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Islamist terrorism: Time for something new

Six Islamist attacks in Europe so far this year: one in Sweden, two in France, and three in Britain. The attacks in Britain have killed 34 and injured 157, and have shaken the people’s confidence in their government — on the very eve of general elections. The Prime Minister has declared “Enough is enough”, but the new measures she has proposed haven’t reassured the country. As Canadian journalist Margaret Wente has written, an increasing number of the populace believe it’s time for something new. “They’re tired of extracting nails from children’s faces.”

Historian Barbara Tuchman once wrote of the “mental standstill” which has afflicted governments throughout the ages, fixating them on policies contrary to self-interest and rejecting evidence that ought to have caused a change in direction. So it has been with democratic governments’ response to Islamist terrorism. Assumptions about the nature of the problem that were never true. Policies that have failed. Evidence of the failure dismissed as alarmist or ignored altogether. Redoubling of effort.

The facts are as follows:

  1. There is a war on and we’re in it, whether we like it or not. If some are “uncomfortable” using the term “war”, they should acknowledge that it’s something very like it. What it certainly is not is peace.
  2. Governments have an obligation to deal with it. Granted the current barbarism is new and there are few established doctrines or institutional arrangements to apply against it. But what does exist is an expectation that those we have chosen to govern us will figure out what has to be done and get on with it.
  3. The enemy is real, even if not easy to define. Some are states, others not, some operate in the open, others in the shadows. But they won’t disappear if we turn off our televisions.
  4. The idea espoused by today’s enemy is not new, just new in its objectives. The idea is that human beings can be “improved” using the instruments of the state, the origins of totalitarianism. First it was communism, then fascism, now Islamism.
  5. Radical ideas left unchecked lead to murdering “for the cause”. All the great political charlatans of history have advocated the use of force, and that includes the philosophers and leaders of the Islamist movement.
  6. Keep these distinctions in mind. The enemy is not the religion of Islam; it is the ideology of Islamism, the Islamist political program, and the effort to advance the Islamist program through “jihad”.
  7. The war against us is a “religious” one. It’s an absurd notion right out of the dark ages, but it’s the reality. The Islamists aren’t just youngsters acting up because they’re disadvantaged, they want to destroy us in the name of Allah. But they don’t represent all Muslims and we don’t have to accept their claim that they’re the only true Muslims. On the other hand, we shouldn’t buy into the argument that they’re not “real Muslims” — they are, just fanatics and in some cases murderous psychopaths.
  8. Because it’s a new kind of war, our war-fighting strategy has to adapt. Governments and opinion leaders need to abandon the paradigm through which they have viewed the Islamist threat. There are actually three battles to be fought: the ideological battle, the political battle, and the anti-terrorism battle. Each requires its own strategy.

A. The ideological battle

The first and most important, but regrettably least attended to, is the battle of ideas. Islamism has deep historical and cultural roots, considerable geographical reach, unlimited ambition, extraordinary ruthlessness, and wide appeal especially to younger Muslims, all of which make it a formidable enemy. But it is not an inevitability.

In fact, it is something of an absurdity. The Islamists’ goal to establish a universal system of government based on Islam is even more hopeless than the one Marx and Lenin wanted to create based on the “working class”. The notion that their basic tenets would find worldwide acceptance is preposterous. As Egyptian President el-Sisi famously observed at a Muslim conference at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, what Islamists have actually succeeded in doing is “antagonizing the entire world”. Is it conceivable, he asked, that 1.6 million Muslims really want “to kill the rest of the world’s population of 7 billion, so that Muslims can prosper?”

Islamism is an anachronism, espousing attitudes and behaviours which were primitive even 1400 years ago. In the few places where it has managed to hold sway, life has become a living hell. Moreover, its leadership is diffuse and divided, its strategy incoherent and opportunistic, and its resources puny compared to the vast power and wealth of those it aspires to displace. But Islamism will wreak havoc so long as its supporters continue to believe it can one day prevail and their faith is not shaken by countervailing ideas.

This last point is key. You can’t beat something with nothing. Those who believe in the dignity of human life, the rights of the individual, the rule of law, and democratic government, need to go on the ideological offensive. In an age of moral relativism and multiculturalism, the path will not be easy but it must be taken.

