The French strikes on Islamic State positions following the November 13 Paris attacks point up the peculiar dual nature of this protean Salafi jihadist organization, whose ruthlessness, ability to capture and hold territory, significant financial resources, and strategic acumen make it a threat unlike any other the West has faced in the contemporary era.
The problem is, as the Paris killings and the French counterattack indicate, the Islamic State is partly a totalitarian state and partly a transnational terrorist organization. As a state it can be attacked and defeated, at least temporarily. And yet the more we in the West attack the state, the more its appeal as a terrorist organization will grow among those who see the West as an enemy.
The ISIL proto-state represents a marriage of Salafi jihadists and highly trained Baathist military and intelligence personnel, the very same Baathist personnel that the United States fired from their posts in 2003. The proto-state capitalizes on Sunni Arab disenfranchisement in Syria and Iraq, and thrives in the chaos caused by civil war in Syria. The state earns revenues not only by selling oil, but also by “taxing” people who are trapped in the territory it controls. It also taxes the export of antiquities, and most important, refugee flows. Although ISIL has?denounced the refugees leaving Iraq and Syria as traitors, it is also making money from their duress.
At the same time, ISIL is also a millenarian cult with global terrorist ambitions. A number of existing terrorist organizations have pledged allegiance and become “wilayat,” or provinces, among them the Sinai Province in Egypt; Barqa, Tripoli, and Fezzan Provinces in Libya; Khorasan Province in Afghanistan and Pakistan; and Boko Haram’s West Africa Province in Nigeria. We can expect provinces to continue to spread into lawless or poorly governed areas. Volunteers are coming to the Islamic State by the tens of thousands, enticed by the chance to live in the only “place on the face of the Earth where the Shari’ah of Allah is implemented and the rule is entirely for Allah,” in the words of the Islamic State’s online magazine, as well as the promise of sex, violence, and money. Many of them will end up serving as cannon fodder. While many experts focus on ISIL’s narrative of victory, I see a narrative of overcoming humiliation and a chance to recover lost dignity. This narrative is meant to appeal to all the world’s oppressed.
A principal source of the threat to the West is that ISIL and its Salafi jihadi ideology have metastasized into the banlieues of Europe. It appeals, in ISIL’s words, to the people?“drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people.”?To those oppressed, ISIL promises the chance?“to remove the garments of dishonor, and shake off the dust of humiliation and disgrace, for the era of lamenting and moaning has gone and the dawn of honor has emerged anew. The sun of jihad has risen.”
With the Paris attacks, ISIL has taken this challenge to a whole new level. Until now, we have mostly seen?relatively unsophisticated self-starters, inspired by ISIL’s ideology, but not directed by its leadership. But it was only a matter of time before ISIL would be able to coordinate attacks outside its territory. To do so requires not only trained labor and weaponry, but most important, intelligence and counterintelligence, the latter greatly enhanced by a Snowden-inspired antisurveillance mood. We are likely to see ISIL-trained operatives working together with local personnel who know the targeted city or facility.
Over time, we will likely see more use of insiders, as we may have seen in the explosion of the Russian airliner over Egypt on October 31.
Carrying out such attacks invites a devastating counterattack on the Islamic State. These attacks do not further the interests of the totalitarian state. But again, they do further the interests of the millenarian cult, the goal of which is to goad the West into a final battle in Syria.
With enough will, and enough ground forces, we can defeat the Islamic State on the territory it controls. It would require a massive infusion of military might, but the West certainly has the means. Many of the millions of people living under ISIL’s totalitarian rule do not wish to be there, and we’d have to be willing to live with their blood on our hands. Still, many would argue that the stakes are so high that the “merciless” war that French President Fran?ois Hollande has called for is the right approach.
For example, New York Times columnist Roger Cohen has?argued?quite persuasively that the attacks in Paris prove that the only objective commensurate with the threat is the elimination of ISIL’s stronghold in Syria and Iraq. “A certain quality of evil cannot be allowed physical terrain on which to breed,” he says, and he is right. Unlike previous totalitarian regimes, the Islamic State flaunts its evil with grisly images calculated to terrorize. It seduces vulnerable youth with a wide array of promises, catering to eclectic fantasies and needs—the opportunity to recover lost honor, to help those in need, to rape and kill with impunity, to purify the world and reinvent themselves. Crushing the Islamic State would surely serve the interests of justice.
A downside to this approach is that it would be a temporary fix. Defeating ISIL in Syria would require ending the civil war there; a tall order indeed. The 2007 “surge” in Iraq resulted in a temporary rout of the predecessor organization to ISIL. A?number?of generals warned before the surge that we would need to occupy Iraq for three decades to create a viable state. Even if we were prepared to occupy Iraq and Syria for the next 30 years, there is no guarantee of success. And if there is anything we ought to have learned from our mistakes in both Iraq and Libya, it is that a failed state riven by sectarian tensions may well be the worst of all possible outcomes.
Moreover, it is not enough to defeat the Islamic State in its stronghold in Syria and Iraq. Its provinces must be defeated, its ideology crushed, and its seductive appeal undermined. Western recruits are the principal threat to the West, at least for now. A massive attack, which would inevitably involve civilian casualties, could well increase their number.
What options are left to us? The unsatisfying answer is that we need to continue what we’re doing, but do a lot more of it and do it better. That includes working with our allies to cut off the flows of foreign fighters and funding, continuing airstrikes, and deploying special forces against high-value targets. Our Arab allies, who are far more threatened by the Islamic State, need to step up to the plate militarily. We need to rethink our opposition to surveillance, a critically important counterterrorism tool. We also need to get a lot better at undermining ISIS’s claim that it is offering a “five-star jihad,” and that the West is at war with Islam. Many former members have come back horrified by the brutality and corruption that they witnessed. We need to find a way for them to tell their stories to vulnerable youth.
The bottom line is this: terrorism is psychological warfare. It has been used by the weak against the strong for millennia. Among its multiple objectives is to make its victims overreact. We want to wage war to banish the feeling of being unjustly attacked or unable to protect the blameless. We want to wage war on evil. But sometimes the effect of our reaction is precisely that which we aimed to thwart—more terrorists and more attacks, spread more broadly around the world. This is the paradox of counterterrorism—the military strategies required to defeat the threat today often bring more terrorism tomorrow.
Jessica Stern, a Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies research professor and coauthor of ISIS: The State of Terror (HarperCollins, 2015), can be reached email@example.com.
A version?of this piece was published in Politico on November 17, 2015.?
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