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Remarks on ISIL in the wake of the Brussels carnage
The answer can’t be one-dimensional
by Jalel Harchaoui.
Politicians in countries hit by ISIL violence seem intent on exploiting the threat for the parochial advancement of their careers. They might succeed; but they will also, in the process, help ISIL perpetrate more horrors in the foreseeable future.
The answer can’t be one-dimensional

A Belgian victim this week.

The title of the most read Foreign Affairs Magazine article of 2015 was “ISIS Is Not a Terrorist Group.”

Published a year ago, and authored by George Mason University’s Audrey Kurth Cronin, the paper insisted on how distinct ISIS is from al-Qaeda. What had worked against al-Qaeda in the early 2000s, the paper purported, was inadequate in the fight against ISIS nowadays.

"Terrorist networks […] attack civilians, do not hold territory, and cannot directly confront military forces. ISIS, on the other hand, boasts some 30,000 fighters, holds territory in both Iraq and Syria, maintains extensive military capabilities, controls lines of communication, commands infrastructure, funds itself, and engages in sophisticated military operations.

"If ISIS is purely and simply anything, it is a pseudo-state led by a conventional army.”

Around July 2015, the United States and France jacked up the intensity of Operation Inherent Resolve, a conventional military campaign of aerial bombing in Syria and Iraq, in coordination with local militias on the ground (primarily, Syrian Kurds in Syria, and Iraqi Sunni Arabs in Iraq).

The conventional war effort caused ISIL to lose territory. And then came a series of true-to-form Qaeda-type attacks from ISIL outside of Syria and Iraq, including—but not limited to—the Nov. 13th, 2015 atrocities in Paris, which took 130 innocent lives.

In late Dec. 2015, the city of Ramadi was re-captured away from ISIL by Sunni-Arab brigades with military support from the United States. Soon after that, ISIL, utilizing sleeper cells up until then dormant, perpetrated a wave of reprisals in the form of Qaeda-style bombings around Baghdad, killing 17 civilians in one day.

The mechanics became plain to see: as ISIL lost territory, the jihadi organization retaliated via terror attacks which have nothing to do with its ambition of administering its own ‘caliphate’ territory. “When ISIL was controlling [the] Anbar [region], Baghdad was safer,” compared to after the liberation of Ramadi, noted the New York Times on Jan. 16th.

Full control of some territories is a characteristic that does set ISIL apart from other extremist networks, yes. However, ISIL is not married to its control-over-territory ambitions; it has plenty of other channels at its disposal. In fact, ISIL is not married to anything at all, except sheer brutality. The latter has been receiving material support from many entities, including states. And it has been attracting a constant flow of young recruits from the world over. As long as these two flows continue fueling ISIL, the organization will carry on hurting its enemies, among which Western societies feature prominently.

Between July 2015 and March 2016, ISIL lost 22% of its territory in Syria, and 40% of its territory in Iraq. What a slew of commentators began to recognize only after the March 22nd, 2016, carnage in Brussels, is that Cronin’s remarks were moot. ISIL might not be al-Qaeda, but it possesses the option to do anything al-Qaeda does, and more. With a sense of surprise that truly should not exist, many note now that while “on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria [ISIL] is a rapidly diminishing force,” governments in Europe “scramble to contain the expanding terrorist threat posed” by ISIL (Washington Post).

There is no paradox. In Jan. 2016, analyst Joshua Meservey from the Heritage Foundation, a Tea Party think tank (of all places!), underscored a fundamental truth about Somalia’s jihadi group al-Shabaab:

"Al-Shabaab moved from functioning primarily as a terrorist group to functioning as an insurgency and then as a proto-state to now operating as all three [at it wishes], depending on the circumstances.” That is a much more pertinent observation than Cronin’s.

Meservey, weeks prior to the Brussels atrocities, wrote that “ISIL will likely evolve and innovate as needed, just as al-Shabab has done.” I.e., ISIL will be operating in all three modes above simultaneously—or more modes yet—so long as it inflicts pain. It might hold territory; or it might not.

ISIL is defined as the combination of two things. On the one hand (i) an ultra-simplistic narrative. “The ideology of Salafi jihadism is static and ‘incredibly simple,’ Bernard Haykel, an expert on Islam and the Middle East at Princeton, said. ‘You can learn it in an afternoon’” (New Yorker, March 18th, 2016). Armed with that ultra-simplistic narrative, ISIL displays on the other hand (ii) a totally unbridled readiness to utilize any channels available to its brutality. ISIL is not constrained by any other agenda, whether geopolitical, religious, racial or ideological.

To paraphrase Yemen expert Gregory Johnsen, the debate over whether ISIL is focusing on Europe or the Middle East is besides the point. This is not an either/or situation. ISIL will do whatever it can.

On Mar. 23rd, 2016, Syria expert Emile Hokayem told the Wall Street Journal: “A group like ISIS will morph and transform, and it will become more lethal in other battlefields” than just Raqqa, Palmyra, Anbar or Sirte.

The conclusion from the observations above is that the threat from ISIL is multi-layered. Accordingly, the policies that will manage to contain and degrade it can only be multi-dimensional.

One of the ISIL threat’s several dimensions is that the organization also happens to be an insurgency inside Europe, carried out by European natives. It therefore must be recognized as such, and it must be addressed using all the counterinsurgency know-how modern history imparts.

The RAND Corporation, in an extensive analysis published in 2010, determined “unambiguously that repression is a bad counterinsurgency practice. […] Repression does win phases, but, in [the analysis’] data, the vast majority of phases [that were] won with repression [always] preceded ultimate defeat” of the effort against said insurgency.

The temptation to go the repression route is high in Europe; it’s a crowd pleaser. But unless their goal is to increase the frequency of tragedies such as March 22nd’s, European leaders must avoid anything that obeys a simple narrative. No matter how politically enticing, repressive policies such as France’s are doomed to strengthen ISIL, not weaken it.

On Mar. 22nd, Anthony Cordesman, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, rightly highlights “the need to examine and address the root causes of terrorism and extremism, and keep in mind the dangers of overreaction and political opportunism.”

Cordesman warns against the resort to “de facto segregation by religion or national origin,” alluding to, among other things, Paris’ efforts since Nov. to alter France’s constitution so as to expedite the stripping of citizenship from a certain category of people born French.

"Counterterrorism efforts that unfairly target minorities, and politics that exploit prejudice and fear are outcomes that the terrorists want—not ones they fear.” Those simplistic, one-dimensional campaigns will help terrorist networks grow. “The kind of European and U.S. right-wing and populist politics that play upon fear, rather than create effective barriers to terrorism, are another threat” to Western societies.

"By striking in Europe, the United States, and other targets[, ISIL and cohorts] hope such attacks [will] create panic, tie up resources, and provoke the kind of response that will alienate local Muslims and create new recruits and funding sources.”

So far, European politicians, particularly France’s, have been complying with ISIL’s desiderata. Through their ultra-simplistic response, they have been validating ISIL’s own ultra-simplistic narrative.

That’s the wrong direction to take.

~ Jalel Harchaoui.