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NEW YORK — As law enforcement fanned out across the city in search of suspected bomber Ahmad Khan Rahami last week, authorities in St. Cloud, Minnesota, investigated a stabbing attack at a shopping mall that wounded 10 people.
Meanwhile, a clutch of counter-terrorism experts was gathered at New York City’s Yale Club to attend the two-day Eyes Only conference organized by the Shurat HaDin Israel Law Center. They were there to discuss, among other things, the nature of Islamic State and how to defeat it.
“It is not irrational anymore to be fearful of terrorism, but this is where we need to remember a more pragmatic approach is needed,” said retired Army Col. Brynt “Guy” Parmeter in an interview with The Times of Israel.
As a battalion commander and brigade operations planner, Parmeter served multiple deployments in areas now under IS control. During his time there he and the soldiers under his command saw the rise of the militant Sunni movement.
“I personally think, and this is anecdotal, that IS was the successor to Al-Qaeda in Iraq who were kicked out by the US and Iraqi Security Forces. When we left they came back much more lethal, and the version of IS that exists now is what they wish they could’ve been then,” he said talking about his last deployment, which extended from late 2008 through late 2009.
A self-proclaimed Islamic state, IS (also known as ISIS or ISIL) holds territory in western Iraq, eastern Syria and Libya. It aims to establish a caliphate and claims political and theological authority over the world’s Muslims.
“People get all tangled up in their britches trying to decide if it’s a lone wolf or directly connected. These are all mindless debates. We need to recognize it as a war, a war that needs to be won and the only way to do it is to call it what it is,” Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said in his keynote address at the conference.
But figuring what “it” is isn’t necessarily vital to fighting the terror group, said Parmeter who took part in a panel discussion “What Is ISIS and How Can It Be Defeated?”
Because IS claims it’s a caliphate, many foreign policy experts worry its ambitions extend beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria. A multitude of insurgent groups in Afghanistan, Egypt, Nigeria and Pakistan have sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Additionally, thousands of foreign fighters have joined conflicts in Syria and Iraq. Intelligence agencies in the west and the Middle East are concerned these citizens will return to their home countries to carry out attacks, as they did in Paris, San Bernardino, Brussels, and now, New York.
There are also the so-called lone wolves who act in IS’s name.
‘If they were a startup they would be the hottest thing right now’
Whether attackers are part of a larger cell or acting on their own, IS is a savvy organization that knows how to harness social media to attract young recruits, Parmeter said.
“If they were a startup company they would be the hottest thing right now. They know their customers; they know their product. And we’re like Kodak. That’s an oversimplified way of putting it, but it gives [you] a basic concept of the situation and we have to figure out how to disrupt this,” Parmeter said.
As such, fighting IS will involve military, counter-terror and humanitarian measures, said Parmeter, who now works as a consultant and partner at BMNT, a San Francisco-area consulting firm.
One thing Parmeter doesn’t support is sending in massive amounts of American ground troops. It’s a view shaped from his own combat experience in Iraq.
“It would be very easy to tactically defeat IS, but we would take on an unreasonably high amount of casualties and an unreasonably high amount of civilian casualties. We would seize that terrain back, but then what? Nothing is easy or cheap,” Parmeter said.
Another panelist at the conference, Ahmed Meligy, a peace activist at The Peres Center for Peace, took a different stance.
“The US has to be on the offensive. You have to send ground troops. I know this is hard. I know this is your sons and daughters,” Meligy said, adding that Egypt, Israel, France and other western nations must join the fight.
For Parmeter, however, ultimately IS is more of Muslim problem than a problem for the rest of the world.
“It’s tearing it apart from the inside and making it much, much less tolerable to the rest of the world. Because of this, it’s ultimately going to have to be solved from within. It’s convenient for the leaders of the Muslim world to blame the Western nations and their policies as the reason for IS. This masks the real and inconvenient truths of their shortcomings,” Parmeter said.
“That said, whatever we can do to facilitate and enable an environment where Islam polices itself, along with the carrots and sticks of cyber, financial, legal actions and other forms of influence and leverage, should all be on the table,” said Parmeter.