Desconstructing the ISIS Crisis

ISIS has carried out attacks in Turkey, Egypt, and France over the past month. In response, international leaders have declared “war” on the terrorist organization. It remains far from clear whether further military intervention will harm, or benefit, the so-called “Islamic State”.

Memorial for terrorist attack victims, place de la République, Paris, November 20, 2015, Guillaume Payen/Zuma Press/Corbis

Memorial for terrorist attack victims, place de la République, Paris, Nov. 20, 2015. Guillaume Payen/Zuma Press/Corbis

Does the punishment of Paris on Friday, November 13 reflect the self-styled Islamic State’s overweening confidence in projecting terrorism outside the Middle East or an inadvertent confession of its gradually shrinking writ in Syria and Iraq?

Did the perpetrators correctly calculate the price to be paid, perhaps even hoping to bog down the outside world in an exhausting counter-productive retaliatory invasion of their self-proclaimed caliphate in Syria and Iraq?

Such calculations are less far-fetched than might be imagined. The humiliation of the Soviet army in Afghanistan in the 1980s and the Americans in Iraq after 2003 have made such thinking an article of faith first with Al-Qaeda and now with ISIS which effectively supplanted Osama Bin Laden’s organization in Iraq and Syria.

Deconstructing this conundrum lies at the heart of what aggrieved France, its American and other allies, and would-be Russian friends should do—or avoid doing—together or on their own.

Just posing these questions presupposes answers exist that are subject to right reason. So doing also underlines uncertainties bequeathed by American-led military intervention and radical jihadists in the Middle East over the past two decades.

What’s incontrovertibly clear is that terrorism has become infinitely more complex since September 11, 2001 when Bin Laden unleashed his spectacular assault on Mars and Mammon by attacking the Pentagon and Manhattan’s World Trade Center and killing three thousand people in a single morning.

Consider the intricate nature of the ISIS caliphate: never before in the contemporary era has an Islamist organization rivaled its ability to perform as a quasi-state complete with efficient administration, standing army, a guerrilla force, and a ruthless terrorism arm at home and abroad.

The very word caliphate that ISIS has appropriated combines Sunni Islam’s temporal and religious power for the first time since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Arguably, no terrorist undertaking has been so successful since the high water mark of the Assassins in the Middle Ages.

The appeal of ISIS to dispossessed Sunnis, especially from afar, is real. It combines shock-and-awe horror—beheadings, crucifixions, rapes, mass executions, and destruction of pre-Islamic architecture—with slick state-of-the-art videos and a constantly renewed flow of social media posts.

Since its lightning conquest of wide swathes of Syria and Iraq in mid-2014, ISIS has proved it is no flash-in-the-pan. Still, it has suffered setbacks this year, especially at the hands of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds (while seizing major Sunni cities like Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria).

Clearly its Paris rampage, following bomb outrages in Beirut and the destruction of a Russian airliner over Egypt, represents a major change in strategy. Previously ISIS had avoided “out of theater” spectaculars, preferring to consolidate its hold locally and avoid retribution by major outside powers. ISIS appeared initially to have understood that its now surpassed rival Al-Qaeda had invited destruction upon itself by striking what Bin Laden called “the far enemy” abroad.

But such is its apocalyptic ideology that ISIS has disregarded that lesson either because it always intended to wreak havoc in Europe (and most likely in the United States) or because it felt itself under threat.

In other words, is this yet another iteration of the old saw about the revolutionary bicycle that is doomed unless it is kept pedaling forward?

Whatever the answer, technically, ISIS put on a dazzlingly virtuoso performance in terrifying Paris. Three teams of young French (and Belgian) Muslims of North African ancestry attacked three sets of targets almost simultaneously: France’s biggest stadium, a Paris concert hall, and a half dozen trendy bars and sidewalk cafes favored by the young relaxing after the week’s work.

The shooters were unflinching. They stood their ground as they went about coldly killing civilians who themselves had done nothing specific to justify a violent death. The killers also displayed professional discipline in allowing one to reload while others kept firing their Kalashnikov assault rifles.

In terms of tradecraft, it was a case of something borrowed, something new. Simultaneous attacks have been a Bin Laden trademark since the late 1990s.

