O'MALLEY PadraigISIS: Eviscerating one’s fear not incomprehension
by Padraig O’Malley for Forum for Cities in Transition
14 August 2015

In July I visited the FCT Tripoli group, and much of our conversation centered on ISIS and the threat it posed to Tripoli in particular.

FCT Tripoli member Nabil Shinder, among the most ardent of FCT members who attended FCT global events in Kirkuk, Kaduna and Belfast, said ISIS had its eye on Tripoli — a short distance from the Syrian border — because it is was a port city (and a ‘state’ needs a port). In ISIS’s case, this is to export the oil in the territories of Iraq that it occupied. Although it is hard to imagine a ship even being loaded with Iraq oil by ISIS before a U.S. airstrike vaporized it.

But what made Nabil (and others with teenage children) more apprehensive was that their sons or daughters would simply ‘disappear’ — that he would wake up one morning to find that one of his two sons had left for Syria to wage jihad. Now he asks his sons where they are going before they go out, worries if they have not returned home by a certain time, and often checks on their phone calls.

Nabil’s sons, who assist him in his reconciliation projects, are the most unlikely candidates one could think of for jihad, but such is the grip of fear that ISIS evokes and that so widespread is the phenomenon of young men and women making their way to Syria, not just from Arab and Muslim countries but from across Europe and Russia. We are so lacking in understanding of what motivates their decisions. Fear fills the vacuum that a pervasive incoherence creates when societal norms seem to be abandoned by young people coming from ‘respectable’ families, opposed to extremism in all its forms.

A reviewer (anonymous because of his sensitive NATO position) wrote in the New York Review of Books, on ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror (by Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan) and ISIS: The State of Terror (by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger):

Nor have there been any more satisfying explanations of what draws the 20,000 foreign fighters who have joined the movement. At first, the large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate immigrant communities; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system. They came from very poor countries (Yemen and Afghanistan) and from the wealthiest countries in the world (Norway and Qatar). Analysts who have argued that foreign fighters are created by social exclusion, poverty, or inequality should acknowledge that they emerge as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada). It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected. Tunisia, which had the most successful transition from the Arab Spring to an elected Islamist government, nevertheless produced more foreign fighters than any other country.

Despite the proliferation of a virtual industry of literature (mostly by Western scholars and pundits) analyzing ISIS’s appeal, all of which provides a wealth of information, but no holistic interpretative framework. About all we have concluded is that the leaders of ISIS are not great strategists, but resilient tacticians; their policies are often bizarre, reckless, sometimes bewildering; and their government may be hapless (as some assert) or becoming the instrument of a functioning state, but it cannot deliver genuine economic growth. (Though if ISIS economists are in the same league as their social media experts, perhaps this assumption, too, may be mistaken.) The literature also suggests that the theological framework of the ISIS leaders is unstable.

However, as the NATO reviewer observed:

Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough—even in hindsight—to have predicted the movement’s rise.

We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination. And we will not remedy this simply through the accumulation of more facts. It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of ISIS. But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.

All there appears to be agreement on is that ISIS must be destroyed; the logic seems to be that you should eviscerate that which you do not understand, but which you fear. And the fear is global:

FCT 20150814 POM ISIS

Now it appears we have reached the necessary critical mass. Hence the recent flurry of diplomatic activity: the search for a political solution that will allow all stakeholders to unite in the war against ISIS and other extremist jihadist movements in Syria, and by extension in Iraq. The Saudis are talking to the Russians; Russia is beginning to exert some pressure on Assad; Iran has put its plan on the table. The Russians are proposing a new alliance including Riyadh and Damascus; the Saudis want a multilateral alliance and coordination with neighboring Syria, as well as coordination with the US-led coalition against ISIS. Moscow is prepared to discuss the Syrian issue with the Syrian opposition parties. Putin met with Syria Foreign Minister Walid al Muallem, and after the meeting Putin announced on June 29 an initiative to establish a coalition against terrorism that would include Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Jordan. According to Al Monitor, Saudi-Syrian channels of communication were indirectly activated through Moscow. And according to Saudi sources, Major General Ali Mamlouk, head of the Syrian National Security Bureau and main figure of the Syrian regime, flew on a Russian airplane to Riyadh July 7: a Rubik’s Cube Coalition.

For its part, the US has softened its stance that Assad has to go before there can be any talk of transitional government. There seems to be a compromise in the making that Assad would stay on for some time in a transitional government before ‘free and fair democratic elections’.

Of course, the latter is a joke, leaving aside that the Syrians have next to no experience with democracy, that all the stakeholders, aside from the US, have next to no democracies, and learning no lessons from fast tracked democracy in Egypt and other Arab Spring countries, why not press ahead with the absurd? Moreover, the scenario outlined above will come to naught — competing stakeholders, regional rivalries, religion, and no agreement on how this new ‘alliance’ will actually ‘defeat’ ISIS (i.e. who will put the thread bare ‘boots on the ground’ on the ground, let alone a command structure). One could go on ad infinitum. Perhaps the alliance will use the Donald Trump formula, the defeat of ISIS under a Trump presidency will be ‘quick and beautiful’.

Meanwhile, Nabil will continue to worry.

Professor Padraig O’Malley is Director of the Forum for Cities in Transition.