Tag Archives: ISIS

Military Victory is Dead




“Victory’s been defeated; it’s time we recognized that and moved on to what we actually can accomplish.

We’ve reached the end of victory’s road, and at this juncture it’s time to embrace other terms, a less-loaded lexicon, like “strategic advantage,” “relative gain,” and “sustainable marginalization.”

A few weeks back, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker triumphantly announced the peace deal between the government of Columbia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). While positive, this declaration rings hollow as the exception that proves the rule – a tentative treaty, however, at the end, roughly 7,000 guerrillas held a country of 50 million hostage over 50 years at a cost of some 220,000 lives. Churchill would be aghast: Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

One reason this occasion merited a more somber statement: military victory is dead. And it was killed by a bunch of cheap stuff.

The term “victory” is loaded, so let’s stipulate it means unambiguous, unchallenged, and unquestioned strategic success – something more than a “win,” because, while one might “eke out a win,” no one “ekes out a victory.” Wins are represented by a mere letter (“w”); victory is a tickertape with tanks.

Which is something I’ll never see in my military career; I should explain. When a government has a political goal that cannot be obtained other than by force, the military gets involved and selects some objective designed to obtain said goal. Those military objectives can be classified broadly, as Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz did, into either a limited aim (i.e. “occupy some…frontier-districts” to use “for bargaining”), or a larger aim to completely disarm the enemy, “render[ing] him politically helpless or military impotent.” Lo, we’ve arrived at the problem: War has become so inexpensive that anyone can afford the traditional military means of strategic significance – so we can never fully disarm the enemy. And a perpetually armed enemy means no more parades (particularly in Nice).

Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few.

It’s a buyer’s market in war, and the baseline capabilities (shoot, move, and communicate) are at snake-belly prices. Tactical weaponry, like AK-47s are plentiful, rented, and shipped from battlefield to battlefield, and the most lethal weapon U.S. forces encountered at the height of the Iraq War, the improvised explosive device, could be had for as little as $265. Moving is cost-effective too in the “pickup truck era of warfare,” and reports on foreign fighters in Syria remind us that cheap, global travel makes it possible for nearly anyone on the planet to rapidly arrive in an active war zone with money to spare. Also, while the terror group Lashkar-e-Taiba shut down the megacity Mumbai in 2008 for less than what many traveling youth soccer teams spend in a season, using unprotected social media networks, communication has gotten even easier for the emerging warrior with today’s widely available unhackable phones and apps. These low and no-cost commo systems are the glue that binds single wolves into coordinated wolf-packs with guns, exponentially greater than the sum of their parts. The good news: Ukraine can crowdfund aerial surveillance against Russian incursions. The less-good news: strikes, like 9/11, cost less than three seconds of a single Super Bowl ad. With prices so low, why would anyone ever give up their fire, maneuver, and control platforms?

All of which explains why military victory has gone away. Consider the Middle East, and the recent comment by a Hezbollah leader, “This can go on for a hundred years,” and his comrade’s complementary analysis, that “as long as we are there, nobody will win.” With such a modestly priced war stock on offer, it’s no wonder Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies agrees with the insurgents, recently concluding, of the four wars currently burning across the region, the U.S. has “no prospect” of strategic victory in any. Or that Modern War Institute scholar Andrew Bacevich assesses bluntly, “If winning implies achieving stated political objectives, U.S. forces don’t win.” This is what happens when David’s slingshot is always full.

The guerrillas know what many don’t: It’s the era, stupid. This is the nature of the age, as Joshua Cooper Ramos describes, “a nightmare reality in which we must fight adaptive microthreats and ideas, both of which appear to be impossible to destroy even with the most expensive weapons.” Largely correct, one point merits minor amendment – it’s meaningless to destroy when it’s so cheap to get back in the game, a hallmark of a time in which Wolverine-like regeneration is regular.

This theme even extends to more civilized conflicts. Take the Gawker case: begrudged hedge fund giant Peter Thiel funded former wrestler Hulk Hogan’s lawsuit against the journalistic insurrectionists at Gawker Media, which forced the website’s writers to lay down their keyboards. However, as author Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out – Gawker’s leader, Nick Denton, can literally walk across the street, with a few dollars, and start right over. Another journalist opined, “Mr. Thiel’s victory was a hollow one – you might even say he lost. While he may have killed Gawker, its sensibility and influence on the rest of the news business survive.” Perhaps Thiel should have waited 50 more years, as Columbia had to, to write his “victory” op-ed? He may come to regret the essay as his own “Mission Accomplished” moment.

True with websites, so it goes with warfare. We live in the cheap war era, where the attacker has the advantage and the violent veto is always possible. Political leaders can speak and say tough stuff, promise ruthless revenge – it doesn’t matter, ultimately, because if you can’t disarm the enemy, you can’t parade the tanks.”

Military Victory is Dead


Climate Change, ISIS And Cyber Attacks Top 26 Nation PEW Research Center Global Threat Survey

Image: PEW Research Center http://www.pewglobal.org/2019/02/10/climate-change-still-seen-as-the-top-global-threat-but-cyberattacks-a-rising-concern/


“Climate change, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and cyberattacks lead a list of the most-feared global threats, according to a new survey.

The Pew Research Center study released Sunday found that respondents in 13 of 26 countries surveyed listed global climate change as a top international threat.”


“Respondents in eight nations named ISIS as a top threat, while those in the U.S., Japan, South Africa and the Netherlands pointed to cyberattacks from other countries.

The survey found that global climate change is a rising concern. More than two-thirds — 67 percent — of the roughly 27,000 respondents questioned listed it as a major threat in this study, compared to 63 percent in 2017 and 56 percent in 2013.

Concerns about cyberattacks are also increasing, with 61 percent now calling it a threat, up from the 54 percent in 2017.

