Both intelligence agencies and military commanders were riding high on the ISIS (Daesh) wave in 2014. ISIS served as “the reason why” for legislation to be passed or toughened and for military capabilities to be boosted and deployed.
How real is the danger that emanates from ISIS, particularly for someone living in Europe or the United States? And how suitable are the answers that are implemented by governments and multilateral organizations to confront ISIS? I recently attended a counterterrorism seminar organized by NATO and hereafter are my personal conclusions about what I heard.
The good news is that the actual danger coming from ISIS is rather minimal, unless you live in Mosul, Raqqa or Kobane. As Ahmed Rashid has aptly stated in an article for the New York Review of Books: “the first thing we need to recognize is that ISIS is not waging a war against the West. ISIS wants to destroy the near enemy, the Arab regimes first.”
This holds true even after the terrorist attack on the French magazine Charlie Hébdo that killed 12 cartoonists and journalists this week. An attack by a single madman (Breivik) or a group of professional, radicalized lunatics (the Paris perpetrators) can never be completely excluded. There is almost no detecting and stopping a man who takes a gun to shoot people when he flies under the radar of police and intelligence services.
The media, and particularly the social media, have been harshly criticized for conveying the terrorists’ message in every household, sowing fear among the white Western women and men. But rather than the media, there are the governments of these women and men that must be blamed for magnifying the threat coming from the Arab world.
Democracies tend to overreact when being attacked on their own soil or when one of its citizens is killed. Democratically elected leaders want to be elected again. They need to show to their constituencies that they are aware of the problem and that they are ready to do almost anything to protect their frightened voters. And as the recently published CIA torture report has shown: the line between protection and plain ugly revenge is a thin one.
Many commentators in Western media want us to believe that Islam is the root problem of terrorism. It’s an inherently violent religion, they say, with the intention to kill all non-Muslims. However, at the root of terrorism are real grievances, not the teachings of the Quran. These grievance, as British author Jason Burke has put it, are “of a political nature but articulated in religious terms.” Religion is instrumentalized by extremist groups as a useful recruitment tool.
People in search of an identity - a condition often encountered in migrant communities in Europe - are easy prey for a message of belonging and serving a greater cause, as violent as this cause may be. This message is now easily available on the internet. Violence in the name of Islam is ground zero for those who have lost all their other landmarks. It must be by solving political and social resentments that we confront the so-called religiously motivated terrorism. The coalition against ISIS bombing the bad guys will not eradicate terrorism. It is simply acknowledging our own shortcomings.
NATO is well aware that the military option to fight terrorism can only be the last resort and will produce an even more virulent form of terrorists. But they are a military organization, neither teachers nor social workers, and not responsible for the migration and integration policies of their respective governments. When your only tool is the army, you must treat every problem as a military problem.
Other actors play an equally ambiguous game. France’s anti terrorism strategy stipulates that the best way to combat terrorism is to support democratic principles. Democracy entails free speech and the liberties of a free press – both values that France defends fiercely for its own society.
But words are cheap when overruled by national interests. In November of 2014, French president Hollande received Egyptian strongman General Sisi in Paris, himself a killer of a democratic process, to talk fighting terrorism with the man and to sell Egypt weapons made in France worth billions of dollars! At the same time, hundreds of critics of Sisi and three al-Jazeera journalists were rotting in Egyptian prisons.
Of course, most combatants for ISIS hail from Muslim countries, not from Europe. What appeal does ISIS hold for them?
These new citizens of the Islamic State didn't need the Internet to become radicalized. Looking out of the window was enough. Growing up in occupied Iraq, Afghanistan or Chechnya, controlled by authoritarian figures like Gaddafi, Assad or the House of Saud, educated in school systems that emphasize rote learning, they have learned one lesson: Violence is power. Power is authority. For these young (mostly) men ISIS represents power. And they want to be a part of it.
Yet there is another factor. Some say that a democracy is the remedy for everything going bad in a country. It’s not. Why is it then that the highest number of foreign fighters in the ranks of ISIS comes from Tunisia, a country en route to a successful transition from autocracy to democracy? Because the Tunisian economy is limping.
Young Tunisian males basically have two choices: to board a boat for Europe, in pursuit of economic happiness, only to be humiliated on arrival – if they ever make it across the Mediterranean sea - and being treated as a second class human being. Or they trek to Syria, to finally have a purpose in life and the feeling of “being somebody” when campaigning with ISIS.
Let’s make no mistake: European and US activities in the Middle East are not aimed at protecting the principal victims of terrorism, the citizens of Arab countries. Their counterterrorism policies are in place to protect Europeans, Americans and Russians. Are Arabs therefore destined to be the eternal victims of modern history, manipulated and not masters of their own destiny?
This logic would let the Arabs too easily off the hook. In the end it’s overwhelmingly Arabs that kill Arabs. Unfortunately this is nothing new. Nizar Qabbani, the Syrian poet and diplomat, whose wife Balqis was killed when a Syrian commando bombed the Iraqi embassy in Beirut in December of 1981, mourned the death of his wife when he wrote: “it’s the fate of Arabs, to be assassinated by Arabs, to be gobbled by Arabs, to be slain by Arabs, to be exhumed by Arabs. How can we evade such a fate? For an Arab dagger it is all the same, killing a gentleman or a madam.”
How determined are Arab governments “to evade the fate” and to combat ISIS? There are good reasons to doubt their seriousness.
Firstly, simply being a part of the anti-ISIS coalition and sending the military after terrorists is attempting a quick fix of a problem that asks for long-term structural changes how Arab societies work and are governed. However, in systems where corruption is rampant, those on top of the food chains are not interested in passing the bread.
Secondly, some Middle Eastern states cannot easily brush away the call of ISIS, because for them it rings a bell. To quote Ahmed Rashid again: “this is above all a war within Islam: a conflict of Sunni against Shia, but also a war by Sunni extremists against more moderate Muslims.” Contrary to Europe, the Arabs’ fight with and against ISIS has - at least partly - a deeper religious background and a sectarian drift.
During the conference, I spoke to a participant from Jordan, a member of the army, and he gave me an idea about what is going on. “We got a big problem in Jordan,” he told me, “we got more than one million refugees from Syria and Iraq.”
Then my interlocutor went on: “however in Jordan, we are more afraid of the Shia than of ISIS. We are Sunni like ISIS. And the Shia want to kill us. They are more dangerous than ISIS. Probably there are sleeper cells already in Jordan. They are Shia from Syria. And Alawites too, they are like Shia.”
Nizar Qabbani was deeply depressed by the death of his wife. Her fate symbolized for him the fate of the Middle East itself. “Balqis,” he wrote, “if they blew you up, it’s because all funerals start in Karbala, and end in Karbala.”
Since the battle of Karbala on October 10 in the year 680, the Muslim world is divided, sometimes more, sometimes less. Many want to keep it divided. A weak balance of failed states is the goal, not the integration into a unified Middle East. In division and in chaos, the resolute and the armed will prevail.
Fear mongering keeps leaders in power, in democracies, as well as in authoritarianism. They make statements to please Western backers or domestic audiences. They all call what they do “the fight against terrorism.”
Nothing could be further from the truth. With all the inadequate, even phony approaches to fight ISIS, with favoring security first over structural reforms, with all the exaggerations to reassure a frightened population, or to keep them huddled behind their leaders, paranoid, paralyzed, I call it “the terrorism hypocrisy!” We must “do different.” We must do better.
By Victor Argo
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