Because most people think of Islamic State, al-Qaeda and their ilk as being crazies motivated solely by hatred, they are not puzzled by recent terrorist attacks on the West like those in Paris, Brussels and Los Angeles. Like the villains in comic books, the terrorists are simply evil, and no further explanation is needed. But in the real world, being violent and fanatical does not make you stupid.
The small group of Arab Islamists who started fighting the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 were by 2014 the rulers of a new country of some five million people that they call Islamic State, which suggests that they are clever people who pursue rational strategies. And yet they go on backing terrorist attacks in the West, which no longer seems like a rational strategy.
It was a perfectly sensible strategy once. By the year 2000 the Islamist revolutionaries of the Arab world were close to despair. They had been trying to overthrow the dictators and kings who ruled the Arab countries for a quarter-century, and there was blood all over the walls – around 300,000 Arabs were killed in the struggles between the Islamists and the regimes in 1975-2000 – but they had not managed to overthrow a single regime.
Their main strategy was always terrorism, simply because they lacked the resources for anything more ambitious. In theory their terrorist attacks should have driven the regimes into extreme repression, which (again in theory) should have alienated the population and driven them into the arms of the revolutionaries. Then the people, led by the Islamists and united in their wrath, would rise up and drive the oppressors from power.
The Islamists had a few early successes – the seizure of the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, the assassination of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat in 1981 – but their strategy did not work. The Arab regimes did indeed become more oppressive, but the revolutionaries did not get mass support. Their doctrines were too weird, and their behaviour too extreme. So by the late 1990s the Islamists were looking for a different strategy.
It was Osama bin Laden, the founder of Al-Qaeda, who came up with a new strategy: attack the West. The ultimate goal was still to come to power in the Arab world, but rather than revolution in the streets the Islamists would now win power by leading a successful guerilla resistance movement against an invasion by infidel foreigners.
Bin Laden had hit on this strategy because he had fought in Afghanistan as a volunteer, and that was exactly how the game played out there. The Russians invaded in 1979; Islamist extremists took over the resistance movement; after a long and bloody war the Russians went home in 1989; and the Afghan Islamists (the Taliban) then took power because they were the heroes who had driven the infidel foreigners out.
To relive this triumph required getting some other infidel army to invade a Muslim country, and the obvious choice was the United States. Al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks in New York and Washington in 2001 gave Americans the necessary motivation, and two US invasions followed in rapid succession, in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The mass-casualty terrorist attacks against Western targets continued for a long time (Madrid, Bali, London, etc.), presumably in order to give Western countries a reason to keep their troops in the Middle East. But the attacks gradually diminished as Al-Qaeda’s fighters in Iraq came closer to their goal of creating their own state: that would clearly be easier to do if most of the Western troops had already gone home.
The creation of Islamic State and the proclamation of the “Caliphate” in 2014 was the culmination of this long struggle, and it should have ended Islamist terror attacks on the West. Now they have a real state, they are seeking to expand in Syria and Iraq by military force, and the last thing they need is Western troops around to make matters more difficult. So why didn’t the attacks on Western countries stop?
The only plausible explanation is the great split in the Islamist movement in 2014, when Islamic State broke away from Al-Qaeda. Since then there has been a ferocious competition between them both for recruits, and for the loyalty of Islamist organisations across the Muslim world. (The main Islamist organisations in both Egypt and Nigeria have switched their allegiance from Al-Qaeda to Islamic State in the past two years).
In this competition, the best and cheapest way of showing that your organisation is tougher, more dedicated, more efficient than the other lot is to kill Westerners in spectacular terrorist attacks. So, for example, Al-Qaeda sponsored the “Charlie Hebdo” attack in Paris in February, 2015, and Islamic State replied with the much bigger attack in Paris last November.
