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Lessons U.S. Must Learn From Paris Attack

by Mac Thornberry     •     RealClearPolitics

The ISIS attack on Paris has been a wake-up call for the world. A network of terrorists exploited weaknesses in Western intelligence networks, border controls, and law enforcement to savagely attack soft targets and inflict devastating casualties. To protect America, Congress has rightly acted on one of these weaknesses and strengthened the screening of Syrian refugees. Paris has more lessons to teach. Increased vetting of refugees is a good first step, but to stop an attack in the United States there are other lessons we must learn, and learn quickly.

First, there are many avenues by which ISIS operatives can come from their training grounds across the globe, including Iraq and Syria, to carry out attacks against the West. Approximately, 30,000 individuals have traveled from other countries to join ISIS, with as many as 5,000 of them from Europe and the United States. Those from Europe do not need a visa to enter the United States, and our northern and southern borders may be a route fighters use to enter the United States. ISIS is also encouraging sympathizers already here to carry out attacks against soft targets. The FBI has acknowledged it is leading over 900 active investigations of ISIS operatives in this country. In short, there are many ways to kill Americans, and ISIS is working to take advantage of them all.

A second lesson from Paris is that intelligence collection and analysis is the key to stopping attacks. Without the ability to eavesdrop on terrorist communications, more attacks will succeed. Changes in technology make intelligence collection difficult, but we have compounded the problem by tying our own hands and no longer collecting all of the information we could collect. Since 9/11, there have been occasions when a terrorist plot was stopped due to terrorist incompetence or sheer good luck. We cannot rely on either to keep Americans safe against ISIS.

The third lesson is we cannot prevent the next attack if we are only willing to play defense. Even if we improve our intelligence collection, secure our borders and screen refugees, ISIS quickly adapts and will find a way around our safeguards. That is the lesson also learned from 14 years of fighting al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. When they have to worry about their own safety, it is more difficult for them to plot against us here. We have to play offense. There is a growing bipartisan consensus, including among former Obama administration officials, that the president’s approach is insufficient to defeat ISIS. There must be a more serious effort. As the president’s former undersecretary of defense for intelligence, Mike Vickers, wrote, “Whatever we would do if ISIS made good on its threat to attack Washington, D.C., and New York, we should instead do now, before the attack occurs.”

The president can take an important step immediately to put ISIS on the defensive by appointing a four-star general officer to take command of all combat efforts against this terrorist group. His headquarters cannot be in the bowels of the White House where the president’s political aides have already micromanaged our efforts to a standstill. Rather, he should base his command in the Middle East, as the head of a combined regional effort. He must be fully empowered to succeed in his mission and have a mandate to re-establish the military relationships in the region severed after the 2011 withdrawal from Iraq. Such a step would help show our allies that we are committed to the cause and committed to see it through.

Finally, a foundational lesson for us from Paris and the other terrorist attacks during the past few weeks is that the world is a more dangerous place without U.S. leadership. There is simply no substitute for it. And if we do not lead or are seen to be pulling back, in today’s world, these problems will make their way onto our shores.

The litany of Obama mistakes related to terrorism and the Middle East has been well established — requiring premature withdrawal of all forces from Iraq, failing to allow military leaders to follow through on their plans in Afghanistan, drawing a red line in Syria and then failing to enforce it, allowing our defense budgets to decline over 20 percent, and fixating on making a nuclear deal with Iran at nearly any cost. Now, we are seeing where these mistakes are leading us.

We can turn it around; ISIS is not invincible. But clear, consistent, strong leadership from the United States is required. The United States remains the indispensable nation to rid the world of this threat.

Mac Thornberry, a Republican, represents Texas’s 13th Congressional District in the House and is chairman of the Armed Services Committee.