The fight against ISIS is already lost | Joseph Micallef

Historian and author JOSEPH V. MICALLEF argues that the only thing that can defeat the Islamic State is a better idea coming from within the Muslim world

“If you look at the typical American or European jihadist: in many cases, they will be native-born; their parents will be relatively well integrated into their particular cultures. So it’s not really a case of radicalism passed down from one generation to the next.
“If you look at the typical American or European jihadist: in many cases, they will be native-born; their parents will be relatively well integrated into their particular cultures. So it’s not really a case of radicalism passed down from one generation to the next."

It would be facile to point out that we live in times of great uncertainty. Five years after the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ toppled governments across North Africa and the Middle East, there is a growing sensation that more and more territories are succumbing to a particularly aggressive wave of radical Islam. 

The Islamic State (ISIS) is perhaps the most recognisable name associated with this phenomenon. Now firmly established in Syria and Iraq, this radical jihadist movement – which aims to found a Caliphate stretching from Western Europe to the Persian Gulf – has now also taken root in nearby Libya. If this were not alarming enough, ISIS also has its aficionados in the West, finding fertile recruiting grounds among the disaffected youth of Europe and North America. As a result, we seem to be living under the permanent threat of war and terrorism.

How did this come to pass? And what would be the best strategy to counter the rising phenomenon of radical jihadism?

Joseph V. Micallef, a contributor to Huffington Post, is better positioned than most to answer such questions. A historian, best-selling author, keynote speaker and commentator on military and international affairs, he has lectured extensively on the subject at the Institute of Strategic Studies (London), the NATO War (Defense) College (Rome), and the Italian Institute of International Affairs (Rome).

“I think, first of all, what we are seeing today is the return to an age of ideology,” he tells me as we discuss the situation over a coffee at the Castille Hotel, Valletta. “After the fall of the Soviet Union, there was a school of thought that this represented the ‘end of history’ – as though the Western tradition of secular democracy and capitalism had triumphed all over the world. While the tradition itself may take different forms in various parts of the world, it had a common denominator. What seems to be emerging today is that what we refer to generally as ‘jihadism’ or ‘radical Islam’ is becoming an alternative to this ideology. It offers a different social, economic and political system, in much the same way as Marxism/Leninism had done a generation ago. This, I think, is one of the currents that is shaping the present age…”

From this perspective, Micallef argues that the current wave of radical Islam is not so different from other anti-establishment movements of the past. 

“If you look at domestic jihadists in Europe and North America, they tend to be people who are seemingly well-socialised into those particular cultures. Interestingly, it is not so much a case of American or European Muslims becoming ‘radicalised’… it is more a case that radicals are becoming ‘Islamicised’. There has always been an anti-Western tradition of radicalism winding its way through history… in the 1970s, for instance, there were movements such as Baader-Meinhof in Germany [or the Brigate Rosse in Italy] which never really espoused a coherent ideology; it was more a mish-mash of a little Marxist-Leninism here, a little anti-capitalism there, and a little anarchism thrown in for good measure. What they believed in, fundamentally, was an attack on Western culture. I think we’re seeing much the same phenomenon today: only, in the search for an alternative ideology, people are adopting radical Islam instead.”

This view challenges the preconceived notion of ‘jihadists’ as a marginalised and disenfranchised minority, pushed into extremism by injustice.

“If you look at the typical American or European jihadist: in many cases, they will be native-born; their parents will be relatively well integrated into their particular cultures. So it’s not really a case of radicalism passed down from one generation to the next; nor is it a situation whereby Muslim citizens have somehow been marginalised to the very fringes of society. These are cases of youth being radicalised, and finding their ideological roots in this anti-Western movement.”

At the same time, it is important to keep the actual phenomenon in proportion. “First of all, there are probably something like 200,000 to 300,000 jihadists in the world right now: i.e., men and women who have joined radical organisations, and who have fought in some way or other. On top of those, there is somewhere between 10 / 20% of the world Muslim population who are generally sympathetic towards jihadism. It doesn’t mean they will become jihadists themselves; but they will sympathise to the extent that the might donate money, or espouse their cause in some other way. That’s a considerable number of people: possibly around 200 to 300 million people who, to varying degrees, support the jihadist movement.”

But aside from these, Micallef estimates that another 80% of the world Muslim population is not sympathetic to jihadism at all. “These people do not support extremist groups, and are perfectly happy to coexist peacefully with their non-Muslim neighbours. The challenge for the West is how to deal with the 2/300,000 jihadists out there… how to cut them off from the support of the 2/300 million Muslims who are sympathetic to their cause… and how to do that in a way that doesn’t alienate the remaining 80%. That is the challenge that has to be addressed from a policy standpoint…”

How effectively are we setting about this task? Does Micallef see any coherent strategy in this sense?

“No,” he replies without hesitation. “The strategy has to date been basically incoherent. In fact, I think the fight against ISIS is already lost. What we are doing now, while important, is a case of ‘too little, too late’. One thing we must appreciate is that ISIS exists in more than one form. There is ISIS the political state: that exists in Syria and Iraq, and is now trying to establish itself in Libya. Can we defeat ISIS the political state? Yes, I think so. I think that, if we stay the course over the next 12 to 24 months, we will eventually roll up ISIS. They are already on the defensive; they have already lost more than a quarter to a third of the territory they once controlled. So in that aspect, ISIS can be defeated.”

