Sunday, 5 October 2014

Five Myths about ISIS

To some extent, the following myths are all interlinked. The typical anti-war activist believes that the current crisis is mainly political and financial and so military means are not addressing the primary cause of the rise of ISIS. The idea that we’re going to make it worse through military intervention isn’t just because its failing to address the key causes but because it reinforces what went wrong: Maliki alienated Sunnis and bombs will alienate Sunnis. And somewhat linked but not entirely, they think because ISIS is a response to local conditions, ISIS is not concerned with attacking the West. This post is addressed to these people – their premises are false and so their conclusions and prescriptions are also flawed. References for the academic studies cited are at the bottom and footnotes are elaborations. Apologies for the length of Myths 1 and 2, Myth 5 should make up for it.  

Myth 1: Military intervention will make things worse

To the three people who read this blog regularly, I apologise that I am making this argument again. Fortunately, I can make the same point using a different study. Patrick Johnston in a study of militant degradation and its effect on end of conflicts and violence finds positive results. His study systematically looked at 118 decapacitation efforts across 90 insurgency campaigns. Unlike previous studies (with the exception of one), this looks at both decapacitation attempts that failed to hit their targets and successful ones. This allows us to draw causal inferences because it gives us appropriate counterfactuals.

Johnston finds that militant decapacitation increases the probability of defeating the insurgency by 33 percentage points (Table 3, Column 5). There are positive results for both the lethality of their attacks and their frequency as well:

This study is, as mentioned, better than the previous literature because it looks at the counterfactual (i.e., failing to killing militants). But it also means that these results may not necessarily be because of the success of militant decapacitation. Rather, they may be because failed attempts ‘incite mass resent, [and] these failures could decrease the chance of war termination and counterinsurgent victory and increase the chance of escalated levels of insurgent violence’ (p.66). I.e., rather than militant decapacitation being the reason there are positive results, it could be because the consequence of failed attempts is so bad. Does this match the data? Nope:

Indeed, the estimated effect of failed attempts is small and far from statistically significant, with -values that range from 0.356 to 0.788. Taken together, this evidence strongly indicates that the successful removal of insurgent leaders, not blowback from failed attempts, underlies my key findings [given above]

Military action can, therefore, work to reduce violence. This study not only confirms but also refutes the alternative hypothesis: i.e., the idea that it inflames the population to the extent of having a tangible effect on the success of terrorism. This should not be surprising: military action has reduced violence in Iraq, Gaza, Pakistan, the West Bank and Mali. You can also add Johnston’s study to the emerging consensus against those who are still arguing about blowback/foreign policy as a cause of terrorism.  

In Iraq, the strategy that is being pursued is far from ideal. There is currently a reliance on Shia militias. These militias should not be trusted for three important reasons. Firstly, moral: their loyalties ally with their illiberal ideologies rather than with the rule of law or human rights. Second, its short-sighted: the emboldening of Shia militias makes it harder for them to be disarmed and consequently hard for a central, pluralistic government to have control. Joel Wing notes this point and goes on to make another significant point: will be nearly impossible for the state to rid itself of the militias once the fighting ends. They were never disarmed nor disbanded and now some of them such as the Badr Organization and the League of the Righteous have become allies of the prime minister... Iran’s influence is growing with this increasing use of militias. All of them but the Sadrists are beholden to Tehran... they don’t realize is that these militias will not go away when the fighting is over, and neither will Iran keeping the government weak, which was why it couldn’t stand up to the militants in the first place

Thirdly, and most significantly, Shia militias and the Iraqi army are simply not as well trained or capable as we are (on which, see below). A note on two things I am not saying: the killings of Sunnis will inflame the population to the extent that it will cause “blowback” (for reasons that should be obvious now). I am also not saying that air strikes wont cause significant damage to ISIS.

