The Cancer of the Islamic State is Metastasizing
The screams of “Allahu Akbar!” was the last thing Italians, Japanese, and other foreigners at a popular cafe in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka (the cafe was in the supposedly secure diplomatic quarter of Dhaka), heard before crude bombs exploded there. What followed was a vicious melee of knife and sword attacks upon the bewildered and unsuspecting crowd, followed immediately thereafter by a seemingly interminable standoff with Bangladeshi authorities. The outcome of this siege was the freeing of at least 12 people and the discovery of 20 butchered hostages. The screams of “Allahu Akbar!” emanated from sword-wielding terrorists who swore allegiance to the Islamic State.
Shortly before this, President Obama had proudly proclaimed that, thanks to the current Iraqi offensive against IS in northern Iraq, the Islamic State “is on the run.” This is not the first time that President Obama has prematurely declared victory. In fact, this has become a horrific pattern. From Paris to San Bernardino; from Orlando to Istanbul, each attack has been preceded by the Obama Administration’s declaration of “victory.” Each time, such declarations have been followed on with the menacing laughter of the Islamic State, as it slaughters more innocents in more places. This problem is not going away. This problem is getting worse. This problem will only be resolved through decisive American leadership and military action. These are the things that this Administration refuses to do. Instead, it chooses to fight Jihadists with a little TLC (that’s Tender, Love, and Care, for those of you born before the 1980s).
What follows is a critical assessment of the U.S. war effort against the Islamic State thus far. As you will see, the recent history of American dithering and inaction in fighting IS, coupled with the Islamic State’s exponential growth worldwide, means that Jihadists everywhere have become more brazen and empowered to conduct shameless terrorist attacks across the world. This trend will persist, indeed, it is likely to intensify, should the U.S. continue on its precarious wait-and-see approach in the War Against the Islamic State.
Cultural Warfare & The Internet
The image of a thin young man, clad in black robes, thickly bearded, bomb-wearing, Kalishnakov-waving–a Jihadist–is frightening to a civilian, like you or I. However, compared to the image of a U.S. Marine marching into battle or an F-18 screeching overhead, the very notion that an army of Jihadists could ever be threatening to Western states seems a bit overblown. Yet, highly threatening they are. Not only to you or I, but to the stability and survival of Western civilization.
Indeed, despite over a decade of warfare, the Jihadist threat is metastasizing and intensifying. Despite the Great Recession of 2008 and the anemic recovery, the global economy is still doing well enough to empower many Developing countries. Even still, despite the newfound wealth in these countries, young Muslim men are taking up arms in the name of Allah. What’s more troubling, is that, in many cases, these young men (and some women) who are joining the Islamic State are coming from Western countries. In fact, some of them are originating from the United States itself.
How could this be? Why is this so? What is driving this?
These are the questions our leaders should be asking themselves, when seeking to gain greater understanding of the enemy that we face.
In the modern Western political discourse, whether someone is of the Left or the Right, Socialist or Capitalist, the materialist dialectic prevails. To most people, so long as the economy goes well, peace will reign, as everyone will be getting far too rich to war. In some cases, this has proven true. The research of Steven Pinker indicates that global violence trends are positively correlated with global economic prosperity–things generally tend to get more violent the worse the global economy does. However, this is not the whole picture. Whatever economic pitfalls have befallen places like Europe, Canada, and the United States, for instance, things have surely not gotten so bad that people are becoming disposed toward greater violence. We in the West are going to have to abandon this purely materialistic view of the world and realize that, in the case of the U.S.-Jihadist War (popularly–and erroneously–known as the Global War on Terror), it is religion that is the key driver for our adversaries. Specifically, in the case of the Islamic State, it is a particular strain of Sunni Islam, Wahhabism, that is the single-greatest motivator. Also, as an aside, while I thoroughly enjoy Dr. Pinker’s works, I have always felt that the notion that economics reduces men’s desire to war to be somewhat of a superficial claim. There is some truth to it, however, both Britain and Germany were raking in the big bucks through trade on the eve of the First World War, yet, they still warred.
