Fighting Fear as Well as ISIS: Setting the Right Priorities
November 24, 2015
You do not defeat an enemy by becoming it. You do not defend freedom by reducing it. And, you do not create shared values through intolerance and fear. It is all too easy to react to the tragedy in Paris by taking all of the wrong steps: grossly overreacting out of panic, riding the headlines to excessive steps in counterterrorism out of political opportunism, grasping for media visibility by exaggerating the threat, and taking steps that penalize Muslims for being Muslims in ways that actually increase the longer-term prospect of terrorism and violence.
No one can ignore the fact that religious extremism in the Muslim world has created a serious new threat in the form of terrorism, civil violence, and even civil war that is spilling out of the Muslim world and affecting other nations and regions. At the same time, no one can afford to ignore the reality that almost all of this violence consists of attacks by a small minority of extremists on other Muslims in largely Islamic states, or in areas where Muslims are the vast majority and make up all of the casualties.
Recent studies like the Vision of Humanity “ Global terrorism Index Report, 2014 ” and START’s, Mass-Fatality, Coordinated Attacks Worldwide, and Terrorism in France, Background Report , and official U.S. government reports like the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism: Annex of Statistical Information make this all too clear.
Tragic as Paris, or London, or Madrid, or the World Trade Center and Pentagon were, the fact remains that almost all Islamist violence is centered outside the West and in the region that ranges from North Africa to Central and South Asia. In fact, in 2014, some 57% of all terrorist attacks occurred in just five countries: Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria. The START database, one of the most reliable sources available, shows that the numbers of deaths from terrorism has increased by some nine times since 2000, but virtually every bit of this increase occurred in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Syria. The number of terrorist deaths in the rest of the world actually decreased after 2000-2002.
It is equally dangerous to focus on ISIS (ISIL or Daesh) as if it dominated terrorism. The movement or perpetrator of terrorist attacks is only publically identified about 60% of the time, and movements like ISIS are all too prone to make such claims for every attack they make and some they simply take credit for. ISIS, however, is still only one of five major sources of terrorism that can be identified. Almost all of its attacks have been in Muslim states, and it only became the leading perpetrator of such attacks in 2014 and then by a limited margin. The other four leading movements include the Taliban, Al Shabaab, Boko Haram, and the Maoist Communist Party of India.
Moreover, if one looks at the more than 20 leading perpetrators of coordinated attacks in the START data base – the kind of movement that counterterrorism efforts can most effectively defeat – ISIS only conducted some 12% of the coordinated attacks between 2000-2014. Boko Haram committed 9%, the Taliban 7%, Al Qaeda in Iraq 6%, Al Shabaab 4%, and other Islamist extremist movements committed 8%. Once again, the vast majority of the casualties in the attacks by all of these movements were Muslims living in Muslim countries or Muslim areas.
Moreover, it is all too clear that “defeating” ISIS cannot end these threats. Any real world form of defeat will at best mean breaking up its pseudo government in Syria and Iraq, and kill or capture some of its leaders. The bulk of Islamist terrorism will remain in other movements, the forces that create extremists will continue to grow, and most ISIS fighters and volunteers will escape or become the kind of prisoner that will eventually be released and fight again. No credible form of defeat of ISIS will end the threat or possibly even reduce it. Defeating violent Islamist terrorism means defeating it as an ideology, addressing its causes, and offering real hope for a better future.
These are key reasons why some of our most important partners in counterterrorism and fighting movements like ISIS will continue to be the governments in Muslim states: Countries like Morocco, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, and others. It is all too easy to stereotype Muslim or Arab governments and peoples, but a partner like Saudi Arabia – with perhaps the most different culture and conservative form of Islam of any of our partners – has become a critical partner in both counterterrorism and regional security, and has been fighting its own primarily Islamist extremist threat – Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – since 2003.
Moreover, any form of counterterrorism that does more to alienate the world’s Muslims than address the real threat – either in a given country or on a broader regional level – can only make things far worse. As Paris has shown all too clearly, even a few experienced fighters that cross national boundaries can be a major threat outside the Muslim world. These cadres will continue to exist regardless of what happens to ISIS, and the key question is whether or not they will grow or they can gradually be eliminated.
