In the wake of the Brussels attack (and Paris and San Bernardino and Istanbul) people are wondering if ISIS is getting too strong to stop. Actually the opposite is the case. I believe that ISIS as a traditional caliphate is on the ropes. The recent attacks in Europe are a sign of weakness rather than strength. Let me explain.
The core theology of ISIS is an eschatology grounded in the Qur’an and the Hadith, the normative sources of truth in popular Islam. It envisions the end-time re-establishment of the caliphate, a form of government which is ruled directly by God through a designated caliph, the religious and political successor to the prophet Muhammad. In order to establish a caliphate, you need a trans-national entity (ISIS only declared a caliphate after expanding its territory out of Syria and into Iraq, thus evaporating the long-standing border between the two) that fully implements islamic law (Sharia). And the ruler of that entity must be an adult male of Qurayshi decent (the tribe of Muhammad) and a person who exhibits morality and integrity. Followers of ISIS believe that they have a true caliph in the man who calls himself Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
A crucial element that distinguishes ISIS from al Qaeda is the possession of a trans-national territory, the Islamic State. In the theology of ISIS, as soon as the end-time caliphate is established, all faithful Muslims are to come to it and pledge allegiance to the caliph. Leaving it for nearly any reason thereafter is considered apostasy. So the fact that they are now sending people on terror missions to Europe is an act of desperation that goes against their own theology.
By declaring a state, ISIS in a sense planted the seeds of its own demise. To run a state, one is actually forced to govern; to collect taxes and provide services, including the kind of conventional military defense that is necessary to hold and govern territory. Governing territory has taken the bloom off the Islamic State dream. The citizens of the Islamic State are becoming increasingly restive. At the same time, the bumbling alliance against ISIS in Iraq and Syria the Levant is now beginning to close in on all sides. Many cadres of ISIS are deserting their forces and sharing their knowledge of ISIS with its enemies. This gives Western intelligence the location of top leaders, who are being picked off one by one.
As a trans-national entity that governs and wages traditional warfare, therefore, ISIS’ days seem to be numbered. But as a force capable of spreading terror outside the Islamic State, they will probably continue for the foreseeable future. The question, therefore, arises, how can Muslims themselves combat terror? What type of theology may be persuasive for those considering jihadism as a way of life?
To be concluded. . .
For Osama bin Laden the crucial question became how to restore Islam to a dominant place in the world again. Could diplomacy accomplish that? Experience told him that diplomacy would not work. The West had been Anegotiating@ with the Middle East for more than a century, and what was the result? The establishment of Israel, for one. Another result was the colonial powers dividing the Middle East into artificial nations with no consideration of tribal borders and local interests. Meanwhile the West grew richer and more powerful and the Muslim world became increasingly irrelevant.
Should the Muslim world stand up and fight in military terms then? In its present state of weakness that would be foolish. Anyone unconvinced by the dominance of the Israeli attacks in 1967 and 1982 (in Lebanon) would have had no further doubts after the Gulf War and the recent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. In an age of information technology both the American and Israeli military are overwhelming and incontestable. Any form of direct, frontal assault would be the equivalent of pointless suicide. One would lose thousands of soldiers in exchange for a mere handful of casualties on the stronger side. No one could pursue warfare for long on those terms. So for bin Laden, there was only one alternative to helplessness, and that was what the West calls terrorism.
In the minds of jihadist leaders, “terrorism” is nothing more than a negotiating tool. It is a way the weaker party in a disagreement is able to project a sense of power greater than its numbers or its military prowess would otherwise allow. The actual physical damage of terror attacks is not significant in political or economic terms. What is significant is the psychological effect, it is far greater than the sum total of the physical damage or loss of life. Terrorism puts those who practice it on the political map. It allows the weaker party to go on the offensive. It puts powerful nations on the defensive. There are so many potential targets and it is so costly to defend them all that the jihadist entity can always find a soft spot somewhere. “If you’re throwing enough darts at a board, eventually you’re going to get something through,” said a Pentagon strategist. “That’s the way al Qaeda looks at it.” The secrecy and seclusion of the jihadist makes the attacks very difficult to anticipate and defend against.
The only safe defense against what the West calls terrorism is one that anticipates every possible angle of attack, particularly against assets for which adequate defenses are not yet in place, like water supplies and transportation systems. To make matters worse, every mile of the US coastline is a potential entry point for nuclear, chemical or biological weapons. In a sense eradicating this threat is like finding a way to detect and apprehend criminals before they commit their crimes.
The ability of the jihadists to attack at will and keep powerful enemies on the defensive gradually wears down a powerful nation’s will to resist. As happened in Spain in 2004, people often prefer peace on jihadist terms to the constant stress of watchfulness and defensive measures. In this battle vast amounts of money, intelligence assets and personnel must be expended to track jihadists at home and abroad. In a sense the attempt is being made to surround the United States with a “protective net.” But “all nets have holes.” So if the jihadists are patient enough and determined enough, they can wear down and outlast enemies who are more concerned with personal comfort than with ideological purity.