August is yet to come, but already this is a bloody summer. The shooting in Orlando, the truck rampage in Nice, the suicide bombing in Ansbach, the murder of a priest at his altar in Rouen – ISIS, either in the form of its “soldiers” or its more remote supporters, has repeatedly made its murderous mark.
Fortunately, Britain has so far escaped the latest wave of Islamist terror. “So far” remain the operative words – the security services view an attack as “very likely”, and of course the two men “of Middle Eastern appearance”, widely assumed to be jihadis, who tried to kidnap a serviceman at RAF Marham last week are still at large.
Why have we been so fortunate?
It could be that we have relatively fewer people willing to carry out such acts – Germany’s policy of opening itself to over one million largely unchecked would-be asylum seekers certainly hasn’t helped. “Last year, we gave up control of our borders and instructed police not to check everything that should have been checked,” the head of the German police union said a few days ago.
Or perhaps it’s that our security services are doing a better job – watching more closely, trawling more finely and acting more swiftly to stop such people before they strike.
Thinking less wishfully, it could also just be blind good luck. We may not have a million new arrivals from the Middle East to integrate, but we certainly have more than enough homegrown extremists willing to perpetrate violence. The current estimate stands at 2,000. And no security service is infallible, particularly given such a large and complex task and the unceasing innovation by our enemies at the art of staying off the radar.
Clearly we need to continue to watch, investigate and arrest. Clearly we need to do a better job of counter-radicalisation, too (not least in prisons, where extremist literature is still reportedly being distributed by prison imams). But as the violence of Syria and Iraq continues to reach into Europe, we cannot allow our perception of the front line of this conflict to move with it – treating the issue purely as a domestic one and retreating from our commitment to action against its source.
Whether by practical means (advice, training and logistics, as in Paris) or by motivation (online encouragement, either one-to-one or more generally through social media, videos and press releases), ISIS is directly behind a wide range of recent and deadly attacks. Contrary to common belief, the group does not simply claim any awful event as its work – after the recent Munich mass shooting it carefully declined to do so, for example. It has specific instructions for those who wish to act in support of its aims, and specific rules by which it accepts or rejects responsibility for the terrorist attacks which result.
Crucially, its role in bringing slaughter to the West is ideological as well as practical. There is a good reason why its supporters the world over use the index finger salute seen in so many of its propaganda images – it is a symbolic declaration of one-ness; the concept that there is one God, used to confer a religious justification on the group’s utter inflexibility and brutality towards those (Muslim and non-Muslim) whom it deems to be in breach of its laws.
There’s another act of symbolism in play, too – the very nature of the group as a “state”, complete with physical territory, is important to its presentation as well as its logistics. This physical presence is used by ISIS to claim for itself the authority of the caliphate – an assertion (outrageous to many Muslims) that its leader is by definition the leader of the worldwide Islamic community, as well as its predominant religious authority. This is why those who are inspired to kill in the West in its name are encouraged to pledge allegiance not to the group but to its head. Still further, the group actively pursues a millenarian, apocalyptic philosophy, implying that its existence is a fulfilment of a prophecy of the end-times. In short, its supposed statehood is a tool used to demand the loyalty and obedience of other Muslims – largely without success, but still falling on enough sympathetic ears to cost hundreds of lives.
It isn’t possible, therefore, to divorce the fight against ISIS-inspired terrorists in Britain, France, Germany or the US from the fight against ISIS-proper in the Middle East. Destroying their base would limit their practical capacity to train, arm and propagandise, and of course kill a good number of their fighters, but it would also strip them of some of the authority which they assert and use to persuade others to attack us at home.
Would these extremists still exist if ISIS was crushed in Iraq and Syria? Yes, but they would have fewer voices whispering in their ears that they were on a righteous mission, less money available to assist them and more limited prospects of being celebrated as a hero. Would ISIS itself still exist if it lost its territorial base? Certainly – it would go underground, and no doubt continue its bloody work, but as Al Qaeda discovered an unceasing war of cells and secrecy without a secure home to offer aid or respite is a far more difficult task to pursue over the course of years. Would we still have a difficult and lengthy task to protect ourselves and erode the group below a functional level? Definitely, but it would be somewhat easier and less risky – though murderous outrages would no doubt still occur.
Most of all, we would still have the sticky question of how to deradicalise those already committed to Islamist extremism and how to prevent others following the same route. That debate will go on and on – how to win a war of the mind is a strategy book that is largely still unwritten.
In the meantime, though, we – Britain, the US, France, the Kurds and others – must destroy ISIS in its home. Doing so would degrade its ability to strike at us, stripping it of money, freedom of action and propaganda authority – and produce the not inconsiderable benefit of ending its ongoing tyranny over millions in the Middle East at the same time.