In the wake of the murderous rampage by the thugs of ISIS, the hearts of all reasonable people have to go out to the citizens of Paris and the bereaved families of the victims. Our fervent hopes are with the wounded and traumatized that they may heal.
Now, of course, it is time to turn our attention toward the attackers. We can and will ask the journalistic who, what, where, when, how and why questions. Typically, depending on the agenda of the person or institution answering, those answers and reasons will be all over the map.
On the surface, it makes so little sense for an attack to be waged against civilians in a nation far removed from the war zone. But we have to take a very straightforward look at what ISIS wants and needs, and through that see the rationale in the Paris attacks. We can not lose sight of the fact that what ISIS wants, in the near term, is to establish a caliphate in the middle east, a nation state with borders, laws, treaties and trade (for more weaponry, no doubt). It would be a nation of likeminded (or else), radicalized Sunni muslims, devoted to a strict interpretation of the Koran and the implementation of Sharia law. It would demand complete fealty and be utterly merciless toward anyone not of that particular fundamentalist belief system.
To that end, ISIS has attempted to wage a war from Western Iraq into Syria, with outposts in Egypt and Libya, all taking advantage of the political and social unrest in those countries. But therein lies the rub. It is one thing to attack a nation or region; it is something far different to occupy it, to hold and mold it into a new country. Lines of supply are stretched thin and the number of troops with which you started is decimated both by fighting and by leaving them behind to hold the territory through which the fighting passes.
ISIS needs soldiers. ISIS needs warm bodies to replace the cold ones. Their approach so far has been to demonstrate to the people whom they have largely enslaved that the choice is simple; you are with us or against us. There is no neutral position, no Switzerland option. If you are against us, we will torture and murder you in the most barbaric ways imaginable. If you are with us, you can prove that by moving up to the front lines of the attack. True, they have also reached out to Western nations for recruits and have managed to bring in a few thousand, would-be radicals. But that is still not enough people to hold territory. The Caliphate is more than land; it is population.
The more recent problem for ISIS has been the mass migration of refugees to Europe. People fleeing the fighting are people fleeing their opportunity to become soldier citizens of the Caliphate. ISIS needs to turn that tide and keep those refugees at home, where they can become materiel for the war machine. The western nations attempting to fight this largely guerrilla insurgency, want to draw them out into open battle, not fight them house to house. Every civilian casualty demonstrates the futility of an organized army attempting to battle partisans. Every civilian death is fodder for the ISIS Media machine. To ISIS, civilians can be shields or recruits.
So, how to stop the mass exodus from the Middle East to Europe? Infiltrate the ranks of the refugees, plant terror cells in Europe and strike soft targets to demonstrate that there is nowhere on the planet that is safe from their wrath. In the aftermath, it is reasonable to expect that the outcry from the Europeans will focus its attention on the refugees in general. We will no doubt hear many cries to “send them home” in the days to come. The ISIS media machine will propose to them that the entire world conspires against all muslims. Come to Papa.
Today, we learned that a Syrian passport was found on the ground beside the body of one of the terrorists. The passport had last been processed in Greece. The conclusion (for now), is that this individual came into Greece as a “refugee,” and made his way across Southern Europe into France, where he met up with other members of his terrorist group and plotted the attacks in Paris. How many more came with him? The French government has acknowledged that about one thousand French citizens traveled to the middle east to join ISIS and about three hundred of those people have since returned to France. What intentions did they bring with them?
In Germany, some eight hundred thousand refugees have sought asylum. If one tenth of one percent of those refugees are actually radicalized agents of a group such as ISIS, that means that eight hundred terrorists have already infiltrated Germany. But who are the refugees and who are the terrorists? By the time that “time tells,” the streets in yet another major city could run red.
Why Paris? It is the city of light and they are the forces of darkness. It is cosmopolitan and modern where they have rejected the world and its trappings. Modernity is a weakness and a corruption. Fundamentalism is the path to God. Paris is the city of liberté, égalité and fraternité, the very heart of the infidel. Like many other of the radicalized Islamic groups, they are prone to choosing symbolic targets. The stadium was presumably full of christians supporting the christian nations of Germany and France. The rock band at the theater was American. The Cambodian restaurant appealed to a multi-cultural clientele. The rationale to attack Paris was ultimately a simple and symbolic one, and for now a significant victory for ISIS. If the French respond by doing anything that looks vaguely like oppressing their own Muslim minority, the victory will be compounded.
Make no mistake; this is a major victory for ISIS. They have infiltrated a European nation, plotted an attack right under the nose of the police and intelligence services, carried it out ruthlessly upon civilians, put the President of France (who was at the soccer stadium) at risk, received untold hours of media attention, and have shown that they have the will, the manpower, the weaponry and the ideology to take the fight to the infidel. And, in the light of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, they have pulled it off twice. Now, while the next attack unfolds or is planned out, they can ask of the infidel, “What are you going to do about it?”
In recent months and as regards the civil war in Syria, President Obama has gone from the stance of saying that we would offer support to an effort where Muslim nations took the lead in the fighting, to putting boots on the ground in Syria. A small contingent. Advisors and trainers. Viet Nam all over again. It is my belief that he wanted nothing to do with those boots on the ground. Drone strikes, aerial support, rockets launched from ships in the Mediterranean? No problem. But once again, those same Muslim nations in whose vested interest it is to take out ISIS once and for all, can not muster enough support at home to make it happen, can not cease their own bickering to focus on the job at hand. And it is a job that must needs be done.
At the heart of the matter, people in the middle east are inherently more tribal than they are national. People do not identify themselves as much as Iraqi, Jordanian, Saudi or Syrian (many of those borders were drawn by westerners), as they do Sunni, Shia, Wahhabi, Yazidi or Kurd. If a particular government, such as Saudi Arabia, chose to enter into the fighting against ISIS, they would risk that within their own country, there would be an uprising among those people who are tribally Sunni or Wahhabi. The risk isn’t worth the reprisal. As with so many tribal cultures around the world and throughout history, bowing deferentially to a more brutal hetman is the better way to keep your own head attached to your shoulders.
The challenge for the West remains to change the mind-set of the Muslim world to one which embraces modernity, personal freedom, human rights (as we understand them) and a governmental process which is democratic rather than theocratic. The proof is in the pudding of the Muslim world rising up to police their own, rising up to stamp out their own criminal element which, under the guise of cultural preservation and religious fundamentalism, strives to maintain a tenth century world view and uses as tools, intolerance, ignorance, murder, torture, barbarity toward civilians, enslavement of women and children and oppression of entire populations of people who hold views different to their own. By now, we should have learned to not hold our collective breath.
The days and weeks to come will be telling. There will be a series of raids on safe houses across Europe, a rolling up of terrorist networks. There will be evidence provided and assurances made that the intelligence services are on to the terrorists and are ferreting them out. There may be governmental rethinking of the refugee crisis. I doubt that there will be mass deportations, as that would undoubtedly send many people to their certain deaths at the hands of ISIS or Assad. On the other hand, internment camps are a real possibility, with extended occupation of such leading to increasing tension on both sides. There may be a dramatic decline in the number of refugees accepted by European nations. There will probably be some token air strikes against ISIS commanders or field positions in Syria and Iraq. There will be a cooling off period and then there will be a lot of waiting and frayed nerves, wondering where the next attack will come.