The Islamist extremist movements that exist today, however, are not mass movements in any international sense. For all the talk of a “flood” of volunteers to ISIS, even the most inflated estimates still reflect only a tiny fraction of even the young men in the population. At present, even the highest estimate for the number of volunteers from any given country amounts to a few thousand out of a potential force of millions of Muslim young men who focus on living ordinary and peaceful lives. Given all of the advances that extremist movements have made in social networking, use of the Internet, and exploiting religion; communism and fascism were far more effective at recruiting at given periods in the past.
Excessive counterterrorism, repression, religious bigotry, barriers to humanitarian action, and political opportunism have all too real an ability to change this situation for the worse and cannot possibly make it better. They have failed to do more than temporarily suppress forces that continue to grow in the Muslim world and they will fail the West.
Countries that go too far in the direction of repression – like Egypt – win time at the cost of alienating their own people and creating a steadily more dangerous future. Countries like Syria, where the Assad regime attacks its own people, have created far more casualties from government forces than have occurred from every source of Islamist terrorism since 2000. They have also driven some 5 million Syrians out of a country that had 22 million people in 2011, and displaced something close to 8 million more away from their homes and source of income.
ISIS – like Al Qaeda before it – has broadened its terrorist attacks from the Muslim world to the West precisely to create the kind of split between Islam and other religions that will allow it to feed upon the resulting divisions between faiths and countries. There is no “clash between civilizations” today, but the wrong measures in the West can at least begin to create one.
The kind of Western political movements that effectively attack Muslims for being Muslims – using strong racist overtones – may appear to be the enemy of movements like ISIS but they are really its natural allies. Bigotry, racism and prejudice breed precisely the kind of response that ISIS wants.
As Americans, we need to remember the cost of our past failures to limit the search for security, and to give freedom and the rule of law the right priority – and we must not give way to international efforts that fail to set the same standards. The handful of Muslims that have been violent or terrorists are no more of a reason to condemn or repress Muslims in the United States than the equally small number of militias and violent extremists that have misused Christianity to create armed cults and terrorists.
The threat of outside refugees and visitors being violent extremists does requires careful vetting but not absurd excesses that will deprive every Muslim in dire need of the sanctuary we should offer, or prevent the flow of students, businessmen, and tourists that create bridges between us. Cringing political cowardice, and the kind of opportunism that feeds on fear and the worst aspect of populism, can only aid ISIS and similar movements by dividing us, alienating Muslims, and partially validating the kind of anger that ISIS is trying so hard to create.
We cannot preserve our freedoms, protect civil liberties, defend tolerance, and offer humanitarian relief without some risks and some casualties. Our values have a price. And yet, consider the dark shadows of our past. We have never successfully defended ourselves by abusing freedom.
Examples include driving “loyalists” out of the United States after the revolution. Limiting freedom and civil rights as a result of the Alien and Sedition Acts before the war of 1812. Abuses of Native Americans in the name of security from the “trail of tears” to the early 20th century. The suspension of civil rights during the Civil War. The century of bigotry and misuse of our justice system in dealing with black Americans after slavery ended. The hostility towards German Americans in World War I. The attempts to deport large numbers of American citizens for being part of a non-existent communist threat immediately after the Russian revolution. Letting fear and anti-Semitism block the flow of Jewish refugees before World War II while tolerating the German-American bund, Interning loyal Japanese citizens in World War II. The excesses of the McCarthy era.
This does not mean we should not listen to our real experts on counterterrorism and intelligence, seek to cooperate more effectively with our allies, and do more to defeat movements like ISIS in Iraq and Syria. It does mean we need to move with great caution, that the race for the Presidency and the coming election have already become the enemy of good judgment, and overreaction by other countries is not a model for us to follow.
It also means that we need Muslim partners in addressing the causes of extremism and terrorism, and we must see our own Muslim population as a key ally in addressing the Muslim world. More broadly, we need the kind of foreign policy that will lead the way forward, and not one that will make us the tool that ISIS would like us to become.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
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