There is no strategic cost in these attacks, since Western and Russian forces are already bombing both Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise in Syria, the Nusra Front. The material cost of the attacks is negligible: neither organisation is devoting even one percent of its resources to them. So they will continue for a while, and the West will just have to deal with them as they occur.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4 and 5. (“Their main…strategy”)
As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.
Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.
Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.
The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.
The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.
In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.
The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.
The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.
ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.
Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.
It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.
France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.
So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.
Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)
P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.
Last Friday (June 26), in France, an Islamist named Yassin Salhi killed his employer, Herve Cornara. He attached the victim’s severed head to the fence around a chemical plant, together with a cloth saying “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet” —and then rammed his vehicle into a warehouse full of chemicals hoping (but failing) to cause a massive explosion.
In Kuwait two hours later, Fahd Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Qaba’a, a Saudi citizen, entered a Shia mosque and detonated a bomb that killed at least 25 people. He was presumably a Sunni fanatic sent by “Islamic State” to kill Shias, who they believe are heretics who should be killed.
In Tunisia one hour later, 38 European tourists, most of them British, were massacred by a 23-year-old man with a Kalashnikov on a beach in Sousse. The perpetrator, Seifeddine Rezgui, was studying engineering at a university in Kairouan, an hour’s drive west of Sousse.
Islamic State, which has carved out a territory in Iraq and Syria that has more people and a bigger army than half the members of the United Nations, immediately claimed responsibility for all three attacks. Yassin Salhi may have been a lone-wolf head case, but in the other two cases the claim was almost certainly true.
But there was another attack that you probably didn’t hear about. Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria that withstood a four-month siege by Islamic State troops last year, came under attack again last Thursday. About a hundred young Islamists in Humvees and pickup trucks drove into town and shot 220 people dead in the streets and in their houses.
So 64 murders that you heard a lot about, and 220 others you heard little or nothing about. There are hundreds of innocent people being murdered by Islamist fanatics in Syria every week, so it’s no longer news. Besides, the motive there is obvious: it’s just Islamic State trying to expand its territory in Syria. But as for the others…
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, responded to the deaths of 30 British citizens in Tunisia by trotting out the same shopworn drivel that Western leaders have been peddling for the past 14 years. The fight against Islamic State is “the struggle of our generation,” Cameron declared. Indeed, IS poses “an existential threat” to the West.
Maybe Cameron doesn’t know what the word “existential” means. Could somebody please explain to him that he is saying that Islamic State poses a threat to the continued existence of the West? Does he really think that is the case?
Forgive me for making a cold-blooded calculation, but sometimes it is necessary. The population of the West (not counting the countries of Latin America, which don’t play in this league) is about 900 million. Thirty-nine “Westerners” have been killed in attacks by Islamist terrorists this month. At this rate, the West will have ceased to exist in 1.9 million years. If this is an existential threat, it’s not a very urgent one.
In fact, it’s not really about the West at all. The European victims on the beach in Sousse were killed in order to destroy the tourism that provides almost 15 percent of Tunisia’s national income, and thereby destabilize the only fully democratic country in the Arab world. The extremists’ real goal is to seize power in Tunisia; the Western victims were just a means to that end.
The bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait was intended to increase tensions between the Sunni majority and the large Shia minority in that country, with the ultimate goal of unleashing a Sunni-Shia civil war in which Islamist extremists could take over the Sunni side as they have already done in Syria and Iraq.
Only the lone-wolf attack in France could be conceivably be seen as directed at the “West”—although that might also have been just a personal grievance wrapped up in an Islamist justification.
The rest of the killing was about who controls the Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, as it has been from the start. Even 9/11 was about that, designed not to “bring America to its knees” but to lure it into an invasion of Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden believed would stimulate Islamist revolutions in Muslim countries. The Islamists do “hate Western values”, but they have bigger fish to fry at home.
Islamic State and the various incarnations of Al Qaeda (the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, et cetera) pose an existential threat to the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of the Middle East, and even to Sunni Muslims whose beliefs diverge significantly from those of the Islamists. The West should help governments in the region that protect their minorities, and of course it should try to protect its own people.
