Last week, I watched William McCant speak about his new book The ISIS Apocalypse: The History, Strategy, and Doomsday Vision of the Islamic State, at the Brookings Institution. For me, it was just another foray into the increasingly complex situation in the Middle East – the birthplace of Islam, and the historical and present-day hub of Islamism and Jihadism, currently being exported worldwide. I’m not so naïve as to believe I’m adequately aware of all the nuances involved here, such is the nature of the beast. Nonetheless, I seek to educate myself in this area, because the threat of islamism has a long reach, and is ever-present in today’s world. The populace of any democratic nation better become informed, and fast, if they’re to support policies to address this issue. What I’ve learned thus far made me skeptical of the idea, that ISIS was behind the terror attacks in Paris, which left 129 people dead and hundreds more wounded. That said, given the apparent sophistication and coordination of the attacks, I thought it equally unlikely, that the perpetrators were a band of unaffiliated loons. I thought Al-Qaeda a likely candidate at first, despite no obvious targets – unlike the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo staff members this January for the “crime” of blasphemy – but I was sure a reason would come soon enough. As McCant pointed out in his talk, ISIS’ primary concern is spreading the caliphate in the region and because of this, they’ve had little cause to extend their activities beyond that end (at least at this stage). So whilst it feels like these attacks are becoming normalized, we really are in uncharted territory here.
In response to ISIS’ claims of responsibility, France has increased their efforts in Syria, hitting ISIS strongholds in Raqqa. President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin, had a 30-minute, informal discussion about the Paris attacks and the civil war in Syria, at the G-20 summit this week. According to this article “President Obama and President Putin agreed on the need for a Syrian-led and Syrian-owned political transition, which would be proceeded by UN-mediated negotiations between the Syrian opposition and regime as well a ceasefire.” Again, at the risk of being skeptically premature, this looks like more lip service from Putin. It is well known that Russia is an ally of Iran – on the side of the Assad regime – in the Syrian civil war. Since September this year, Russia has sought to appear meaningfully engaged against ISIS in the conflict. However, as Middle East analyst and Syrian war aficionado Kyle W. Orton observed, so far Russian airstrikes have targeted opposition groups more than ISIS; likely in an effort to strengthen Assad’s position and keep the threat of ISIS in play, taking focus off the regime. Another article reported “they talked about a new proposal to end the Syrian conflict and Obama’s hope that Russia’s airstrikes in Syria would focus on Isis, not opposition groups fighting Syrian President Bashar Assad”. If Putin had a smirk on his face when that was put to him, I would not be surprised. Perhaps I’m being too cynical, after all, ISIS targeted Russia prior to the Paris attacks, claiming responsibility for the downing of a Russian plane over the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt earlier this month. Again I was perplexed. ISIS seemed not to realize that Russia’s targeting of opposition groups benefitted them. In addition, if it’s true, as McCant and others suggest; that ISIS hoped to demonstrate their strength by striking in the heart of France, thereby diverting attention from their recent military/territorial losses. Then it may prove counter-productive as far as their expansion in the region is concerned (it may also suggest Russia’s tactics as outlined above, also fits ISIS quite nicely). McCant further posits that the attack on Paris could be a net widening exercise; an attempt to replace Al-Qaeda as the face of global jihad in an effort to draw more recruits. Both theories could be true, or neither. Unfortunately we don’t know, and either way, ISIS has upped the stakes with this shift, and are perhaps courting disaster. In any case, due to the many uncertainties, one hopes that a 30-minute conversation and an increase in airstrikes, is not the extent of the analysis and response to this complex issue.
One would also hope (against hope at this point) these attacks will prompt world leaders to address the ideology enabling groups like ISIS, namely Islamism. Maajid Nawaz and the usual voices are again making desperate pleas for honest dialogue, which alas, will likely fall on deaf ears once more. Before victims bodies were cold, the media began voicing concerns of a backlash against Muslims in Europe – que the Islamaphobia brigade – and although I am yet to hear of any such backlash taking place, it may well come if people’s grief is allowed to metastasize. Governments need to motivate Muslim communities to address the problems with their faith, and their youth, particularly young men; make improvments in integration policy, and denounce right-wing fascists that would use this atrocity to whip up hatred against all Muslims, playing into ISIS’ recruitment strategy. However, preventing such a backlash doesn’t require silence or obfuscation on our part. Rational (non-regressive) liberals, conservatives, feminists, atheists, Muslims and so on, must have honest discussions about all the issues, no matter how uncomfortable. For example, if Ahmed Almuhamed entered Europe under the guise of an asylum seeker, then this is a real problem. Those that scoffed at the mere suggestion that refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria may pose a terrorist threat – a grossly racist thing to even imply! – may want to clear their throats before speaking on this issue again. Total closure of Europes borders, and a hardening of hearts against refugees, hardly aligns with humanist values, but something has to be done to reduce the risk of jihadists slipping through the cracks, especially in light of ISIS’ seemingly recent incursion into global jihad. Whatever the topic, let’s not allow the discourse to be dominated by fascists on both sides.
Lastly, today on 3News New Zealand Prime Minister John Key suggested that “dark communication” – the use of phone apps like Surespot and Wickr – means it’s increasingly difficult for intelligence agencies to monitor terrorist activity. This makes “whistle blowers” like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange seem all the more culpable to me. Revealing intelligence methods, undoubtedly gives groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS the means to adapt, allowing them to operate under the radar, but that’s a matter for another day. The point is, New Zealand is not immune from terrorism. The Sydney Siege in Australia (2014) was very close to home. How long before we have our own Islamist inspired attack? We must be cognizant of the possibility, as New Zealand takes part in training Iraqi troops for their fight against ISIS.
In summary, from my limited vantage point on these matters, a multilateral approach seems the only option. Globally, we need to start having honest discussions about Islamism and push for doctrinal reforms that make contemplating joining an islamist or jihadist organization, anathema. There needs to be better integrative policies – particularly across Europe – achieved in liaison with members of Muslim communities, we must admit that our “allies” in the fight against ISIS – Russia for example – do not share our ultimate ends, and any conversation about Syria must include the removal of Bashar al-Assad as well as the destruction of ISIS, and we must develop a plan to tackle the refugee crisis, which stands to get worse as military operations in Syria intensify.
Not too hard is it…