And while ISIS is still listed as a major concern, the amount of people worried about it dipped from 66 percent in 2017 to 62 percent.

Pollsters found political divides on climate change and ISIS, with Republicans and GOP-leaning respondents in the U.S. far less likely to list climate change as a threat than Democrats and Democratic-leaning individuals.

Right-leaning respondents were more worried about ISIS than individuals aligned with the left.

The Pew survey, conducted from May 14 to Aug. 12, 2018, has a margin of error of 2.9 percentage points.”


“Jig Saw” – Google’s Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits




“Perhaps one of world’s most dangerous problems of ignorance and indoctrination can be solved in part by doing what Google does best:

Helping people find what they most need to see.

Google has built a half-trillion-dollar business out of divining what people want based on a few words they type into a search field. In the process, it’s stumbled on a powerful tool for getting inside the minds of some of the least understood and most dangerous people on the Internet: potential ISIS recruits. Now one subsidiary of Google is trying not just to understand those would-be jihadis’ intentions, but to change them.

Jigsaw, the Google-owned tech incubator and think tank—until recently known as Google Ideas—has been working over the past year to develop a new program it hopes can use a combination of Google’s search advertising algorithms and YouTube’s video platform to target aspiring ISIS recruits and ultimately dissuade them from joining the group’s cult of apocalyptic violence. The program, which Jigsaw calls the Redirect Method and plans to launch in a new phase this month, places advertising alongside results for any keywords and phrases that Jigsaw has determined people attracted to ISIS commonly search for. Those ads link to Arabic- and English-language YouTube channels that pull together preexisting videos Jigsaw believes can effectively undo ISIS’s brainwashing—clips like testimonials from former extremists, imams denouncing ISIS’s corruption of Islam, and surreptitiously filmed clips inside the group’s dysfunctional caliphate in Northern Syria and Iraq.

“This came out of an observation that there’s a lot of online demand for ISIS material, but there are also a lot of credible organic voices online debunking their narratives,” says Yasmin Green, Jigsaw’s head of research and development. “The Redirect Method is at its heart a targeted advertising campaign: Let’s take these individuals who are vulnerable to ISIS’ recruitment messaging and instead show them information that refutes it.”

The results, in a pilot project Jigsaw ran early this year, were surprisingly effective: Over the course of about two months, more than 300,000 people were drawn to the anti-ISIS YouTube channels. Searchers actually clicked on Jigsaw’s three or four times more often than a typical ad campaign. Those who clicked spent more than twice as long viewing the most effective playlists than the best estimates of how long people view YouTube as a whole. And this month, along with the London-based startup Moonshot Countering Violent Extremism and the US-based Gen Next Foundation, Jigsaw plans to relaunch the program in a second phase that will focus its method on North American extremists, applying the method to both potential ISIS recruits and violent white supremacists.

An Antidote to Extremism’s Infection

While tech firms have been struggling for years to find countermeasures to extremist content, ISIS’ digital propaganda machine has set a new standard for aggressive online recruitment. Twitter has banned hundreds of thousands of accounts only to see them arise again—manymigrating to the more private service Telegram—while other services like YouTube and Facebook have fought an endless war of content removal to keep the group’s vile beheading and immolation videos offline. But attempts to intercept the disaffected young Muslims attracted to that propaganda and offer them a counternarrative—actual protection against the group’s siren song—have mostly amounted to public service announcements. Those PSA series have included the U.S. State Department’s campaign called Think Again, Turn Away and the blunt messaging of the cartoon series Average Mohammed.

Those campaigns are likely only effective for dissuading the audience least indoctrinated by ISIS’s messages, argues Green, who’s interviewed jailed ISIS recruits in Britain and defectors in an Iraqi prison. “Further down the funnel are the people who are sympathetic, maybe ideologically committed, maybe even already in the caliphate,” says Green. “That’s Jigsaw’s focus.”

To capture the people already drawn into ISIS’ orbit, Jigsaw took a less direct approach. Rather than create anti-ISIS messages, the team curates them from YouTube. “We thought, what if the content exists already?” says Green. “We knew if it wasn’t created explicitly for this purpose, it would be more authentic and therefore more compelling.”

Testing the Theory

Jigsaw and two partners on the pilot project, Moonshot CVE and the Lebanese firm Quantum Communications, assembled two playlists of videos they found in both Arabic and English, ranging from moderate Muslim clerics pointing out ISIS’s hypocrisy to footage of long food lines in the ISIS’s Syrian stronghold Raqqa.

Another video in Jigsaw’s playlist shows an elderly woman excoriating members of ISIS and quoting the Koran to them:

Jigsaw chose more than 1,700 keywords that triggered ads leading to their anti-ISIS playlists. Green and her team focused on terms they believed the most committed ISIS recruits would search for: names of waypoints on travel routes to ISIS territory, phrases like “Fatwa [edict] for jihad in Syria” and names of extremist leaders who had preached ISIS recruitment. The actual text of the search ads, however, took a light-touch approach, with phrases like “Is ISIS Legitimate?” or “Want to Join ISIS?” rather than explicit anti-ISIS messages.

Measuring the actual effects of the campaign in dissuading ISIS recruits isn’t easy. But Jigsaw and its partners found that they at least captured searchers’ attention. The clickthrough rates on some of the ads were more than 9 percent, they say, compared with averages around 2 or 3 percent in the average Google keyword advertising campaign. They also discovered that the hundreds of thousands of searchers spent a total of half a million minutes watching the videos they collected, with the most effective videos getting as much as 8 minutes and 20 seconds average viewing time.

But Could It Work?

