The Ongoing Challenge of Irregular Warfare: Thoughts on Responses and Intelligence
Noah B. Cooper
The range of irregular warfare challenges faced by the United States in the future will be extensive (e.g. non-state actors – terrorists, violent extremist organizations, drug traffickers – and state actors that adopt asymmetric tactics to negate U.S. military power – Iran, North Korea, and Russia). Currently, defeating the “hybridized” threat of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and eliminating its geographical span of control in Iraq and Syria is the priority of U.S. counterterrorism actions. As the U.S., the coalition of forces, and local allies, regain territory lost to ISIS and drive the group out from its urban redoubts, the sinking morale of foreign fighters is encouraging them to repatriate their home countries. Considerable portions of these fighters originate from nations throughout the Asia-Pacific region, namely the Southeast Asian countries of Indonesia and Malaysia. As they return, the sharing of their experiences, their promotion of the ISIS ideology, and their proliferation of irregular warfare tactics presents a serious concern to the security and stability of the region.
The Asia-Pacific region has emerged as a second front in the battle against not only ISIS, but also other transnational violent extremist organizations (VEOs), local separatist groups, insurgencies, and criminal organizations. Not surprisingly, the study of this area is lacking, but several facts are worth emphasizing to illustrate the importance of the Asia-Pacific region to U.S. counterterrorism efforts. First, the region has the world’s largest population of Muslims (approaching one billion) and, as noted by Admiral Harry Harris (Commander, U.S. Pacific Command), “If a very small percentage of the Muslims in the USPACOM AOR [Area of Responsibility] are radicalized, there could be deadly results.” Second, a negative consequence of the successful counter-ISIS operations in Iraq and Syria is the return of foreign fighters originally from the Asia-Pacific to their home countries and the corresponding security implications for the region. The dangers of returning jihadists are manifold and include such activities as the proliferation of advanced terrorist practices, the spread of the volatile ISIS ideology, and of central concern, the coordination and launching of attacks in their home countries. Moreover, the growing association of VEOs in the Asia-Pacific with ISIS presents a threatening dimension for counterterrorism. These disparate groups are working together, often with deadly results.
A comprehensive analysis of each of these organizations and a detailed study of the security dynamics in the Asia-Pacific region is beyond the scope of this paper. Instead, this article will emphasize the asymmetric threat posed by such groups, in terms of both tactics and the type of weapons employed. Foremost among these armaments is the improvised explosive device (IED). It was the weapon of choice in Iraq and Afghanistan and is serving these groups equally well. Regrettably, allies and partner nations of the U.S. in this region either lack or possess only a nascent counter-IED capability in terms of doctrine, training, and equipment. This article will also incorporate a discussion of a unique component of U.S. Army Pacific’s (USARPAC) efforts designed to contend with these irregular warfare threats and to bolster our allies’ capacity to do the same: the Asia Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center’s (APCFC), Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell (IrWAC).
Market Saturation: ISIS in the Asia-Pacific
The threat of terrorism and the presence of VEOs is not a new occurrence in the Asia-Pacific. Following the events of 9/11, various incarnations of al-Qaeda linked and associated groups executed attacks on the Indonesian island of Bali, sunk the 10,000 ton Superferry 14 in Manila Bay, and were responsible for other, high-profile terror incidents. The group’s international influence declined, as more and more nations placed increasing pressure on it; however, the materialization of ISIS has brought a new organization to the forefront of global terrorism. The military success of ISIS in Iraq and Syria and the announcement of a caliphate translated into a perception of the group’s invulnerability. Because of the popularity associated to the ISIS “brand,” VEOs and individuals throughout the Asia-Pacific region have pledged allegiance to the group and others will likely continue to follow this trend, further expanding the global ISIS network.
Through both “virtual” radicalization and the retreat of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria to their nations of origin, ISIS remains a global organization. Its areas of influence are not just concentrated in the diminishing zones under ISIS’ physical control but extend well-beyond the Middle East. The predecessor to ISIS, al-Qaeda, established the precedent for globalized terror organizations, but did not achieve equitable levels of worldwide influence. Furthermore, the benefits associated to the ISIS “brand” have contributed to the pledges of loyalty and the establishment of wilayats (provinces) in regions beyond the claimed caliphate’s borders. There are also indications of a diffusion of ISIS tactics and methods. The current situation in Philippine city of Marawi evidences the proliferation of ISIS’ operational approach (i.e. the physical seizure and holding of territory and the use of obstacles and IED belts to slow offensives). Eventually, the Philippine security forces will retake the city, though similar to the recapture of Mosul, this will be a lengthy and deliberate operation and will have corresponding human and economic costs. Notwithstanding the efforts by the Philippine Armed Forces, the operational successes of the Maute Group and the Abu Sayyaf Group, (referred to collectively as ISIS in the Philippines) will no doubt strengthen the organization’s prestige within the global Islamist community.
