After Paris and Beirut, now what?

Now that the immediate shock of the massacres by ISIS in Paris and Beirut, plus the bringing down of the Russian airliner, is easing somewhat, it may be possible to step back and ask oneself: Why now? Why were these horrific attacks unleashed at this point in time?

After all, it has always been the case that if you have people willing to die, it is easy to kill large numbers of people. Attacks on ‘soft’ targets, public spaces where people predictably gather in large numbers like markets, sports and concert venues, public transport, and so on and have always been possible. People who are loyal to ISIS have presumably been lurking around for a while. So why was this attack unleashed now? It is important to try and understand the reasons so as to avoid compounding the problem.

First of all, we need to dismiss as the reason that ‘they hate us for we are and our values’. Not only is it overly simplistic, whether that is true or not is largely irrelevant because even if true, it does not answer the ‘Why now?’ question since they have presumably always felt that way. Secondly, we need to not think of ISIS’s leaders as irrational actors in the grip of religious fanaticism. While the individuals who actually carried out the attacks and were willing to die doing so may have had religious motivations, the leadership of ISIS has to be seen as having done a cold-blooded cost-benefit calculation.

Understanding ISIS’s actions require appreciating what their goal is and their progress towards achieving it. ISIS is seeking to actually carve out a large new state from the ruins of several failed or failing states in the region. This ambitious project requires a lot of people to join them voluntarily. While ISIS was gaining territory and sweeping across the region, the idea that a new caliphate was imminent was a sufficiently exciting and realistic prospect that it was able to attract many young people to come and join them. People like to join winning movements and ISIS’s success must have been seductive, like an exciting adventure, for the right kind of impressionable mind.

But lately that progress has stalled. Not only has ISIS not been able to gain new territory, it has even lost ground and one has to suspect that this has had a negative effect on its ability to attract the kinds of numbers of new recruits it needs to further its goals.

Viewed in this light, the recent attacks have to be seen as signs of weakness and not strength because attacks on innocent people in soft target areas are not things that inspire confidence that one is achieving one’s goals.

So why do it?

I think the purpose of the attacks is to provoke countries like France and the US and Russia and the UK into extremely violent reactions. In doing so, many more innocent people will be killed. Furthermore, if the western countries turn against all Muslims living in their midst and treat them as suspect and further marginalize them, then it will increase the chances that some Muslims among them will feel that if the West does not want them, they might as well join the only alternative. If ISIS cannot recruit people voluntarily, then their only hope is to get people who feel further marginalized and rejected by the countries they live in.

So those politicians in the west who are taking the occasion of these attacks to indulge in anti-Muslim rhetoric and stopping the acceptance of refugees fleeing from the devastated countries in the Middle East are playing right into ISIS’s hands. If the refugees are not re-settled, they will end up in camps for extended periods and these places are notorious breeding grounds for disaffected young people who form the pool of potential ISIS recruits.

Creating a ‘War on Islam’ will benefit ISIS because it will only serve to nudge more people into thinking that if they do not have a future in the West, they might as well go under the umbrella of a group that claims to represent their interests. Almost all Muslims in the west will reject this option because they are like you and me, concerned about living our ordinary lives, would not dream of hurting innocent people, and do not have grand geopolitical goals. But it only takes a small percentage of people to buy into the idea that the west is at war with Islam for ISIS’s strategy to be successful

Some in the media are not helping. Take this extraordinary interview with a French Muslim where two CNN anchors seem to lump all Muslims together. They seem to imply that the entire Muslim community was aware of the impending attacks and said and did nothing about them.

Lydia Wilson has written an article based on interviews she has had with captured ISIS prisoners and says that the idea that these people are deeply committed to an ISIS-inspired particular religious ideology is false and that even the idea of fighting for the caliphate is not the main moitvating factor.

Why did he do all these things? Many assume that these fighters are motivated by a belief in the Islamic State, a caliphate ruled by a caliph with the traditional title Emir al-Muminiini, “Commander of the faithful,” a role currently held by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi; that fighters all over the world are flocking to the area for a chance to fight for this dream. But this just doesn’t hold for the prisoners we are interviewing. They are woefully ignorant about Islam and have difficulty answering questions about Sharia law, militant jihad, and the caliphate. But a detailed, or even superficial, knowledge of Islam isn’t necessarily relevant to the ideal of fighting for an Islamic State, as we have seen from the Amazon order of Islam for Dummies by one British fighter bound for ISIS.

