A sense of shock still pervades after the horrific attacks in Paris masterminded by Islamic State that saw 130 people slaughtered while enjoying Friday night socializing. These attacks follow on from recent outrages by IS in Tunisia, Beirut and on a plane over the Sinai Peninsula, which killed all 224 passengers on board. IS’s strategy seems to have moved beyond controlling territory to carrying out terrorist attacks to kill the people it sees as infidels. French President Francois Hollande called the attacks “an act of war” and has stepped up airstrikes against IS. A UN Security Council resolution on redoubling action against the terrorist group has already been passed, providing a cover of legality for military action. This response by world leaders is understandable, as no one can doubt the barbarity of IS and the extensive military hardware the west can direct against the extremists in their heartlands across Iraq and Syria. There has been fierce debate over military action, whether this is playing into IS propaganda about western crusaders and if there is a risk of repeating another foreign policy disaster in the Middle East. However, not taking any military action also can be said to play in IS hands. We cannot let IS dictate our response. In Britain David Cameron looks set to bring a vote forward on carrying out air strikes in Syria, confident that it can be passed because of the divisions in Labour’s ranks, and military generals have supposedly informed Cameron that IS can be defeated in 14 days. There seems to be a message of both fear and reassurance, emphasizing the threat IS pose but also making it seem as if extremism can be defeated easily. This is a gross exaggeration.
Bombing alone will not destroy IS, as raids have been taking place for over a year. Extensive co-ordinated attacks will undoubtedly weaken them but there will need to be offensives by ground troops to prevent the extremists dispersing across the region, potentially wreaking havoc. In light of the fact that there is little public appetite for full blown military intervention in the west, ground forces, apart from perhaps special forces and military advisers, will have to be cobbled together from those already fighting IS -the Iraqi and Syrian armies and the Kurdish forces, who have been heroically taking back territory from them. This military force, together with attempts to shut down sources of funding, particularly its sale of oil, should see off these fanatics. IS are not a threat in the way the Nazi war machine or the Soviet bloc ever was.
However, the wider causes behind IS’s rise in the region cannot be overlooked, particularly the schism between Sunni and Shia sects of Islam. IS has fed off Sunni resentment over the Shia-dominated government in Iraq and the atrocities that President Assad has committed against his own people in Syria. In the background lies Iran seeking to be the dominant Shia power and its rival Saudi Arabia – the main Sunni power that supports Sunni militants and spreads its own creed, Wahhabism. The feeling of disenfranchisement by Sunni populations has created a crisis of authority and legitimacy that has allowed IS to thrive. In Syria it has manifested itself in civil war and in Iraq the legacy of the invasion of 2003 has left a weak and corrupt government that serves to benefit the Shia population. It would be near impossible to alter governance in Syria by removing President Assad and his Alwaite faction because of Russian opposition, and in the case of Iraq it will have to be seen if the Sunni population can be given a significant long term stake in the political system. If stable government is not created in this area conditions are ripe for the rise of another Islamic extremist group, in the same way that IS has displaced Al Qaeda as the biggest security threat. There cannot be complacency once IS is defeated. The threat from Islamic extremism has spread across the world to areas with power vacuums – a result of unstable government – which the extremists fill. Nigeria, Somalia, Kenya, Yemen and Mali, as evidenced by the recent attack on the Raddison hotel, have their own Islamic groups causing terror. The governments of these countries require support in their battle against terrorism. Too much of the focus has been on IS, and it has to be recognized that the Middle East is not the only place which can act as a magnet for radicals and from which terrorism may be exported to our streets.
It also has to be recognized that even if a country has thousands of intelligence agents, armed police on the streets and the mechanics of a police state: it is impossible to keep track of every potential threat. Many of the Paris attackers were already known to authorities, and the end of the Schengen zone, as well as better intelligence-sharing between countries, will make it more difficult for attacks to be planned and co-ordinated, but there will still be the danger of home grown extremists forming a cell to plan outrages in their country. The actions of such people cannot easily be predicted and there is difficulty in assessing if someone has become radicalized by internet grooming or drawn into a hate preacher’s web. The terrorists that threaten us are simply latching onto a hideous distortion of Islam. The Abdeslam brothers involved in the Paris attacks had until recently been running a bar which was closed by the mayor of Molenbeek because young men inside were smoking dope and selling drugs. The brothers were hardly devout Muslims and many who knew them were shocked by news of their extremism. The pattern of European citizens who commit or attempt to commit terrorist acts has become familiar- a rootless existence as students or living an aimless life as an adult with an unstable job history and perhaps a criminal conviction. These alienated, disillusioned and embittered people, at some point, are converted to this poisonous distortion of Islam, which gives them a noble cause to kill and die for; they become heroes, and their lives have a relevance they would not have previously had. Mohammed Emwazi , for example, before his death rose to a senior position in IS and worldwide infamy as Jihad John. In Syria there is the promise of operating in a victorious army and rewards of enhanced status and multiple brides. This fantasy often quickly evaporates. These Islamic terrorists are thus no different in outlook from fascist murderers like Anders Brevik or those who carry out school shootings in America. Such pathetic people do not deserve our fear and hatred, only scorn and a loud assertion of the enduring nature of our values. The problem of Islamic extremism will not, however, simply vanish with a few bombs dropped from above and it is likely that for a long time we will be reading about the horrific actions of a small group of sick people. Politicians need to be honest that the battle against Islamic fundamentalism is a long term one, and will not end with IS.