Use of explosive-laden suicide vests in the Middle East was pioneered in 1982 by Shiite Muslim radicals against Israeli occupation forces.

Random slaying of civilians by a commando equipped with assault rifles and in constant motion at multiple sites was lifted from the Pakistani Islamist commando operation against the Indian port city of Mumbai in 2008.

But gratuitously killing patrons at the landmark Bataclan concert hall for hours on end literally was innovative killjoy. So, too was mowing down customers at sidewalk tables.

ISIS justified the mayhem in a video denouncing “the capital of abominations and perversion” and French bombing of ISIS territory in Syria. Ominously, the video announced “this is only the beginning of the storm.”

Indeed in barely three hours ISIS had unleashed a perfect storm, which could scarcely have struck at a more vulnerable moment for unpopular French President François Hollande and his Socialist government. His pet project, the global climate summit conference, was scheduled to start in Paris at the end of the month and French regional elections were to take place soon thereafter. The ISIS operation embarrassingly exposed a humiliating breakdown of France’s once justifiably proud counter-terrorism establishment.

Less than ten years ago, France was streaks ahead of its American and other European colleagues thanks to dedicated anti-terrorist courts, linguists fluent in two dozen Arabic dialects, a discreet watch on cyber cafes, and informers in radical mosques.

Tight budgets due to a lackluster economy blunted the old model, which was already under strain. Overworked anti-terrorist judges and police made no secret they were unable to keep up with the sheer volume of young Muslims in dead-end suburbs attracted to ISIS, often to the point of volunteering to fight in Syria. French citizens constitute the largest national group of volunteers from Europe (and Belgium the highest percentage per capita).

Successive manpower cuts in police ranks made human surveillance, France’s forte, unbearably expensive and thus at best selective. For the authorities monitoring social media, a slick ISIS skill with a wide following became a time-consuming and spotty undertaking. The system’s shortcomings were already on display last January in Paris when other Islamist terrorists attacked the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket. The government warned that more such operations were likely.

Reforms, including more funds for anti-terrorist police and judges, then were set in motion, including a new law on intelligence gathering that is more intrusive than similar legislation in the United States. But before the reforms could prove effective, and despite the foiling of several lone wolf terrorist operations this summer, ISIS finally got lucky.

The French president acted quickly, decisively, but perhaps in ways that may prove less well advised as times goes by. Hollande abruptly endorsed sweeping restrictive legislation limiting key civil rights, starting by proclaiming a state of emergency now extended for ninety days.

Watching the French national assembly and senate all but unanimously jointly vote such legislation was all the more poignant for the French who had criticized President George W. Bush for doing much the same thing after 9/11.

In the past Hollande had rejected such limitations when favored by the right and especially the extreme rightwing National Front. But at least temporarily he wrong-footed the parliamentary opposition, which was left sputtering and obliged to follow his lead.

Lost in this rush to “do something” to reassure the nation, Hollande and the entire political establishment may yet have played into the terrorists’ hands by alienating large swathes of the Muslim population, which makes up some 10 per cent of the population. ISIS recruiting sergeants count on a rising wave of Islamophobia, a constant theme of ISIS propaganda, and an undercurrent in French public discourse.

France’s decision to strike back in legitimate defense by bombing ISIS targets was perfectly justifiable in international law. But so far bombing has been only marginally effective militarily, judged by larger scale Russian and especially American examples in Syria.

So was “war,” Hollande’s own description of his decisions, entirely appropriate in dealing with homegrown Muslim killers appealing to the wider ranks of disaffected Muslim youth in France and Belgium as well as in the Muslim world?

As Hollande noted grimly, “it was Frenchmen who killed other Frenchmen.” More terrorist attacks—and more are considered likely—seem gauged to fit neatly into the ISIS credo favoring such an “end of days” battle that the caliphate insists is nigh.

Even from a narrow military vantage point, what kind of war can be successful waged when those doing the bombing—France, Russia, and the United States—keep proclaiming they have no intention of sending ground troops to end ISIS control in Syria and Iraq?

President Barack Obama, aware of Americans’ disenchantment with two lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan initiated by former President George W. Bush, has shown no willingness to follow in his predecessor’s footsteps. Russians still remember their Afghan war helped bury the Soviet Union.