There is no question that these prisoners I am interviewing are committed to Islam; it is just their own brand of Islam, only distantly related to that of the Islamic State. Similarly, Western fighters traveling to the Islamic State are also deeply committed, but it’s to their own idea of jihad rather than one based on sound theological arguments or even evidence from the Qur’an. As Saltman said, “Recruitment [of ISIS] plays upon desires of adventure, activism, romance, power, belonging, along with spiritual fulfillment.” That is, Islam plays a part, but not necessarily in the rigid, Salafi form demanded by the leadership of the Islamic State.

More pertinent than Islamic theology is that there are other, much more convincing, explanations as to why they’ve fought for the side they did. At the end of the interview with the first prisoner we ask, “Do you have any questions for us?” For the first time since he came into the room he smiles—in surprise—and finally tells us what really motivated him, without any prompting. He knows there is an American in the room, and can perhaps guess, from his demeanor and his questions, that this American is ex-military, and directs his “question,” in the form of an enraged statement, straight at him. “The Americans came,” he said. “They took away Saddam, but they also took away our security. I didn’t like Saddam, we were starving then, but at least we didn’t have war. When you came here, the civil war started.”

Bernie Sanders was right in the last debate. This whole mess started with the criminal decision to invade Iraq that has resulted in a cascade of failed states that have spawned the breeding ground for ISIS. He was also right that there is a war on for the soul of Islam and it is taking place within the Islamic community both here and in the west and among Muslims globally. We have to aid those in that community who are seeking to make the religion compatible with democratic values so that we and they become allies. Demonizing the entire group will only result in driving some of them into the arms of those who hold the most reactionary and dangerous views.

To their credit, president Obama and the Democratic candidates have resisted the call to demonize all Muslims and stop the intake of refugees or to only limit them to Christians. But such subtleties are lost on the pundit class in the US that is playing its usual role of feeding the anti-Muslim frenzy and thus reacting just as ISIS wants them to. The usual chorus of right-wingers in the US has predictably fallen right into ISIS’s trap, painting all Muslims with a broad terrorist brush and calling for a violent reaction.



  1. says

    This whole mess started with the criminal decision to invade Iraq

    Warmongering causes war. Amazing cause and effect. And now tit-for-tat bombing. Want to bet ISIS does more bombing in retaliation for Raqqa which was retaliation for Paris?

  2. Knight in Sour Armor says

    I dunno, I’ve seen at least one compelling argument that the key to defeating Daesh is taking their land. Whether you’ve got fighters that believe in their cause/doctrine or not, there is no Daesh/caliphate without their claimed territory.

    This is in contrast to the usual terrorist types that are more amorphous and decentralized. The problem now being that your choices for taking their land are either boots on the ground or hellfire and brimstone the likes of which we haven’t seen in nearly 70 years.

  3. Hank Tholstrup says

    The idea that it’s the promise of adventure that drives young western muslims to join ISIS rings true. I have always wondered why no one has drawn a parallel with the Spanish civil war in the 1930’s, which attracted young leftists from around the world to try to protect the spanish republicans against Franco. Those volunteers of course were for democracy, not into beheadings or brutality, but maybe the call to arms was similar psychologically?

  4. Mano Singham says

    Good point, Hank. The parallels with the Spanish civil war are pretty good, even if the motives are not.

  5. lanir says

    I think when my fellow Americans talk about military action they do so with a number of hype-based illusions. Many of these have simple logical counters yet the people who dispense them to a national audience are seeminly unable to perceive or understand any criticisms.

    The idea that we always have super accurate targeting and never make mistakes can be simply rebutted by the mere existence of friendly fire. No one likes to talk about friendly fire for understandable reasons but if it can happen at all that means we do not have battlefield omniscience and can make mistakes.

