The enemy within: What European and Arab histories tell us about ISIS
It may be too late for Europe to raise its drawbridges, man the ramparts and enlarge the moat
It is the enemy within that a diminished Europe is facing now; the alienated sons and daughters of its former colonial subjects are being inspired by the enchanting sirens coming from the self-appointed high priests of sacred Islamist violence in the faraway former provinces of the empire, calling on them to wage a relentless war of terror to dismantle their societies, and to seek redemption and martyrdom in the thrill to kill.
A diminished continent
It is a sign of these modern brittle times that three men laden with explosives and unfathomable hatreds can bring a European country, nay a continent to a standstill, while casually strolling into an airport and unloading their wrath. It may be too late for Europe to raise its drawbridges, man the ramparts and enlarge the moat; fortified Europe is a thing of the past. In the age of empire, rebellious subjects in distant provinces were subdued by expeditionary forces fighting them on their grounds. Now the enemy is within, living in small enclaves inside the city, and is familiar with Europe’s ways, habits and vulnerabilities. Instead of dispatching bands of would be Jihadists from Arab and Muslim lands to wreak havoc in the heart of Europe, the so-called Caliphate which has attracted tens of thousands of fighters, including a sizable number from Europe, can simply train them in the art of terror and send them back on a last visit to the countries they have abandoned, or just inspire from afar new recruits to attack the enemy from behind.
These new soldiers are not like the traditional Jihadists who volunteered to fight Soviet dominion in Afghanistan, or like those who waged terror against various Arab and Muslim tyrannical regimes with the objective of restoring Islamist rule, they are the new European Lumpenproletariat, lacking Islamic consciousness, although they are part of the Muslim communities living in Europe but not totally of Europe. These young alienated, angry misfits, petty criminals and former convicts living on the margin of society, get religion either in prisons or are recruited to “Jihad” by local heavies, and radical Imams, mostly imported from the Middle East or South Asia. Thus, their empty lives are given meaning and purpose after receiving a rudimentary introduction to Islam, with heavy emphasis on the real and imagined grievances of the Ummah at the hands of the Imperialists and the Crusaders. Their criminal core is finally wrapped in an Islamist veneer.
For the last half millennia, the European continent has shaped world history, initiated the scientific and industrial revolutions, and was the repository of great culture and art ; and while it had its dark and ugly side expressed in massive violence and world wars, it nonetheless laid the foundation of the modern world. The Islamist inspired terror that has in recent years visited the great cities of Europe; London, Paris, Madrid and recently Brussels has demonstrated powerfully to what extent the post-modern Europe as embodied in the European Union, with its open borders, and diluted sovereignties has been weakened. Coming after Europe’s failure to check Russia’s aggressive irredentism which is bleeding the Ukraine, and the confusion and contradictory approaches to solving the historic influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, this new strain of terrorism is threatening the very foundations of an exhausted European Union.
A fake state and a state of emergency
A pretend “Islamic Caliphate” straddling the two failed states of Syria and Iraq has declared war on many Muslim lands, the European Union and the United States. Its self-appointed Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi might have been a ghost, but he knows that none of his Western enemies is willing to engage his forces on the ground. Such is the nature of terrorism against open societies in a globalized and interconnected world that it is rewriting the whole concept of asymmetrical warfare. Never have a small number of people been capable of inflicting so much damage against so many people in so many supposedly powerful countries, for so little a cost and for such a long time. The Caliphate, a non-state fake state, through few men wreaked havoc in Europe, and created a state of emergency and fear in the continent.
A lot has been written about what Belgium should do technically and administratively to be more effective, in collaboration with the rest of the EU states in anticipating and combatting its growing Islamist inspired terrorism scourge. But ‘Molenbeek’ as the archetype of the impenetrable ISIS infested enclave in the European city, will remain for the foreseeable future an intractable problem for the continent. But modern European history is instructive here. In the 19th and early 20th centuries anarchist violence shook every European capital from Madrid in the West to Moscow in the East. Anarchist terror was so ubiquitous it left its deep impact (and scars) on the politics, literature, philosophy and art of the whole continent. (Anarchism informed the works of some of the greatest novelists of the 19th century; Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Balzac, Zola and others). Violent men armed with pistols and bombs and helped by philosophers, theoreticians, and pamphleteers justified the anarchists’ utopia, and terrorized their way into the hearts and minds of millions of Europeans by assassinating kings, presidents and Prime Ministers.