By contrast, the ideal strategy – or one that comes close – is one based on the empirical literature. The most significant study is Biddle et al’s - an under-read study that would refute many different ideas that are currently floating around. I have previously discussed this study and the methodology and the extensive data they rely on is discussed there. To recap, there were two broad strategies prior to 2007 to quell Islamist violence in Iraq. They both failed and it was only in 2007 that violence dropped. One failed strategy was the Sunnis attempting to realign against extremist forces without U.S support, as Biddle notes:

[1] The Nimr reached out to U.S. forces in early 2004 to make common cause against al-Qaida by standing up tribesmen as local police and civil defense forces in exchange for U.S. money, weapons, and support. In 2004, however, the U.S. military had little to offer in the way of direct protection; a single Special Forces detachment of a dozen soldiers was assigned to work with the Nimr and coordinate their security

[2] Sunnis from the Albu Mahal tribe in al-Qaim (together with Albu Nimr elements from the city of Hit) created an armed resistance movement dubbed the “Hamza Brigade.” AQI fought back, and by May the Hamza Brigade was seeking U.S. military assistance. They received little.

[3] The fourth failed realignment was dubbed the “Anbar People’s Council” and began in late 2005. Organized by seventeen tribal elders mostly from the Fahad tribe... Its leaders and many of its members were insurgents from the 1920s Brigade (a prominent Sunni guerilla faction) who had become disaffected by AQI’s criminal activities and expropriation of local smuggling income. On November 28, 2005, they decided to break with AQI and support the coalition, directing tribesmen into the police for local security duty. The coalition accepted these recruits, but failed to protect their leadership. By early 2006, AQI counterattacks against the group had become extremely violent

Without even looking at the data (of which there is plenty) there is a clear pattern of Sunni militias turning against AQ and then not having support from U.S military personnel to make a significant difference. So when you read in The Times that...

Those of us that witnessed the breathtaking courage of the Iraqi Sunni population that resisted al- Qaeda in 2007 know that it is only they, and not we, who can defeat Islamic State’s an ahistorical misreading of what happened in 2007 that gives the wrong prescription. The Times extract is more accurately describes the failed policy that was pursued between 2005-6. The difference between what happen in 2005 and 2007 is the presence of U.S military personnel. The policy of simply letting Sunni groups rise up against ISIS not only ignores the Johnston study (generally about counter-insurgencies) but also the Biddle study which found that it was U.S military personnel working alongside Iraqi Security Forces that worked to reduce the violence. This is what happened to violent incidents when U.S military personnel was there (each graph charts the rate of violence (y axis) over time (x axis) in different areas of operation):

And that should answer what the ideal strategy is. It is one that has worked in Iraq. It’s one that follows directly from both studies: we need boots on the ground to support local forces so that we can decapacitate ISIS. The Kagans in their policy paper endorse such a plan. Their plan takes into account many of the criticisms given above:

A strategy of basing in Kurdistan and Shi’a Iraq and providing air support to Kurdish troops and ISF forces intermingled with Shi’a militias and Iranian advisers may achieve some initial successes, but will ultimately fail... [The first aim should be to] disrupt ISIS sufficiently to prevent it from retaking the initiative and launching either currently-planned operations or offensives [which] will likely require the deployment of not more than 25,000 ground forces supported by numerous air and naval assets.. Keeping two battalions on QRF [quick reaction force]-alert all the time requires a total of six battalions (or two brigades) deployed — around 7,000 soldiers in all. Additional forces will be required to secure any temporary bases established in Iraq or Syria and to provide logistical support.

Myth 2: This is a predominantly a political problem that requires a political solution

(a) One good reason why it’s a myth: The idea is that this is a political problem and therefore requires a political solution is also a myth. This has been littered throughout many articles written about the current campaign – from Wall Street Journal to The Guardian. The argument is that the Iraqi government acted in a sectarian way and so the Sunni population has become alienated and this has allowed ISIS to operate. In my previous post I noted the literature is clear that political support is not an impediment to military success. The support comes after military victory. The idea that we can explain ISIS’s rise on Maliki’s political sectarianism is, therefore, not supported Cohen (2014):

In fact, [in] Anbar... the number of [violent] incidents had declined by over 90 per cent. After that point, between 60 per cent and 80 per cent of Anbaris believed that their neighborhoods were secure. This sense of security, however, did not immediately translate into support for the Iraqi government [it took until October 2008]... Ultimately, Anbar shows an important progression: first, the insurgency is defeated, then the population feels secure and then only then, can the counterinsurgent win ‘hearts and minds’

This is a consistent finding across the three campaigns studied (Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam). If Maliki (and now Abadi) had the military power, he could take the territory back. Political views of the population do not impede such a process. For those interested in an elaboration of this study, see this post. Aside from this very specific and directly relevant study, we have two additional reasons for pushing back against claims that this is a “political problem” rooted in Maliki’s sectarianism.