It is not necessarily the poor and uneducated, huddled masses of war-torn refugees in the desert who comprise the upper ranks of Jihadist groups, like the Islamic State. Rather paradoxically, it is young, Middle-Class men in the West (or at least those who have been raised according to Western standards) who are becoming indoctrinated in the Islamic State’s Sunni millenarianism. These young men, many of whom are already Muslim (though in some cases, they are recent converts), become enamored of the concept of serving something greater than themselves. Of course, the rhetoric of the Islamic State does not match reality. In many cases, these young men (who are obviously troubled on some level) come to believe as the Islamic State does through interactions on the internet. Indeed, the poorly named phenomenon of “self-radicalization” has been directly responsible for several of the most recent terror attacks right here in the United States.
“The gunmen were doing a background check on religion by asking everyone to recite from the Quran. Those who could recite a verse or two were spared. The others were tortured.”
– Rezaul Karim, father of one of the survivors of the Dhaka cafe attack in Bangladesh, as reported by The Independent.
As the work of leading scholar, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, has shown, the Islamic State in particular has gotten extremely well versed in annexing religious symbology in order to gain new recruits all over the world–particularly in the supposedly secular West. These young men that are drawn to IS are yearning for something that they are not finding in their peaceful Middle-Class communities. They are looking to fill a void that they worry will remain unfulfilled in the materialistic West. The internet, more than anything, has been the leading reason why the Islamic State has managed to create so many satellite branches throughout the world. There is absolutely no attempt from either the U.S. government or its allies to counter this incredibly effective propaganda.
“We are leaving. See you in Heaven.”
And what is the message that is so alluring to these young people? Is it a promise of economic prosperity? No. Is it the guarantee of a better form of government? Somewhat, but not exactly. The promise of pliable women for these young men’s fancy? Partially. The promise of notoriety, prestige, and honor? Again, somewhat. What if I told you that, more than anything, that what is compelling these people is their profound sense of religious belief? While all of the aforementioned–and more–things are compelling reasons for the prospective Islamic State recruits, none of them, on their own, is as compelling as the notion that the Islamic State is here to wage the last Jihad.
The concept of Jihad, or struggle, is deeply ingrained in Islam. While Jihad can take many forms, the fact of the matter is, despite what the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) would have you believe, historically, Jihad has taken a rather violent, literal meaning. The Islamic State’s full title, according to its leaders, is the Islamic State of Iraq and Al Sham. This title is aimed at the very heart of every true believer of Islam. It is as well-known as Bethlehem is to Christians. Al Sham is the site of the final great battle in Islam. It is the site of the final Jihad before the Islamic equivalent of the Final Judgement. The Islamic State, therefore, is occupying a space–both territorially and spiritually–that is profoundly meaningful to Muslims. While nowhere near a majority of Muslims are going to take up arms and fight for al-Baghdadi, the point is, that there are enough sympathizers, the world over, particularly in regions and in communities where we would least expect to find them, who would gladly fight for the Islamic State because of this rhetoric.
The battle against the Islamic State in particular, but all Jihadist groups, is cultural and religious, as opposed to economic and political. While the Jihadists most certainly oppose democracy and liberalism (while also eschewing capitalism), this is not why they fight. Theirs is a holy war waged upon the Kufar, the Infidels. Those Infidels include not only Christians, Jews, and “pagans,” such as the Yazidis, but also fellow Muslims, such as the Shiites, as well as moderate Muslims who take up with the aforementioned groups. These moderate Muslims, such as the governments of Jordan and Egypt, are considered apostates.
Obama’s Foreign Policy: From “Leading From Behind” to Not Leading at All
In 2011, the Obama Administration proudly told The New Yorker that the Administration’s concept of foreign policy was one of “leading from behind.” This was in the context of the intervention into Libya. However, it has been shown that this is the overarching theme of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy. The U.S. has done everything in its power, since President Obama was sworn into office in January 2009, to reduce its military footprint abroad and to resist calls for military action–even when American interests are directly threatened.
In some cases, such hesitance may have been justified. Yet, in the cases where inaction is generally justified, the Obama Administration seems to make the opposite calculation (such as Libya and Egypt), when action is justified, the Obama Administration resolves to dither (as is the case in the ongoing Syrian Civil War and the subsequent War Against the Islamic State).