It may be too late for Europe to raise its drawbridges, man the ramparts and enlarge the moat; fortified Europe is a thing of the pastHisham Melhem
They created and relished anarchy, and like the ISIS assassins of today, they enjoyed the thrill to kill. The nihilistic, absolutist impulses that drove the anarchists of Europe in the 19th century in their take- no- prisoner war against the State as the embodiment of evil, are essentially the same nihilistic absolutist impulses that are driving the young, angry and marginalized foot soldiers of ISIS in their all-out war against the ‘Crusader’ states of Europe. It took European societies and governments decades and in some cases generations to eliminate the anarchist’s “culture” and allure by a combination of counter violence, good governance, economic and social development and countervailing intellectual force. It will take European states and institutions similar approaches and tactics and many years to eliminate the threat of the Islamist foot soldiers of ISIS and like-minded groups from their own ‘Molenbeeks’.
…And fake Mahdis
The Caliphate in the Levant and Mesopotamia, and its budding branches in Libya, Yemen and even in faraway Afghanistan can only be defeated by the sword. The ‘Islamist State’ is the last of a long string of radical, millennial, apocalyptic, revivalist and schismatic movements, led by false prophets, fake Caliphs and usurping Mahdis . In fact the dawn of Islam saw the birth of the first such bloody movement. The Kharijites, (or Khawarij) literally ‘the outsiders’ was a rebellious movement that practiced a primitive form of egalitarianism, became infamous when one of its members in 661 AD assassinated the venerable Imam Ali, the last of the four ‘rightly guided’ Caliphs who was Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, thus intensifying the Sunni-Shiite schism. Some of these claimants of prophethood barely deserve a footnote (although the greatest classical Arab poet Al-Mutanabbi, 915- 965 AD, as his name indicate, claimed the mantle of Prophethood in his youth) but others ruled large domains. The most powerful of these movements in modern times was that of the Mahdiyya movement in Sudan. In June 1881 a religious leader named Muhammad Ahmad Ibn Abdallah proclaimed himself the Mahdi (the guided one) who would redeem the Muslim faith. The movement was built on a reservoir of Sudanese resentment against the Egyptian-Ottoman dominion of Sudan, and had roots in the revivalist messianic popular beliefs among the local sects.
The charismatic Mahdi and his successor Abdallah Ibn Muhammad established an Islamic state in Sudan and in parts of Egypt and Ethiopia supported by a large army. The famed British General Charles Gordon fell to the swords of the Mahdi’s holy warriors in the battle of Khartoum in 1885. The Mahdiyya state terrorized the Nile Valley region, and their rampages lasted for 20 years, until another renowned British General, Horatio Kitchener leading an expeditionary British force of 8000 soldiers and an auxiliary 17000 combined Egyptian and Sudanese force, dispatched a larger Mahdist army of 60000 and destroyed the Mahdiyya state at the battle of Omdurman in1898. It is instructive here that the Mahdiyya state was defeated militarily by a combined Muslim-British force.
Terrorism without borders
Terrorism without borders is the natural outcome of globalization and the digital age. Countering this qualitatively new threat requires a strategy without borders too. After the Brussels bombings, President Obama re-iterated his mantra that the Islamic State is not an “existential threat” to the United States – “They can’t destroy us. They can’t defeat us”. And once again the President is framing the issue the wrong way. Just as he criticizes those who accuse him of reneging on his threats and promises regarding Syria, by twisting their words to make them sound as if they were counseling him to invade Syria, his framing of the issue of ISIS’ terror misses the point. Yes, it is true that ISIS and al Qaeda do not constitute an existential threat to America, but that is not what the critics are objecting to. Obama deals with this strain of terror as if we are still living in the ancient world of pre-globalization and the primitive age of the pre-digital possibilities. A war need not be an existential threat to cause tremendous damage. The only war that had the potential to destroy the United States was the civil war. And only during the Cold War the possibility of a thermonuclear exchange with the Soviet Union could have been considered a truly existential threat to America. No war in the twentieth century came close to representing an existential threat to the United States. America by virtue of geography and capabilities fights its wars overseas.
