This isn’t a tactical, operational, or a strategic perspective. This is a civilizational POLMIL level review of what we are actually facing.
Even though we have been involved in this Long War for over two decades (I think a convenient starting point is the first attack on the World Trade Center) – many people do not recognize it for what it is. Even people at very high levels of responsibility remain blinded by the threats facing the Western world – including the American President and most of the Western political elite.
Here is your Monday bucket of cold water.
Via Scott Atran, director of research in anthropology at the CNRS, École Normale Supérieure, and a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford over at Aeon. Go get a fresh cup of coffee, close the door and put the phone direct to voice mail. Read it all, and how can you not? Something that pulls in to a discussion of the Long War Robespierre, Burke, Hobbes, Darwin Terence, Hitler, De Gaulle, Jefferson, and Orwell?
Here are the pull quotes;
What accounts for the failure of ‘The War on Terror’ and associated efforts to counter the spread of violent extremism? The failure starts with reacting in anger and revenge, engendering more savagery without stopping to grasp the revolutionary character of radical Arab Sunni revivalism. This revival is a dynamic, countercultural movement of world-historic proportions spearheaded by ISIS, (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, also known as ISIL, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant). In less than two years, it has created a dominion over hundreds of thousands of square kilometres and millions of people. And it possesses the largest and most diverse volunteer fighting force since the Second World War.Exactly. We continue to look at this from a Western point of view. Worse yet, from a Western faculty lounge point of view.
What the United Nations community regards as senseless acts of horrific violence are to ISIS’s acolytes part of an exalted campaign of purification through sacrificial killing and self-immolation: Know that Paradise lies under the shade of swords, says a hadith, or saying of the Prophet; this one comes from the Sahih al-Bukhari, a collection of the Prophet’s sayings considered second only to the Qu’ran in authenticity and is now a motto of ISIS fighters.
Although attacked on all sides by internal and external foes, the Islamic State has not deteriorated to any appreciable degree, while rooting ever stronger in areas it controls and expanding its influence in deepening pockets throughout Eurasia and Africa. Despite recent White House reassurances, US intelligence tells us that ISIS is not being contained. Repeated claims that ISIS is being degraded and on the way to inevitable defeat ring hollow for almost anyone who has had direct experience in the field. Only Kurdish frontline combatants and some Iranian-led forces have managed to fight ISIS to a standstill on the ground, and only with significant French and US air support.I feel the need to just put this out there at the end of 2015 - this is nothing new. Many of us have been trying to get everyone to understand what this was all about well over a decade before ISIS/ISIL/Daesh even existed. We should take it as a victory that more and more are coming around to it - but when will they accept the next cards under the deck?
Despite our relentless propaganda campaign against the Islamic State as vicious, predatory and cruel – most of which might be right – there is little recognition of its genuine appeal, and even less of the joy it engenders. The mainly young people who volunteer to fight for it unto death feel a joy that comes from joining with comrades in a glorious cause, as well as a joy that comes from satiation of anger and the gratification of revenge (whose sweetness, says science, can be experienced by brain and body much like other forms of happiness).
What the ISIS revolution is not, is a simple desire to return to the ancient past. The idea that ISIS seeks a return to medieval times makes no more sense than the idea that the US Tea Party wants to return to 1776.
In our liberal democracy, intentional mass bloodshed is considered evil, an expression of human nature gone awry. But across most of human history and cultures, violence against other groups was considered a moral virtue, a classification necessary for killing masses of people innocent of harming others.Over-reaction comes from panic. Panic spreads due to one primary cause; poor leadership.
Besides, brutal terror scares the hell out of enemies and fence-sitters. Kurdish leaders told my research group that when 350-400 Islamic State fighters came in a convoy of some 80 trucks to free Sunni captives (and massacre more than 600 Shia inmates) from Badoush prison in Iraq’s second largest city Mosul, a relatively well-equipped Iraqi army of some 18,000 troops under US-trained leaders immediately disappeared or ran away. When I asked one Arab Sunni soldier embedded with a Kurdish Peshmerga force on the Mosul-Erbil front why fellow soldiers fled, he simply said: ‘They wanted to keep their heads.’