But this is not the “struggle of our generation” for the West. It should be nowhere near the top of its own list of priorities.
He just misheard the question. A basically friendly interviewer on Fox News asked Jeb Bush, now seeking the Republican nomination for the US presidency: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorised the invasion (of Iraq)?” And he replied: “I would have.” When the storm of protest, even from Republicans, swept over him, he explained that he thought the interviewer had said: “Knowing what we KNEW THEN.”
An easy mistake to make. “Know now” sounds an awful lot like “knew then”. Besides, Jeb Bush is on record as claiming that he is Hispanic (on a 2009 voter-registration application), so the poor man was struggling with his second language. If only she had asked the question in Spanish, he would have understood it perfectly.
Enough. When you listen to the entire interview, it’s clear that Bush didn’t want to say a flat “No” to her question, because that would be a condemnation of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But as soon as he could, he switched to talking about the “intelligence failures” that misled his brother into invading the wrong country. Anybody can make a mistake. So nobody’s to blame.
Hillary Clinton, currently the favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination, uses exactly the same defence. In fact, every American politician who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq at the time claims that the problem was faulty intelligence, and maybe some of them outside of the White House genuinely were misled.
But the intelligence wasn’t “faulty”; it was cooked to order. There was no plausible intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so the US intelligence services were told to “find” some. There were no Islamist terrorists in Iraq either: Saddam Hussein hunted down and killed anybody suspected of being an Islamist activist, because the Islamists wanted to kill him.
The US Central Intelligence Agency agency tried very hard to create a link between al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq. The only thing they came up with, however, was a rumour that a little-known Islamist from Jordan called Abu Musab al Zarqawi who knew Osama bin Laden had been in Baghdad receiving treatment for wounds received in Afghanistan in May-November 2002. (He was actually in Iran at that time.)
If you were on the White House staff in early 2003, you HAD to know that the “intelligence” you were using to justify the invasion of Iraq was false, because you were one of the people demanding that the spooks manufacture “evidence” for it. The decision itself had been taken even before Bush’s election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism.
The incoming Bush administration was full of people called “neo-conservatives”. They believed that the Clinton administration had failed to exploit the sole superpower status that the United States inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to put the world to
What was needed, therefore, was a display of US power that would make all the “bad guys” behave. So invade somewhere and take the local bad guy down. Iraq was the obvious choice, because it was very weak after a decade of arms embargo, and Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy.
We don’t yet know just how disastrous the invasion of Iraq was, because the damage is still accumulating. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the man who now rules “Islamic State”, the terrorist-ruled new country that occupies the easten half of Syria and the western third of Iraq, started fighting Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance in 2003.
By 2006 at the latest, he had joined the group then called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely made up of jihadis from other Arab countries who had flocked to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. And the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was none other than Abu Musab al Zarqawi – who parlayed the reputation as a major jihadi leader that the US intelligence services gave him into a real leadership position in the resistance.
Through the years that followed, that organisation gained experience in guerilla war and terrorism, and through several changes of name and leadership (Zarqawi was killed in 2006) it ultimately morphed into Islamic State. Baghdadi was with it all the way, and now styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, demanding the loyalty and obedience of all Muslims everywhere.
So we owe a lot to the “neo-cons” in George Bush’s administration who pushed for the invasion of Iraq: people like Dick Cheney (Vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Undersecretary of Defense). They just used the 9/11 attacks as a vehicle for their pre-existing Iraq invasion plans.
It was Wolfowitz, above all, who worked tirelessly to link Irak to terrorism. And guess who is the most prominent name on Jeb Bush’s current team of foreign policy advisers (apart from George W Bush himself). Why, it’s the very same Paul Wolfowitz. The problem with Jeb Bush is not the foolish answers he gives. It’s the company he keeps.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Hillary…misled”; and “The incoming…guy”)