in a speech in which he proposed intervention by a European and Arab ground force backed by 10,000 U.S. military advisers and trainers.
U.S. counter-terrorism experts, some of whom have dealt with Islamic radicalism for decades, cautioned that reducing the Islamic State threat will be a long, complicated process - and that more mass casualty attacks in Europe and North America are likely in the meantime.
Moreover, they warned, some steps proposed in the wake of the Paris attacks, like deploying ground troops, risk backfiring by feeding the group’s apocalyptic narrative that it is defending Islam against an assault by the West and its authoritarian Arab allies.
“In circumstances like this, a lot of people lose their heads, and call for the most draconian actions,” said Daniel Benjamin, a former State Department counter-terrorism coordinator in the Clinton and Obama administrations. “Terrorism is all about over-reaction, provoking an over-reaction.”
President Barack Obama’s incremental Islamic State strategy, which relies on airstrikes and modest support to local ground forces in Iraq and Syria, has come under renewed criticism from Republican opponents, among others, after the Paris attacks.
Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said on Tuesday Obama’s reliance on air power was not enough and called for an increased American troop presence on the ground in Iraq. The former Florida governor has been calling for more U.S. special operations forces to be embedded with Iraqi units to help identify enemy targets
Current and former counter-terrorism officials agreed that more can be done, including stepped-up airstrikes, better intelligence sharing, a more robust attack on Islamic State’s finances and larger U.S. special forces teams to assist Iraqi security forces and Syrian rebels.
Thomas Lynch, a former special assistant to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said France, Belgium and other European nations must also devote greater resources to their counter-terrorism and intelligence services.
They should implement legal changes giving those services more authority to holding terrorism suspects for interrogation longer than 24 hours and permitting more aggressive raids aimed at disrupting plots, said Lynch, now a research fellow at National Defense University.
But intervening directly in Syria, the former counter-terrorism officials said, would enmesh Washington and its partners in a costly new Middle East war that would generate fresh recruits for the Islamic State. The United States and its allies are totally unprepared for the gargantuan task of rebuilding and administering devastated territories seized from the extremists, they added.
“Let’s say we liberate Mosul tomorrow,” said Brookings Institution scholar Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst and White House adviser, referring to the northern Iraqi city conquered by the Islamic State last year. “What are we going to put there?”
Moves in Congress to ban the United States from taking Syrian refugees – provoked by unconfirmed reports that one of the Paris attackers entered Europe in the flood of migrants from Syria – also play directly into the Islamic State’s hands, experts said.
A ban would fuel resentment and alienation among Muslims in Europe and North America, potentially advancing the Islamic State’s goal of fueling an ultimate confrontation between Islam and the West.
Harleen Gambhir, a counterterrorism, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, said she feared hat if there are more Islamic State attacks in the West, “we’re going to get more emotional responses.”
Few of the proposals being discussed in Washington address Islamic State’s spread into South Asia and North Africa, or the poverty and repressive rule of Arab states that are driving young men into the arms of violent Islamist groups.
Obama is clearly under growing pressure to adopt harsher measures to eliminate the Islamic State. A Reuters/Ipsos poll taken after the Paris attacks found that 60 percent of Americans want a tougher approach.
A majority, however, back Obama in opposing sending in U.S. ground troops.
The Islamic State has proven extremely resilient and adept. U.S. officials and experts say it presents a triple-headed threat: it controls territory in Iraq and Syria, has affiliates in places like the Sinai peninsula and Afghanistan, and has proven successful in staging attacks in the West.
While the group has lost about 25 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria, dislodging it from the region would likely not end the threat.
“Once ISIS is eliminated as a governing entity in Syria and Iraq, the threat from ISIS will persist, said Rep. Adam Schiff of California, senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “There is a continuing aspiration to strike in the West. It’s a real and present danger to the United States and our allies.”
Editing by Ross Colvin