Jigsaw’s program is far from a comprehensive solution to ISIS’s online recruitment, says Humera Khan, the executive director of the Islamic deradicalization group Muflehun. She points out that both Google and Facebook have trained anti-extremism non-profits in the past on how to use their keyword advertising, though perhaps without the deep involvement in targeting, curating and promoting video Jigsaw is trying. More importantly, she argues, attracting ISIS sympathizers to a video playlist is only the first step. “If they can hook people in, can they keep them coming back with new and relevant content? That’ll be important,” says Khan. Eventually, any successful deradicalization effort also needs human interaction, too, and a supportive community backing up the person’s decision to turn away from extremism. “This sounds like a good piece of the solution. But it’s not all of it.”

From a national security perspective, Jigsaw’s work raises another glaring question: Why not target would-be ISIS recruits for surveillance and even arrest instead? After all, intercepting ISIS sympathizers could not only rescue those recruits themselves, but the future victims of their violence in terrorist attacks or genocidal massacres in ISIS’s bloody sphere of influence. On that question, Jigsaw’s Green answers carefully that “social media platforms including YouTube have a responsibility to cooperate [with] the governments’ lawful requests, and there are processes in place to do that.” Translation? Google likely already helps get some of these people arrested. The company, after all, handed over some data in 64 percent of the more than 40,000 government requests for its users’ data in the second half of last year.

But Green says that the Redirect Method, beyond guiding ISIS admirers to its videos, doesn’t seek to track them further or identify them, and isn’t designed to lead to arrests or surveillance, so much as education.  “These are people making decisions based on partial, bad information,” says Green. “We can affect the problem of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State by arming individuals with more and better information.” She describes the campaign’s work as a kind of extension of Google’s core mission “to make the world’s information accessible and useful.”

Google’s Clever Plan to Stop Aspiring ISIS Recruits



To Beat ISIS, We Must Think Smaller


Seeds of Hope dot org

Image:Seeds of Hope.org


“People become radicalized when they lack hope, jobs, and purpose. Local investments can break the cycle

Both private and public funding are required to truly address the root causes of violence.

Last month, the United Nations held a large conference in Geneva to discuss its plan to prevent violent extremism; that same day in Washington, D.C., two federal contractors with experience in peacebuilding held a conference on the same subject, at which DHS Secretary Johnson and Sen. Cory Booker delivered remarks. Our own non-profit presented at the latter event; we spoke about how to use data in programs to prevent radicalization among people who may join groups like ISIL. Yet there was an elephant in each of these elegant conference rooms.

For all the lip service given to breaking the cycle of radicalization where it starts—at the local level—the global leaders on the topic have done almost nothing to empower such action.

We know enough about recruitment for ISIS and its ilk to know that there is no single way individuals radicalize. We also know it involves some combination of ideological, psychological, and community-based factors. People flocking to Syria to join terrorist groups tend to be radical before they are religious, and tend to be motivated more by seeking personal agency than by any lofty ideology. Our work involves looking at these local community factors through the eyes of community members, using data to map the lifecycle of recruitment to violence, looking at the root causes among community factors.

For example, we asked people in the small Philippines village of Barira what their community’s problems were and what should be done to solve them. As we gathered data, a story became clear. Young men are pulled out of school to work unsustainable farming jobs, the girls grow up and move out of the community for college, the young men grow up with unsustainable jobs and no education. They feel hopeless and seek drugs to dull the pain, and then they fill that void of hopelessness, gaining personal agency by joining local violent groups who offer them a sense of purpose—and sometimes incentives to fuel their addictions.

Some people think it’s strange—a former special operations soldier turned USAID officer and technology advisor has paired with a former State Department and White House official to stand up an agricultural co-op in a small village in the Southern Philippines. But those who understand radicalization and data can see why—the community pointed us to inefficient grain production processes as the root cause that triggers the domino effect of a lifecycle of recruitment to violence.

At the same time, global leaders keep having the same conversation: that we should care about the causes of radicalization. But it is time to turn talk into action. Only six percent of federal funding related to terrorism goes to our diplomatic and development communities, and less than eight percent of that funding is used for prevention efforts similar to ours. Programming tends to have an indirect relationship with data, at best, so it is hard to say whether programs are targeted to community needs or whether success can be measured. Meanwhile, private foundations continue to be spooked by the early days of terrorism as a global priority, continuing to (erroneously) believe anything related to terrorism involves spying or bombs. So the funding for prevention activities, known as Countering Violent Extremism (CVE), is rare, narrowly scoped, and seldom targeted through high quality data.

As Sen. Booker said at the CVE Symposium, which was sponsored by the International Peace and Security Institute and Creative Associates, “In God I trust…everyone else show me data.” We agree—but how can people in the field, like we are, do that when data fails to be a fundamental part of international development, whose funds are small to begin with?

Soon, our non-profit, the impl. project, will be buying a solar dryer for the desperate people in Barira. It will cost $6,000. Meanwhile, the military effort to counter ISIL currently costs $11.6 million per day, and will do little or nothing to break the long-term cycle of radicalization that has made our struggle against terrorism a generational one. It may even exacerbate the problem by accidentally feeding a narrative that the West is at war with Islam.

We were pleased to contribute to the recent conference, but we need more than conferences now—we need concrete action, and an industry supported by both private and public funding to truly address the root causes of violence.”




The U.S. ISIS Mission is Combat Not Training


Combat Deaths


“The U.S. now has 300 troops in Syria, where the fight against ISIS is intensifying.

The Pentagon  is sending more troops to Iraq, boosting the total number there to more than 4,000.  Calling it a training mission is cold comfort to the parents, spouses and children of the deployed troops.

When U.S. and allied troops are on Islamic State turf with the mission of wiping it from existence, they are on a combat mission.  Calling it anything else is wrong.

Where those fights are being waged, American forces are targets from the moment they arrive. That they are tasked to train local forces to defeat ISIS and other enemies makes U.S. forces all the more vulnerable.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter had his chairman’s back, also telling lawmakers the U.S. troops were killed in combat.

“Why,” Sullivan asked during the back and forth, “can’t we level with the American people” and say that U.S. troops in harm’s way in the Middle East are in combat?

