As ISIS lashes out, beware of the knee-jerk response
With a horrible inevitability, the acolytes of the Islamic State (ISIS) have ramped up their deadly attacks on civilians in the Middle East and beyond, even as its forces on the ground in Syria and Iraq retreat in the face of its local and foreign enemies.
It has been a predictable response to loss of territory and is couched by ISIS ideologues in terms of taking the battle to the homelands of those it identifies as its foes.
“Know that blood has no value in the countries of the crusaders and that there are no innocents there,” warned ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani. “The impotent America and its supporters think that they scare the believers and that they will win victory against mujahideen. Never!”
The threat, made before Adnani was killed August 30th in Aleppo, came in the latest edition of the group’s Turkish-language magazine, Konstantiniyye, and was spotted by the Clarion Project, a US-based anti-extremist watchdog organisation.
“America! Have you made the world a safer place through your war against us or have fear and destruction spread over the entire world?” Adnani is quoted as saying. “Canada, France, Tunisia, Turkey and Belgium have witnessed this fear and destruction.”
The statement came after high-profile attacks claimed by the group, including the killing of a French police chief and his wife, the death of 84 people mown down by a delivery lorry in Nice and 49 slaughtered in a Florida nightclub.
As before, innocents nearer home continued to be the principal victims of ISIS-inspired attacks, for which the group itself has not always taken direct responsibility. More than 50 people died in the bombing of a wedding party in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish Gaziantep province in August and other deadly bombs were used in Syria and Iraq.
It has been the attacks on Western targets, however, that have attracted the greatest attention and provoked the sometimes panicked responses of Western governments.
As it retreats on the battlefield in Syria, Iraq and Libya, ISIS is reverting to a classic tactic of asymmetric warfare based on unpredictable outrages anywhere in the world and designed to unnerve and destabilise the target countries.
Whatever the actual chain of ISIS command in any given attack, the group has been quick to exploit the actions of lone-wolf operators who were either responding to its propaganda or felt legitimised by such propaganda to fulfil their own violent neuroses.
The ISIS tactic is crude and transparent.
First, the group wants to engender fear in Western societies that will lead to pressure to either increase or decrease intervention in the affairs of the Middle East. Both options suit the ISIS agenda.
Second, ISIS seeks to promote fear of and discrimination against Muslim communities in the West to push those Muslims towards extremism.
Some Western countries have obliged with knee-jerk reactions such as the ban on the burqini on French beaches. Britain has put more high-profile armed police on the streets of London in a country where the police are traditionally unarmed. It is a measure as likely to unnerve locals and visitors as to reassure them.
A variety of sometimes heavy-handed deradicalisation programmes appear as effective at alienating Muslims as they are at integrating them more fully into mainstream society.
ISIS may be making headway at stirring political passions in the West, undermining traditions of tolerance and exposing Western governments as “enemies of Islam”.
Such governments have been forced to respond to politically inspired campaigns by limiting personal freedoms to confront the enemy within. France’s National Assembly voted in July to extend a state of emergency for six months. It was ordered after attacks in Paris in November 2015 killed 130 people.
French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned: “There will be other attacks and there will be other innocent people killed. We must not become accustomed, we must never become accustomed, to the horror, but we must learn to live with this menace.”
The prevailing hope is that if and when ISIS is defeated territorially, it will not be able to recoup through a tactic of terrorist attacks, however threatening these are to governments around the world.
One dissenter is William McCants, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, who recently wrote: “Even if the Islamic State doesn’t immediately recover from the demise of its government, it will be buoyed for years to come by spectacular attacks abroad and by its earlier state-building success.
“No other Sunni group has credibly claimed to re-establish the caliphate in its historic heartland since the demise of the institution in the 1920s,” he explained in a Brookings blog.
A counterargument might be that all such spectacular campaigns inevitably morph from an existential threat into an inconvenience.
International air travellers are accustomed to intrusive travel restrictions, introduced in the face of a long-abandoned hijacking campaign by elements within the Palestinian liberation movement.
Passengers were required to remove their shoes at security after al-Qaeda’s failed 2001 “shoe bomber” attack on a US jetliner.
In the 1980s, London police removed garbage bins from the streets to prevent Irish republican bombers planting devices in them. It took 20 years — and a peace settlement — to get them back.