“We’re so shocked…we’re living our own 9/11…”
A friend of mine who lives in the Saint Denise area of Paris near the Stade de France gave me this statement after I reached out to her in the aftermath of the devastating series of synchronized attacks perpetrated by members of the Islamic State on the night of Friday, November 13 in the French capital. Until the attacks on Paris, the Western world had (for better or worse, it seems) lived as relatively far removed from the events occurring in the Arab World in recent years as it had at any time since the attacks of 2001. While the future still remains uncertain as to whether this fresh wave of terrorism will leave the same kind of deep impressions of fear and insecurity on the consciousness of the West as did the attacks on the World Trade Center, as Europe and the United States begin to slide into a bombing campaign against ISIS strongholds in the Middle East and renew polarizing feuds about immigration policy, civil liberties, and national security, a vigorous and critical analysis of the foundation of the model of Western democracy and its guiding principles should start anew.
The attacks of 2001 came at a much more disorienting time for the West, when the mass of the citizenry of Europe and the United States still found themselves as yet unawares of the dangers of asymmetric warfare and the perverse ideology of Wahhabism. That a small group of radicals could infiltrate the United States and strike at the heart of its largest financial and political nervous centers seemed unfathomable; and yet, that is exactly what happened. The resulting wave of fear that enveloped the nation lent power to a young administration staffed with hawkish neoconservatives and guided by an almost messianic notion of the United States’ sacrosanct mission to spread its influence. Given credence and mandate by both Congress and public opinion, the United States and its European allies launched a massive invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, and a subsequent invasion of Iraq in 2003 to remove Sadaam Hussein from power.
Critics of the War on Terror have singled out the resultant chaos as one of the precipitating causes of the rise of extremism groups like ISIS, who quite naturally filled in the gaping voids in political power once long-entrenched dictators fell. The de-Baathification process which occurred in Iraq, resulting in the complete removal of the country’s existing social system with no viable alternative to replace it, in hindsight seems an exercise in how not to go about nation-building. Having accomplished their goals, and with a rudimentary understanding of the society in which they operated, the governments of the NATO countries quickly grew weary of their engagements in the region, and sectarian violence which had simmered during the lead up to the war quickly erupted as soon as these countries’ forces left the region. The newly-installed governments, unequipped to deal with the violence, never fully gained control over vast swaths of the region, in which conflict once again began to fester.
The pronounced disconnect between the War on Terror and the national consciousness of many Western nations, and especially the United States, stands out as a distinct characteristic of the war itself. The rise of drone warfare in particular, which has figured dramatically during this conflict, seemed to have spelled an end to having to put boots on the ground. In spite of such “inconveniences” like increased security at airport security screenings and the encroachment of the United States government upon the privacy of its citizens in the digital sphere (itself a serious issue worthy of critical debate), residents of many Western countries had, for the most part, effectively forgotten about the violence occurring in the Middle East, especially after the withdrawing of combat troops from the region near the beginning of the Obama administration.
When the Arab Spring revolts of 2011 began to sweep through the region, the world watched with a more nervous eye as authoritarian (and often, as in the case of Egypt’s Mubarak, US-backed) leaders began to topple under the waves of popular revolt. In cases where the overthrow occurred relatively quickly, such as in the oft-cited circumstance of Tunisia, the changes brought about found welcome amongst the governments of the West, where as the harder-fought cases like Egypt, though praised for many of their democratic aspects, fell under more careful scrutiny, even if they enjoyed an indirect sort of support from popular opinion. Even in cases like Libya, where the West seemed willing to impose a no-fly zone to aid the rebels, the governments of the United States and Europe practiced reluctance in committing too much to the conflict, lest it become another quagmire in which they found themselves inadvertently trapped. For many observers of the region, the overall changes wrought by the Arab Spring, though fraught with complication, seemed generally positive, and maybe at this time the countries of the West may have breathed too deep a sigh of relief for the hope that their previous involvement in an attempted democratic transition of the region might have been vindicated.
