After Paris, Is It Time to Roll on Raqqa, the ISIS Capital?

The time for a nuanced approach to ISIS terror may have come to an end. But what if that’s just what ISIS wants?

This story was updated at 11:15 CET (5:15 EDT) November 16, 2015

PARIS — As this stunned city tried to come to terms with the horror that struck it the night of Friday the 13th, the word “war” echoed in cafés, on the streets, and in the statements of government officials.

Teams of suicide bombers from the so-called Islamic State, striking at soft targets in the heart of the city and a stadium on the outskirts, had taken their own lives along with those of at least 129 innocents, blasting away with Kalashnikovs at a rock concert and restaurants, and at a soccer game attended by more than 80,000 people, before blowing themselves up.

A statement purportedly from ISIS called the attacks “the Blessed Paris Invasion.” French President François Hollande, more accurately, described them as “an act of war committed by a terrorist army.” And he promised a “merciless” response.

But if this attack in the heart of a major Western capital represents the beginning of a new phase in the combat between ISIS and the civilized world, the question going forward is what kind of war will it be? What can be done not just to control and contain the threat? That approach by Washington and its allies clearly has not worked. There was nothing controlled or contained about what happened here.

“This attack is the first of the storm,” the ISIS statement threatened, and if the recent bombing targeting Hezbollah in Beirut, and the crash of the Russian airline in Sinai prove to be the work of ISIS as well, then the organization—under pressure on the ground in Iraq and Syria—would appear to be waging a concerted campaign to take the fight to its enemies.

There is no reason to believe that the United States is exempt. Indeed, the United States almost certainly is at the top of ISIS target list. And while terrorists of the past often have focused on high-profile symbols, the terrorists of ISIS cast a much wider net of death and destruction.

In Paris, all the obvious targets, from the Eiffel Tower to Jewish schools, already had soldiers in full battle gear patrolling nearby. But a Cambodian restaurant and a concert hall don’t—and can’t—enjoy such protection. If soft targets are the objective of ISIS, then there is no country in the world that is not, as they say in the military, “target rich.”

What the politicians ultimately will decide, even they may not know. But among veterans of the terror wars in France and the United States, there is a growing focus on the capital of the putative caliphate, Raqqa, in eastern Syria.

Even before the Paris attacks, slowly but surely, a Kurdish-led offensive backed by U.S. and other coalition air power was taking shape against the ISIS stronghold. But the gradual approach may be inadequate when a thunder strike is required.

Thus a CIA veteran with long experience hunting Osama bin Laden and trying to outmaneuver ISIS, speaking privately, tells The Daily Beast, “Everybody is going to respond to this thing with solidarity, tying little ribbons on trees and that sort of bullshit,” when what’s needed, in his opinion, is “to drive a stake in their heart.”

How would you do that?

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“Put together a force of 6,000 or 7,000 airborne soldiers and just take Raqqa. Don’t issue warnings. Don’t assemble tank columns. Train the force, then use it,” said this gentleman, a veteran of the clandestine services, but not of the military. “They have made Raqqa the capital of their state. Take it and you have changed the ground immediately. You can’t fight ISIS with baby steps, and what happened in Paris gives you the immediate rationale to do something strategic. Otherwise? They are winning.”

U.S. politicians are also hinting at the idea of boots on the ground against ISIS—Sen. Diane Feinstein, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a statement on Saturday that noted, “The fight is quickly spreading outside Iraq and Syria, and that's why we must take the battle to them.”

“I strongly believe we need to further increase our efforts in Syria and Iraq directly and expand our support to partner nations in other countries where [ISIS] is operating,” Feinstein continued. “It has become clear that limited airstrikes and support for Iraqi forces and the Syrian opposition are not sufficient to protect our country and our allies. This is a war that affects us all, and it’s time we take real action to confront these monsters who target innocent civilians.‎”

Alain Bauer, a leading terrorism analyst and adviser to officials in Paris about counter-terror strategies, said he is among those who believe that ISIS is lashing out precisely because it is under pressure on the ground. But a war of attrition fought like the Battle of Paris this week has to be addressed at the source.

Reacting to the remarks of the unnamed American official, Bauer told The Daily Beast, “If we really want to do something, we need to erase Raqqa.”

What keeps this from happening? In Bauer's opinion, the United States. “Every bombing is a nightmare to negotiate,” he said. “Here’s a target. ‘Oops, there’s a garden there. Oops, there’s a family there. Oops, you cannot destroy this, you cannot destroy that.’”

But ISIS is embedded among the civilian population.

Bauer suggesed there’s an important distinction. “They are representing the civilian population,” he says, at least those who have remained and sometimes profited from the group’s presence. “They are not enslaving them. And a war is a war.”

But we have seen the deleterious effects of occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan. Would an occupation of Raqqa be different? Isn’t that what ISIS wants, to lure the West into a quagmire?

“ISIS wants us to conquer the territory, which is not what I said,” Bauer told The Beast. “We need to erase Raqqa.”

The emotions of the moment? Perhaps, but emotions, symbolism, imagery—all are important in a war.

Scott Atran, an anthropologist frequently consulted by U.S. government agencies and the military, sees the struggle again ISIS primarily in ideological terms. He has studied closely, for instance, the work that guides much of the group’s strategizing, The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji, published almost 10 years ago. A typical maxim from that treatise: “Work to expose the weakness of America’s centralized power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly.” That is, suck U.S. troops into the fight.

Were there any doubt about that strategy, Atran tells The Daily Beast, it should have been dispelled by a piece that appeared in the ISIS online magazine Dabiq this year.

“The Gray Zone” was a 10-page editorial describing, as Atran puts it, “the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil, the Caliphate and the Infidel,” which the “blessed operations of September 11” brought into relief, as Bin Laden had declared.

“The world today is divided,” wrote Dabiq. George W. Bush “spoke the truth when he said, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.’” Only the actual “terrorists” supposedly are the “Western crusaders.” And now, “the time had come for another event to ... bring division to the world and destroy the Gray Zone,” of which the Paris attacks are just the latest, most spectacular installment.

As ISIS evaluated the attacks, Atran tells us, they are positive on three fronts: 1) they help erase the gray line; 2) they exacerbate antagonism toward Muslims in Europe (“The more hate there is the happier ISIS is”); and they send a message to restive young people that without huge effort they can sow massive chaos—they can impact their world.

And what about Raqqa, I asked Atran, thinking he would propose a nuanced approach.

“It’s going to take more than smashing them in Raqqa,” he said. “You have to smash them completely.”

But then he asks, “Who’s going to do this?”

In the days to come, we may well discover the answer.

Update: The French began a concerted bombing campaign targeting Raqqa on the night of November 15, two days after the attacks in Paris and roughly 24 hours after this story was first published.

Alain Bauer, cited here, subsequently clarified his remarks by saying he was reacting privately to a statement by an unknown American official about the Raqqa issue and the report of his opinon does not reflect an academic position, nor was it one intended for public consumption.