All right then. We have all seen the videos. We have all studied the news reports of atrocious behavior. The threat “We will raise the flag of Allah in the White House,” has caught our attention. What then to make of this new face of religious fundamentalism?
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel lightly put it “This is beyond anything that we’ve seen. So we must prepare for everything.” He is speaking of ISIS, Islamic State in Syria, which can most generously described as a bunch of frat boys with Kalashnikov rifles.
From Google Images
Of course the big question is how to respond. That is to say, how to respond to this college prank that’s gotten out of hand? That requires a little history. The Secretary thinks we have not seen anything like this before. I think he means we have not seen anything like this before in the 21st century. Prior examples abound.
- From about 1600 years ago we have the Huns under their famous leader Attila. For some odd reason Attila’s motives seemed to have been tangible as opposed to religious. Nevertheless, he and his Huns were then and are still now viewed as most disagreeable fellows. They made war on everybody available to make war on, and they extracted tribute in exchange for not making war, sometimes increasing the required tribute in reprisal to real and imagined offenses. When they met resistance that murdered everybody who survived the battle, including all civilians. They looted as though looting were about to go out of style.
- More recently we had the Nazis, those 20th century sadists who worked hard at giving “nasty” a bad reputation. Without abandoning their religion (Gott mit uns) they set out to make war on their neighbors whenever expedient. They murdered millions of people they disliked, including their own citizens, and they looted as though looting were about to go out of style.
- The Japanese Empire found it expedient to make war on China, and they looted and murdered as though these practices were about to go out of style. When the rest of the civilized world expressed shock and dismay and imposed sanctions, they attacked the remainder of the civilized world, with the exception of the Soviet Union and the Empire’s own partner in atrocity, Nazi Germany.
- Communist dictator Joseph Stalin, more as an individual initiative than as a social movement, inflicted on his citizens a massive purge (murder) in the 1930s. Subsequently mass graves yielded approximately 200,000 corpses, the work of just a few days by the Japanese Empire.
- Pol Pot’s reform movement in Cambodia in the 1970s exterminated, through murder and mistreatment, 1 to 3 million.
ISIS does not come close to the accomplishments of these past miscreants, but we do need to give them their due. This is not a vagabond group of disaffected atheists. These are true followers of the God of Abraham. I have not seen the videos, but I am sure these people pray on their knees five times a day. Furthermore they are bringing biblical tradition to the 21st century. For example, when they are victorious in battle and defeat a town of religious deviants, they are known to sell women and young girls into slavery.
How, then, can civilized 21st century society deal with these religious crackpots. It helps to see a comparison with traditional terrorists groups of recent times:
- Small base, fewer than 1000 followers
- Operating in a region with strict rules of conduct and police power to enforce these rules
- Marginal material and monetary support
ISIS sidesteps these drawbacks:
- Large base, thousands of fanatical followers
- Operates in regions with rules of conduct that can best be described as laissez-faire and little or no police power to enforce even laissez-faire
- Significant material acquisition from capture in battle and generous monetary support from outside benefactors
Here are some significant terrorist groups we have defeated recently:
- Red Brigades: Formed in 1970, they carried out murders and robberies for over a decade before being run down and imprisoned or exterminated by the Italian police.
- Weather Underground: Formed as an offshoot of the Students for Democratic Society, they conducted bombings and armed attacks on United States government and local government agencies starting in 1969. The explosion of a bomb factory in New York City killed three prominent leaders, and police work eventually ran the remainder to ground. Survivors of the group have reintegrated in to civilized society.
- Symbionese Liberation Army: Initially gaining notoriety with the ambush murder of a school official, they devolved into robbery and kidnapping to gain material support. A second murder occurred during a bank robbery, and members committed a number of bombings. The group was virtually exterminated in a shootout with police in Los Angeles in 1974.
- Baader-Meinhof: Actions of the Red Army Faction resulted in 34 deaths from 1970 to 1998. Aggressive German police action eventually exterminated or captured most of the gang. The Red Army Faction had a fanatical communist ideology and suffered greatly from the fall of communism and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Al-Qaeda still exists as an earnest enterprise seeking to make mischief on the civilized world. They differ significantly from ISIS in that they never sought to form a state, a country, a political entity with established borders. ISIS seems to be doing exactly that. In religious terms this is defined as a caliphate. This is the main difference, the main strength, of ISIS. It could also be its solar plexus.
