Fighting terror from within
The attacks in Paris last Friday are the latest in a spate affecting many parts of the world. How we respond will determine whether this threat continues to grow, how the lives of innocents are impacted and what world we will live in going forward. There may be a temptation to lash out at Muslims, escalate the situation in Syria and Iraq and remove civil liberties in exchange for safety, but this may be a mistake. Instead, we should empower Muslims the world over to defeat the threat of Islamic fundamentalism from within.
The rise of Islamic fundamentalism can be traced back as a response to Western and Soviet actions since the fall of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War. It started with the arbitrary carving up of the Empire into countries with diverse ethnic and political groupings. The formation of Israel provided a rallying point for diverse Islamic groups and remained their key focus until the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR and the Iranian revolution in the late 1970s. In the mean time strong men were supported by the West and the USSR in countries from Egypt to Iraq who violently suppressed dissent within their ranks.
The formation of Al Qaeda can be traced back to the American support of the Mujahedeen resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Saddam Hussein was emboldened with the help of US support in the Iran Iraq war. This support arguably led to his miscalculation to invade Kuwait in 1990. The US response to the invasion (Iraq War I) provided a new rallying point for Islamic fundamentalism, namely to rid the Middle East of what they saw as the unlawful occupation by Western forces (largely the US).
Over the next decade, Al Qaeda-inspired terrorism started rearing its head in places such as the US (the World Trade Center bombing in 1993), US embassy bombings in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000. In the mean time, ordinary Iraqis suffered hardships due to sanctions and resentment was building.
The attacks on 9/11 ushered in a new phase of terrorism, with the US being hit on home soil. Views in the US were temporarily united and the reaction was fierce. Instead of a concerted police action against the perpetrators of the attacks (al Qaeda), the US declared War on Terror and Afghanistan was invaded, leading to a quagmire that lasts until today.
The most serious miscalculation by the US in 2003 was to invade Iraq (Iraq War II), despite it having no involvement in the 9/11 attacks and possessing no weapons of mass destruction. The destabilisation of the country led to sectarian violence between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds and provided a fertile environment for the emergence of ISIS a decade later.
The Arab Spring of 2010 was driven by unhappiness with dictatorial rule and human rights violations in countries from Tunisia to Syria that had been building for years. However, increasing food prices, the rise of social media and the destabilisation of the region over the preceding decade helped to create a perfect storm. Youth within Arab countries saw strong men fall, starting with President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, which started an avalanche that spread throughout the region.
The West became involved in the Libyan civil war and contributed to the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, but this resulted in huge destabilisation of the country, which is seen by many as a failed state currently. The West also provided tacit support for the opposition in the Syrian civil war and instead of attempting to broker a peace deal early on in the conflict (and force concessions from Bashar al-Assad) the conflict was allowed to escalate. Kofi Annan’s 2012 UN peace plan failed largely because of a lack of co-operation between the West and Arab states on the one side and Russia, China and Iran on the other side. The conflict became increasingly militarised, leading to chemical weapon attacks in 2013, the formation of ISIS and millions of refugees.
ISIS became the new rallying point for Islamic fundamentalism, attracting thousands of fighters from across the world, including the West. They found a fertile recruitment ground amongst Muslim youth in many Western cities who suffered disproportionately from unemployment and often saw themselves as outsiders in the countries of their birth. ISIS offered them a purpose, a brotherhood (akin to youth joining gangs), a way to fight against their “enemies” (as they often see natives of their own Western countries), an adventure. In Syria and Iraq they became more radicalised, received training and gained experience. It is these fighters that are now exporting terror from Iraq and Syria to the rest of the world.
ISIS may prove very difficult to defeat using conventional military means. It mainly operates in two destabilised countries, Iraq and Syria. Aerial bombardment has proven to be ineffective to date. There is little appetite from either the West or Russia to commit ground troops and as history has shown us, this rarely works in any case. What is needed, but may also be difficult to achieve is for Iraq and Syria to be stabilised. This would require a peace to be brokered in Syria, supported by the West, Arab Countries and Russia. It would also require co-operation between the West and Iran in Iraq. Once stability is achieved, ISIS can be isolated by government forces from two sides.
However, this is likely to be a tall ask and in the mean time, we must prepare ourselves for more refugees and more terrorists returning home. How should we prepare ourselves and how should we respond to terror attacks. Firstly, it is important to acknowledge that terrorism is committed by fringe groups and that the overwhelming majority of Muslims are shocked and outraged by these attacks (ISIS is to Islam what the KKK is to Christianity). In addition, the overwhelming majority of Muslims are fearful of the risk that ISIS poses to their youth. They want to avoid their sons becoming radicalised, being drawn to the conflict in Iraq and Syria and perpetrating violence back home. It is therefore vital that the overwhelming majority of moderate Muslims are given the tools to fight radicalism from within. Lashing out against Muslims following terror attacks, perpetrating acts of retribution, discriminating against them (closing mosques, banning the hijab, etc.), even closing borders and denying refugees, makes it more difficult for moderate Muslims to speak out. Our best defence against the radicalisation of Muslim youth is their friends, family and elders speaking out.
Secondly, it is vital that we use police action to find the perpetrators of attacks and to prevent further attacks. Terrorists are criminals and they should be treated as such. Wars on criminal activity rarely succeed, whether it is the War on Drugs or the War on Terror. A vital link in successfully investigating and preventing terror attacks is to have strong support from within affected communities. The first line of defence is moderate Muslims. It is important that Muslims are made to feel a part of the countries that they live in, that there is a concerted effort made to deal with unemployment and poverty within these communities, that these communities are actively encouraged to embrace the national identity.
Thirdly, we must guard against over-reaction. In the wake of terror attacks, there is the temptation to give up our civil liberties in exchange for feeling safer. We saw this with the Patriot Act in the US, increased airline security and now with the risk to free travel in Europe. France and Paris in particular was arguably the birthplace of the freedoms we have become used to in the Western world. The French Revolution and the principles of “liberte”, “egalite” and “fraternite” started a landslide movement that enveloped Europe, America and increasingly the rest of the world in democracy, freedom, secularism and civil liberties. We must fight to maintain our freedoms and failing to do so would play in the hands of terrorists.
What we must avoid at all costs is to cultivate hate and allow Islamic fundamentalism to flourish through our actions. The War on Terror has proven to be a failure and must be abandoned, indiscriminate blame must be discouraged, good people must be encouraged to speak out and retribution must be avoided. Instead of spending huge amounts of money on war and increased security (the US has already spent $1.6trn on the War on Terror, $500m for every American that has perished in a terror attack since 9/11), we should be spending money to improve the lives of Muslim communities in the West, to bring peace to Syria and Iraq and to stabilise other Middle Eastern countries.
My deepest condolences to all victims of terror the world over. Do you believe that it is appropriate to blame Muslims for terrorist attacks? Do you believe that ISIS can be defeated by military action? Are you willing to give up your civil liberties to feel safer? Do you agree that Islamic fundamentalism can only be defeated from within? I would love to hear your feedback.
In the mean time, keep your talking straight!