In Libya, no American interests were directly at stake and it made little sense to topple the Gaddafi Regime which, although despicable, was serving America’s interests. Even if the Obama Administration remained insistent on toppling Gaddafi, despite the apparent lack of threat to American interests, the Administration should have been dedicated to actually following that intervention up with reliable assistance to the Libyans, for the purpose of rebuilding that state. Once Gaddafi fell, however, the Obama Administration washed its hands of the Libyans and placed Libya once more onto the back burner.
Since then, the Libyan central government has been incapable of asserting its power throughout the country. This has created pockets of lawlessness from whence Jihadist groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State can spring up and operate from. This is precisely why the Obama Administration was caught unawares by the heinous Benghazi Siege, which resulted in the brutal deaths of four Americans–one of them being the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens.
Shortly thereafter, the U.S. began a precipitous reduction in defense spending and has sought to disentangle itself from any serious military commitments abroad (the U.S., for instance, failed to do much in the face of Russian aggression against Ukraine and continues to inadequately respond to Chinese territorial aggrandizement in the Asia-Pacific). In fact, during the Arab Spring, the Obama Administration supported groups like the Muslim Brotherhood–a known terror organization–during the Egyptian Revolution. Once in power, the Muslim Brotherhood did exactly what all tyrannical organizations do: they attempted to pass a constitutional amendment essentially outlawing opposition parties. Then, when the Egyptian military–backed by most Egyptians–decided to unseat the Morsi government and install President Sisi, the Obama Administration balked.
Egypt, like Libya, had been serving U.S. interests in the region. At the time, Egypt was serving as a key strategic partner against terrorism (and continues to do so), and Egypt was also helping to stabilize the area surrounding Israel, by respecting the peace accords with Israel and tamping down on the flow of Jihadist fighters into Israel and the Palestinian territories. Yet, the Obama Administration supported the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader, Mohammed Morsi, who were categorically opposed to all of these U.S. objectives (and the Muslim Brotherhood’s antipathy to these U.S. objectives wasn’t some secret, either, it was in their organization’s charter!).
Meanwhile, the Obama Administration doubled down on its insistence of committing to a nuclear agreement with the rabidly anti-American Mahdist theocracy of Iran. Such an agreement, as we have seen, has the potential to not only empower a visceral anti-American regime bent on regional hegemony, as Iran is, but to also precipitate the possibility of a breakout of nuclear proliferation in anti-Iranian states (most of whom are traditional U.S. allies), like Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The agreement has already empowered Iran to begin making moves throughout the region supporting Shiite-friendly organizations against Sunni groups, such as in Bahrain, Yemen, in Iraq, and in the Syrian Civil War.
As Obama was turning on key regional allies, the Syrian Civil War was destabilizing the Levant. Within this morass, Syria, the one area that needed some form of U.S. military intervention, found itself hosting a retinue of Jihadist groups–among them was the Islamic State, who were birthed from Abu Zarqawi’s old al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) organization. The longer the conflict in Syria raged, the longer that U.S. intervention–or any foreign intervention, for that matter–was delayed, the stronger these Jihadist groups (particularly IS) grew.
By 2014, the Islamic State had declared independence away from al Qaeda and had become their own brand. They began a systematic campaign of terrorism, genocide, rape, slavery, all aimed at asserting themselves as the one true Jihadist group. They targeted Christians, who had called the Levant home since the earliest days of Christianity, they terrorized Yazidis, slaughtered Shiites, and obliterated rival Sunni factions. Though IS was ostensibly oriented toward removing Bashar al-Assad from power, their area of operations allowed them to extend and claim large tracts of Iraq. This has further destabilized the U.S.-built Iraqi government and empowered Iran and Russia, who have become major benefactors for the Iraqi government in its bid to oust the Islamic State from its territory.
Meanwhile, erstwhile American allies, such as the stateless Kurds in northern Iraq, remain under threat from the Islamic State. The Kurds have been effective in repulsing the Islamic State’s advance into northern Iraq (somewhat), but while they have ample supply of spirit, they are in dire need of logistical and intelligence support. This has been haphazard and unreliable thus far from the U.S.