The shutdown of Brussels in the wake of the Paris attacks, or of Boston in the aftermath of the marathon bombings in 2013, speaks to a comparable fear, and contributes to an underlying lack of faith in our own societies and values, something that terror attacks are designed to promote. During the Second World War, not even the full might of the German Luftwaffe at the height of the Blitz could compel the UK government and the people of London to cower so. Today, mere mention of an attack on New York in an ISIS video has US officials scurrying to calm the public. Media exposure, which is the oxygen of terror in our age, not only amplifies the perception of danger but, in generating such hysteria, makes the bloated threat to society real.
This is especially true today because the media is mostly designed to titillate the public rather than inform it. Thus, it has become child’s play for ISIS to turn our own propaganda machine, the world’s mightiest, into theirs – boosting a novel, highly potent jujitsu style of asymmetric warfare that we could counter with responsible restraint and straight-up information, but we won’t.
The outcome is dangerous and preposterous. The US Justice Department, with overwhelming support from Congress and the media, now considers the common kitchen pressure cooker to be a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ if used for terrorism. This ludicrously levels a cooking pot with a thermonuclear bomb that has many billions of times greater destructive power. It trivialises true weapons of mass destruction, making their acceptance more palatable and their use more conceivable. In this present hyperreality, messaging is war by other means. ISIS’s manipulation of our media creates a sense of foreboding of mass destruction where it isn’t really possible, and at the same time obscures any real future threat.
Asymmetric operations involving spectacular killings to destabilise the social order is a tactic that has been around as long as recorded history. Violent political and religious groups routinely provoke their enemies into overreacting, preferably by committing atrocities to get the others to drive in the sheep and collect the wool.
From the retreating mass of the Iraqi Army to the growing assault on the Bill of Rights in the USA, ask yourself, who were/are the leaders and what were they doing? What messages were they putting out to their people, and what did they state as their priorities? Did it reassure the good and confound the bad? Well ... results speak for themselves.
How much can lower echelon leaders do to make up for failings at the very top? Can they?
Back to resetting fundamentals. This, more of this.
The chasm between values is compounded by alternate historical arcs. The West and the Arab and Muslim world have long lived mostly separate and parallel histories. In the West, people generally believe history began with Ancient Sumeria around the 26th Century BCE. Centred in the southern part of modern-day Iraq, Sumeria was birthplace to written law and literature, and to Abraham and his monotheistic creed. Civilisation then moved west to Greece and Rome. After the fall of Rome, came the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment, the first political revolutions, the world wars and the Cold War. Human rights and democracy became triumphant and seemingly inevitable.Ideas matter. Your ideas, and the ideas of the enemy. In a war of ideas, how much is offence, how much is defense. What can be done if only one side is fully engaged in both?
The Arab and Muslim world also begins with Sumeria but, until the world wars, Rome, Greece and the rest were peripheral. Christian Europe was the dark continent; Muslim heroes, myths, legends and references were all basically different. Sure there is Moses and Alexander and Jesus, but their profiles in Islam are distinct: Musa’s (Moses’s) life paralleled Mohammed’s and foretold the Prophet’s coming; Iskandar (Alexander) or Dhul-Qarnayn (Arabic for ‘The Two-Horned One’) was a religious figure to whom Allah gave great power and the ability to build a wall of civilisation to provisionally keep out the forces of chaos and evil. And Isa, or Jesus, was Allah’s righteous messenger, not his son, who did not die on the cross but, like Mohammed, was raised to heaven.
All of the European political imports and even nationalism itself (except maybe for Turkey, Egypt and Iran, which are still more built around ethnicity and faith than national identity per se) have failed in the Middle East, and miserably so. People are longing for something in their history, in their traditions, with their heroes and their morals; and the Islamic State, however brutal and repugnant to us and even to most in the Arab-Muslim world, is speaking directly to that.
In the West, those who support the foundations of Western Civilization have over the last century surrendered control of the culture and academia to the self-loathing left. That has given us the worst possible terrain to fight this battle. You cannot attract others to your cause - and bolster those already on your side - if your messages are swaddled in self-loathing, and your actions signal a weak horse. Combine this with one side exporting their surplus population that brings their hostile cultures with them and a receiving side refusing to force assimilation, and you have a recipe for unending conflict until one side or the other changes - or is defeated.