But as the American led minimalist war against ISIS, and the long conflict in Syria have demonstrated, far away wars in our inter-connected world, could have a devastating effects not only on Syria and Iraq, the primary theatre of the conflict, but also on Washington’s allies in the region, and as we have seen with the influx of refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa, the very foundations of the European Union are being undermined.
It is not only that the Schengen Agreement which led to the creation of “borderless Europe” is slowly collapsing now, but also the rising power of exclusionist tendencies and the ascendency of right-wing politics, and the potential for mass violence between local radical Islamists and neo-fascist groups that could deal a historic blow to a post-Cold war Europe that was supposed to be ’whole and free’. When hostile terrorist entities like the “Caliphate” control large open spaces that includes universities, labs, hospitals, and scientists, the possibility of assembling and detonating a “dirty” bomb to contaminate a city, or stealing radioisotopes to cause radiation poisoning, cannot be excluded.
What is to be done?
The American reaction to the mayhem in Brussels was somewhat predictable. The reaction of the two leading Republican candidates Donald Trump and Ted Cruz was inflammatory, offensive, ill-advised, impractical and downright idiotic. Senator Cruz betrayed his ignorance of the conditions of America’s Muslim population, called for empowering law enforcement “to patrol and secure Muslim neighborhoods before they become radicalized”. Someone on his staff should have told him that there are no American ‘Molenbeeks’ full of resentful and alienated Muslim youths, and that the majority of Muslim Americans, who live throughout the country, are well educated, mostly middle class and at home in America, unlike the relatively, isolated and disenfranchised Muslim communities in European countries like France and Belgium. Yes, we had some radicalized American-born Muslim individuals who were inspired by terrorist groups and theoreticians to commit violence, but we don’t have radicalized, Muslim communities, holed up, in ‘Molenbeek’ like enclaves ready to explode.
There were other ‘remedies’ by candidate Trump like banning Muslims from entering the United States, and re-introducing and legalizing torture to extract quick confessions from detainees. The leading democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton, after criticizing the infantile proposals of her Republican rivals, proposed doing more of what president Obama is already doing, such as intensifying the air campaign, improving coordination with allies, tightening the visa and passenger-list systems. She differed with Obama only on her proposal to establish a safe zone in Syria to stem the flow of refugees.
The Brussel’s bombings, like the Paris attacks last year have heightened the debate about the best way to deal with the ISIS threat. The Islamic State’s impressive prowess in electronic warfare and its early successful use of social media, led to calls for greater emphasis on the virtual battlefield. Candidate Hillary Clinton called for a virtual war on ISIS. “We’ve got to defeat them online. This is where they radicalize, and that’s where they propagandize”. While a countervailing push online is necessary to fight the diabolically creative “electronic brigades” that ISIS has been deploying to wage online hashtag campaigns and to do battle with Twitter, and Google in the end this epic struggle with ISIS will have to be decided on the ground and not online, by sharp swords and not by sharply worded tweets.
The “clanging of the swords”
Defeating ISIS will require good old fashion military muscle. While the air campaign and selective special operations against ISIS leadership, and military installations have degraded the group, the decisive blow can only be delivered by ground troops. The Obama administration’s support for Syria’s opposition groups was invariably, limited, tepid and tactical. President Obama and his senior advisors initially stuck to the mantra that there is no military solution to the conflict, then with the rise of ISIS wanted the nationalist opposition to fight ISIS and ignore the very Assad regime that brought ISIS to Syria in the first place. Since the US is not likely to dispatch an expeditionary force to rout ISIS from its “capital” Raqqa on the Euphrates, as Britain did in 1898 to defeat the Mahdiyya state, conceivably a new American President can adopt some of the well thought out military options proposed by a number of serious experts such as Kenneth Pollack and Frederic Hof et.al.
Time is of the essence. Barring a Deus ex Machina in the form of American direct military intervention, or the formation of a new Syrian opposition force with significant American and Arab support, Syria’s wars will continue and could conceivably in a year or two unravel the Levant region the way we have known it for a century. Only military force could defeat ISIS and the Assad regime; and as ISIS is fond of saying, victory can only be achieved by the “clanging of the swords.”
Hisham Melhem is a columnist and analyst for Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem