Paris, ISIS, and the Long War Against Extremism

It is one of the grim ironies of the terrorist attacks in Paris that only a few hours earlier, the media had been calling to ask if the reported killing of “Jihadi John” had somehow marked a “turning point” in the war against terrorism. The tragedy in Paris has now led to the other side of this routine: focusing on the immediate risk of future disasters while losing interest in the victories against the Islamic State in Sinjar.

Politicians and some “experts” have followed the same pattern - overreacting to the most recent event and losing sight of the reality that there are not going to be any turning points in the near future. Years of new tragedies like Paris are almost inevitable, and the struggle against extremism is going to be a long, long battle of attrition.

Paris is also a warning that the best counterterrorist efforts in the world cannot protect any country, particularly the open societies in the West, from every attack; and that no victory against any given movement can be decisive. The forces that have created violent Islamist extremist movements over the past decades - and that came home to Americans on September 11, 2001 - are simply too great for any lasting near-term victory in what some call the “war on terrorism.”

Here, it is critical to keep ISIS in perspective. The Islamic extremism that drives ISIS is only one of the world’s sources of terrorism and insurgency by non-state actors, and ISIS is only one such movement. There are similar extremist groups in many countries with large Islamic populations. They include Al Qaeda Central in Pakistan, the Al Nusra Front in Syria, and Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Saudi Arabia and Yemen – just to name a few.

Many have gone far beyond terrorism in the classic sense, and have become insurgent movements seeking to take control of the state by force. ISIS, for example, is both the most successful and the most dangerous, because it has become an actual protostate in parts of both Iraq and Syria.

In fact, the very term “extremism” is misleading when it comes to the broader patterns of violence involved. Violence between sects of Islam like the Sunnis and Shi’ites is not really extremism and is all too typical of the kind of religious warfare that characterized Europe during the time of the Christian Reformation and Counterreformation. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians has involved terrorism for decades, and so has the struggle between Israel and the Lebanese Hezbollah. Lebanon was a source of sectarian violence for decades before 9/11.

Non-state actors are also only part of the threat. The civil war in Syria is not primarily a struggle between the government and ISIS. It is rather a struggle between a repressive, authoritarian regime that is guilty of violent state terrorism and murder and a mix of Arab Sunni rebels that range from relatively modern groups to affiliates of Al Qaeda.

The primary form of terrorist attacks in Syria have been barrel bomb attacks by Assad’s air force, his ground force’s trapping civilians in areas cut off from aid, and his ruthless use of artillery against civilians. The Syrian civil war is all too typical of the fact that state repression, state terrorism, and failed secular governance have long been the breeding grounds of violence by non-state violent actors – some of which is all too inevitable and does all too good a job of “legitimizing” Islamic extremism - given the region’s worst regimes.

The war in Yemen is another example of violence that has religious elements but has not been driven by terrorism or extremism. It is a war where Sunnis and Shi’ites are now at war, with Saudi and Iranian support – although this fighting has given Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula time to recover from counterterrorist pressure and take new areas in Yemen. Similarly, state corruption and political paralysis have helped sustain the Taliban in Afghanistan, state efforts to manipulate extremism have become a major threat to the Pakistani government that started them in an effort to pressure it neighbors, and Sunni-Shi'ite violence has become an issue in India – a Hindu state with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world.

Europe, the United States, and countries without large Muslim populations are not the victim of some “clash of civilizations,” and certainly not one that can be solved by calling for tolerance or religious education. Every death and casualty matters, but France, the United States and other “outside” states are only minor targets that are the spillover of a massive clash to shape the future of Islamic civilization. Horrible as every pointless death from terrorism in the West is, it must be compared to violence within Islam that has killed hundred of thousands of Muslims in recent years, halted economic life and development in several countries, and produced millions of displaced persons and refugees.

No one set of factors drives this struggle for the future of Islam, and it clearly interacts with serious ethnic and tribal conflicts and tensions, broad patterns of failed governance and corruption, crony capitalism and massive state barriers to development, failures to create a meaningful rule of law and honest policing, and endemic repression.

Important as defining the future of Islam is, theology is only one of the forces that lead men and women to join extremist causes. Islamic extremism feeds on population growth that has produced populations five to six times the level in 1950. The end result is a “youth bulge” with vast numbers of young men without real jobs, that face disguised unemployment that offers no future or a role at the bottom of a middle class where there is no real way forward, and that face major problems in affording marriage, homes, and children. These same forces create even more problems for increasingly better educated young women, and who have expectations and hopes of their own.

To put these population pressures in global perspective, a study by the Pew Research Center found that Muslims already totaled some 1.6 billion people in 2010. This made them the world’s second largest religion and some 23% of the world’s population. Another Pew estimate, made in April 2015, estimated that the number of Muslims would grow by 73% by 2050, rising from 1.6 billion to 2.8 billion. This is a rise of 73%, and it compares with a total global rise of only 35%. (Lipka and Hackett, “Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group,” Pew Research Center, April 23, 2015;

Given all the other forces at work – which include levels of hyperurbanization that break down traditional social safety nets and push sectarian and ethnic factions into daily competition - this population growth will ensure that alienation, anger and commitment to extremism will continue for decades unless the causes of violence are properly addressed. They also create forces that ensure that many young people will leave the Islamic world for Europe and the United States. Inevitably; some will find they face new and equally serious sets of problems. This in turn means that some – although so far very few - will turn to extremist movements and terrorism in the West.

Counterterrorism can - and has - done a great deal to defend and deter against terrorism in the West. Fighting movements like Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and ISIS can help both limit the damages within the Islamic world and help offer the opportunities to create a real future within it.

The best counterterrorism efforts in the world, however, cannot prevent more tragedies like Paris, the World Trade Center – and ones that are far worse. They at best treat the symptoms of violence and extremism and not the causes. In fact, the scale of these causes is so great that every “victory” against a current extremist or violent movement will inevitably be followed by new such movements and new violence.

The struggle to change this reality will – at best – be a long, long struggle, and there will be many tragedies like Paris to come. Real victory can only be won by years of reform within the Islamic World, and outside aid that does as much as possible to help create governments that rule through success, rather than through repression. Treating the symptoms through counterterrorism does buy time and reduces casualties. Real victory can only come if – and only if – the Islamic world can treat the causes.

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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Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy