French President Francois Hollande reportedly described the recent attacks in Paris as an “act of war” by the organisation calling itself Islamic State (ISIS) – which has claimed responsibility for the killing of at least 128 civilians. But ISIS is not just an army that can be defeated militarily. France and other Western countries are facing three distinct but connected problems of which ISIS forms a part: ISIS aims to establish a religious caliphate; it co-ordinates acts of terrorism in several countries; and it is active in Syria’s civil war.
ISIS (which is also known as ISIL, Islamic State or Daesh) has been described as being a descendant of Al Qaeda in Iraq. Osama bin Laden claimed that Al Qaeda was engaged in a ‘just war’ and he also claimed religious legitimacy. Both of these claims are rejected by authoritative figures in Islam and by most moderate Muslims; and in practice ISIS is predominantly fighting other Muslims. Western political leaders are naturally encouraging moderate Muslims to preach against ISIS and reduce its allure. Islamic leaders have to win the battle for Muslim hearts and minds.
It is attractive to disaffected Muslims to believe that they are fighting against Western oppression in the name of their religion. Terrorism has long been part of the Islamist strategy, intended to provoke the West into sending troops to the Middle East so that other Muslims could then be persuaded to join the struggle in what would be seen as a holy war. The Paris attacks are the latest in a long line of provocations dating back to before 9/11 – and the latter was successful in its aim of provoking George W Bush into declaring a ‘war on terror’ and sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq.
The provocations are also helping right-wing political parties in Europe. It has been reported that Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has experienced a surge of support as a result of the combination of the immigrant crisis and the acts of terrorism. Anti-Muslim feeling benefits Europe’s far right as much as it benefits the ISIS strategy. Ultimately the revulsion of most people will be the safety valve that prevents either ISIS or Europe’s far right from gaining permanent power.
ISIS is fighting alongside other groups in Syria and Iraq which also espouse Sunni Islam but which don’t necessarily share its vision of a caliphate. The ISIS army in Syria can be fought with conventional weapons, including ‘boots on the ground’, but Western military assistance – even in the form of airstrikes – helps to feed the ISIS narrative of Islam as a whole being threatened by the West. Russia has been invited to help the Syrian government to restore order and that seems to be the most viable strategy for resolving what should be seen as a local military conflict. It is not yet clear what the solution might look like; changing the government in Syria, and even redrawing regional borders, might be negotiated once peace has been restored.
The French response to the Paris attacks of 13 November 2015 has taken the form of increased airstrikes in Syria. That may be politically popular because it looks like doing something, but Francois Hollande would be wiser to attend to France’s own problem: the need to coexist peacefully with its own Muslim population. David Cameron is now reported as wanting to make the same mistake: to obtain Parliamentary approval for airstrikes in Syria, even though that is exactly what ISIS wants. Doubtless the airstrikes would inflict some military damage on ISIS in Syria, but they would also provide powerful propaganda to help it recruit more followers in the wider jihad against Western liberal democracies.