As I told the UN Security Council this spring, what inspires the most lethal assailants in the world today is not so much the Quran or religious teachings but rather a thrilling cause and a call to action that promises glory and esteem in the eyes of friends. Foreign volunteers for the Islamic State are often youth in transitional stages in their lives – immigrants, students, people between jobs and before finding their mates. Having left their homes, they seek new families of friends and fellow travellers to find purpose and significance.Another item we simply refuse to address seriously - the role of the Saudi monarchy in promoting this radicalization. Decades ago, it was Saudi money that sponsored mosques throughout the Western world, exporting the Wahhabi and Salafist radicalism with it;
France’s Centre for the Prevention of Sectarian Drift Related to Islam estimates that 80 per cent come from non-religious families; West Point’s Center for Combating Terrorism finds that their average age is 25. For the most part, they have no traditional religious education and are ‘born again’ to religion through the jihad. About one in four, often the fiercest followers, are converts. Self-seekers who have found their way to jihad reach out through private gatherings or the internet. They might be people who feel uncomfortable with binge-drinking or casual sex, or have seen their parents humiliated by employers or the government, or their sisters insulted for wearing a headscarf. Most do not follow through to join the jihad, but some do. More than 80 per cent who join the Islamic State do so through peer-to-peer relationships, mostly with friends and sometimes family. Very few join in mosques or through recruitment by anonymous strangers.
Adherents of this pure Caliphate are violently opposed to the idea of greater jihad as an inner spiritual struggle. They consider this bogus notion of jihad to be the heart of the Sufi heresy introduced in the later Abbasid Caliphate, which corrupted the pure Arab-led form of the Caliphate and led to its decay and downfall.The seeds bore fruit.
At the East Asia summit in Singapore last April, some people insisted that the Caliphate was nothing more than a myth masking traditional power politics. Our research in Europe and North Africa shows this to be a dangerous misconception. The Caliphate has re‑emerged as a mobilising cause in the minds of many Muslims, and even has some appeal to Muslims who favour interfaith cooperation. ‘I am against the violence of Al‑Qaeda and ISIS,’ said an imam in Barcelona who helps to run an interfaith dialogue initiative with Christians and Jews, ‘but they have put our predicament in Europe and elsewhere on the map. Before, we were just ignored. And the Caliphate… We dream of it like the Jews long dreamed of Zion. Maybe it can be a federation, like the European Union, of Muslim peoples. The Caliphate is here, in our hearts, even if we don’t know what real form it will finally take.’
It is in these mosques that much of the local battle will be fought. Every Friday. Remember, one of the primary targets in this war are our Muslim countrymen and other Muslims holding Western passports, converts, and immigrants. How hard are we working to support their integration and for them to resist radical messages in their mosques?
‘The Extinction of the Grayzone’, a 12-page editorial published in ISIS’s online magazine Dabiq in early 2015, describes the twilight area occupied by most Muslims between good and evil – in other words, between the Caliphate and the Infidel, which the ‘blessed operations of September 11’ brought into relief. The editorial quotes Osama bin Laden, for whom ISIS is the true heir: ‘The world today is divided. Bush spoke the truth when he said, “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists”’, with the actual ‘terrorist’ being the Western Crusaders. Now, ‘the time had come for another event to… bring division to the world and destroy the Grayzone.’No center is their goal. What are we doing to grow the Grayzone?
The author ends on a very somber note. To my friends on the left, as you attack the fruits of the Enlightenment, Western Civilization, and the Western concept of individual liberty; are you frustrating or helping our enemy in the Long War?
Civilisations rise and fall on the vitality of their cultural ideals, not their material assets alone. History shows that most societies have sacred values for which their people would passionately fight, risking serious loss and even death rather than compromise. Our research suggests this is so for many who join ISIS, and for many Kurds who oppose them on the frontlines. But, so far, we find no comparable willingness among the majority of youth that we sample in Western democracies. With the defeat of fascism and communism, have their lives defaulted to the quest for comfort and safety? Is this enough to ensure the survival, much less triumph, of values we have come to take for granted, on which we believe our world is based? More than the threat from violent jihadis, this might be the key existential issue for open societies today.History does not always progress. The future belong to those who show up and fight for it.
Always has, always does. History does not owe you and your culture a future. What are you doing for it?