The brutal killings in Paris come on top of the downing of a Russian airliner in Sinai, the bombing of a Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut and an attack against Kurds in Ankara. About 500 people have been killed in the past few weeks, and many more injured. Islamic State (ISIS) has claimed the first three, and is suspected of the fourth. Since September 2014, ISIS has performed at least 26 attacks, resulting in more then 875 killed, 14 different countries, 8 countries are Middle Eastern (57%) and 6 western countries (43%). And those numbers are not complete; the number of people who have perished because of terror outside the borders of Syria and Iraq is much higher.
With all the killings, the support of ISIS has only grown. The narrative on which it has built its support has been premised on western Islamophobia and hatred of non-Christians. Atrocities such as those in Paris are partly designed to trigger a backlash against Muslim refugees, immigrants and citizens of Europe. ISIS may be hoping this will help fuel more disillusionment and radicalization.
I think it’s about time that we understand the strategy of the ISIS?
To start with understanding their strategy, let’s see what they want.
What the ISIS wants is simply “set the world on fire”. It wants to promote the conflict between Sunni and Shia, it wants to have the right-winged politicians and hardliners in conflict with the more liberal and social elements in the whole world, it wants to have problems and civil unrest between the Arab immigrants and the rest of the native populations, it wants to drive the millions of immigrants to Europe and anywhere else trying to overwhelm them, it wants war between the major countries, it wants destruction, despair, horror, genocide, the return of the old killing fields straight in the countries of Europe, US, Russia and the rest of the world.
According those simple statistics, it’s not hard to understand what they are doing and why.
They want to spread their horror in Syria and Iraq and they went to spread it internationally, all over the world. The objective for this is primary as a recruiting tool and it works fine. The secondary objective is placing fear in the heart of the world population and they succeed in that too. And thirdly, they want to undermine the international governments and regimes and that works fine too … slowly though, but it works.
This is the way how they work.
They want to continue and even to increase the current turmoil in Center and Northern Africa, Syria and Iraq and control the territory and resources to continue building their caliphate. It is not seeking to overthrow Bashar al-Assad – the Syrian president is useful as a target for Sunni anger, and there has been tacit co-operation between Islamic State and the regime. They avoid direct conflict with Assad, trade in oil and both target the more moderate militias.
ISIS wants the horrors of war and terrorism as a recruiting sergeant. The best option for them is a conflict that can be presented as Muslims against infidels, whether American, Russian, Asian, African or European.
A conflict pitching Sunni against Shia also helps them: they want Sunnis in the Middle East and beyond to see them as their standard-bearer. They like Iran so far, as this country is trying to do right that: increasing the war and violence between the Sunni and Shia Muslims.
In the ISIS mind-set and common strategy, the Paris attacks are a show of power. They keep the pot boiling and will draw more Muslims in Europe and all over the world to their cause.
There are two things ISIS does NOT want. First is a full-blown ground intervention by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or Russia, as this would quickly cost the militants their base in eastern Syria and western Iraq. But if that would happen, it would not be a stopper for them. They will retreat and wait until those armies leave and they will come back again, just like they did when the US army went home at the end of the Iraqi war.
The group will calculate, probably rightly, that — in the wake of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — there is no appetite for that in western capitals or Moscow.
French President François Hollande’s talk of war is unlikely to result in NATO’s article five commitment to collective defense being triggered in any meaningful way. Second is a peace deal bringing a new government to Syria. If there were a settlement accommodating Syrian Sunnis — a big if, given it would require Assad’s departure — ISIS would lose its appeal. It will for sure not stop them, but they will be less popular for the time being, until they ISIS will think about something else.
That should reinforce the resolve of foreign ministers from the US, Russia, Europe and the Middle East who met in Vienna to seek a political solution to the Syrian war.
Diplomacy will always reflect what is happening on the ground. Russia’s military intervention in Syria, targeting anti-regime forces, has strengthened the negotiating hand of the Kremlin and its ally, the Assad regime.