In Iraq, IS detected a target of opportunity, since the Obama Administration had completely withdrawn U.S. forces from Iraq a few years earlier. Seeking a strategic safe haven for its beleaguered forces in the ongoing Syrian Civil War, and wanting to stake out independent territory for its objective of literally building an Islamic State in Al Sham,* IS took to absorbing as much of Iraq as possible. The unpopular (mostly Shiite) central government of Iraq had found it difficult to control the country after the Obama Administration’s removal of U.S. forces a few years earlier. Power abhors a vacuum. Within this vacuum, the Shiite government in Baghdad began persecuting the Sunni minority of Iraq and distancing itself from the Kurds in the north. The Baghdad regime also found allies in Iran. The weakness of the government, coupled with its unpopularity, set the stage for the Islamic State’s takeover of the Sunni portions of that country.
The Obama Administration has consistently signaled weakness and irresolution to resist American foes. Because of this, our traditional allies are looking for alternatives to the protection that U.S. policy once afforded them. On top of that, the ongoing budget cuts to the Department of Defense, that are the result of poor leadership from both the Obama Administration, as well as the Republicans in Congress, have only spurred the vision of an America in decline and incapable of defending itself.
Indeed, in a recent Atlantic article, President Obama articulated his pride in having resisted the traditional Washington, D.C. call to “do something” in the face of international instability. Obama claims this inaction as his Administration’s greatest contribution to American foreign policy. What he calls “strategic patience,” coupled with his previous attempts to “lead from behind,” our allies and enemies abroad–but particularly in the cauldron that is the Middle East–view that as existential weakness to be exploited or isolated from. The Islamic State and countries like Iran seek to exploit this perceived weakness. America’s traditional allies seek refuge from this weakness by either looking to nuclear weapons of their own, or by aligning with more powerful actors, like the Russians.
As America’s allies pull farther away from the United States, hedging their bets between hoping that America will respond and calculating that American cannot, the U.S. position in the Middle East will not be the only place that American influence is lost. Indeed, taking their cues from the befuddling U.S. inaction in the Middle East, U.S. allies around the world will begin making their own calculations, assuming that they will no longer have critical U.S. backup, should their own security be threatened. This inability to respond to what is blatantly a direct threat to the U.S. and its interests in the Middle East, will only exacerbate the difficulties in pursuing American foreign policy objectives globally. If this trend persisted, if the U.S. failed to act decisively against the Islamic State, and should IS continue to spread its reach around the world, the American global position as the last guarantor of security will have been damaged. Such an event will be catastrophic for global stability (which is already threatened due to America’s weak stance on defense).
The Spreading Cancer
The indifference and weakness that the United States has displayed in its foreign policy for the last eight years has directly lead to the creation, empowerment, and diffusion of the Islamic State. IS went from being a minor problem group within the larger Syrian Civil War to being a major regional destabilizer–a quasi-state, no less–with global reach. Each day that the U.S. continues to adequately respond to the IS threat, the threat grows stronger. In much the same way that ignoring cancerous cell growth in the body ultimately leads to the exponential growth of those cells, causing the disease to go from a possibly manageable problem to a terminal prognosis, so too has the Islamic State metastasized. It is literally a cancer on the American-led international order, and has much the same effect as cancer: it saps the greater body of energy and weakens it until it collapses. Listed below are some states where the Islamic State has spread:
- West Africa (due to Boko Haram)
- The Caucasus
- Egypt (the Sinai)
The Islamic State is also believed to have many thousands of operatives among the refugees who have been allowed into Europe. As I outlined in my article on Brexit, as well as my recent interview on The Don Kroah Show on Brexit, a key impetus for Britain’s leaving the European Union was over the EU’s disturbingly lax immigration policy. Whether it played a direct role or not, it is doubtless to any objective observer that Germany’s decision to allow millions of undocumented refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War into Europe had some impact on the way that Britain voted during the Brexit referendum.
Furthermore, the recent attacks in Paris and the high presence of Islamic fighters in places like Belgium indicate that the Islamic State’s reach extends far beyond the previously listed countries. Recently, there have been reports that IS has elements in Indonesia, the Philippines, even in Trinidad and Tobago! This is to say nothing of the literally thousands of IS sympathizers in the United States itself.