The outbreak of the protests in Syria that attempted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, and which eventually devolved into a gruesome civil war which continues to this day, derailed any hope that the region as a whole saw itself moving towards a sustainable peace. In hopes of expediting the process of ousting Assad, accused of heinous crimes against the people of Syria, the United States pursued a policy of arming and funding rebel groups in the region, many of whom had loose organization and unclear purpose. Backed by support from the Russians and Iranians, however, the Assad government stood firm, even turning to the use of chemical weapons to decimate the ranks of the rebel groups, considered a war crime under the treaties of the United Nations. The nation quickly fractured into a violent clash between governments forces, various factions of rebels, the northern Kurds, international forces, and, eventually, terrorist organizations which claimed thousands of lives and forced millions more to flee their permanent homes over the border into Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.
Into this void stepped the group that now calls itself ISIS, an extremism organization committed to a revival of its own sinister brand of Wahhabism Sunni Islam and presenting an alternative to both the government of Assad as well as the Western-backed rebel forces. Utilizing a heavy stream of propaganda to mobilize young people (mostly male) to fight for their cause, the group quickly grew in strength and regional control, until the fight against them began to eclipse even the original anti-government impetus behind the civil war.
While well aware of the war crimes committed by the Islamic State (which includes the raping of women and children, the use of chemical weapons on civilian populations, and the gruesome public execution of homosexuals), the world, until the Paris attacks, preferred to live under the assumption that the violence would not spill over into the rest of the world. Indeed, even the United States, once so eager to entangle itself in the situation occurring in that part of the world, seemed surprisingly willing to turn over the onus to the Russians to impose a no-fly zone over Syria earlier this year. When the attacks in Paris did occur, startling the West out of its relative sense of security, it caused a panic not directed at the spreading of the dangerous ideology that had attracted so many of its young people to join the terrorist group, but towards refugees from the region, made up mostly of families fleeing from the bloodshed.
The retaliation of many European countries and a large portion of the governors of US states in attempting to close their borders to the increasing flow of Syrian refugees represents a error in judgement on the part of the West in dealing with the crisis. Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspected mastermind behind the Paris attacks in addition to others perpetrated in parts of Europe, was a Belgian citizen, born in Brussels, and many of the other attackers held European passports. This knee-jerk reaction, in addition to preventing millions of innocent civilians from fleeing the fighting, will not prevent the group’s ideology from spreading into the outside world, and will give more credibility to their anti-Western sentiment and recruitment efforts amongst disenfranchised young people.
However, in pursuit of cutting off this recruitment and infiltration network, a new front has opened in this latest conflict against extremist ideology: that of private “hacker” groups bringing their skills to bear in ways that root out ISIS’s online network and prevent its propaganda from spreading further. Groups like Anonymous, famous for their high-profile releases of damaging information and the difficulty governments face in tracking down their ever-shifting digital whereabouts, have spearheaded the effort to identify social media accounts currently in use by ISIS in an effort to damage their network capabilities and take down their recruitment efforts. The French manifestation of the group declared war against Daesh (the French term for ISIS) almost immediately following the attacks in Paris and so far has successfully taken down many of their Twitter and other social media accounts.
The online hacker collectivist GhostSec, itself a smaller splinter group of Anonymous with a focused adherence to certain targets, employs additional methods in which it hacks into the group’s networks and monitors them for activity instead of crashing the site by redirecting huge streams of traffic and overloading their servers. Given the group’s disposition to work with law enforcement rather than at constant odds with them, they effectively monitor a portion of the communication going on in-group amongst members of ISIS in the deep web and therefore have the ability to turn this information over to law enforcement agencies to aid in identifying the members of ISIS.
On the other end of the spectrum, dragnets such as those currently in employment in Belgium cripple the society as citizens live in terror, whilst armed soldiers patrol the streets and conduct raids to hunt down those making threats of imminent attack against the citizenry. Whether or not these tactics end up yielding less results than the cyber-warfare methods in employment by the various groups of hacktivists united against the Islamic State remains uncertain. However, the situation in Brussels demonstrates that, in at least certain ways, ISIS has partially achieved its goal of terrorizing European countries, paralyzing the society and economy in fear of further attacks.