If the West wants to shape the outcome, its military role will have to be less tentative than the current limited strikes against Islamic State and arms supplies to the less extreme anti-Assad militias. If you analyze the attacks of the US and it’s coalition allies in Syria and Iraq, you will be astonished what you discover. It’s micro-managed (each possible target is over-carefully considered and that takes weeks, even months and Obama is in charge who will what bomb). Strategical assets from the ISIS, like oil, tankers, and the like are not targeted and so not bombed! The whole campaign is performed tentatively. They can continue like this for 100 years and the ISIS is continuing like not much is happening.
Negotiating with countries like Russia, Iran and even with Syria and Iraq requires a different mindset and basically a certain degree of strength is the minimum.
Why did Islamic State attack France?
Paris has been at the forefront of opposition to Islamist extremists in the Sahel and in Syria.
The French Muslim community is not well integrated — and, being mainly of north African origin, feels more involved in the conflicts in the Arab world than the south Asians in Britain or Turks in Germany, which has made them more susceptible to Islamic State rhetoric.
The attack in Paris was a complex, well-planned campaign, executed by skilled operatives, who knew not to use phones, computers, SMS, Internet and any other electronic form of communications, which might be intercepted by secret services or authorities. Of course, some were known to the French security services — it would be much more alarming if they were all “clean skins”. We need to know how they planned, how they communicated, where they trained and what traces they left ahead of Friday.
French security services will have been working on these questions all week, supported by counterparts across Europe. They are battling to get on top of the escalating threat at home. France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, the internal service agency, is having to shift from its police methods to an intelligence-led approach to get on top of the modern threat. The Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, the external service, is geared more to pursuing French interests abroad than supporting security at home.
French intercepting capabilities come under the external service and are not as easily directed against terrorists in France. Countering terrorism requires tight co-ordination of agent penetration, intercepts and bulk data analysis. Teamwork is vital. In the UK, it was developed only after the 2005 London bombings. Reform of the French services, already being driven by Manuel Valls, the impressively tough prime minister, is certain to be accelerated.
The next attack probably will not be in France. Islamic State wants to provoke division across Europe — in particular, hostility to the refugees flooding in. It wants the far right to grow in strength, further alienating European Muslims. Germany might be vulnerable as Islamic State would see an attack as weakening Chancellor Angela Merkel and dividing opinion in that country.
It could just as easily be in London: according to Andrew Parker, head of MI5, the UK domestic security agency, six terror attacks have been foiled in the UK this year already — though none, I suspect, as extensive as what we saw in Paris.
Political calculation and available operatives will determine where Islamic State tries to strike next. There is little doubt that there will be further attacks. This will test not only British intelligence agencies. The wars in Europe’s neighborhood are now washing on to British shores and governments in Europe — especially France, Germany and Britain — will have to lead the response. Britain cannot expect the US to ride to its rescue.
The common opinion that characterizes ISIS’s actions as a “clash of civilizations” is ill-informed, unfortunate and unhelpful. ISIS does not represent the views of most Muslims who are peace-loving. The chorus of condemnation after the Paris attacks illustrates this and leaders should build on it instead of further polarizing people by treating this as anything but a fight against violent extremism.
It has also become apparent that raining more bombs on Syria and Iraq may not necessarily yield the desired results. The Middle East has been one of the most bombed places on earth. This has not reduced violent radicalism, but increased it. This is not to suggest there is no place for military action, but it is important to understand that a response has to be multi-faceted and involve patient attempts to build alliances premised on human development.
It is for this reason that the response of western governments must be more nuanced, mature and scientific. Nuance means working harder to understand the underlying reasons that make young Muslims in Europe and elsewhere vulnerable to radicalization. Many are seduced by the violence because they feel socially, economically and culturally marginalized. In an environment in which unemployment is high, it is critical to understand how adverse socioeconomic conditions affect young Muslims.
Finally, it is critical for the United Nations (UN) to consider a coordinated military response to the threat of ISIS, one that is informed by genuine cooperation at the UN Security Council. This will be hard to achieve, but Russia’s involvement in Syria means the risks are no longer just the West’s to shoulder alone, but are shared across the divide.
What is needed more is a conversation involving Syrians and Iraqis, as fractured as they may be, about what kind of societies they want and how the world can help them achieve that objective. The politics of regime change and crude self-interest have to be abandoned for the sake of preserving humanity. Time is running out.
If the world is not doing this, many more citizens all over the world will die before the international forces will start finally their campaign. But at what cost?