The Islamic State is not going anywhere. It’s spreading. The infection is getting worse. There is but one cure, decisive American military action. Yet, the doctors refuse to use it because of the side effects. Imagine if we chose not to use Penicillin because it caused a wave of treatable–yet annoying–skin rashes. That is the same as whatever negative side effects the Obama Administration claims any significant U.S. military intervention would have in the long-run.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The most recent attack in Bangladesh should prove one thing to all observers: the Islamic State is growing. It is not on the run. It is diffusing its ideology and tactics to all corners of the globe. Just as al Qaeda converted modes of advanced transportation, airplanes, into cruise missiles on 9/11, the Islamic State has converted the Internet, the revolutionary global communications platform, into one of the most effective weapons imaginable to wage their cultural war upon the unprepared West. Much of the woes that we have endured from the Islamic State, much of the global anarchy that has emanated from the Middle East these past few years, could have been mitigated, had the President of the United States had a firmer grasp on the realities of the Middle East. However, President Obama entered into office possessed of the radical notion that the United States was causing much of the instability and chaos in the world. Therefore, he believed, that the U.S. needed to downsize its military. He felt that the U.S. needed to “nation-build at home,” while ignoring the outside world. This is why the President is far more comfortable talking about gun rights and Global Warming in the immediate aftermath of the Orlando or Istanbul terror attacks.
The strategic indifference that the Obama Administration has displayed has stunted America’s counterterrorism efforts, both at home and abroad. It has endangered Americans everywhere. As Bangladesh has shown, the Islamic State is capable of spreading its pernicious ideology to anywhere. It can reach out its vengeful hand and touch any one of us. Bangladesh is a promising country economically. It has been integrated into the Western international system for some time. Dittos for the recently attacked Turkey. Yet, in both cases, the presence of Islamist political parties on the rise, coupled with the “Cyberspace Caliphate,” has meant that no amount of economic and diplomatic ties with the West will save these countries from becoming cauldrons of terrorism.
The war that America must fight is cultural. It is spiritual. It is uncompromising. It will require allies–many of whom we may find unsavory or otherwise lacking. At the very time the United States has decided to disengage from the Middle East and retrench, the Middle East (and the world) needs greater American entrenchment and engagement. While the United States precariously slashes away at its military, the world needs a robust American military more now than ever. Just when we were told the Islamic State is on the run, or “al Qaeda is dead and GM is alive,” both IS and al Qaeda are resurgent. The reason that the Islamic State is spreading is because their religious message resonates with a core group of people who are spread throughout the world.
Because of the world’s perception of American weakness, indifference, and fecklessness, the Islamic State looks stronger and more appealing than it otherwise would. The next POTUS must understand the enemy that we face. The new administration must be committed to utterly destroying the Islamic State–publicly and quickly–and it must engage in counter-propaganda across the internet to help stunt the success that is the Cyber Caliphate. Cultural Wars are not won by pretty speeches and hoping that weakened allies can take the lead. They are won by the stronger culture. They are won by the side that will not abandon the belief that theirs is a culture worthy of survival. And, in some cases, the battles will be fought between people who were born in the West and raised in your typical Middle-Class backgrounds. The millenarian eschatology of the Islamic State is transcendent to the IS fighters. It’s why you have an international hodgepodge of people swearing fealty to the self-proclaimed Caliph, Bakr al-Baghdadi. There is only one recourse: the U.S. must lead a real coalition in a punitive campaign aimed at the destruction of the Islamic State. As it does this, it must endeavor to counter the Cyber Caliphate across the airwaves and within cyberspace. It is strength, decisive leadership, and clarity of purpose–something that has been lacking since even the George W. Bush Administration, when it mislabeled the ongoing conflict as the “Global War on Terror”–that will lead the world into victory over the grotesque distortion of humanity that is the Islamic State.
If we can embrace the principles that led us to victory in the past (no small feat, given the dearth of leadership in Washington, D.C., and the sort of listlessness that’s bedeviled our culture since 1968), then the country can persevere over this threat.
*For references to Al Sham, skip to 20:20 of Dr. Sebastian Gorka’s brilliant lecture on the Islamic State’s Enemy Threat Doctrine.