Europe needs to attack the Caliphate’s credibility

24.03.16 Publication:

After terrorist atrocities such as those in Brussels yesterday or in Paris in January and November last year, the political pressure to react, to act, to fight back is always intense. We will never give in to terror, everyone says, but we must fight. But how? The answer is: patiently, with determination and in collaboration.

Patience is both the hardest of those and the most important. Yet the experience of every act of terrorism that has occurred in Europe in the past, whether in Britain, France, Belgium, Italy, Germany or Spain, is that the biggest mistakes have been made through hasty, harsh reactions that serve only to help the terrorists to recruit more supporters.

The right thing to do is to try to imagine what the bombers, what Islamic State, would really be helped by, and then to avoid doing that. They would be helped by measures that alienate the local Muslim community or by arbitrary and poorly directed retaliation.

Like the Irish Republican Army in my country during the 1970s and 1980s, what Islamic State would most like to see is for Muslims, their potential supporters, in Belgium or France or anywhere else, to be arrested and imprisoned without trial, or deported simply on suspicion. Nothing would be likelier to create the next set of suicide bombers than that.

European values need to be defended, not suspended and subverted. Part of that defence needs to be real attention to the existing, long-standing causes of alienation. Principal among those is economic failure and with it the lack of jobs and opportunity, a grievance shared with the rest of the population in many Eurozone countries.

That, though, is a long-term issue, important as it is. The more short-term problem that European governments can and should address with determination and collaboration is the current appeal of Islamic State as a cause to follow and to fight for.

What Islamic State and its leader, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, have achieved during the past 2-3 years is to make itself credible as a force, and in particular as a force with the chance of establishing itself as a real state, governing territory in Syria, Iraq and perhaps Libya. Its success in capturing the cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria in particular has acted as an inspiration to many Muslims, whether they are in the Middle East, Africa or Europe.

This is too often overlooked. Islamic State is not just, or even mainly, appealing for its ideology or religion. It is appealing for its credibility. In effect, it has been doing in Syria and Iraq what Israel’s creation, and then successful defence, did in Palestine for Jews.

The ability to pull off terror attacks in European cities is part of that credibility, but not a very important part. Such attacks were, after all, carried out previously by other groups, including Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, and by unaffiliated individuals. The really significant part of Islamic State’s credibility lies in its name: its success in seizing territory and creating an embryonic state.

So what European governments need to focus on, following the Brussels attacks, is how to degrade and eventually destroy that credibility. Stopping further terror attacks in their own cities is an understandable aim – and, certainly, better intelligence is required for that – but ultimately one that can never be fully achieved. Degrading Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya is something that is possible, and can be achieved.

It isn’t easy, or else it would have been done already. It won’t be achieved by means of sporadic bombing raids on Islamic State targets by British, French, American or Russian air forces. But it could be achieved if European governments really showed determination, and if they worked harder to persuade the Obama Administration that taking a serious part in military action during its last year in office was a risk worth taking.

The plan to send forces, under Italian leadership, into Libya is an important part of this. But if it is to be done, then it must be done with larger numbers of troops and military assets than are now envisaged. Then, European governments should give serious consideration to combining forces with Turkey, Sunni Arab states, and the Iraqi government to drive Islamic State out of Mosul.

The goal is simple: Islamic State must be shown to be a loser, a declining and essentially hopeless force. Lower oil prices have already reduced its income. Military defeats, one after the other, would then make it a far less appealing entity to fight for, whether in the Middle East or in European cities. That can only be achieved by sending real troops, in league with Arab nations, to bring about those defeats.

It is not a nice prospect. But the alternative is a continued flow of terror attacks in European cities.