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Gordon Campbell on why IS’s weakness makes it more dangerous

Gordon Campbell on why Islamic State’s growing weakness makes it more dangerous

One of the great things about writing online is that if you have a bad morning, readers will pick up on it, and take you to task. I’m totally willing to concede that my last column a couple of days ago on the Paris terrorism attacks wasn’t the last word on the subject, but it was a surprise to open the old digital mailbag and be accused of being (a) a ‘regressive leftist’ and thereby soft on terrorism (b) wilfully blind to the security threat to Europe posed by Syrian refugees and (c) allegedly ‘clutching for straws’ in suggesting that the Syrian refugee passport found near one of the dead attackers in Paris should not be taken at face value.

There had been three main points in the column in quesion. Namely, that the Paris attacks should not be blamed on some supposed intrinsic tendency to violence in the religion of Islam. I also argued that there shouldn’t be massive retaliatory bombing campaigns of civilian centres in northern Syria and northern Iraq, since these will only fuel IS recruitment - and would, besides, amount to war crimes that cannot be justified even if those towns did contain IS fighters in their midst. Finally, the mass stereotyping of Syrian refugees as potential terrorists seemed like a terrible idea. If only because in the Al Qaeda attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the subsequent IS attacks in Europe this year, the gunmen seem to have primarily European nationals, not refugees. More on this point below.

I’d also like to make a further suggestion about the Paris attacks - that they actually reflect the growing weakness of Islamic State, and a related shift in its tactics. I’m not being Pollyanish in saying so: this development is not a good thing. The current problems for IS date back to when it declared a caliphate last year ie a physical, geographic entity that signalled the end times and the imminent triumph of the faithful. This was a major element in their recruiting drive, and it was fuelled in 2014 by their military successes and headlong expansion.

That’s not happening anymore. If anything, the caliphate is shrinking. In recent weeks the Kurds have retaken Sinjar in northern Syria. At best, IS has dug in to defend its prior gains in Raqqa, Mosul, and Ramadi. That‘s a real problem. ‘Come to Syria to die defending the caliphate’ is a lot less sexy as a recruitment slogan than ‘Come to join in the caliphate’s glorious expansion’. Moreover, in recent weeks a drone strike managed to kill Mohammed Emwazi aka Jihadi John, the face of the organisation recruitment drive in the West. What happens when a military machine starts losing? It turns back into a guerrilla force, and the guerrillas hit the enemy’s soft targets.

We have a precedent for this evolution: Al Shabaab in Somalia. Once Al Shabaab’s early military successes – it reached its expansionary peak in 2010 – hit a wall, it began to be evicted from the citadels of the sharia-ruled mini-state that it had created. Now, the organisation has regrouped as a network of guerrilla cells, and as such it continues to hit soft targets (eg shopping centres) in Kenya. This article makes the Al Shabaab = Islamic State comparison, and it concludes:

[Islamic State] has now peaked: It is losing territory, many of its fighters are dying in battle, defections from their ranks continue to increase, recruitment flows are slower and smaller, and new regional Islamic State affiliates in countries like Libya and Egypt now provide a range of options for potential recruits to join a group locally, rather than travel to Syria.

To sustain its brand and supporting global fan base, the Islamic State needs to show success. If it cannot achieve battlefield victories and broadcast them on social media, then its affiliates and global network need to pick up the slack with terrorist attacks that capture the imagination of mass media… The lesson is this: If an extremist group that has seized territory starts to lose it, it will be highly incentivized to turn to terrorist operations that allow for maximizing effects at a lower cost.

Increasingly, urban centres in the West will become the export market for the IS evolution. That’s why I suggested there are other ways to defeat Islamic state than bombing civilians – which will only help IS to recruit suicide bombers. There are already signs that the Russian bombing campaign may have created a fresh wave of refugees:

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, more than 120,000 people have been displaced since early October because “as a result of aerial bombardment, as well as ground offensives among the parties,” and on Sunday, European Council President Donald Tusk raised alarm that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s bombing campaign has already sparked “a new wave of refugees.

To point this out is not to be soft on terrorism. It is merely a reminder of the law of unintended consequences, and the potential for the form of our military retaliation to be self-defeating. In this respect, it doesn’t help that the US policy in Syria has been to promote a bloody stalemate so that neither side – not IS, and not Assad – ever loses entirely, nor ever wins out. Quite rightly, the Syrian people have seen no future for them in this scenario. In the meantime – as I’ve said in previous columns - the West has been hamstrung in its response to IS by its own web of alliances. The only effective fighters on the ground against IS in Syria and Iraq are (a) the Kurds who the US can’t wholeheartedly support lest that upset Turkey (b) the Iranian –backed Shia militias, who the US can’t openly support lest that worsen a sectarian divide that drives Sunnis into the arms of IS and (c) Hizbollah and (d) the Syrian Army of Bashir al-Assad. When your friends are as problematic as these, who needs enemies?

Back to the criticisms I started out with. The fake passport? Rather than being an example of me clutching at straws, the Syrian refugee passport found in Paris has indeed been proven to be a fake. A duplicate fake, even.

Does it still mean there is a security problem related to IS or al Qaeda operatives entering Europe via the refugee process? Yes. Yet the solution surely, is not to stigmatise and brutalise every single Syrian refugee and – somehow – try to seal off Fortress Europe. As both Amnesty International and Human Rights watch have pointed out, there is a successful and flourishing market in Syrian passports partly because Europe has devoted so few staff and so little in the way of other resources to the main refugee entry points, to vet the paperwork properly. Rather than cite security concerns and refuse to take refugees, the likes of Poland and Slovakia should be offering to help with the processing that would weed out the fakes, and (some of) the terrorists. This effort won’t guarantee security, but it would definitely make it harder for IS to get its people into the vicinity of its soft targets.

In short… you can’t stigmatise the millions who are fleeing persecution simply because a relative handful of very bad people are hiding in their midst. The scale of the refugee crisis is worth repeating:

About 7.5 million have been displaced within the country and some 4 million have been forced abroad. Little Jordan (pop. 6 million) has taken 800,000. Little Lebanon (pop. 4 million) has taken 1.2 million. Turkey (pop. 75 million) has taken 2 million. Sweden is accepting Syrian refugees without announcing limits. Germany is taking tens of thousands (though probably most of the refugees Chancellor Angela Merkel has accepted are not Syrians). Winter is arriving and the refugees have no proper shelter, clothing or nourishment…Syrian refugees are not guerrilla fighters or terrorists. They are fleeing the oppression of the Bashar al-Assad government or the brutality of Daesh (or al-Qaeda. They are the victims of [our] enemies.

So… and at the risk of sounding like a regressive leftist, the need to respond to the Syrian refugee crisis with something other than indiscriminate bombing is a moral imperative, grounded in recent history. As Juan Cole has indicated, there would be no al Qaeda franchise in the Syria/Iraq region, no Islamic State derivative and no Syrian refugee crisis, if George Bush, Tony Blair et al. had not invaded Iraq in 2003. It seems particularly unfair that France – which refused to join the invasion, in a memorable speech at the UN by Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin - has now (twice) borne the brunt of the continuing backlash.

The least we can do is not blame the refugees. For once, US President Barack Obama’s eloquence has been used for the right reasons:

The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism. They are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife. They are parents. They are children. They are orphans and it is very important … that we do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”


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