(b) Two more good reasons

(i) General studies: The rationale of the opposing argument is that the Sunni population has become alienated and so has given space to ISIS. The logic of this argument is the same logic that permeates through those who think that Western foreign policy grievances cause terrorism. There is simply no evidence (see a number of my previous posts) – as I said, the Johnston study above is part of an emerging consensus against the Robert Pape, Greenwaldian school of thought. Somewhat amusingly, there is another strand of research that is relevant here. Neoconservatives were derided for their idea that a lack of democracy was a cause of terrorism. And they were absolutely right to be derided: there is simply no link in the empirical literature between lack of democracy and violent extremism.

Piazza (2008) notes that ‘most empirical studies of terrorism tend to demonstrate a positive relationship between political democracy [not authoritarianism] and terrorism’. Piazza (2007) is the strongest and most rigorous of these studies. His study looks at both international terrorism and domestic terrorism and uses data from 1972 to 2003 covering 19 Middle Eastern countries. He finds that ‘more liberal Middle Eastern political systems are actually more susceptible to the threat of terrorism than are the more dictatorial regimes.’ For those interested in a qualtitative study, Islamist Terrorism and Democracy in the Middle East by Katerina Dalacoura is an okay book which I may get round to reviewing at some point. Needless to say, her conclusion is also that there ‘is no necessary causal link between the lack of democracy in the Middle East and Islamist terrorism’ (p.180).[1]

Why is this research relevant? Because when people talk about Maliki’s sectarianism, they do not simply mean his military action against Sunnis, they mean his sectarian political policies that have alienated Sunnis. They say his policies are not pluralistic, democratic or liberal and these have led to terrorism. The research above should steer us away from such arguments: Maliki’s lack of pluralism would have to buck the trend of authoritarian states having less terrorism. In case its not obvious: of course, democracy should still be promoted as good in and of itself as well as its other benefits.

For those particularly interested in some more studies, I recently came across this study that puts another hole in the “the-West-is-responsible-for-everything-because-of-Sykes-Picot” argument. It is also relevant in showing how there is nothing determined about the current state of Iraqi animosity between Shia and Sunni. Admittedly, the Robinson (2014) study uses data from 16 African nations but the results are still interesting:

Colonial legacy theories also predict that ethnic group partition is problematic for engendering a common national identity. By contrast, the results show that being a member of a partitioned [by artificial borders] ethnic group is instead positively related to identifying with the territorially defined nation over one’s ethnic group... the legacies touted as impediments to widespread national identification in Africa—ethnic diversity and cultural partition—are, if anything, positively related to national over ethnic identification within African countries. [All the results are summarised on Table 3 on p.726 which I recommend looking at].

(ii) Specific facts: Second, we don’t need to refer to these two research strands: Sunni military opposition to ISIS is understated and military support to ISIS is overstated. The Biddle et al study notes how local forces were significant (when used in conjunction with the U.S military) in defeating the insurgency in 2007. If the argument that Maliki’s sectarianism is correct, we should expect the absence of Sunni opposition to ISIS. But the groups that were significant in 2007 remain committed to fighting ISIS:  the Anbar Awakening Council and Foundation Council of the Sons of Iraq are fighting against ISIS. Joel Wing noted back in January:

Almost all of the Anbar sheikhs were involved with the Awakening and remember the excesses the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al Qaeda in Iraq perpetrated in the province, and don’t want to see it return.