In the final analysis, it ought not to be beyond the ken of the democracies to pursue a strategy which respects the religion of Islam as it deserves to be, exposes Islamism as the toxic political force it is, and reminds people why freedom and democracy are so much more compatible with human aspirations everywhere. But it will take a surge of intellectual leadership on the part of governments, the media, the universities and think tanks, and business leaders; and much more vocal denunciation of Islamist heresies on the part of Muslim leaders and clerics. The alternative is to allow Islamist radicals to continue unchallenged to promote the doctrines of “hatred, disgust and revenge” as espoused by Sayyid Qutb, a founder of the Muslim Brotherhood.

B. The political battle

With Islamists having declared a jihad against democratic states and actively conducting warlike operations against them, it ought to be self-evident that a condition of war exists and that democratic states need to get on a war-footing. Drawing on the experience of fighting Communism, they should take as their point of departure that Islamism is an inimical ideology, Islamist organizations are hostile entities, Islamist fighters are enemy soldiers – and war measures are a more appropriate response to the Islamist danger than criminal justice measures no matter how vigorously applied.

In the political realm, the measures adopted would be the modern-day equivalent of some of those used in the fight against Communism. Laws would provide that any manifestation of Islamism or affiliation with an Islamist organization would be proscribed and persons involved would be prosecuted, expelled, or refused entry. Security and intelligence services would have a largely free hand to target individuals and groups suspected of Islamist sedition, including those hoping to operate from the safe havens of religious institutions and websites. Governments would cut off the support Islamists receive from abroad, ending tolerance for “friendly” regimes who condone if not actively sustain the export of Islamist propaganda, propagandists and financing to democratic states. They would be told to choose between terminating their aid and being treated as a belligerent.

C. The anti-terrorism battle

Much is already being done in the battle against Islamist terrorists, but the battle lacks commitment.

Victory certainly requires ensuring that one’s home base is secure, but victory can only be achieved when the fight is taken to the enemy. Only then will the inspiration and support which organizations like the Islamic State lend to their cells outside of the Middle East dry up – and, drying up, produce the atrophy which reduces the motivation and capacity of the cells to cause mayhem. Once the Islamist cause is lost in the Muslim heartland, it is unlikely to last very long anywhere else.

Commitment can be enhanced in at least two ways. The first is for democratic governments to devote the military resources required to win. While many countries consider themselves members of the coalition fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, only eight democracies are actually involved militarily: US, UK, France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Australia, and Canada — though Canada withdrew its CF-18s fighters in 2016. Even the most engaged participant, the United States, has only 5300 troops on the ground, despatched piecemeal over the last several years. This means that the “fourth world war” is being fought with a fraction of the resources available.

The function of a heavier military commitment would not be to try to assume physical control over territory while training indigenous forces to take over security responsibilities, as in the earlier Afghanistan and Iraq campaigns. The purpose would be to seek out and destroy Islamist command centres, supply lines, and fighter concentrations, almost regardless of what indigenous forces did next. And to repeat attacks as often as necessary until the enemy no longer had the capacity or will to fight. In brief, to fix the problem not the country.

Commensurate with such a strategy would be rules of engagement which broadened the scope of permissible military actions. The law of international armed conflict (LOIAC) provides a belligerent state much leeway in keeping with the demands of military necessity while curbing its freedom of action in the name of humanitarianism. Under LOIAC, Islamist fighters would henceforth be treated as combatants who could be targeted “wherever found, armed or unarmed, awake or asleep, on a front line or a mile or a hundred miles behind the lines”. And because they have breached the war-fighting rules of the Hague and Geneva Conventions, Islamist fighters would also be treated as unlawful combatants who had forfeited the protections accorded prisoners of war. Those captured would be subject to detention, trial and punishment by military tribunals.

Conclusion

The war against Islamism is entirely winnable, but it has to be fought. The democratic states have enormous resources at their disposal, and there is no question they can prevail. But they have to have the will to win. The enemy, in contrast, lacks everything needed to win – and cannot win. But he does have two things going for him: an idea that continues to attract adherents and a formidable capacity to hurt. Eliminate these and there will be nothing left of him.

 

Paul H. Chapin

Paul Chapin is Executive Editor of The Vimy Report. He was formerly director-general for international security at Foreign Affairs and Canada’s lead negotiator in the Canada-US talks on Canadian participation in BMD and revision of the NORAD agreement. He can be reached at pchapin@rogers.com.

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