Why indeed.

Tragically, the danger facing American personnel in Iraq and Syria were made clear again on Tuesday, when Navy SEAL Charlie Keating was killed on a quick-reaction mission to aid U.S. military advisers under attack by large, coordinated ISIS force.

Carter has tried to defend the administration’s position on troops deployed in the fight against ISIS, saying that although troops have been killed in combat, the mission was to train and equip local forces so they can repel the terrorist group without U.S. support.

That’s a valid if extremely challenging strategy, one driven by numerous realities. Not the least of those is the American public’s weariness with sending its men and women into combat after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, which remain volatile despite great sacrifices of life and treasure.

But the administration is trying to have it both ways and appear to be keeping the U.S. out of war while steadily building up forces in the region, increasing the number of troops deployed to combat zones, dropping bombs on enemy forces and, when necessary, engaging them in direct action.

The Pentagon has even created an Operation Inherent Resolve campaign medal for troops who have deployed as part of the mission to crush ISIS.

Where those fights are being waged, American forces are targets from the moment they arrive. That they are tasked to train local forces to defeat ISIS and other enemies makes U.S. forces all the more vulnerable.

The more the White House insists these troops are not part of a combat mission, the more distrust it breeds in the ranks and among the public. It’s viewed as the sort of condescending semantics Washington plays to deny the obvious. That can serve only to erode support for the mission.”




Feds Unlock Phones Chasing Drugs Not Terrorism



Image: Ocregister.com


“As of last count, fully 89 percent of wiretap orders in the US were used in drug cases.

Of the total of 41 cases in which the ACLU could determine the crime that caused the Department of Justice to demand access to a device, 17 were related to drugs, compared to just one known case of terrorism: the San Bernardino case.

Until the FBI  backed down from its battle with Apple over accessing the iPhone 5c of San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook, it seemed the agency had chosen a near-perfect case on which to make its stand against encryption. By refusing to write software to help law enforcement crack Farook’s phone, Apple was made to look like it was defending an indefensible terrorist.

But as the public learns more about the other investigations in which the feds have demanded Apple or Google help crack their phones’ security, it now looks like the government has made those decryption demands far more often while fighting a more pedestrian sort of crime: drugs.

On Tuesday the ACLU released the results of its digging through court records, seeking information about any cases in which the feds had used the All Writs Act to ask that Apple or Google assist in accessing data on locked phones or tablets. It found that since 2008, there have been at least 63 of those cases across the country, showing that Apple’s standoff with the FBI was about more than “one iPhone,” as FBI director Jim Comey had argued.

And in the two-thirds of those cases in which the ACLU could determine the crime being investigated, the group tells WIRED that 41 percent were related to drugs, far more than any other category of crime. “The narrative was that they would only do this in cases where the crimes were particularly severe and a serious threat to national security, and that seems to be disproven,” says Ezekiel Edwards, the director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “I’m certainly displeased to find that so many of these cases in which the government has forced companies to unlock phones have been drug cases. But I’m not surprised.”

In fact, those 17 cases by far outnumbered the 10 financial crime cases, eight child pornography cases, and three counterfeiting cases, the next most common crimes on the ACLU’s list. (The ACLU explains that in the third of cases where the ACLU couldn’t identify the crime being investigated, the government hadn’t revealed the docket number of the related court filing that reveals the charges, or because the cases were sealed.)

It’s not yet clear how Apple and Google responded to those 63 demands to help law enforcement agencies access device data. Apple didn’t reply to WIRED’s request for comment on the ACLU’s release. Google wrote in a statement only that it has “never received an All Writs Act order like the one Apple recently fought that demands we build new tools that actively compromise our products’ security,” and that it would “strongly object to such an order.” A Department spokesperson responded to ACLU’s release with its own statement: “The fact that federal law enforcement uses court process to obtain critical evidence in criminal investigations should not be surprising nor newsworthy,” it reads. “The government has made clear on multiple occasions in court that judges across the country have issued prior All Writs Act orders to Apple, and counsel for Apple has noted in court that it received All Writs Act orders with frequency.”

The ACLU’s numbers contrast slightly withstatistics released by the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in March, which showed that of 205 locked iPhones the Manhattan DA’s lab had attempted and failed to access without Apple’s assistance, 25 percent were related to drug cases. It lumped larceny, cybercrime, forgery, and ID theft into another category of cases that accounted for 35 percent of the locked iPhones.

Even so, it should come as little surprise that drug cases would outnumber all others in federal investigations that sought to access locked devices’ data. As of last count, fully89 percent of wiretap orders in the US were used in drug cases. That percentage has climbed dramatically since 1989, when only 62 percent of wiretaps were focused on drugs.

The ACLU’s Edwards argues that Apple’s encryption battle with the FBI is just another instance of the government asking for surveillance powers in the name of national security, but then applying those powers to the Drug War. He points to the “sneak and peek” searches that were made legal under the Patriot Act in 2001. Drug cases now account for 84 percent of the cases in which those searches are used, Edwards says. “These technologies [and techniques] are often sold by the government as essential tools to protect national security that will be used in careful, discriminating ways,” he says. “Over and over again, that’s been untrue.”

In fact, federal law enforcement has been so focused on drug cases for the last 30 years that they’ve often been the first domestic cases used to pioneer new surveillance techniques, from thermal imaging cameras to GPS tracking to drones. Even the NSA’s bulk metadata collection that scandalized the public when it was revealed by NSA leaker Edward Snowden was first used by the Drug Enforcement Administration. And in 2014 the FBI went so far as to subpoena security researchers at Carnegie Mellon for a technique that could crack the anonymity software Tor’s protections for hidden websites, which was then used to take down the Silk Road 2 drug market and dozens of other dark web sites.