All that means, however, is that ISIS will simply revert to being an insurgency instead of a political state. “And you’re not going to eliminate the insurgency without a political solution to the status of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and in Syria,” he adds. “ISIS could not exist without some support from these groups; without a political solution, the problem will continue to fester.”

On a separate level, there is also ISIS the international jihadist movement – which has how spread to some three dozen countries around the world. 

“Some of the affiliate movements– for instance, Boko Haram in Nigeria or Al Shabaab in Somalia - are only very loosely connected to ISIS. They have sworn allegiance to the Islamic state, they call themselves the local ‘franchise’ in their part of the world… because they see it as a way of leveraging ISIS’ reputation for their own advantage. For the most part, however, these organisations function independently of ISIS… although they have adopted some of the same symbolism. You can see, for instance, that under the influence of ISIS, Boko Haram’s media have become more sophisticated. So regardless of what happens in Syria or Iraq, those 36 franchises are going to continue. Rooting them out will have to be a country-by-country challenge…”

Again, while this is technically possible, it does not address the underlying cause of the phenomenon. 

“The fourth aspect is ISIS the idea. Regardless what happens to ISIS the country, or ISIS the organisation… the idea is going to live on. The speeches, the propaganda, the films… all that stuff is out there, and it is out there permanently now. You cannot defeat an idea with bombs or military force. The only thing that can defeat the idea of ISIS is a better idea. And any alternative idea to jihadism, if it comes at all, will have to come from within the Muslim world. It cannot be imposed by the West…”

Does he see any indication of this alternative idea developing any time soon?

“There is movement in this direction. [Egyptian President] El-Sisi has said that Muslims need to find a way to reconcile Islam with the rest of the world, because ‘we cannot live in a world that is suspicious of Muslims.’ I think attempts are starting to take place… but there is no real ‘idea’ as yet. Until that alternative idea comes into being, ISIS will survive. Ultimately what I think you will need is a faith school of Sharia law, one that successfully reconciles Islam to the realities of 21st century life.  This will not be a quick fix; this will be a multi-generational project.”

Another thing to bear in mind, he adds, is that ISIS is not in itself the problem. “It is only the most recent manifestation of a much deeper malaise. Just as ISIS supplanted Al Qaeda, there will probably be other organisations that will in time supplant ISIS. So it’s not just a case of rolling back ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and the battle is won…”

Winning the battle, he suggests, is more of a long-term project. Meanwhile, it is also a battle that is likely to be fought on our own doorstep. 

Micallef has already pointed towards a likely escalation of violence in Libya. How does he see the situation developing in the near future?

“I think the key to stabilising Libya is a unity government which can both reach out to the West, and also eradicate extremist/militant organisations on the ground in order to establish some form of coherent political stability. That is not going to be an easy task. As things stand, we can’t seem to even get to phase one, which is to form the unity government. There are now special forces from the United States, Italy, France, the UK, deployed or about to deploy in Libya… it’s not entirely clear what they’re actually doing: to what extent they are working with the Libyan armed forces, and to what extent they are operating independently. My guess is that they will end up having to do both. There are also clear signs that the U.S. has stepped up its drone operations over Libya…”

If any form of air campaign is launched, people on the ground will also be needed. “For all practical purposes, we are already in the beginning of that kind of operation. Will that be enough to bring the situation under control? Nobody really knows. I suspect not; it is likelier that Libya will continue to develop along the lines of Syria. A political solution is going to be extremely difficult. I think Libya will continue to be the mess that it is for some time…”

This raises the issue of whether Western countries may in part be responsible for the situation, by aiding and abetting the overthrow of stable (if totalitarian) regimes in Muslim countries. Libya is a textbook example: when insurgents rose against Gaddafi in 2011, they enjoyed the support of countries such as France and the UK. Could it be argued, then, that the ‘short-termism’ of Western democracies – which rarely tend to look beyond the next election – has helped create this long-term problem?

“You cannot preclude the application of military force; but the reality is that it always should be the last resort, after all other means have been exhausted. It should not be the first course of action. I think that, in the West, we have created a very dangerous conception of what warfare is like. War is a horrible, bloody business that puts men and women in harm’s way. Even if those men and women escape physical injury, they are often exposed to psychological damage that they may never overcome. You cannot prevent civilian deaths and injuries or the collateral damage that results from military operations. Yet we have managed to promulgate the very dangerous concept that wars can be fought like some kind of ultra-realistic video game. You can remotely operate drones over Afghanistan or Iraq from nine to five… then go home and have dinner with the wife and kids. You have special forces which are perceived like some kind of 21st century ‘supermen’, who clean everything up within two or three weeks. There is a role for remotely operated instruments of war; there is a very important role for special forces too. But the reality is that you’re not going to win wars with drones and special forces alone. You also need boots on the ground. And when you do that, the reality of what warfare is changes completely. It is very dangerous to look at war as a quick, easy and inexpensive way to resolve issues.”

Nonetheless, war is very clearly upon us, whether we want it or not. 

“I think we are in a world war. I wouldn’t call it the ‘third world war’, as that would imply a certain continuity from the first two. This war is completely different, both in terms of root causes and in the way it will be fought. But it is a world war all the same; it is going to entail conventional military operations in various countries. This is already happening; we are about to open up a third front in Libya, probably within a matter of weeks. But it is also a war in which every major city in the world is on the front line. It is essentially an asymmetric conflict that is being fought in both conventional and non-conventional military means. And it is being fought all over the world. Every police force in the world is now part of that conflict…”

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