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Strategy and Tactics versus Islamic State

2015-11-19

Bombing the Islamic State is the obvious response to its terrorist acts, but it is important to understand that that is what they want us to do.  They are trying to provoke a violent, all-out response.  In fact, they would like it best if we were to invade Syria and attack the Islamic State, at a small town in northern Syria called Dabiq.  This town, the new caliph has prophesied, will be the site of the battle corresponding to what we would call Armageddon.  This is a specific and delusional prediction, and it is important for us not to fall into the trap of doing what he wants us to do.

Thus, the last thing we want to do is invade Syria, especially northern Syria.  There is no good that can come from American or European soldiers going in to Syria or Iraq and fulfilling the caliph’s predictions.

There are an important precursor to the apocalyptic thinking of the Islamic State: an existential threat, that is a threat of destruction, such as a plague, famine, war, or natural disaster.  People who are themselves constantly under threat may begin to see life as leading up to some kind of big explosion where everything is destroyed, and after which everything will be all right– for them.  This is a comforting fantasy.  It becomes an obsession with some people, and they find support for it in apocalyptic writings published in religious tracts and preserved from thousands of years ago.  The final book of the Christian Bible, The Apocalypse of John, is a good example.

The thinkers of the Islamic State have studied such writings, although it should be noted that the Koran itself does not contain this kind of material; there are multiple sources for this sort of material, and they do not disdain to include the Apocalypse of John as one of them.  They have concluded that the final battle, or Armageddon, will occur when Western invaders attack a small number of jihadis at this small town; apparently, through some miracle, they expect to prevail in this fight.

So, while remotely targeting the Islamic State with drones is conceivable, invading Syria is not.  There are several potential problems with bombing Syria.  One is the opinion of those who have engaged in and studied bombing campaigns that they never succeed.  The Vietnam war is one war in which bombing was used extensively and failed to deter the North Vietnamese from pursuing their war effort to a successful conclusion.  The second problem with bombing is that there are likely to be significant civilian casualties, which can be used for propaganda and which alienate the civilian residents of the area under attack.

On balance, however, careful, selective bombing with drones following intensive reconnaissance is likely to be more effective than counter-effective.

The second part of this war, after military action, is ideological action.  The Islamic State propagates an ideology which is attractive to oppressed people in particular, people who are poor, marginalized, and discriminated against.  France is especially vulnerable in this regard, because it has six million Muslim residents, most of whom are poor and discriminated against.  Their prisons have many Muslims who are being radicalized by other prisoners.  This oppressed minority is a prime source of homegrown terrorists, the most difficult to detect and the most deadly.  Muslims in the United States, on the other hand, are more prosperous and usually integrated into their communities; most of the potential terrorists here are youthful converts whose zeal becomes destructive.

To eliminate this problem, it will be necessary to eliminate this oppressed minority, by providing jobs, housing, money, and remedies for past discrimination.  Treating these people generously and with paradoxically loving them into submission is the most productive way to wipe out these pockets of proto-terrorism.

So, there is a two pronged strategy for elimination of the Islamic State: bomb it in its homeland with drones and keep our troops at home for defense; and treat Muslim residents in the West with enormous generosity.

A third, probably less effective but potentially helpful tactic is to try to cut off sources of funding for the Islamic State.  The primary problem is the sale of oil, which usually goes through Turkey.  Turkish border guards are said to be hopelessly corrupt, so it would be a major operation for the Turkish government to seal its border against smuggled oil from Syria.  Nonetheless, if sufficient diplomatic pressure is applied or the Islamists further goad them with terror attacks, the Turkish government may be induced to begin the major work of reforming its border patrol.  The Islamists also obtain money from ransoms; denying them the opportunity to capture hostages would help here.  Finally, they make money when they over-run a significantly sized town or city by simply looting the banks and wealthy citizens.  Preventing the Islamists from expanding their empire should help in this regard.  Since they are dependent on currency to obtain food and other necessities of life, restricting their funding may be quite helpful, if not completely effective by itself.

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