Every day it seems that the threat from the Islamic State extremists grows nearer and more credible. Earlier this month, Geneva was on high alert following reports of militants in the area. The furor in the United States has been mounting in the wake of evidence that the two individuals who killed 14 people in a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, had pledged allegiance to the group. That atrocity followed the series of attacks in Paris in early November that claimed 130 lives.
These horrific acts of terrorism must be condemned and the victims and their families offered our thoughts and prayers. The radicals must be confronted, contained and destroyed. But anger must not give way to over-reaction and the excesses that will give the group the “war of civilizations” that it seeks. This is not a war against Islam, or even against conservative Islamists. Our fight is with the murderers and terrorists that act for or with the Islamic State group.
It is tempting in the face of such inhumanity to give into fear, and to respond in an excessive and heavy-handed way that accepts “collateral damage” — the killing of innocents — as a sad but necessary consequence (and, to be fair, just retribution for the killing of equally innocent individuals by the Islamic State radicals). The calls by some in the U.S., for example, to ban Muslims from the country and to deny them their constitutional rights is on a continuum with the reaction by some in Japan — to disengage from the Middle East — after the group beheaded Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa. In short, we cannot let Islamic State set the terms of engagement.
The struggle against this group and its murderous behavior must be pursued on four fronts. First, there is the battle against the Islamic State forces that have seized ground in Syria and Iraq for their “caliphate.” This effort resembles a traditional war, and requires both air and ground forces to battle the militants and retake and hold that land. This fight cannot be won from the air, as some argue. There are targets that can be destroyed, such as the oil facilities that provide the group with an estimated $47 million a month, but carpet bombing is no solution and even precision strikes, such as those in early December that killed three of top Islamic State members, including its “finance minister,” are not enough.
Ground forces are necessary and they must be local. Foreign forces cannot support a state that cannot and will not defend itself. The failure of Syrians and Iraqis to lead in the battle against Islamic State means that any gains will only prove temporary. In Syria, forces opposed to the group battle instead among themselves. Russia’s much-touted intervention now appears to be a thinly veiled attempt to prop up Bashar Assad and has foundered on the weakness of Syrian government forces. In Iraq, Sunnis who feel oppressed by the Shiite government in Baghdad prefer to side with Islamic State. In this environment, foreign intervention will be a stopgap at best.
The second front involves intelligence and law enforcement officials around the world who must cooperate to prevent Islamic State supporters and sympathizers from launching attacks abroad, like those in France and California. This effort demands rigorous intelligence and real-time action; it is especially difficult because the targets are homegrown actors, not individuals from abroad who cross international borders, as in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S. This requires a different level of surveillance and coordination and frequently founders as a result of institutional stovepipes and isolated intelligence services that zealously guard their information.
The third front is a struggle for ideas that will be fought primarily on the Internet. This is an ideological war that aims to counter Islamic State’s message. The group has proven remarkably adept at using new technologies to attract supporters and has won adherents around the world, not only enticing individuals to pack their bags and join the fight but to take action at home. Governments — and concerned individuals — must be quicker to expose the lies of Islamic State as well as the reality of life in the group’s territory. The most effective voices in this counterattack are the hundreds of people who have seen life firsthand in the caliphate and have rejected it.
Critical to this effort, yet a separate front of its own, are the moderate Muslims, who must denounce the radicals and make a case for how and why its message is a perversion of Islam. They are the most powerful and potentially effective foes of Islamic State and other forms of radical Islam. It goes without saying that moderate Muslim governments must also stop thinking that they can use Islamic State or other like-minded extremist groups as proxies for their battles within the faith.
All the while, Western governments must remain vigilant without responding with their own excesses. Vengeance is gratifying but rarely solves anything. Islamic State seeks over-reaction to convince moderate Muslims that they have no place in non-Muslim societies. That is false. It is the inclusive nature of modern societies that provides the foundation of their strength and forms their strongest weapon.
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