That growing use of domestic surveillance for drug investigations, argues the ACLU’s Edwards, is simply a reflection of law enforcement’s resources, which have increasingly been devoted to the War on Drugs. “All of these technologies are inherently wrapped up in the types of activities [law enforcement] is focused on,” he says. “That’s fighting drugs, not terrorism…as part of a law enforcement effort that has been an utter, trillion-dollar failure.”


Behind the Scenes in the Marine Corps Mission Against the Islamic State




“TAQADDUM, Iraq — The war here smells like diesel fumes and nostalgia.

“What’s tough for Marines to wrap their head around,” one Marine said, “is that this time around we don’t own [the battlefield]. We only influence it.”​

In the distance, there is an explosion, a single thud that has the Marines of Baker Company, 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, on their radios trying to figure out what it was. “Iraqi artillery, I think,” the Marine sitting in a reinforced observation point, known as Post Eight, decides. It is dark and getting cold, and the Marine on Post Eight, an infantryman, has been here since October.

Post Eight and its fellow line of fortifications is just adjacent to Taqaddum’s tarmac and makes up one of the borders of the American camp — called Camp Manion, after a Marine lieutenant who was killed by a sniper in Iraq in 2007. The camp is an outpost within an outpost — an island in the middle of the now Iraqi-controlled Taqaddum airbase where a small contingent of Marines, soldiers and Special Forces help train Iraqi troops to fight the Islamic State in this new chapter of the Forever War.

While some of the fortifications around the American part of the base are holdovers from years past, most of them are new and have been flown in and constructed in the last year. When the Iraq war ended in 2011, the United States tore down almost all of its old bases in the country. Now, four years later, it is rebuilding them.

“No one is better at kicking our own ass than ourselves,” one Marine quipped.

Less than a decade ago, at the height the conflict’s last iteration here, Taqaddum’s mess hall was renowned across Anbar province. A five-star dining facility tucked between the restive cities of Fallujah and Ramadi, Taqaddum had a spinning glass case of self-serve desserts that has since become an object of legend — whispered about wherever Americans find themselves at war.

But now it is no more, erased since the last troops pulled out in 2011. The current mess hall is a shell of its former self — a drafty warehouse with walls covered in a patchwork of tarps and a dessert selection relegated to cardboard boxes filled with Pop-Tarts.

Just a few hundred yards away from Taqaddum’s now-rudimentary dining facility is the wooden command post for Baker Company. Inside, among many things needed to run an infantry company effectively, is a plastic Christmas tree bought from Home Depot and a cache of socks sent from the Socks for Heroes organization.

The Christmas tree is a new addition to the company. Covered in tinsel and ornaments and lights, the tree could be lit, but the Marines have decided that the one power adapter they have should remain attached to their coffee machine. Their first sergeant, however, whose parents sent the tree and its accompanying decorations, has plans to light the tree on Christmas.

“It’ll be like kind of a ceremony,” he said, and the sergeant who leads the company’s engineer detachment has assured him it will work.

Baker Company is tasked with security for all of Taqaddum, and the Marines take turns rotating between patrolling inside the perimeter, standing post and manning the quick reaction force, or QRF. The QRF stays in a room next to the operations center for 24 hours at a time. There, they eat and sleep and wait for something to happen. Often, nothing does, but recently Marines from Baker Company and their accompanying medical personnel, known as Navy corpsmen, have responded to Iraqi casualties brought to Taqaddum’s entry control point. The majority of the casualties, according to Marines from Baker Company, have come from the Iraqi military’s ongoing battle to retake the key city of Ramadi.

Aside from the war, and the Iraqi casualties and their new Christmas tree, the pressing issue for Baker Company is the new Star Wars movie, which many would like to see soon. With the Internet now readily available in the Forever War, there is little hope among Baker Company’s Marines that they can make it until the end of their deployment without inadvertently stumbling on a spoiler.

But one Marine — who knows a guy, who knows a guy — thought he might be able to get his hands on a bootleg from the Iraqis (as the Iraqis have been known to bootleg such things). The effort is a long shot but now urgent since the Marines heard that one of their fellow companies, Weapons Company — stationed approximately a hundred miles to the northwest at Asad air base — had secured a screening.

“If we watch it we could make costumes,” one Marine from Baker Company said. “You know, we could turn Hesco cloth into Jedi robes.”

Weapons Company from 1st Battalion, 7th Marines, of Twentynine Palms, Calif., indeed plans strong attendance at Asad’s multiple screenings of “The Force Awakens” on Dec. 28. The group carries out many of the same tasks as Baker Company, but it is stationed at Camp Havoc, another “base within a base” where its Marines patrol the perimeter of Asad’s airfield and provide security as Danish troops help train elements of the Iraqi army’s 7th Division.

Aside from Marines acting as base security, other units from the 7th Marines stationed elsewhere in the region provide detachments specifically dedicated to recovering downed aircraft and crew members. Marines are also assigned to a broader task force to assist Iraqi offensive operations by sharing intelligence with their Iraqi counterparts, as well as helping with indirect fire from Camp Havoc’s 155mm self-propelled howitzers and GPS-guided rockets, also known as High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS.”


About the Author

Marine 2
Thomas Gibbons-Neff is a staff writer and a former Marine infantryman.

The First American Killed Fighting ISIS



U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua L.Wheeler


“Even his funeral was a secret.

Arlington National Cemetery kept Joshua Wheeler’s name off its daily list of funerals on November 18 until the small ceremony was over. No formal announcement was made that the first American killed fighting ISIS had been laid to rest.

Though details of Wheeler’s combat missions are classified, his records say he earned an astounding 11 Bronze Stars, the nation’s fourth-highest combat award, indicated by the red-and-blue ribbon worn on the top row of his awards (military ribbons are worn in order of valor and rank).

