The key in beating ISIS is directing our ire clearly. For if we criticize Islamic State by criticizing Islam, it emboldens them further.
It really all started with Al Qaeda. Properly, anyway. The new strategy of how to get to the fabled resurrected Caliphate of all Muslims. The purpose of Al Qaeda is partially given away in the name which means roughly “The Base.” Not so much in the sense of a literal military base, but as a foundation from which something can spring.
Al Qaeda became the most famous of militant Islamist groups that wished for a resurrected Caliphate that would be truly pan-Islamic and reach across the entire Muslim world, ultimately uniting them all into a new state which would finally be able to rival or even defeat the West.
This was a kind of ultimate vision of the much dreamed about “Dar al Islam” (Realm of Peace – a.k.a. the Muslim lands).
Many Muslims look back on the Caliphate, the original Muslim kingdom run by Mohammed and then the four acclaimed “rightly-guided caliphs,” in a similar way to which Europeans look back on the Roman Empire. The Ottomans were quick to capitalize on the sentiment by labeling themselves the new Caliphate and you need only look at the Roman adornments of Napoleon and Mussolini to see the similarities. I strongly recommended you read Tamim Ansary’s Destiny Disrupted for a thorough look at the role of the Caliphate in the collective Muslim imagination. Both civilizations yearned for past greatness, the difference being that from about the Renaissance onward the Europeans had the opportunity to create new fortunes as they had not just been annihilated by the Mongolians.
Back to Al Qaeda, however, they differed strongly from the vast majority of Muslims who sought a new Caliphate in that their strategies had been forged in the brutal and grueling fight for Afghanistan against the Soviets. It was here that their strategy came to the fore about how they would create the Muslim unity they needed (you can read a good deal more about this in Accidental Guerrilla by David Kilcullen) but they realized that the only way for Muslims to band together as they had in Afghanistan was, as in Afghanistan, under the violence of an opponent.
They had drawn the West into a war and made sure they were angry enough to be violent about it. The propaganda war started there and it became an effort to show Muslims that the West was attacking Islam.
What Al Qaeda decided was that in order to create their Caliphate they needed to goad an attack on the Muslim world by “The Enemy,” which to them and many militant Muslims is the colonial powers; in an era of “soft” colonialism, the United States was the archenemy. I would note that this isn’t without truth; Western powers of the last century have skewed outright colonialism, but have kept many of the same attributes through a mix of diplomatic, military, and economic pressures.
I won’t go too into that point at this moment, but suffice to say the dislike for the West isn’t entirely unwarranted which is why these movements can pick up significant support in different places and invasions of places such as Iraq can just give the disgruntled and frustrated a place to go and shoot away their anger.
But Al Qaeda’s strategy with all this was to basically make “The West” attack the “Islamic World.” Now, of course, this is problematic as many in the Islamic world don’t simply see themselves as such, and vice versa for the West, so the objective here is to control the narrative in both places, so Muslims start to identify as Muslims first and foremost. This means, when the West attacks, they can sell this as an attack on Islam rather than specific people or a specific place.
This took the form of 9/11. They were quick to brand their attack as an attack against the primary enemy of Islam and pose themselves as representatives of Islam. The West, primarily but not exclusively the United States, invaded Afghanistan soon after in an attempt to catch those responsible. This, of course, is exactly what the plan was for Al Qaeda and due to some lucky mismanagement by coalition command they were able to escape. They had drawn the West into a war and made sure they were angry enough to be violent about it. The propaganda war started there and it became an effort to show Muslims that the West was attacking Islam.
This proceeded on, into the war in Iraq as well, and Al Qaeda actually fragmented over time because the pan-Muslim revolution they expected never occurred. There was a great deal of frustration and anger in some parts but it never turned into the great uprising they wanted.
Also on The Big Smoke
- The ISIS propaganda machine: How it works
- ISIS: Talking ill of revolution
- The event that made today’s Middle East
ISIS is the consolation prize. They created a set state, a fixed position with a limited number of cities, and effectively declared war on all the surrounding states in the process. They wanted a pan-Islamic uprising; they didn’t want to set up somewhere and have to fight the people they wanted to convert. The Islamic State is fighting a losing war; it’s surrounded by countries that are cooperating with the West in order to destroy it and day by day it’s losing territory.
Now, its new strategy is probably its most effective as we get to the crux of the point. In order to continue what Al Qaeda was originally trying to do, what do you do? You need to goad the West more. You need to separate Muslims from the West, you need to draw a sharp line down the middle. The vast majority of Muslims have no desire to do anything to Westerners which is not what IS wants. IS needs the West and Muslims to see each other as just that, “The Other.” They need to have them vilifying and demonizing each other otherwise the fading dream of the new IS Caliphate will die out and they’ll all be killed.
So, in order to achieve this new psychological objective which will result in the front line they want, the best thing they can do is exactly what they’re doing.
The greatest risk isn’t ISIS sending operatives overseas, but is the conversion of the frustrated, confused, and ostracized in the streets of the enemy. What you’ll see if you look through all the terrorist attacks on Western soil in the past decade, of which there have been several, it’s always a local who is radicalized. It isn’t someone from Syria who is flown over and gets through immigration that carries out the attack; it’s a foreign national who has tremendous personal problems and is eventually converted.
So what we see is the vast IS/Al Qaeda propaganda machine churning out material and making contact wherever possible with people in the West in order to turn them into their agents. This is an extremely cost-effective way of creating constant violence in the West and having it always being done by Muslim hands. This creates more and more fear and anger in the West as it happens over and over again which makes us fearful and angry at Muslims in general. People who don’t understand the complexities at play simply seek the expulsion and banning of Islam which is precisely the aim of IS. They want to be ostracized and banned. They want the fear of Sharia to reach hysterical proportions, they want locals to attack and abuse Muslims on the street because this creates the front line between Islam and the West. We create it by attacking them on the street, turning what is a losing war in Syria and Northern Iraq into a winning war across the globe.
The real enemy is the Islamic State itself and groups taking advantage of the confused, lost, and angry. As someone who lived in a suburb with a very large number of Muslims for a long time, I can safely say you have nothing to fear from Muslim people, just those who would seek to turn us against each other.
Almost across the board, if you read the testimonies of the kids and adults that are motivated to perform acts of terror, they all experienced this ostracization and alienation in their local countries. They all felt this Islamophobia that IS has manufactured and responded to it as intended. I need only have you imagine living in a country where everyone looked at you like a monster, interspersed with the possibility of verbal and physical abuse. In a confused and angry teenager, who we have seen carry out terrifying high school massacres, how powerful could a voice from afar be telling you that you are a holy warrior? That you are loved by an entire nation? Think of what happened at Columbine without any such input.
As Westerners, we have the most difficult task of all. That is remaining objective about what is occurring, remaining in command of ourselves, and realizing that we are being manipulated just as these desperate radicals are being manipulated. That with every ounce of nationalistic backlash we have against Islam as a whole, we feed more fuel into IS.
The real enemy is the Islamic State itself and the groups which are taking advantage of the confused, lost and angry. As someone who lived in a suburb with a very large number of Muslims for a long time, I can safely say you have nothing to fear from Muslim people, just those who would seek to turn us against each other.
As Sun Tzu said, “If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.”
We do not appear to know our enemy and we are at risk of losing sight of ourselves. Detest evil, but don’t allow yourself to be deceived over where it truly lies.