Not only that, but as Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi (2014) shows us, there are several new Sunni groups that have popped up specifically in response to ISIS: Kata’ib al-Mosul is one which

...consists of a number of sub-battalions, including one known as the “Revenge for the Martyrs Battalion” which invokes as a grievance against IS the blowing up of the shrines of the Prophets Jonah and Seth, as well as the killing of innocents, forced displacement of Christians from Mosul and the attacks on Yezidis. Similarly the “Zalzal Battalion” of Kata’ib al-Mosul invokes IS’s transgressions against holy sites and denounces IS as “khawarij”--a common allegation in present Sunni religious discourse which disparages IS for its extreme conduct.

Harakat Ahrar al-Mosul is another group, as is Kata’ib al-Hamza, as is Kata’ib Sayf al-Haq. These are groups made up of various Sunni tribes (including ‘a number of Anbar sheikhs’). These groups should not exist if you followed the logic of those banging on about Maliki’s sectarianism. The New York Times produced a report which sought to downplay the extent of Sunni opposition to ISIS. The first paragraph of the quote is all doom and gloom and its only until you read further down that you realise the situation is nowhere near as bad as stated:

Behind the government’s struggles on the battlefield is the absence or resistance of many of the Sunni Muslim tribes that officials in Baghdad and Washington hope will play the decisive role in the course of the fight...

Wasfi al-Aasi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader who leads a pro-government council of sheikhs in Baghdad, said the biggest tribes had signaled their support against the Islamic State and were establishing “national guard” units in six provinces.

Back on our side of the pond, The Times notes reports of 25 tribes rising up against ISIS. Of course, lets not avoid the key issue: these groups are weak. A reliance on them, without Western military support, will – as with Shia militias – end in failure. There are evidently some Sunnis that support ISIS but the idea that these individuals are people we can work with or that they arose in response to Maliki’s oppression is nonsense. The Naqshbandi Army (JRTN) are made up of Saddam’s former henchmen, they remain Baathists opposed to the democratically elected government of Iraq. They are also the most powerful non-ISIS non-governmental Sunni military force. There is ‘no indication of any intention of a plan to confront the Islamic State (IS) on a broader scale despite the distancing from IS' actions against minorities and heritage sites.’ al-Tamimi notes that through coercion and co-opation, they have assisted ISIS. ISIS has been gunning JRTN people down despite JRTN helping them.

There are two reasons why we shouldn’t think JRTN is a political problem (i.e., it arose from the political grievances of the Sunnis and can be dealt with by solving those grievances). First, their political grievances are irreconcilable with democratic governance. There is a reasonable debate amongst analysts as to whether JRTN can be brought on side. Shane Harris in Foreign Policy argues because the marriage of convenience between JRTN and ISIS is coming to an end, it provides an opportunity to make ‘some political alliances with ex-Hussein loyalists’ – including by allowing them to join the government. My view is that this would simply not work. As al-Tamimi states, this is a deeply mistaken view because

... [by] its very nature, JRTN is a revolutionary organization and any support for it is fundamentally incompatible with any kind of perceived support for the Iraqi government in Baghdad... To the extent that Baghdad or the West could ever work with JRTN members against IS with a view to restoring some kind of government control over areas like Mosul and Tikrit- no matter how autonomous- it would be such that these JRTN members cease to be JRTN, in so far as they realize the futility of their goals of 'revolution' under their leadership and implementing their political vision with the restoration the pre-2003 Ba'athist state.

Second, JRTN (the most powerful group) and other Iraqi Sunni groups are simply not a significant reason for why ISIS took over towns in Iraq.  As Alexandre Massimo notes

In total ISIS is probably responsible for some 75 to 95% of all insurgent attacks... To give an example of the extent to which ISIS is the dominant group in the insurgency, the regular monthly total of all Ansar al-Sunna operations in Iraq is considerably less then the number of attacks ISIS carries out in a month in any one of Iraq's provinces in which it is operationally active

Those who seek to explain this crisis by pointing to Sunni alienation need to explain why over 75% of the violence was carried out by ISIS rather than non-ISI Sunni groups. If one wanted to fall back on the blowback argument (the government caused ISIS) rather than the indirect sectarianism one (the government caused support for ISIS/caused non-ISIS groups to emerge), there are a lot of examples of former Baathists becoming henchmen in ISIS (see this New York Times report) but its simply not significant enough to refute the empirical literature I’ve cited against the typical blowback argument (see above, below, here, here, herehere, here and the last study here).