Had he been a typical soldier, Joshua Wheeler’s death—during a raid on an ISIS compound near Kirkuk, Iraq—would have been a national event, a Bridge at Concord-moment announcing that American soldiers would now stand and fight against ISIS on the ground. But Wheeler was not a typical soldier. He was a member of Delta Force, the Army’s most secret unit, and so, even now—two months after his death—we know almost nothing about him.

Joshua Wheeler was from Oklahoma, he was a Ranger before he joined Delta, a husband and father to four sons including a newborn, and he was 39 years old when they buried him in Arlington’s Section 60.

But while the Army isn’t going to tell us anything more about Josh Wheeler, he can still speak for himself. The week of his death, the Army released two pictures, Wheeler’s official service portrait, and one from his family. In early December, his family released a second photo to Esquire, to accompany this story. It was taken at Wheeler’s wedding, in 2013. In all three, Wheeler is wearing his Army Service Uniform, or ‘dress blues,’ the most formal uniform that most soldiers wear, which they keep up to date with awards and badges.

Uniforms, particularly formal ones, are a pain in the ass. Maintaining, updating and keeping them—as the regulations say, “clean, neat and wrinkle-free” for inspections or formal event—is the bane of countless late nights and lost weekends.

But soldiers do it anyway. When you wear a military uniform, you are walking around with a lifetime of report cards, membership IDs, and thank you notes spread across your chest. It better be right. Talk is cheap in the military, where casual exaggeration and gossip are as common as any workplace in America. But if you lie on your uniform, you’re stealing from men better than yourself.

It’s why veterans of every generation—from Pearl Harbor to Ramadi, combat injured to desk jockeys, raging liberals to fire-breathing conservatives—save their darkest venom, and more-than-occasional barroom beat-downs, for the posers and wannabes who get caught wearing uniforms—or even ribbons—they never earned.

So even if the Army won’t talk about Joshua Wheeler, his uniform has a story to tell. And we wanted to listen. To help us hear it, we sat down with a former Delta operator, now a civilian we’ll call Tom, who wanted Wheeler’s story told properly.

Soldiers routinely make changes to their uniform throughout a career and Wheeler is wearing slightly different arrangement of awards in his official Army portrait and in a family photo taken at his wedding in 2013
1) Combat Infantryman Badge

Whether a 20-year Delta Force veteran or a baby-faced teenage Private, the highest award on a soldier’s chest is always the Combat Infantry Badge. The iconic wreath-and-rifle confirms that its wearer has met the core duty at the heart of all military service: to face and fight an enemy. It has only two requirements: you must be a soldier’s soldier, an infantry ‘grunt’; and you must “close with and destroy the enemy with direct fires.” It tells the world: I fought for my country.

Prior to Wheeler’s death, when Delta operations against ISIS were an open but unconfirmed secret, a joke circulated online that only senior Delta operators who already had CIBs would be allowed to fight because Obama didn’t want new guys applying for it where he swore there was no ‘combat.’ (A similar line held that Obama liked to say there were no American boots on the ground fighting ISIS because Delta operators, by reputation, only wear running-style shoes.)

2) Bronze Stars

Though details of Wheeler’s combat missions are classified, his records say he earned an astounding 11 Bronze Stars, the nation’s fourth-highest combat award, indicated by the red-and-blue ribbon worn on the top row of his awards (military ribbons are worn in order of valor and rank). His official picture shows nine — the ribbon is one, each of the three bronze oak leafs is another, and the silver leaf stands for 5 more. Four of Wheeler’s bronze stars are marked with the “V” for valor, or award-worthy action under direct fire. For his actions the night he died, Wheeler was awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest combat award, one level above the Bronze Star.

When Tom, the former Delta operator, viewed Wheeler’s combat ribbons, he smiled. Special ops units, and Delta in particular, he said, are assigned only difficult and important missions. As a result, they are held to higher standards when it comes to awards. “How many Medals of Honor have Delta guys gotten since 9/11?,” he asked. “Zero. Why? They expect it of us.”

3) Ranger Tab, Airborne and HALO jumpmaster jump wings

One trademark of special ops troops is a handful of “qualifications” badges for specialized skills and training. Wheeler completed Ranger school, conventional Airborne training (smaller jump wings) and advanced HALO parachuting (larger wings split with a knife). HALO (High Altitude-Low Opening), or freefall, jumps are used only by elite units. Soldiers jump from as high 25,000 feet, with full combat loads and oxygen masks, fall at over 100 MPH, and open their parachutes as low as 3,500 feet to land as a team. The most advanced jumpers can carry tandem passengers or even a giant barrel full of gear. The star on Wheeler’s airborne jump wings indicates 65 static line jumps, a dreaded chore for HALO-qualified troops, while the star and wreath on his HALO wings is that of a Jumpmaster, meaning he could plan, prepare and lead a full HALO mission, from takeoff to landing.

4) Expert Marksman with Rifle Clasp

To qualify as a rifle ‘expert’ in the Army, the highest of three skill levels, a soldier must hit at least 36 of 40 shots on targets from 25 to 300 meters. At Delta, shooting 36 out of 40 would probably get you a breathalyzer test followed by orders to pack your locker. When Delta operators practice hostage rescue, a shooter who ‘throws’ a round and hits a simulated hostage, just once, is kicked out of the program. According to Tom: “At the Unit, you shoot everyday. Hundreds of thousands of rounds per year. A normal infantry guy is like a high school quarterback. They know how to play, some are good, some are bad. Special Forces and other SOF, they’re Division I quarterbacks. This guy is Tom Brady.”

Worn on the right sleeve of the dress uniform, each bar indicates six months in a combat zone. They’re cumulative so two 3-month deployments would result in one bar. When this picture was taken, Sgt. Wheeler had spent four-and-a-half years in combat—though he’s wearing just 8 of his eventual 11 Bronze stars, so it may be several years old.