A far more aggressive assault on the forces of ISIS has occurred in the form of the bombing campaign now in effect on the de facto ISIS capital of Raqqa, a stronghold in the northern part of Syria and home to an estimated population of 220,000. The assault, led by France in the aftermath of the Paris bombing and supported by target location provided by US intelligence agencies, decimated much of the city, including the stadium reportedly utilized as the headquarters of the organization, but may have led to the deaths of few members of the terrorist group, according to information gathered by the activist group “Raqqa is being slaughtered silently”. ISIS has seemingly prepared in advance to relocate much of its leadership in preparation for an expect assault by coalition forces against the city.
As the world turns once again towards the Middle East in retaliation for a psychologically devastating strike against one of its most beloved and iconic cities, it must reflect deeply upon the strategy of the group which it seeks to destroy, as well as its own guiding principles in the conflict that lies ahead. As evidenced by propaganda videos showing themselves as an unbeatable wave of destruction sanctioned by a twisted understanding of their religion, ISIS seems prepared to wage a struggle that will culminate in perpetual violence: a jihad without end, that will engulf the entire world in fear that a strike could occur at any moment. Much like the aims of al-Qaeda before them, ISIS’s ideology and their use of asymmetrical warfare does not seek to accomplish the strategic aims of conventional warfare; that is to say, territorial acquisition and the establishment of a ruling power, despite their stated insistence on establishing a caliphate based upon their own understanding of Islam. Rather, they seem to seek to establish a terror in the minds of the rest of the world, creating a reality in the international order in which they and their ideology are impossible to ignore, regardless of the will of other nations to turn a blind eye to the gruesome reality that innocent people in the Middle East experience on a daily basis.
The desire behind this purposeful disconnect by the nations of the West from the reality of the situation unfolding in the Middle East is self-evident: to the peoples of the United States and Europe, the ruthlessness of the actions pursued by the Islamic State is almost unfathomable and certainly terrifying. However, ignorance of a reality does not make that reality disappear; to ignore the circumstances which brought about the rise of ISIS (circumstances in which the West played a significant, and at times shameful, role) does not make ISIS any less present or dangerous. In fact, a refusal to accept the culpability of the West in the creation of the chaos that plagues the region will only leave it vulnerable to further attack.
Additionally, ISIS represents a credible threat to the international community beyond just the nations of Europe and North America. The killing of a Chinese citizen held hostage by the group in the past week, similar to that of the two Japanese hostages executed months earlier, shows that the enmity ISIS holds against modernity extends beyond just the confines of the Western model of liberalism; it encompasses all forms of government and society that do not adhere to the fundamentalist ideology practiced by the terrorist organization. Indeed, ISIS’s has reserved some of its most atrocious acts for Muslims and residents of the Arab world, as evidenced by the catastrophic bombings in Lebanon that occurred in the same week as those in Paris, though to much less attention by the media, despite the loss of 43 lives. Such attacks, common to these countries having to bear the preponderance of the refugee crisis burden, represent the crux of ISIS’s assault on global peace and stability.
In conclusion, an effective strategy against the terror imposed upon the entire world by the rise of ISIS cannot come to fruition without a deep understanding of the group, their aims, and the region as a whole. Despite a resolute desire to do so, the world can no longer afford to relegate the problems of sectarian and extremist violence in the Middle East as a minor concern occurring on the fringes of the world, far removed from the daily reality of other countries. A closing of minds and borders, a stubborn refusal to recognize that this Wahhabist extremism does not represent the Islamic religion, and a scorched earth bombing campaign that costs civilian lives will not weaken ISIS, and may only create fertile ground in which the group might vindicate their ideology and recruit even more hearts and minds as Western bombs once again reign down upon Middle Eastern cities. To win the war, the world will have to be smarter, not merely stronger, than ISIS.