As you’ll no doubt be aware by now, Paris was attacked last weekend by ISIS terrorists. If you were not aware of this, I hope you enjoyed you expedition to the darkest recesses of the Amazon rainforest because I have no idea how else you could have missed it. The Paris attacks are kinda complex, at least in the sense that the precise detail of the situation are still somewhat up in the air, but there’s one massively clear issue that this whole event has dragged back into the spotlight: how do we stop terrorism?
Naturally there have been no shortage of opinions on this, most of them wildly contradictory and with absolutely everybody being completely certain that theirs is the one and only solution to the problem. We’ve got those who want to sit back and bomb the shit out of the region ISIS is occupying, we have the slightly more aggressive approach of sending in the military on the ground to root out every last terrorist in existence, we have those that just want to go on the defensive and lock down the borders, and then there is the surprisingly large group arguing that we should just keep the hell out of it in case we make things any worse.
In case it wasn’t already clear, I have no background in national security and my experience in military strategy boils down to a lazy skim over The Art of War and a lot of computer games, so any commentary from me about how best to physically fight terrorists is going to be fairly useless. And what with my amazing lack of involvement in the intelligence community, I’m also equally unqualified to discuss how we can prevent terrorist from infiltrating our countries, recruiting out disenfranchised youth, and conspiring to kill as many of us as they can get our hands on.
But there is one aspect of the debate about stopping terrorism that I am quite nicely positioned to discuss, and that’s the ideas that motivate and drive terrorism in the first place. In the face of shootings, bombing and other atrocities being carried out, a debate about values might seem kind of pointless or even offensive – people are dying all over the world and I want to sit here and chat about motivations? – but this ignores the very simple point that these aren’t psycho killers we’re talking about. The attacks on Paris, as with the 9/11 attacks and London bombings before them were not random acts of violence carried out by crazy people, but carefully planned operations that managed to evade some of the best intelligence networks in the world to pull off. No one sinks that much time, effort and energy into something for shits and giggles, so the question then becomes what does ISIS want? What are the terrorists hoping to achieve with these attacks?
Again you might question why figuring this out is necessary at all. Surely we can just be happy with ‘They’re terrorists, terrorism is bad, let’s go kill some terrorists’, right? But as many commentators have already pointed out in the wake of the Paris attacks, what if that’s exactly what ISIS wants us to do? They’ve already come out and clearly stated that their ultimate goal is not to simply seize control of Syria or even the entire region, but rather to unite the Islamic world against the “Armies of Rome” that is, western nations and/or everyone else who isn’t Islamic (no word on how Daoists, Hindus or Buddhists fit into this but whatevs) in what is essentially the beginning of the Apocalypse – presumably an Islamic apocalypse though they never actually went into that much detail. Be kind of hilarious if they went to all that trouble and wound up hanging out with Shiva, hey?
Easily the most fabulous deity going.
This might sound like ISIS is spoiling to throw down right here and now, practically inviting western militaries to take them on in a pitched battle, winner takes all. You’d think that, but it’s hard to express how completely untrue that is – as the esteemed Waleed Aly pointed out this week, ISIS is weak. Really really REALLY weak, and just in case it’s unclear just how weak they are, here’s a map of all the territory this ‘Army of Islam’ current controls in Syria:
Yep that’s right, ISIS, the terror of the west that claims it will bring about the apocalypse and the end of the western infidels currently controls a couple of highways in a country that is an active war zone, in the middle of a region renowned for political instability. Not exactly all that impressive really, is it?
But surely that just means now is a great time to attack them, right? They’re weak, the west is strong, they’re evil, we’d be justified in killing them all, so let’s quit this silly moralizing and go get stuck in! But once again, what if that’s exactly what they WANT us to do? ISIS in its current state is completely incapable of reaching its own goals. Sure they can commit terrorist attacks, hurt our citizens and make us all afraid, but that’s about all they can do and it’s a hell of a long way from killing 120 French citizens to overthrowing their government, let alone defeating the combined armies of the west in a final showdown. But that’s not what ISIS is trying to do. As they said themselves, their strategy for beating us is to unite the Islamic world against the west, and when you consider there are currently 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, constituting 23.4% of the global population, now we have a threat worth talking about.
To be clear, for the VAST majority of those Muslims, ISIS is about as attractive as… well, a band of murderous, torturing, power-tripping shitheads.
The sheer volume of refugees fleeing the ISIS occupied areas, not to mention the ongoing resistance by civilians in these areas, demonstrates pretty clearly that ISIS isn’t going to be getting that army any time soon. Unless of course, we decide to run their recruitment campaign for them.
Remember back when Al Qaeda was the Big Bad Terrorist organisation that the west was hunting down? And remember how we invaded two countries, bombed the shit out of their infrastructure, accidentally (maybe) killed a ton of civilians, and then pissed off to let them pick up the pieces? If you look at those campaigns as an effort to kill Al Qaeda then it succeeded pretty damn well – the organization is now a shadow of its former self with most of its leadership dead, and unlikely ever to recover. But if you look at it as a campaign to end the threat of Islamic terrorism as a whole, then it’s gone pretty bloody badly. Turns out destabilizing an entire region makes it vulnerable to power-hungry groups to muscle in and try to take over, and what better way for those groups to recruit new fighters than to point to all the death, destruction and misery being experienced and blame it on the enemy – the hated west.
