Defeating ISIL will take much more than military action

Schools, the metro, shops and restaurants were closed as the manhunt for fugitive Salah Abdeslam, who took part in the Paris terrorist attacks, and other terrorist networks continued, and the EU’s political elites discussed how best to tackle the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) threat. I actually find it incredible that nearly 15 years after the tragic 9/11 attacks, the West has made such little progress as to which counterterrorism techniques are effective and which are not. Moreover, insufficient steps have been taken by political leaders to crack down on the foreign funding of jihadist groups, particularly from a number of the Gulf States.

The Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIL, is an idea; they are the most recent and most brutal incarnation of Sunni Wahhabi jihadism. It has established a terrorist network operating across a wide geographical area far beyond Syria and Iraq: from the Far East to the heart of the EU. Its aim is to establish the rules of the game and make Europe/the West react in an us-versus-them way that aims to strengthen the group’s cause.

The Paris attacks were not carried out by ISIL terrorists from Syria but by homegrown jihadists, and this was not the first time. For example, the 2005 London terrorist attacks were carried out by British citizens, while the Boston bomber was a US citizen. While there is an ongoing issue about Europe’s capacity to integrate immigrants into its societies, it is also a fact of life that every county in the world has men and women who are angry or depressed, who feel excluded or dismissed and that society has let them down. They are vulnerable and looking for an exit strategy and this makes them particularly vulnerable to radicalization.

The West has promised retribution against ISIL for the Paris attacks. Their strategy is more or less the same sort of response as we saw against al-Qaeda after the 9/11 attacks, with the same countries involved in a similar campaign. France is increasing its military strikes and British Prime Minister David Cameron is hopeful that he will get the green light from the House of Commons this coming Thursday that will allow the UK to extend its airstrikes from Iraq into Syria.

Clearly, we can strike them hard in Syria, we can increase our intelligence cooperation and we can tighten our security measures, yet this is only half the challenge. It is the idea of ISIL and the ideology behind it that needs to be urgently tackled because defeating the group militarily will not defeat the ideology.

We must also not make the mistake of targeting Syrian refugees or creating new obstacles for them to enter EU member states because this will not end the terrorist problem. Such measures would probably make the problem worse because it will create resentment and could make them easy targets for jihadi recruiters. Hence, rather than stigmatizing its Muslim population and turning its back on the refugees, Europe should rally all its citizens around its most precious way of life.

Under no circumstances should any Western state send ground troops. This would again show the West as occupiers. It is the countries of the region that should actually be doing more to defeat ISIL militarily because, after all, it is their land ISIL is occupying and threatening. They need to drive out those who dare say they act in the name of God by strengthening the military role that they are playing both in terms of airstrikes, but also by possibly sending ground troops if necessary.

As expert Nathalie Tocci recently wrote about the idea of ISIL for Carnegie: “The idea can only be credibly defeated in and by the Sunni Muslim world, above all by those Sunni countries that have officially adhered to Wahhabism as their state religion. It is with these countries — Saudi Arabia in the lead — that the EU and its member states ought to seriously review their stance.”

Europe needs to concentrate on the threat that is already inside by seriously taking steps to crack down on radicalization and stamp out the ISIL ideology. Steps in this direction could include funding moderate Muslim organizations that offer alternatives to extremist interpretations of Islam, and offering Muslim communities incentives to report suspicious activity.


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