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Security Expert: Current Counterterrorism Policy Won't Work Against ISIS

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Our next guest says the last 10-plus years of counterterrorism policy won't work against ISIS because it was built up in response to al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks. Audrey Kurth Cronin is the director of the International Security Program at George Mason University. Welcome to the program.

AUDREY KURTH CRONIN: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: And let's talk about how fighting al-Qaida has informed the thinking of U.S. leaders in some areas where you think that falls down when it comes down to ISIS. First of all, the tactic of going after al-Qaida leadership with drone strikes and special forces raids - what's the difference here with ISIS where we've been doing all kinds of air raids, right?

CRONIN: Yes. And I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't be doing those things. But if you have a pseudo-government in a state that holds territory and you have a large number of foreign fighters and you have essentially an army, you have something that's not as easily removed by simply getting rid of their leaders. There are a lot of other people that would continue on in that pseudo-Caliphate.

So I think that the al-Qaida structure made it a little bit easier for us to take out their leaders and to have a big impact on their ability to be operational, whereas ISIS holds territory, controls lines of communication, has remarkable military assets and has been successful in mobilizing foreign fighters from many other countries. So it's really a different animal in the way that it is now.

CORNISH: You also describe how much effort the U.S. and international community has poured into cutting off finances - right? - going after flows of funding to terror groups, again, thinking of al-Qiada. Why is this not the ideal way to go after ISIS?

CRONIN: It's just that it's a much bigger challenge when it comes to this pseudo-Caliphate. They're holding ground. They don't need as much outside funding because they have oil revenue. They're taking advantage of very long-standing smuggling routes, and they're able to tax the people who live within the territory and engage in extortion. ISIS's ability to be an independent actor dwarfs any terrorist group that I know of.

CORNISH: We've heard President Obama today vigorously defending his policy of containment. And this is the idea of using kind of limited military footprint, going for a diplomatic strategy to isolate ISIS, degrade its capabilities. But he's getting a lot of criticism for this. And for people, again, who are seeing a downed Russian airliner, attacks in Beirut and Paris, how do you defend the idea of containment when it looks like ISIS is not being contained?

CRONIN: Well, containment isn't just a kind of a soft approach. It also includes the use of military force. But in order to understand how the use of military force could be misconstrued, you have to see where ISIS finds its argument for its existence. Their slick, glossy magazine is called "Dabiq." And Dabiq is a small town in northeast Syria. And Dabiq is a place where they argue that they're going to be meeting the armies of Rome in an apocalyptic battle. ISIS - one of the reasons why it has the horrendous violence that it has is that they believe that the apocalypse is near. And if we have a large number of Western troops on the ground, that can feed right into their narrative.

CORNISH: So is that your issue - the idea that if there is a huge U.S. presence, Western troop presence, this plays into their hands and is a recruiting tool as well?

CRONIN: Exactly. And it's also very unlikely to solve the problem in the long run. What we're trying to do is truly destroy ISIS. We can set it back by using our remarkable military capabilities, but if what we really want to do is wipe it off the face of the earth - and how can we not given how emotionally upsetting all of these horrendous attacks have been - then we need to think more strategically rather than just act in a knee-jerk way.

CORNISH: That's Audrey Kurth Cronin. She's a professor at George Mason University and author of "How Terrorism Ends: Understanding The Decline And Demise Of Terrorist Campaigns." Thank you so much for speaking with us.

CRONIN: Thank you, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.