What made the Symbionese Liberation Army and the Red Army Faction so intractable were their lack of an identifiable target. In comparison, seventy years ago we had a bead on the Nazis and the Japanese Empire. We ended their reigns of terror by the expedient of bombing them back almost to the Stone Age. If ISIS were ever to take root and apply for membership in the United Nations we could consider the Curtis LeMay Option. Of course, the CLO has the downside of killing a disproportionate population of civilians, but it’s not as though it has never been used.
Putting aside for a moment the CLO, what other options are there?
Nailing itself down to a define locale with defined borders has a definite downside for ISIS. They have to eat. It has been noticed that ISIS has particular skills at kidnapping, dynamiting, shooting and beheading, none of these things puts food on the table. Unless the Holy Caliphate of ISIS, as I have chosen to name this new state, sees living out its future herding goats for subsistence, I don’t see much future for it.
Its actions so far—did I mention public beheadings and the slave trade—have lost it the sympathies of (most) of the civilized world. Without resorting to the CLO, we could just box them up and wait them out. So far they have captured some significant cities, but most of what they have is desert. They (for now) can boast they have some oil fields, but these are what the civilized world views as targets. What would it take to starve ISIS back to sensibility?
- You really have to get control of the surrounding territory. ISIS cannot be allowed to make new conquests. This goal is feasible in principle. To advance toward anywhere in Iraq they are going to have to take to the roads. This has not been a good idea for an advancing army for the past 70 years. We can do this in Iraq, but Syria remains a problem.
- ISIS is fighting battles, and fighting consumes resources. You need to keep ISIS engaged and continue to drain it. Again, Syria is a problem. In Syria ISIS is up close to its supply of captured weapons (Syrian army plus other insurgent groups) and also to its supply of purchased and donated weapons.
- You are going have to keep ISIS from obtaining additional funding. ISIS gets money from donations and also from countries willing to pay ransom for hostages. When this money heads toward an arms purchase it should be tracked and confiscated.
- You are going to have to put pressure on nations and individuals that provide aid to ISIS. ISIS may be immune to military attack, but their outside friends are not. Arms that are seen heading for ISIS can be confiscated. You are going to lose some friends with such high-handed tactics, but these are not the friends you want to keep.
- Make sure ISIS has nothing to sell. If they produce some oil, do not buy it. If somebody buys it, confiscate it. Lose some friends, defeat ISIS.
- Bottle them up. We are talking, at least for the coming five or more years, of an army of occupation. Nobody in, nobody out. ISIS does not yet have an airline. If it does, then make sure it has no airfields.
By now you should be getting the picture. You may also be asking, “How well has this worked in the past?”
Not always so well. See North Korea.
North Korea is the closest thing we have to the Holy Caliphate of ISIS. This little spot of Hell on Earth has been under containment for the past 60 years. To the north are the borders of China and Russia, whom they have no interest in pissing off. To the south is the border with South Korea, which is defended by an occupying force that includes 30,000 American troops. For various reasons the isolation of North Korea has never been complete:
- As of 1991 it is a member state of the United Nations.
- The population of North Korea includes millions of people effectively held hostage by the dictatorship and representing unacceptable collateral damage in case we ever saw fit to use full military action.
- North Korea has a number of powerful allies in the civilized world, said allies likely to respond if we took appropriate action against the dictatorship.
- Unlike the HCI, North Korea has considerable natural resources, a sizable population and the wherewithal to produce salable goods, specifically modern weapons of war.
The threat that North Korea poses is that sells weapons of war to rogue groups like Hamas and likely ISIS. North Korea’s isolation has made it immune to the disfavor of enlightened society.
To gain the dubious status now held by North Korea, ISIS will need to acquire considerable territory, including territory with an intact infrastructure. The toilets are going to have to flush, because ISIS can’t fix them without supplies from civilized sources. Such an acquisition could be attained if ISIS were to prove victorious against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. That presents a tricky situation. We want Assad and his ISIS wannabes out, but it’s quite possible ISIS will be there waiting when they leave.
From Wikipedia: ISIS territory as of 24 August 2014
All that said, what’s going to happen? My prediction:
ISIS in Iraq will be defeated. Iraq is going to see that it’s existence hangs on a workable government that puts aside partisan ambitions and starts working toward its next 100 years.
ISIS, as a concept, will never go away. Defeated in Iraq and possibly in Syria, ISIS will go to ground and make mischief for the rest of the world for decades to come. It’s rooted in the mysticism of a deep past. It’s a cause to die for. It’s an idea whose time has come.