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, Islamic State is a minuscule military force, especially when compared against the military power of its 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. The attackers have reportedly claimed that they targeted innocent civilians in response to Western airstrikes on ISIS military targets in Iraq and Syria. In doing so, they try 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 paints a vivid picture at its own barbarity. It has never been the stated goal 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.
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 (whom 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 is hoping that, in their desire to assuage domestic indignation over the political violence committed on European soil, the U.S. and France will exhaust themselves militarily and make costly political commitments that will fundamentally weaken our resolve and dilute our moral advantage. ISIS fighters are also hoping that amid the fog of the inevitable war, they may be handed a 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 use 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 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.
ISIS 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 jihadi movements, trained specifically to carry 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 bear witness to this.
In fact, the attackers in the latest Paris strikes are likely not Syrian refugees at all, but mostly European citizens who are able to carry out such attacks because of the ease with which they could travel and the anonymity that their citizenship bestows.
The next focus of the Western approach to defeating ISIS should be to stem the propaganda produced by ISIS and other jihadi groups by clamping down on social media and targeting mosques and other organizations that promote jihadi ideas in Europe and the U.S. It should also consist of counterpropaganda messages directed toward 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 the jihadis 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 important, we must begin to show images and stories of jihadis 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 offering 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.
• Armstrong Williams is sole owner/manager of Howard Stirk Holdings and executive editor of American CurrentSee Online Magazine.
• Armstrong Williams can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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