    Bombs in the media are mythical creatures that only blow up Bad People and their Bad People Places yet our means of acquiring targets is by it’s very nature an imprecise method. We observe from afar, apparently using bad optics and random bits and pieces of information like cell phone triangulation (a method well known to the targets and subject to misdirection). And we blow things up by means that are not precise at all. Who cares if you can target a bomb within a few inches? It’s still exploding in a ball of fire and concussive force, right? These things are not precision instruments.

    We also don’t always do the right thing. The deliberate attack on the hospital in Kunduz is clear evidence of that. The torture of prisoners in Abu Ghraib during the Iraq war is another. Probably the easiest is our continued national disgrace at Guantanamo where we continue to imprision people we’ve never given a fair trial, have since found to be innocent even using military courts which as I understand it do NOT provide the assumption of innocence until proven guilty, yet we refuse to free them.

    None of these things make sense yet if you listen to the news, this is what you’ll hear over and over again. I don’t understand what these people are thinking when they repeat this stuff.

  6. lorn says

    As I see it the ill fated and inadvisable invasion of Iraq certainly made everything worse. Exacerbated by the precipitous loss of focus on Afghanistan as resources were shifted to Iraq. I don’t know how it would have played out but Afghanistan in 2002 was the ‘good war’. The world saw it as necessary and just even if they were not enthusiastic about the blood letting. We had a real chance to destroy the leadership of Al Qeada in one shot because they were all in one area. They had underestimated what laser guided bombs could do. We had them, but due to sloppiness and a rapidly shift to Iraq we left the back door open and the leadership slipped away into Pakistan. The army wanted to airlift a regiment to the Afghan-Pakistan border to block the escape but resources were already being lined up for Iraq. For lack of a nail …

    That said the problem is, in my mind, longer standing and more basic to our cultures. Al Qeada was the result of a poisonous combination of Salafism, a fundamentalist doctrine of returning to the old ways, and the Saudi Arabian culture which eschews labor. The extreme Orthodox Jews have a similar view that men are supposed to be spiritual beings. The end result is that you have wealthy and well educated youths with nothing to do. The natural desire of youth to stir things up gets redirected into cultural and religious wrongs and resentments. Bin Laden was a near perfect example of this. In concert with Salafist preachers to wind them up and focus their rage, and being awash in money and time, it is no wonder that Bin Laden, and a wave of young men like him, would become a sword for Islam.

    It has to be noted that the majority of the terrorists in Paris can be similarly characterized. Young men, lacking a goal and purpose, unemployed, idle, and both indoctrinated and wound up by Silaphist preachers. ISIS provides a context and cause that tells these youths what to fight for, and what to fight against. It provides purpose and a social system that is otherwise lacking.

    In the last decades the context of drug use and abuse has gained depth. Come to find out rats will consume heroine laced water until they die. But only if the rats are isolated. Rats provided with a rat society and intellectually interesting surroundings largely avoid the drugs, and the majority of the down sides of drug use.

    Humans might be assumed to share those tendencies. Socially isolated, lacking context and purpose, people become vulnerable to the lure of drugs, or political extremism, violence, or terrorism. And there is always a Salafist preached there to catch the isolated and disenchanted youths. Much like pimps wait for buses in LA and NYC to help the young ladies from the heartland who wash ashore. The connivers are always there to help, for a price … to be named at a later date.

    While I generally agree that the way the post-9/11 situation was mishandled about as badly as it could be I doubt that the problem wouldn’t have just taken a different form. Alienated and disenfranchised youths are the raw material. Religion is the packaging and theme used to ensnare them to serve the the desires of megalomaniac theocrats bent of world domination.

    If you want to end the exploitation by ISIS, and pretty much all the other manipulations, and drug abuse, you could make sure that youths feel like participants in society, like they were valued by society, that their lives have structure, meaning and purpose. Solve that problem and manipulators and exploiters, of all stripes, will go out of business.

  7. StevoR says

    A few days ago in Paris a bunch of less than a dozen contemptible mass murdering criminal scumbags were so lacking in human empathy and emotional and intellectual intelligence that they went out and killed over a hundred and twenty innocent lives and ruined the lives of so many more forever. These brutal brain-washed douchebags somehow thought this set of appalling atrocities was worth doing and even dying for. The horror and shock is overwhelming and the loss of life and damage to life done is tragic and unfathomable.

    There is so much well justified grief and fury as a result of their super-sized crimes. But what is it that they want, really? What is it that they want from us and how do we make sure we do NOT give it to them?

    Well, for starters, they want to be called “Islamic State”, well, Da’esh -- no. We will, I will, always call you by the apparently derogatory Da’esh as it is what they least like being called.

    They want to be seen and treated as our worst nightmare that changes us and forces us to give them what they want. Let’s not give it to them. They want to be taken seriously as a threat as “warriors” who are, perversely, “heroic martyrs” to their warped cause and who can attract more followers by depicting themselves as standing up for their “oppressed brothers and sisters” in one distorted and ugly backwards interpretation of the worlds second most numerous and truly diverse and not monolithic religion.

    They want a backlash against totally unrelated Muslim individuals and communities that drives a cycle of violence and divides us. They want to be bombed and attacked and, more, they want us to strike out at, bomb and attack the wrong people who have nothing to do with them and add not subtract to their list of victims.

    Da’esh are not “warriors” but cowardly criminal swine, they deserve our contempt and to be fought with reason and coldly rational understanding that never loses sight of who they really are and how weak, flawed and inglorious they really are.

    Most of all they want our fear and hate. They want it to affect so much so that we are changed by them and lose our minds and our cool and our compassion and reason and become closer to their false strawmonster caricatures of who we are.

    Let’s not fear, let’s not hate, let’s not let them divide us and have us hurting the wrong people by wrongly associating all Muslims with these criminals who disgrace their religions name just as the KKK and Phelp’s Westboro cult disgrace the name of Christianity. I hold Da’esh and other “Jihadists” in absolute contempt – they need to be fought and stopped of course – but let’s do so in the right way and most of all, without giving them anything they thought they would gain by their disgusting mass murders.

    No fear, no surrender and no division and no mis-directed hate at the wrong people.


    Pledge against Da’esh :

    You want us to be afraid? We will not be afraid.

    You want us to hate? We will not hate.

    You want us divided? We will unite more than ever.

    You want us to attack and blame the wrong people who have no link to you other than fleeing your evil? We refuse to do so.

    You want us to call you “Islamic state” and see you as “warrior” enemies? We will call you by the name you like least and think of you as what you are; vile criminal douchebags with delusions of grandeur.

    You want to be taken seriously and dominate our thoughts by all your murders and atrocities? We will defeat you with the ridicule and disdain and contempt you deserve and live our lives as we always have despite you.

    You have taken some lives but you cannot take away our freedoms or our nature or our joie de vivre.

    To all your cruel and brutal carnage against innocents, we will respond with cool and firm determination against you and warm compassion and defiant aid to all those you seek to harm.

    This we pledge. And we shall prevail over you.

  8. says

    [I wrote this with no illusions about the nature or motives of the US government or its allies. Given their motives, I don’t expect them to take an intelligent or productive course; any positive actions will have to be pushed on them by circumstances and voices of reason.]

    Any positive steps will have to include aiding the Kurds in Rojava. The YPG/YPJ are virtually the only effective forces against ISIS, they’re poised to take a major ISIS supply route, and they’re advancing a very leftwing program (not perfectly, of course, but who’s perfect?).

    No rational assessment of the US government’s attitude and behavior toward the Kurds in Rojava could conclude that it genuinely wants to defeat ISIS. Any real support other than air strikes given to them is disavowed, its public statements make clear that it has no intention of respecting their independent territory in the future (because it’s “committed to the territorial integrity of Syria” or some such unfathomably arrogant twaddle), and it has refused to support their westward push while acquiescing to and often openly supporting Turkish interference and sabotage of the battle against ISIS.

    A commitment should be made by the international community to guarantee them an independent territory protected from Turkish assaults; they should be supported in their push for Jarabulus; the Turkish government’s attacks on them should be condemned and thwarted; embargoes preventing them from getting supplies and materials should be ended; they should receive not only material aid but vocal support and publicity. Other changes should be demanded of US policy, but support for Rojava (or at least more neutrality) is essential.

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