In addition to ISIS, the Philippine archipelago suffers from the presence of multiple other Islamist organizations such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters. The armed branch of the Communist Party of the Philippines – the New People’s Army – also continues to wage the world’s longest Communist insurgency. Despite possessing differing objectives, insurgent and terrorist philosophies, and operating in varied geographical locations, common among each group is their employment of the IED as a primary component of their irregular warfare approach. In the past year alone, there have been over 225 IED events in the Philippines attributed to these various militant groups.
IED Events by Type: Philippines June 2016 – June 2017
The Philippines is just one of many countries attempting to manage this threat. A common thread linking nations of the Asia-Pacific is the affliction of VEOs and their employment of the IED. For instance, Bangladesh is also struggling to address the security concerns posed by ISIS associated groups. The primary Islamist threat originates from the ISIS affiliated group, the neo-Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (neo-JMB). Interestingly, the Bangladeshi government is reluctant to acknowledge the existence of an international Islamist threat, particularly those that have ISIS associations or linkages. Instead, in an effort to downplay the appearance and extent of the terrorist threat, the government attributes attacks to “home-grown militants.” However, the Neo-JMB targeting of writers, bloggers, publishers, and members of clergy that broadcast political and religious viewpoints in contrast to the extremist interpretations associated to Islamism, such as the bloody July 1, 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka, has complicated the Bangladeshi government’s narrative of denial.
Similar to groups in the Philippines, the IED is the prime armament in the neo-JMB arsenal. The group is responsible for approximately a third of the 150 IED events in Bangladesh recorded in the last year.
IED Events by Type: Bangladesh June 2016 – June 2017
A further assessment of the countries that comprise the Asia-Pacific reveals similar examples of VEOs and corresponding IED activity, which has contributed to the over 1,200 IED events and the over 1,000 casualties occurring in the region in the past year. Though these numbers are significantly less in comparison to the quantity of incidents and casualties in the Middle East, they are nonetheless a significant volume, which has the potential to magnify in the coming years.
The technology adapted for use by these organizations varies, but the primary type of IED employed is the radio-controlled IED (RCIED). Of the over 1,200 IED events in the region recorded in the past year, approximately 57% used radio-controlled switching mechanisms. This choice of means to initiate a detonation is the archetype of irregular warfare tactics, as it provides the attacker a safe distance to avoid the stronger force’s response. The level of innovation and evolution associated to these devices is surprisingly minimal. Two factors account for the relatively simplistic construction of these IEDs when compared to the more advanced devices found in Iraq. First, the availability of “dual use” components, or those items that have a primary civilian function (e.g. cellular telephones or commercial grade explosives) that groups adapt for military purposes, eases the procurement of bomb-making material. Through direct cooperation and multi-national organizations (e.g. the United Nations), nations in the Asia-Pacific region have attempted to curb the flow of these goods, particularly explosive components used for mining. Second, the incipient counter-IED infrastructure of nations within the Asia-Pacific, both in terms of understanding and responding to the threat, precludes the development and fielding of advanced equipment and systems (e.g. electronic countermeasures, mine-resistant vehicles, etc.) and the implementation of operational adjustments to counter specific IED threats. As such, the insurgent and terrorist organizations possess little incentive to pursue the development and emplacement of more sophisticated devices. Stated simply, there is little participation in the game of “tit-for-tat” characteristic of the IED fight in Iraq by the nations in the Asia-Pacific afflicted with IEDs, as their counter-IED expertise and infrastructure required for the creation of countermeasures, are generally in the developmental stages.
The aforementioned discussion of the irregular threats in the forms of ISIS and other VEOs exemplifies the dangers posed by these groups to the stability of the Asia-Pacific. The irregular warfare trends in the region are disturbing: the introduction of ISIS aligned and affiliated organizations is creating a confederation of militants under a single banner and thus, fomenting complex challenges for counterterrorism efforts. Furthermore, the IED continues and, as patterns indicate, will remain the weapon of choice for such groups. Though further entrenchment by ISIS in the region by returning foreign fighters suggests that the transfer of weapons and tactics from the battlefields of the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific will undoubtedly occur. The tactical simplicity of the IED – the use of hidden or innocuous looking bombs to cause casualties and degrade an opponent’s freedom of movement – belies its strategic significance – the wearing down of the will and morale of a stronger power through the slow attrition of its forces. Such a threat necessitates a response whose tactical effects will have positive, strategic implications. The following section will examine the Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell, an intelligence element that is an important means to achieve this goal.
Intelligence: The Bedrock of the Counter-IED Mission
In an effort to institutionalize counter-IED programs, policies, and practices, U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), under the auspices of U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM) established the Asia-Pacific Counter-IED Fusion Center (APCFC). Following the establishment of APCFC in 2010, USPACOM designated the organization as the executive agent for counter-IED activities. The center’s opening coincided with the “Afghan Surge,” which necessitated the implementation of a pre-deployment counter-IED training program designed and tailored for deploying units. Over the last eight years, the scope of the center’s mission has naturally expanded. Today, the APCFC is an organization designed to counter adversarial use of IEDs through the delivery of comprehensive counter-IED training; to collaborate with multiple stakeholders to field capabilities designed to “defeat the device;” and to develop allied and partner-nation counter-IED capabilities. The foundation of these efforts is the production of intelligence products on the irregular warfare threat in the Asia-Pacific region by the center’s Irregular Warfare Analysis Cell (IrWAC).