(c) The actual problem How, then, do we explain the rise of ISIS? We can start with the academic record considers a solution and see if that solution was present. In line with all of the research above, Smith (2009) finds

...holding political and socioeconomic factors constant, U.S. troop levels have a statistically significant impact on levels of civilian violence in Iraq [i.e., they reduce violence].

A conservative estimate, using a lower co-efficient of -.0061 from Model 3, would be that that an increase of 15,000 troops (from 138,000 to 153,000) would lead to a 9.3% reduction in violence. Note this is a conservative estimate and is based on high levels of troops being present already. The reason I’m quoting this study is not just to reinforce the message stated above about how U.S military personnel were essential in bringing down violence but because of Smith’s conclusions which now appear prophetic:

In terms of reducing troop levels in Iraq, this suggests that some reduction may be merited... but will incur the risk of sparking violence again. The effect of reducing troop levels now that violence is lower will be less severe than it would have been in 2006 when the Surge began. However, since violence exhibits self-sustaining proclivities it may be necessary to quickly reverse course if violence increases substantially. This implies that a gradual and measured reduction in troop levels is appropriate, with enough built-in slack to quickly return troops if necessary

The U.S withdrawal occurred too soon without a capable military force taking over. U.S military planners wanted a contingent of 24,000 troops to stay beyond 2011. According to the New York Times, this was resisted by the Obama administration. Military planners returned with ‘options of 19,000 troops, 16,000 troops and 10,000 troops.’ General Lloyd Austin preferred the highest number and called the lowest number ‘unwise.’ The Obama administration then whittled it down to 5,000. These 5,000 didn’t stay because Iraq and the U.S failed to reach an agreement on immunity for soldiers. Alexandre Massi notes how by drawdown, ISIS had essentially been decimated:

By the drawdown of USF-I [U.S. Forces-Iraq] forces in late 2011 ISIS had collapsed into a network of isolated cells and local units with a minimal centralized hierarchical command structure. ISIS had the capacity to maintain a low-level insurgency and carry out VBIED [Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Device] wave attacks and complex assaults, but not to control terrain or exercise area denial against ISF and was no longer an existential threat to the Iraqi government. Continuous, industrial-scale spec ops raids by Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) had massively degraded ISIS' attack capabilities and depleted its middle and upper tier leadership and VBIED network, killing 34 of the 43 top ISIS leaders.

He goes on to say that

After the US withdrawal in 2011, the ISF largely stopped carrying out proactive counterinsurgency operations. Without U.S. troops in an advise and assist role, the ISF fell back on reactive, ineffective search and raid operations, large-scale clearing operations and a reactive operational posture of defense of fixed positions like checkpoints and combat outposts.

And that’s it: the Iraqi military was weak and Western forces which have proven so capable were simply not there. This has been exacerbated because after the U.S left, many prisoners they were holding swelled the ranks of ISIS. Moreover, ISIS launched a campaign (‘Breaking the Walls’) to free their comrades from Iraqi prisons by targeting said prisons. Knights is almost definitely right to state ‘ISIL is a military power mostly because of the weakness and unpreparedness of its enemies.’ To elaborate further on this weakness, the Washington Post reported a whole litany of failures:

1.       No Iraqi pilot team has qualified to fly F-16 fighter jets that U.S is due to deliver
2.       Only two planes in the Iraqi air force are capable of firing hellfire missiles
3.       [But the U.S approved sale of] Apache helicopters, which are capable of carrying Hellfires. But as of Jan. 27, when the State Department officially notified Congress of the deal, Iraq had not signed the sales contract
4.       Iraq’s aging attack helicopters are armed only with .50-caliber guns and 2.75-inch rockets and must fly vulnerably low to hit a target
5.       Iraq was having difficulties in paying for the training programme.

