It is an oft-stated maxim that acts of terrorism are carried out by organizations with weak military power and a strong political motive. Despite receiving some funding and munitions by way of black market oil sales Isis is a miniscule military force, especially when compared against the military power of their two most recent targets – France, Lebanon and (likely) Russia. But Isis’ goal in these attacks was not to achieve a military victory, but to instill fear in the hearts and minds of the people who were attacked, and to use that fear to provoke overreaction and political instability for the governments involved.
We are all righteously angered about the brazen violence and loss of life suffered by our friends in Paris during the most recent attacks credited by three groups associated with the Islamic fundamentalist movement known as ISIS. The attackers have reportedly claimed that their acts of terror targeting innocent civilians were done in response to western airstrikes on ISIS military targets in Iraq and Syria. In doing so, they are attempting to draw support based on their power to effect vengeance against what they assert were illegal incursions upon their sovereignty.
But in pointing out the contrast between their actions and those of the U.S. and other Western powers, ISIS points a glaring picture at its own barbarity. It has never been the stated goal or intention of any of the Western powers to target defenseless civilians to make a political point. And intentionality goes to the moral core of the issue, especially in a situation in which the fog of war clouds even the most clearly defined military objectives. That is to say, that of course some innocent civilians have died in the midst of operations aimed at military targets. But in the war of ideals – the moral and philosophical underpinnings of ISIS and their foes in the West -- intentions count. ISIS has clearly lost the war of ideas in this respect, both among Muslim populations in the Middle East (who they’ve brutalized), and world public opinion writ large.
So far, even without a military response to these latest terrorist attacks, the West is winning. But here is where critical choices need to be made. The U.S. and its allies must root out ISIS, but not at the price of excessive civilian casualties or at the risk of losing the moral high ground. A massive military overreaction is exactly what ISIS is hoping for. They are not concerned with losing their so-called ‘base’ in Raqqa, Syria – which is already essentially a mound of rubble. They had to have anticipated that our reaction would include striking their known strongholds and hideouts. ISIS hoping that in its desire to quell domestic indignation over the imposition of political violence on European soil U.S. and France will exhaust themselves in committing significant military resources and making costly political commitments that will fundamentally weaken our resolve and dilute our moral advantage. ISIS is also hoping that amidst the fog of the inevitable war, they may be handed some as of now unforeseen political advantage.
And so we must be careful, thoughtful and exacting in how we respond to this situation. While all military options must remain on the table (including the installation of ground troops in the region), we do not necessarily have to employ every option at once. Given the massive military power of the U.S. and France, it is enough initially to destroy all of the identifiable military targets at first. But this has to be followed up by a much more sophisticated media strategy as well.
IS has distinguished itself from Al-Qaeda and other groups in its sophisticated use of social media. They have produced slick recruiting videos targeting the youth in the West, and thousands of young people from all over the world have left their own countries to join these jihadist movements, and they are specifically employed in carrying out attacks directed at the West. The notable examples of ‘Jihadi John’ (a British citizen) as well as the estimated 2,500 European citizens who have gone to fight on behalf of ISIS bears witness to this. In fact, the attackers in the latest Paris attacks are likely not Syrian refugees at all, but mostly European citizens who are able to carry out such attacks because of the ease of travel and anonymity that their citizenship bestows.
The next focus of the Western approach to defeating ISIS should be on stemming the propaganda produced by ISIS and other jihadi groups by clamping down on social media, and targeting mosques and other organizations that promote jihadist ideas in Europe and the U.S. It should also consist of counter-propaganda messages directed towards at-risk youth in these communities. We need to reach out directly to the youth through the social media – to show them the real damage that joining Jihadists will do not only to them, but to their families and to the societies (both European and Middle Eastern) in which they live. And even more importantly, we have to begin to show images and stories of Jihadi’s losing, of democracy and human rights victories in these war torn regions.
In Syria in particular, we cannot afford to wait until the civil war has resolved itself before forming a vision for the next stage of development in the region. We must work with civil society and the media to craft a vision for the society going forward that is better, more attractive and ultimately wins the critical battle over the hearts and minds of the people of the Middle East.