Indeed it’s become unofficial dogma that Western (or Russian) troops on the ground would only produce more resentment and ensure yet another generation of international terrorists.

Logically, neighboring and regional powers might be expected to supply boots on the ground since they are threatened by ISIS. But Washington’s key partners in the anti-ISIS coalition—NATO Sunni ally Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the other Sunni Gulf petro-monarchies—refuse to do so.

Turkey resents U.S. air support for Syria’s Kurds. Saudi Arabia is focused almost entirely on its archrival Iran and is fighting a war in Yemen. Iraq’s Shia-dominated government shows neither the ability nor the desire to fight to regain its lost Sunni territory.

Only rival Syrian and Iraqi Kurds have fought steadfastly and gained back ground against ISIS thanks to U.S. air support. But so far the Kurds show no disposition to fight beyond territory they consider Kurdish.

As for Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, he has survived thanks to Russian weaponry, and since September, air power, as well as Iranian money, military advisers and militia volunteers. But he owes much to thousands of committed Shiite fighters from Iran’s ally in Lebanon, the Hezbollah militia.

Yet, there is an underlying irony in this uneasy standoff. ISIS on paper has a multitude of enemies and they have begun nibbling away and recovering territory lost in 2014.

Especially galling to ISIS and its sense of innate invincibility was having to watch this summer as other opposition forces, its bitter rivals, drove government troops out of territory directly threatening the heartland of Al-Assad’s ruling Alawite minority along the Mediterranean coast.

Faced with this crumbling of government control, in early September Russian President Vladimir Putin, long an Al-Assad family ally, moved three dozen warplanes to a base on the Mediterranean to bomb the opposition (but initially rarely ISIS positions).

Putin may have miscalculated: orthodox military doctrine discourages reinforcing impending defeat. He apparently did not pencil in what quickly ensued.

Perhaps to deter further foreign military intervention, perhaps to precipitate it, ISIS struck back. It defiantly claimed responsibility for a clustered series of payback attacks.

On October 31, ISIS blew up a Russian airliner with 224 aboard soon after it left Sharm El-Sheikh in Egypt with returning vacationers. On November 12, a double suicide bombing in Shiite-dominated south Beirut killed more than forty Lebanese. The next day it was the turn of Paris where 130 perished.

To date the upshot has been a nascent and once unthinkable nominal rapprochement between Russia and France and the United States who seemingly agree that ISIS—and not Al-Assad—is the principal enemy. That is a success for Putin, but does not necessarily spell doom for ISIS.

What is likely to happen now?

In the past, a concert of nations or an imperial power alone, usually the Ottoman Empire, meted out punishment to offenders like ISIS and imposed a political solution on war-torn places like Syria. But the Middle East has become vastly more murky since such imposed comity obtained.

Little indicates such a solution is in the offing for settling ISIS’s hash or for a negotiated outcome for Syria. The sticking point is Al-Assad. Putin and Iran wants him to stay and the West would like to see him eased out, if not immediately ousted.

Historians note that past apocalyptic organizations in the Middle East like ISIS often have self-destructed. Some Western specialists give ISIS anywhere from one to five years, others even twenty years.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has passed on more active involvement in yet another war in the Muslim world.

Washington’s regional Sunni allies in Turkey and the Gulf despair of U.S. leadership and tend to disregard its advice. They have enough money to play their own hands, even if badly. Iran feels its vital interests—including access to its Hezbollah ally in Lebanon—are threatened.

Already the French, who this time only started bombing Syria in early September, have moved their aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle to the eastern Mediterranean to step up retaliatory raids. The Russians also have also increased their attacks against ISIS targets, employing Cold War-era strategic bombers and cruise missiles as well as fighter-bombers. The Russians are notoriously unmoved about causing civilian casualties, a major concern the French and Americans maintain govern their air strikes.

It would seem that a universal failing, or perhaps defense mechanism, is not to understand the whys and wherefores of such destructive retribution. Arguably, only ISIS stands to benefit.

Jonathan Randal is a former correspondent for the Washington Post. He is the author of several books including Osama: The Making of a Terrorist; After Such Knowledge, What Forgiveness? My Encounters with Kurdistan; and Going All the Way: Christian Warlords, Israeli Adventurers and the War in Lebanon.