The IrWAC conducts several, interrelated actions in support of counter-IED activities. Foremost, is the production of intelligence on the many topics that encompass irregular warfare threats, particularly the use of IEDs. An accurate understanding of the threat environment is integral to the provision of accurate training; it informs the development of counter-IED systems; and this intelligence assists in the development of partner nation capabilities. The principal product of this analysis is the center’s IED Monthly Report, which details the IED activity perpetrated by various VEOs throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Because of the demonstrated importance of this product to the greater counter-IED enterprise, it warrants further discussion. The IrWAC analytical team levies multiple, open-source data sources (e.g. review of media, government statements, non-governmental organization reports, etc.) in the creation of this product. The analysts not only rely upon open-source data, but they also compile information via direct liaison with allies, partner nations, U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and other entities to construct a comprehensive picture of the regional IED threat. This information is then databased for future retrieval and analysis by the greater counter-IED enterprise. Despite this report’s unclassified nature, it provides an accurate depiction of IED activity in the region and though it is not “actionable” intelligence, agencies of the U.S. government, to include components of the U.S intelligence community, Department of State, and law enforcement, use this information to inform their analyses. Moreover, the advantages of this level of classification are the ability to achieve a wide distribution of the product and to share it with allied and partner nations.
Personnel from the IrWAC also operate in the “traditional” intelligence realm (i.e. the production of classified products). Several IrWAC personnel work at the USPACOM Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC), serving as Network Engagement analysts. To clarify, Network Engagement (formerly referred to as Attack the Network) is a framework for understanding human networks across the spectrum of military operations. Fundamentally, Network Engagement is a staff process, in which the intelligence section is a primary contributor due its inherent capability to analyze the human domain. The focus of the IrWAC personnel in the JIOC is the analysis of VEO organizations, which includes developing leadership profiles, ascertaining and understanding a threat network’s dynamics, and, above all, the examination of emerging IED trends associated with a particular network. For instance, in January 2017, IrWAC analysts were responsible for the initial identification of the Neo-JMB leader, Sohel Mahfuz. Bangladeshi security forces arrested Mahfuz in July 2017. There is no definitive correlation between his arrest and the IrWAC’s analytical efforts; nonetheless, the identification and the coordination with the actions undertaken on the ground demonstrate the utility of the center’s intelligence capability.
An activity not normally associated to the intelligence warfighting function, but conducted by the IrWAC, is the development of partner nation capacity through subject matter expert exchanges. The “theme” of these events vary, but primarily they seek the exchange of information concerning processes and procedures associated with each organization’s respective intelligence operations. Fundamentally, these exchanges are important steps in the long-term development of a partner nation’s counter-IED capabilities, as they identify areas necessitating improvement or capacity gaps. From an intelligence operations perspective, the bulk of partner nations practice unique versions of the intelligence process, but typically, require assistance to refine or evolve their techniques. Furthermore, the IrWAC leverages its expertise in Network Engagement to provide instruction on this process to partner nations. The enhancing of a partner nation’s tradecraft improves their ability to not only respond to their respective IED threats, but also augments interoperability between military and security forces, as each develops a familiarity with a common process, which in turn can be leveraged against ISIS and other VEOs.
The intelligence operations of the IrWAC underpins the activities of the APCFC. To further illustrate the relevance of the IrWAC, it is the sole organization that conducts such a detailed analysis on the IED threat in the Asia-Pacific region. Moreover, one cannot quantify the value of building partner capacity via expert exchanges and through the provision of instruction on the Network Engagement process, as such interactions are the bedrock of relationships between the United States and its allies.
The geographical size of ISIS’ caliphate is constricting as Iraqi and Syrian Democratic Forces, supported by U.S and coalition airpower, reclaim territory lost to the group. Notwithstanding the successes realized by the combined ground and air components in Iraq and Syria, the “virtual” caliphate continues to propagate as foreign fighters return to their homes imbued with the ISIS ideology and a greater proficiency in the violent arts of religious extremism. This phenomenon is particularly apparent in the Asia-Pacific region, where foreign fighters return not only to their countries of origin, but also to neighboring nations to fight, yet again, under the ISIS banner. In addition to the multiplying ISIS threat in the region, other VEO groups continue to conduct operations using irregular warfare tactics: principally, the IED.
Adversaries of the United States have recognized the susceptibility of its military to irregular warfare threats and will certainly exploit it in future conflicts. The threat of irregular warfare is global and as the United States remains the preeminent world military power, adversaries will employ tactics and practices to undermine or blunt the strengths of U.S. forces and their allies. These challenges require preparation through training, an understanding of the operating environment through extensive intelligence analysis of irregular warfare, and the establishment of a broad coalition of allies and partners. USARPAC has taken the lead with the development and employment of the APCFC. As one component of the multi-layered approach to contend with these threats, the APCFC, using the intelligence produced by the IrWAC, institutionalizes the knowledge and practice of counter-IED activities and enables U.S. partner and allied nations to take the fight to extremist organizations through the building of their counter-IED capacity.