There’s just so much going on in this picture, I can’t actually decide if it’s offensive or not…
When ISIS attacks western nations, challenges the mightiest militaries in the world to combat, and threatens Vladimir ‘Bond Villain’ Putin of all people then one of two things are true: they are either completely insane, or they see profit in being attacked by the west. And given ISIS was effectively founded on shattered remains the Coalition of the Willing left behind us in Iraq, it’s pretty clear which is the case. If the ‘Armies of Rome’ were to take the bait and wade into the Syrian conflict then the outcome would be pretty decisive; ISIS would be crushed within months. But just as the death of Al Qaeda heralded the beginning of ISIS and a dozen other militant movements, so too would the death of ISIS simply confirm the narrative they had been preaching: Muslims cannot live alongside westerners in peace. A great decisive war between the two cultures is inevitable.
So if physically attacking ISIS will only be playing into their hands, then what is the alternative? Sitting back and doing nothing as these scum ravage their way across Syria, murdering, raping and torturing to their hearts content? What if in our inactivity ISIS actually starts to get a real foothold of power in the region in its own right and goes from weak to strong? What if instead of an insidious creeping sickness, their ideology become a loud clear message of hate broadcast from a new caliphate and backed by their martial success? I’ve written here before that inaction can be just as unethical as action if we know the consequences, so how can we justify letting these atrocities occur?
Well fortunately there is an alternative; we kill the idea.
Ideas, as has been frequently noted with regard to terrorism, cannot be killed – which is to say, you can kill all the terrorists you want, but the idea driving the attacks will stay alive so long as there is someone who agrees with it. In the case of ISIS, the idea has actually been positioned to grow stronger with every one of their members killed. But history shows us that ideas can indeed be killed and often are.
Consider the excellent concept of Esperanto, an artificial language designed to be easy to learn for all peoples, greatly increasing our ability to communicate globally without any one existing language gaining dominance – any you most likely have never even heard of it, because virtually no one took it up.
Not a big enough idea for you? Well how about Communism? An idea that was so huge that it defined the 20th century, manage to completed with capitalism, and formed one side of a global ideological war – and which is now so completely dead that its name is actually used as a strawman to attack anything even vaguely left-wing.
Ok fine, but both of these are just ideas that people tried to implement and failed. ISIS isn’t just suggesting a novel idea here, they’re willing to enforce it with blood, fire and terror. Well believe it or not there’s plenty of examples of those sort of ideas failing as well. Ever heard about the Spanish Civil War, where the fascist Nationalists managed to beat the socialist Republicans, not through military superiority but rather because the Republican factions were too busy fighting amongst themselves to focus on their common enemy?
Alternatively you have the modern IRA who tried to take Northern Ireland back from the English and have ultimately petered out. There’s the Tamil Tigers whose plans for an independent state carved out of Sri Lanka were decisively crushed. And then there’s the Italian Mafia, a crime syndicate that once reached all the way up to the President of the United States, but now is a shadow of its former glory. All of these groups were based around a core idea and were willing to use force to achieve that idea – and all of them have ultimately failed. So what happened? And how can these dead ideas teach us to kill ISIS at its core?
Well the demise of each idea depended a lot on its nature and circumstances; Esperanto ignored the fact that no one was going to learn a language that no one else already spoke, Communism became perverted by corruption and power struggles until it collapsed in on itself, the Spanish Republicans fell to infighting, the IRA basically ran out of steam because the wrongs they were trying to right got fixed, the Tamil Tigers had the spirit crushed out of them by the Sri Lanka military, and the Mafia had their major source of income cut by the end of prohibition and were worn down by constant legal scrutiny. In each of these cases however one thing remains consistent; each was denied the resources they needed to survive and thrive.
If ISIS’s goals can only be achieved through recruitment of other Muslims then the route to killing their core idea is simple: deny them those recruits. Alone ISIS is a small band of sadists holding on to a tiny piece of territory in the middle of a war zone – without recruits they will collapse and disappear so in dealing with ISIS above all else we must avoid validating their rhetoric, providing proof to vulnerable, disaffected or unstable Muslims that they cannot trust the west.
As we’ve discussed before, the unfortunate reality is that the only effective counter to violence is violence itself – the atrocities being committed by ISIS and other parties in Syria cannot be tolerated and must be fought. But if by doing so we provide ISIS with the very resource they need for their ideology to survive and grow then we will be undermining ourselves in a terrible way. If we kill civilians through bombings and drone strikes we feed ISIS. If we invade the country and our troops attack civilians, we feed ISIS. If we persecute refugees fleeing from ISIS and regard them as threats then we feed ISIS. If we discriminate against Muslims purely for being Muslims within our nations, we feed ISIS.
I am not a general, nor a spook and how we should fight ISIS is not a question I can answer, but if there’s one thing I can be quite certain of here it’s that we really really really REALLY should not feed the movement that we are seeking to destroy.