By Lawrence Freedman*
2015 ended with Western countries perplexed by the challenge posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL). Some 14 years have passed since the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001. An American-led coalition had then turned on al Qaeda in Afghanistan and apparently left them routed and in hiding. Then, an intervention in Iraq, advertised as the next stage of the war on terror, resulted in a surge of violence and inter-communal strife, allowing an offshoot of al Qaeda to take root. This lasted for a few years until its leader, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was killed in June 2006 as Sunni tribesmen revolted against the extremism of the militants. Yet it never quite went away and returned to view in 2014. It took advantage of the civil war induced mayhem in Syria to establish a bridgehead before sweeping back into Iraq, pushing aside an undisciplined Iraqi army that appeared reluctant to defend Sunni areas. Only as it approached Baghdad and Kurdish territory did it meet serious resistance, though this required the return of western airpower to Iraq. ISIL is even more extreme than al Qaeda, dealing brutally with minority groups and Shia, and making a spectacle of the murder of hostages. Even worse, it has begun to branch out, attracting followers in the unsettled states of North Africa and mounting attacks against its western enemies, culminating in November 2015 with the destruction of a Russian airliner flying from Egypt and multiple attacks on Paris.
2016 therefore starts with governments wondering what to do about a pernicious threat that seems able to bounce back in a new form every time an attempt is made to stamp it down. Members of the international community that argue about much else agree that ISIL must be eliminated, but, as yet, do not have an agreed strategy other than to intensify air strikes against its known areas of strength. Before a better strategy can be developed, the first requirement is an honest appreciation of ISIL’s position.
The first point is that this is the latest in a line of extremist groups that share ideological roots. It can be traced back to the development of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in the interwar years. There are significant differences between these groups, which matter to their leaders and occasionally to their followers, but they draw on similar themes and are often in competition for recruits from the same broad constituency. There is a large constituency in the Muslim world for radical policies based on exclusive and austere religious beliefs and a conviction that these must be defended and promoted through violent action. Many Muslims reject the underlying ideology and others accept the ideology but reject the methods. Some with moderate religious views still blame western governments for policies that seem to target Muslims. The numbers actively sympathetic to ISIL and similar groups may be a small proportion of the total but the absolute numbers are significant.
Second, although comparisons have been made with the past “isms” of Nazism, Fascism and Communism, Islamism as an ideology has important differences. It does not depend on a particular state or the advocacy of a particular charismatic leader. Many leaders have been killed, often by western forces, but the ideology persists. Even if ISIS is “eliminated” the animating ideas will live on. The idea of a Caliphate challenges existing national boundaries, so it is not nationalist as such. Although, it would be surprising if national factions do not develop over time as they did in al Qaeda. Moreover, in some countries it can appeal to the majority religion, while in others, for example in the West, it can only appeal to a minority of the population. There are no obvious borders to the influence of ISIL and its interest in mounting operations, but there are to its ability to establish a base.
Third, its durability and spread means that even if we could identify “root causes” of its more violent impulses, it is hard to see how addressing these could remedy the current position. We can regret our past colonialism and heavy-handedness as well as our support of dictators and mishandled interventions; we should regret our past encouragement of Islamism, because it was so anti-communist, as well as paying court to Arab regimes even while they provided the seed money for the expansion of the ideology. In addition, we cannot ignore the importance of poverty, racism and discrimination. These are all matters that need addressing and doing so may help to limit ISIL’s future appeal. However, addressing these issues may provide little short-term respite, and in some cases may further destabilise an already unsettled region.
What, then, can be done? First this is a “war of ideas”. The Paris attacks provide a compelling reminder of the things that we do value, including our core freedoms and the forms of innocent enjoyment that so enrage ISIS. It is important to demonstrate that our societies are not so soft and decadent that they are unable to withstand this sort of attack. Second, it is not only the case that the most vital ideological struggles must be those taking place within the Muslim world, for these affect the ability of militants to get support, but they also affect the ability of the militants to cohere. Groups that claim to be custodians of divine truth can find error easily and start fighting among themselves. Radical groups tend to fracture and this should be encouraged. Third, a cult prepared to embrace martyrdom is hard to deter by threats of punishment, but they can be frustrated through denial – that is, being caught out by good intelligence, informers, protective measures and so on. This is especially true in societies where ISIL is unable to mount an insurgency but can try terror campaigns. It is impossible to prevent all attacks, especially those by “lone-wolves”, but the political effect desired by ISIL will only come about if they are regular, and so disrupt normal life. We should not set impossibly high standards for counter-terrorism but it is vital that there should be no sense of a persistent and irresistible campaign.
Lastly, ISIL wants to be a state and in the end that must be denied to them. That means addressing their ability to sustain the populations under their control by disrupting their financial and trafficking networks as well as harassing their leadership and degrading their capabilities. Other than Special Forces and advisory groups, Western armies are not going to enter Iraq and Syria soon in large numbers. If ISIL is defeated this will have to be by local armies, and for this to happen there has to be more conflict resolution, reform and reconciliation in the region, especially in Syria. That will take time. The strength of ISIL should not be exaggerated. The threat it poses can be minimised if not eliminated, but this is a long haul and there are no quick fixes.
*Sir Lawrence Freedman is the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College London. He was Head of the School of Social Science and Public Policy at King’s from 2000 to 2003 and was Vice Principal from 2003 to 2013. He retired from King’s at the end of 2014. He was educated at Whitley Bay Grammar School and the Universities of Manchester, York and Oxford. Before joining King’s, he held research appointments at Nuffield College Oxford, IISS and the Royal Institute of International Affairs. He was appointed Official Historian of the Falklands Campaign in 1997.
**Turkish version of this op-ed was first published at Analist monthly journal’s January 2016 issue.