The report goes on to note that the Iraqi air force and their pilots were due to obtain training in a plan developed by the U.S military in 2011:

The CIA, the National Security Agency and the secretive Joint Special Operations Command offered help in developing target packages that pilots could use to hit “high-value individuals” and mid-level commanders... But even before the U.S. military left the country, the Iraqi government purged many of its best intelligence officers and assets because they were either Sunnis or Kurds, vastly degrading its ability to locate important terrorist target... Killing terrorists was no longer the Shiite-dominated government’s top priority

Of course some of the listed delays and difficulties were unavoidable, even reasonable. There was a legitimate worry that the Iraqi government would target the wrong people. It’s also clear from the report that Maliki’s military sectarianism did weaken the military ability to fight Sunnis not because he alienated people so they turned against him and became terrorists is wrong. The distinction is important because the latter idea is based on the flawed blowback and “grievances to terrorism” analysis. This weakness continues today.


Each point should show why this is predominantly a military problem and not a political problem
  1. We know that political support is not an impediment to military success (Cohen 2014)
  2. We know that authoritarian/undemocratic/sectarian governments do not produce more terrorism (Piazza 2007, 2008)
  3. We know that Iraqi Sunni military opposition to IS exists (al-Tamimi 2014)
  4. High troop levels which could reduce violence were not present (Smith, 2009) and a weak Iraqi military could not pursue an active policy to target ISIS which, as predicted, leads to increases in violence.

Myth 3: ISIS is not a threat to the West

If you made it this far, the last three myths will be significantly shorter. You wouldn’t think that people would be making the argument that ISIS are not a threat to the West. But Simon Jenkins of The Guardian actually stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that ‘it’s total rubbish [that they are a threat], the most they could do is set off a few bombs in London.’ This argument was given some credible support by Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who said that it was primarily a problem for the Middle East (which it is) but he went on to say countries like the UK were ‘marginally affected.’

There is no doubt the Middle East is the primary victim of ISIS violence but to argue ISIS is not a threat to us is gravely mistaken. Note, even if there wasn’t a threat to the West, given that we have capabilities where Iraq does not, I would still support action. But these groups were plotting to carry out attacks involving chemical weapons against Western countries. It was fortunately caught by Iraqi Security Forces.  (The Long War Journal report refers to Al Qaeda in Iraq[2]). I hope it’s clear by now that we cannot and should not put reliance on Iraq Security Forces for our security. U.S officials have also come out as saying that ISIS is attempting to establish cells in Europe.

Fortunately we do not have to rely on either Richard Dearlove or U.S officials, we have a study! Hegghammer (2013) created his own dataset of Western terror plots using datasets from seven previous studies (these include foiled attacks) for the period 1990 to 2010. He found that one in nine foreign fighters return and attempt to carry out an attack and that out of the 401 plots in his data, 107 were carried out by individuals who were once foreign fighters (veterans). Given that we know that roughly 400-500 British individuals are fighting for ISIS, this represents a significant threat – especially because veterans are both more lethal and more successful:  

There is another reason why ISIS poses a threat to the West. Foreign Policy obtained an ISIS laptop which contained

...a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals... The document includes instructions for how to test the weaponized disease safely, before it is used in a terrorist attack.

Foreign Policy subsequently ran an article which rightly cautioned against reading too much into it because it did not reveal an active capability, merely an intention. However, that intention should still be taken seriously. As Phillip Bobbit observes in Terror and Consent, ‘advances in technology are rapidly lowering the thresholds for the development, deployment and deliverability of WMD.’ He goes on to quote an academic paper published in Biosecurity and Bioterrorism which states ‘this technology is gradually moving into the market place... [This] will soon put highly capable tools in the hands of both professionals and amateurs worldwide’ (p.102-3). Back in 2006, The Guardian ordered the DNA sequences for deadly pathogens over the internet. In their report of the affair, they made it clear why such a threat should be taken seriously:

The DNA sequence of smallpox, as well as other potentially dangerous pathogens such as poliovirus and 1918 flu are freely available in online public databases. So to build a virus from scratch, a terrorist would simply order consecutive lengths of DNA along the sequence and glue them together in the correct order. This is beyond the skills and equipment of the kitchen chemist, but could be achieved by a well-funded terrorist with access to a basic lab and PhD-level personnel.

