Fuzzy math, the ISIS brand, and America’s foreign military presence


Earlier this month, NBC News published a “heat map” leaked from the National Counterterrorism Center that purported to show that the Islamic State extremist group has expanded to “fully operational” status in 18 countries and is spreading to several others. Writing in The Hill this week, however, counterterrorism researcher Anhvinh Doanvo argues that it is “essentially lying to the public” to make this claim.

“Today, combating ISIS not only means fighting its core in Iraq and Syria, but also supporting US soldiers in Libya while supporting wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, and wherever else ISIS may be claiming attacks,” Doanvo writes.

“The reality isn’t so straightforward. Though ISIS has claimed responsibility for the deaths of over 1,200 people in attacks in 21 countries outside of Iraq and Syria, larger terrorist organizations have arranged only a fraction of incidents labeled as ISIS attacks. Branches with a strong link to ISIS have claimed even fewer attacks.”

Doanvo continues:

In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the self-declared ISIS-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) was accepted by ISIS in the Dabiq magazine, ISIS’s main propaganda publication. American media widely cited the pledge as evidence of its link to ISIS central.

However, according to the Pentagon, “command and control and funding from core ISIL is limited” for ISIS’s Afghanistan branch. Though BBC named ISIS-K’s first leader, Mullah Abdul Rauf, as an ISIS commander, Rauf founded ISIS-K as an offshoot from the Taliban. Commanders had called for the split when they began to lose faith in the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, with his long absences.

The media was even more careless with the July attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The New York Times labeled it as an attack directed, and not merely inspired, by ISIS. The NYT seems to have taken ISIS’s claim of responsibility at face value even though Bangladeshi intelligence has pinned the blame on Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB). JMB has been involved in 11 recent attacks according to the Hindustan times.

Though JMB has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, it has existed for nearly two decades — far longer than ISIS — and its attackers are focused on and from Bangladesh. Ending JMB is likely to have little impact on ISIS and vice versa.

This does not mean that ISIS in Iraq and Syria does not have substantial international connections. The Islamic State’s Libya branch’s first leader, Abu Nabil al-Anbari, spent time in Abu Gharib prison for his support of ISIS in Iraq immediately after the country’s 2003 invasion. But ISIS’s branches around the world presents a bewildering array of various alliances, rather than a plot with a single source in Iraq and Syria.

An article published Monday by DefenseOne, meanwhile, sheds light on a different set of skewed numbers that are frequently spun to build public support for questionable U.S. foreign policy aims based on misleading information. According to the report by Sean McFate, mercenary contractors now make up 75 percent of U.S. forces fighting in war zones. (That’s not to say that actual, formal U.S. Special Forces aren’t also deploying; they most definitely are — to 147 countries in 2015, according to one report).

But, McFate writes, it is increasingly common that “Private military contractors perform tasks once thought to be inherently governmental, such as raising foreign armies, conducting intelligence analysis and trigger-pulling.” He notes, however, that there are significant downsides to using mercenaries:

Their failures have an outsized impact on U.S. strategy. When a squad of Blackwater contractors killed 17 civilians at a Bagdad traffic circle in 2007, it provoked a firestorm in Iraq and at home, marking one of the nadirs of that war.

Contractors also encourage mission creep, because contractors don’t count as “boots on the ground.” Congress does not consider them to be troops, and therefore contractors do not count again troop-level caps in places like Iraq. The U.S. government does not track contractor numbers in war zones. As a result, the government can put more people on the ground than it reports to the American people, encouraging mission creep and rendering contractors virtually invisible.

As their spectacular and horrific attacks demonstrate — engineered as they are towards sensational headlines and maximum media exposure — Islamist extremists certainly pose a threat to the West. If the West truly wishes to defeat this complex threat as soon as possible, however, oversimplifying it and playing into its apocalyptic narrative of an inevitably rising extremist caliphate is clearly the wrong way to go. As the extensive use of mercenaries out of consideration for PR concerns shows, though, America’s foreign policy planners don’t always feel the need to tell the public the grittier details of what they’re doing and why.


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