6) Infantry Cord, 75th Ranger Regiment Distinctive Unit Insignia

Just to be invited to try out for Delta Force, you have to already be an exemplary soldier. Most operators come from Special Forces teams, the Rangers or infantry units like the 82nd Airborne. And like proud alums of rival alma maters, operators take fierce pride in their old units, frequently recruiting—unofficially, but brazenly— top performers.

Wheeler’s uniform tells the tale of a young soldier who took the toughest road he could to Delta. The blue cord and discs on his “US” collar pins say that Wheeler began his career as an ’11-Bravo’—a basic infantry grunt. The blue and green shield with red bolt is the Distinctive Unit Insignia of the 75th’s Ranger Regiment, indicating Wheeler spent his early Army years as a “Bat Boy” at one of the 75ths Ranger Battalions, units renowned for spartan, no-nonsense lifestyles, torturous training, and combat ferocity.

According to the Army, Wheeler was a Ranger for more than seven years, working his way from basic rifleman to anti-tank section leader, before joining Delta in 2004.

7) German Parachutist Badge

The eye-catching jump wings are the bronze (for basic-level) German parachutist badge. US troops can wear foreign jump wings if they jump under a foreign jumpmaster. At Ft. Bragg, the 82nd Airborne does an annual jump with foreign jumpmasters called Operation Toy Drop. Soldiers must donate a toy to the base toy drive in order to get a spot. Back on the ground, the foreign jumpmaster then ‘pins’ the wings on each jumper.

“Guys like to wear them on their uniform because they look cool,” said the Operator.

8) Navy Presidential Unit Citation

Easy to miss on the right, just above his nametag, are Wheeler’s unit awards, which are given not to individuals but to units as a whole. Wheeler’s awards include a Presidential Unit Citation.

That’s a big deal.

Dating back to WWII, the PUC is reserved for units that pull off extraordinarily dangerous and difficult missions, nearly always in heavy combat. The PUC has gone to assaulters on D-Day and Iwo Jima, defenders at Bastogne and Tet. It’s also been awarded to submarines tapping transatlantic communication cables, and to members of the Coast Guard for their full-throttle response to Hurricane Katrina.

Each service has its own version of the PUC and the horizontal stripes indicate that Wheeler’s award is from the Navy. Only 13 Navy PUCs have been awarded since 2001 — most of them related to special operations, including citations for units that participated in the initial invasion of Afghanistan; separately to Marines and SEALs in the 2003 invasion of Iraq; to a Marine-led task force, which included some special ops, in Helmand Province in 2009-10; and to the personnel, including some from the Army, of Operation Neptune Spear—the 2011 raid that killed Osama Bin Laden.

An Army spokesperson declined to release information on Wheeler’s awards, including the dates awarded. His PUC is visible in his last official Army portrait. He is not wearing it in earlier family photos.

Purple Heart and Silver Star (not pictured)

Like nearly all soldiers killed in combat, Sgt. Wheeler was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart. For his actions the night he died, Wheeler was also awarded the Silver Star, the third-highest combat award, one level above the Bronze Star.”


Islamic State Meets the Laws of Economics



The Gold Dinar


“The caliphate faces an enemy more deadly than the bombs being dropped upon it.

It has not been able to construct a viable economy to provide all of the necessities that a society requires and people will not wait forever to fill their stomachs or for the lights to work.

A film released at the end of August by the Islamic State heralds the coming of a new gold Dinar currency. Najeh Ibrahim, a former member of the Islamist Gamaa Islamiyah, says that this tells the world that the Islamic State is a sovereign state and tells Muslims that their dignity and economic power is being restored.

In November of 2014, the idea of the gold Dinar was first announced. There was a debate within the leading circles of the Islamic State if it was a sound economic plan. In spite of doubts by some, the accumulation of gold and silver for the coins was undertaken, but little more was said of the new currency until the film Rise of the Caliphate: The Return of the Gold Dinar presented the issue as a part of the strategy of the Islamic State to destroy the United States and the West and to create an independent caliphate economy.

Return of the Gold Dinar continues the IS practice of tying every action to the Abbasid Caliphate that ruled much of the Middle Eastern region from 750 to the middle of the thirteenth century, which was an Islamic empire not much different from the Persian and Egyptian empires and minted its own coinage. The new coins are to display religious symbols like those on the original coins. Baghdadi would like his followers to imagine that they are a continuation of the long ago caliphate with only a mere 750-year disruption.

The idea is not new. The proposal to create a gold Dinar was advocated in 2002 when Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia presented it at the Organization of the Islamic Conference. The problems in the economies of Muslim societies were attributed to foreign domination and a gold currency was to be the means of escaping dollar domination by creating a Muslim economic community.

Daesh’s monetary problem is not domination by the USD. Rather, it is that the erasing of the borders between Iraq and Syria did not change the line drawn by two separate economies using two different currencies.

If Daesh intends to create a single economy, it must create a common currency that will enable buyers and sellers to agree upon a price for goods and services without having to first decide upon an exchange rate.

The obvious solution is for Daesh to create its own currency that will circulate throughout the caliphate; but getting the public to accept the new colored pieces of paper from a government that may not exist in a few years makes conversion a near impossibility. The other choice is for people to conduct business in a currency that can be trusted, such as the USD or the Euro. The Turkish Lira is preferred in many cases over the local currencies, but using foreign currencies requires people to have access to them.  How can people acquire sufficient foreign funds to finance their daily needs when the economy is isolated from the surrounding countries?

What commerce does occur is of a criminal nature. How much the caliphate acquires from the export of historical treasures or human organs or oil is all a guess. Contributions from wealthy supporters in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf States or ransom money from kidnap victims provides only a few drops in a desert that is consuming vast amounts of money to finance an ongoing war.