ISIS has that level of funding and the most telling thing about the discovery of the laptop wasn’t only the intention to create biological weapons but that they had the personnel to do so. That is not to say there aren’t significant difficulties in building these weapons. But that doesn’t lessen the threat and the best way to explain why is through the legal case of Wagon Mound (No. 2) [1967] 1 AC 617. In that case, engineers were careless in taking furnace oil aboard in the Sydney Harbour. So careless that oil leaked into the water and drifted to a wharf where it was set alight accidentally. One of the relevant questions for the Privy Council was whether, despite there being a small risk of the oil catching fire, the engineers had a duty to prevent against it. I believe their Lordships came to the right decision. Lord Reid held

... it does not follow that, no matter what the circumstances may be, it is justifiable to neglect a risk of such a small magnitude. A reasonable man would only neglect such a risk if he had some valid reason for doing so, e.g., that it would involve considerable expense to eliminate the risk. He would weigh the risk against the difficulty of eliminating it... The most that can be said to justify inaction is that he would have known that this could only happen in very exceptional circumstances. But that does not mean that a reasonable man would dismiss such a risk from his mind...

Myth 4: It’s a trap!

Sunny Hundal writes in LabourList that

A US and UK led force destroying the most successful and largest Caliphate in recent times, however reviled ISIS may be, would be very symbolic. It would be used as a recruiting tool for terrorists for generations. This is why ISIS want to lure us in and we must be wary of their plans.

A lot of this has been debunked above – but its worth picking up two points. First is the idea that this has what Jon Stewart in a segment on The Daily Show called a ‘crusadey vibe.’ It doesn’t matter that this is a U.S led coalition, it can still degrade ISIS if employed correctly. In any event, there is a lot of Muslim opposition to ISIS (as there was of Al Qaeda). Hundal doesn’t justify why Western intervention would be such a symbolically bad thing to do given how ‘reviled ISIS’ is. It’s simply contradictory: ISIS is not considered Islamic by Muslims but the West attacking an Islamic Caliphate will attract Muslims.

Second, using this argument to reduce or prevent intervention is fallacious. Sunny goes on to say that we should still intervene but ‘it must be led by Arab forces, for symbolic, logistical and theological reasons’ – the evidence above should show why reliance on Arab forces is not remotely possible. But there is a better reason why such an argument is flawed. What was Bin Laden’s rationale for organising 9/11?

[He believed the U.S response would be] one of two strategies: an eventual retreat from the Middle East along the lines of the U.S. pullout from Somalia in 1993, or a full scale American ground invasion of Afghanistan similar to the Soviet invasion of 1979, which would then allow [AQ et al] to fight a classic guerrilla war (The Osama Bin Laden I Know, Peter Bergen, p.311)

Sayef Adel, another leading AQ commander at the time, wrote that AQ’s ‘objective of these painful strikes [i.e., 9/11] against the head of the serpent was to prompt it to come out of its hole. This would make it easier for us to deal consecutive blows...’ (Ibid, p.309). It is a good thing we ignored the intentions of Bin Laden and Sayef Adel because the scale of terrorist training has dropped by 90%, Al Qaeda Central has essentially be decimated to the extent that many analysts no longer speak of AQC but “Al Qaeda Senior Leadership.” As Bergen goes on to note, following the extract above, AQ ‘lost the best base it ever had... it was a strategic disaster for the organization’ (p.311). The same applies now: Sunny can cite ISIS’s intentions (without a source, I might add) but the only relevant question remains whether we can cause another strategic disaster – the evidence above shows that we can.

Myth 5: Cutting off ISIS funding from Gulf states is the way to deal with it

No, no, no and no.


[1] Note that the empirical literature does become somewhat mixed when looking at suicide terrorism and specifically the lethality of attacks. Piazza in a 2007 paper in the Journal of Politics finds that ‘terrorists, however, who are nationals of nondemocracies are significantly more likely to launch suicide attacks.’ The most significant finding in the literature is that failed states are those which are most linked with terrorism. For those who need more evidence that ISIS’ rise comes from a security vaccum created by a weak Iraqi military, these types of studies provide it (taken from Piazza, 2008):

[2] Speaking of AQI, its worth bursting the myth that ISIS ‘was kicked out of Al Qaeda for being so brutal’ (example). This is another misreading of what happened in 2007 after AQI was decimated. As Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi makes clear, AQI was subsumed into an umbrella organisation called ISI (Islamic State of Iraq). This was made up of a collection of Sunni terrorist groups. The link between ISI and AQC does not appear to be one of parent and affiliate. In a question and answer session with al-Zawahiri, he essentially stated that Al Qaeda in Iraq no longer existed. Fast forward to post-2010, al-Baghdadi then funded al-Jowlani (the head of Jabhut al-Nusra/Al Qaeda in Syria). When Baghdadi spread ISI into Syria and renamed to ISIS, Jowlani asked al-Zawhiri to adjudicate. al-Zawhiri decided in favour of Jowlani – i.e., only Nusra was the legitimate AQ front in Syria. Baghdadi did not accept Zawhiri’s ruling because he was never bound by it because ISI was not a AQ affiliate and did not declare allegiance (baya) to Zawahiri.

Selected Academic References

Biddle et al, ‘Testing the Surge: why did violence decline in 2007?’, International Security (2012) 47

Cohen, ‘Just How Important Are ‘Hearts and Minds’ Anyway? Counterinsurgency Goes to the Polls’, Journal of Strategic Studies (2014)

Hegghammer, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting’, American Political Science Review (2013) 1

Johnston, ‘Does Decapitation Work? Assessing the Effectiveness of Leadership Targeting in Counterinsurgency Campaigns’, International Security (2012) 47

Piazza, 'Draining the Swamp: Democracy Promotion, State Failure, and Terrorism in 19 Middle Eastern Countries', Studies in Conflict and Terrorism (2007) 521
--------   ‘Do Democracy and Free Markets Protect Us From Terrorism?’, International Politics      (2008) 72

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

To my mind, ISIL (or whatever they're calling themselves this day of the week) are essentially just mobile, moderately well organised bandits. They're winning and capturing towns for two reasons; firstly there's no force patrolling the areas in between the towns capable of stopping this movement, and secondly they're smart enough to only hit vulnerable places with overwhelming force.

The key to stopping them is threefold. Firstly, their supply and movement lines need cutting. This requires mobile light armour with decent air support; ground troops to intercept and spot targets, and air support to give overwhelming attack capability. As soon as they cannot move men and material around with impunity, they change from being a nation to a scattered rabble of bandits.

The second phase of any operation requires local troops, supported by and policed by outsiders who are overtly non-religious. Not anti-religious, but definitely not part of the three-way sunni v shia v kurd hillbilly feud that's been going on for donkeys' years. This phase will be slow and tiresome since it will necessitate sorting through each and every ISIL-infiltrated village and town, rooting out the more overt militants and removing heavy weaponry (and the patrols need to be kept up with at this point, as well).

Thirdly and finally, the borders between known trouble spots like Syria and its neighbours need to be fortified, reinforced and strictly enforced so that movement over the border is almost all via manned, fortified crossing points. It is probably a good idea to ignore petty corruption such as local "crossing taxes" here just to keep the locals interested in the idea that a border is a great idea to keep enforced.

Along the way here, a lot of foreign militants will be encountered. A good way to treat them is by an official version of the unofficial Northern Irish rules of engagement, as colourfully explained by a soldier I knew who'd served there: "If you see an IRA man with a gun in his hands then you bloody well shoot him dead so some smart-arse lawyer can't get him off later on". This is cruel, but a reasonable rule of thumb as these foreign jihadis signed on to be fighters, therefore ought not be given an easy ride for their stupidity and treasonous intent.