Much of the wealth of the caliphate comes from taxation of its citizens and sale of grain or petroleum that are kept as caliphate monopolies. Exploiting these resources, though, is finite. Farmers will not plant if they cannot expect a reasonable price for their crops and factories will not manufacture if the owner cannot acquire fuel or materials that he can afford or gain a profit that makes the effort worthwhile.

Getting fresh investment is a near impossibility and the economy is in decline which is making the acquisition of a new medium of exchange a serious issue that cannot be delayed too much longer.  Before the rise of the Islamic State, 11 of Iraq’s 35 million people were engaged in agriculture. They farmed twelve million acres of land. In spite of this domestic production, Iraq imported five billion dollars in foodstuffs, much of which was used to provide food packages to the impoverished Sunni in the provinces now under Daesh control.

Since the seizure of large areas of Iraq by the Islamic State, the amount of acreage under cultivation has been cut in half with no possibility of supplementing the loss foodstuffs with imports, while Syria is in even worse condition. Half of the population of 22 million has been displaced and no longer contributes to the economy. If the caliphate cannot provide food and essential services to the people under its control, it faces an insurrection.

The solution chosen by the caliphate is to turn to the gold Dinar that has as much symbolic value as is does as a means of financing the society. While gold speaks of wealth and security in the minds of most people, there is a hazard in adopting a gold currency. The value of the gold coins comes from the quality of gold metal and not from the quality of the issuer. Anyone doubting the longevity of the caliphate will be inclined to horde the coins under a rock somewhere or smuggle the coins outside. The loss of money from the economy will translate into an overall deflation as the scarcity of money raises its value; and that is likely to depress the economy even further.

Return of the Gold Dinar is a declaration of economic warfare upon the United States for reneging upon its pledge to preserve the gold standard and imposing the dollar standard upon the world. The caliphate assures its believers that it will exact its revenge by breaking the dollar and by bringing back the use of gold to finance world commerce.

Egyptian Finance Minister Fayyad Abdel Money, a former professor of economics, points out that there is not enough gold in the world to finance the more than 75 trillion dollar global economy. The U.S. represents a quarter of the total, a power somewhat beyond that of the caliphate.

After all of its talk about the mystical powers of gold, it is their own economy that is a serious weakness in the survival of the caliphate. The caliphate is consuming itself and needs a fresh infusion of wealth.

That means acquiring a commodity that can be marketed outside of the caliphate. The caliphate is targeting for that purpose opium from Afghanistan that produces 90 percent of the world supply and has the extra advantage of being the largest grower of cannabis. It is focusing on The Badakhshan Province, which saw a 77 percent increase in opium production during 2014 and has a minor Taliban presence. The mountainous province extends into Pakistan, Tajikistan and the Xinjiang Province of China. The Russian Federal Drug Control Service estimates that the opium trade is worth a billion dollars.

The move of the Islamic State into Afghanistan is bringing it into conflict with the Taliban, which also relies upon opium as a source of revenue. As its forces strengthen in the north, Islamic State is likely to spread deeper into the Taliban’s territory as both organizations battle to control the illegal drug trade in a Poppy War.”


Defense Secretary Says Iraq Raid Isn’t Combat, Then Says It Is




“An American soldier has died in Iraq as a result of the U.S.intervention to support Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State.

It’s the first loss of an American service member since the fight against ISIS began, and the first combat death in Iraq since 2011.

U.S. special operations forces operating in Iraq in what Pentagon officials say was a supporting role took part in an Iraqi operation to free Iraqi hostages, including members of the Iraqi Security Forces. After more than 70 hostages were freed, 39-year-old Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, a veteran of 14 official combat deployments and doubtless several other less-official trips into danger, died of his gunshot wound.

His death has raised the question of how an American could have died in combat when America, at least according to President Barack Obama and his national security leaders, is not at war.

“We have this capability. It is a great American strength,” Carter said Friday at the Pentagon of special operations raids like the one this week. But he insisted those raids are not the same as the U.S.military “assuming a combat role.”

Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan,” Carter said.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook had been blunter on Thursday: “Our mission in Iraq is the train, advise and assist mission. This was a unique circumstance…This was a support mission in which they were providing support to the Kurdistan Regional Government. U.S. forces are not in an active combat mission in Iraq.”

But before Carter left the podium on Friday, he offered this explanation for why he couldn’t reveal more details of Wheeler’s actions: “This is combat. Things are complicated.”


The rules of the official advise-and-assist mission meant the Americans were to “stay behind the last covered and concealed position,” but when the Peshmerga fighters they were supporting began taking fire and casualties they stepped in and acted. As spokesman Col. Steve Warren noted from Baghdad, “In the chaos of combat, when you see your friends being hit, I would submit to you that you’re under somewhat of a moral obligation.” Again, combat.

Thursday’s events have thrust have into the public spotlight the rather plastic definitions of war and combat in which Americans have been operating now for a while. We may not by name or distinction be a nation at war, and we may not be a nation whose troops are part of full-scale, on-the-ground combat operations. But the men and women serving in those countries are indeed in a war zone and serving their nation in combat. They are at war whether or not we are as a nation.

Officially, combat operations ended in Afghanistan in December 2014. In May, Obama noted that “for many of us, this Memorial Day is especially meaningful; it is the first since our war in Afghanistan came to an end. Today is the first Memorial Day in 14 years that the United States is not engaged in a major ground war.”

And yet three months later America could count four losses of life on the battlegrounds of Afghanistan. As of today America has sustained 14 casualties, including four deaths the Pentagon labels as “killed in action.” Even if the official mission is to support Afghan forces, American lives are on the line and in combat theaters.

American forces serving in Afghanistan are eligible to earn the Afghanistan Campaign Medal and anyone in Iraq qualifies for combat pay.

American forces are in combat. Not saying it out loud allows us—and perhaps our leaders in Washington—to feel we are not a nation at war, even if some of us are serving in battle.”




Master Sergeant Johshua Wheeler