Strategy vs tactics: The case of Islamist violence


While there’s nothing groundbreaking in this article from late last year, it does remind us that the concept of fighting a war of ideas is not just rhetorical flourish—it’s the way things are. We can’t bomb Islamic State into submission. As the article points out,

The concept of territorial gains is a twentieth century, somewhat anachronistic notion. In World War II … the world was an infrastructure-centric place. To stop the Nazis, it was primarily a question of destroying their ability to continue fighting. Bombs and bullets were the preferred means to that end.

But what of ISIS? The militant group’s weapon of choice is a perverse and apocalyptic vision of the world and its place within it. To propagate its corrupting influence, it needs only the internet and disaffected populations receptive to its worldview. While we have made significant gains on the battlefield — killing many of its leaders, destroying weapons caches and disrupting supply lines — we have done little to disable ISIS’ ability to recruit followers, or ultimately, target western societies.

It comes back to something that I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and one that I think will be a recurring theme this year—the need for strategy. The Cold War, and the Second World War, for that matter, allowed us to crystallise a strategy because we had a clearly defined enemy. We knew who we had to defeat, so we were force to come up with a way to defeat it. These days, those saying that violent Islamists have replaced these two defeated foes as the West’s principle enemy are routinely denounced as being alarmist, or even ‘Islamophobic’. And it’s true that violent Islamism does not pose a threat to Western interests in the same manner as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It’s also true that some of Islamism’s critics come across as particularly nasty. But it’s also true that violent Islamists do pose a threat to Western interests—mostly to individual Westerners through acts of terrorism, as opposed to the state itself, but a country’s duty and purpose is to protect its citizens, right?

Nazi Germany was defeated through force of arms—its army was rolled back and Germany was destroyed. The Soviet Union was defeated by bankrupting it—the people under its control were unhappy, and Moscow no longer had the money to enforce its will on its people, so it imploded.

But violent Islamism is individual-driven, not state-driven. You cannot bankrupt it. And while groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda must be defeated on the battlefield (or through other kinetic options like assassination), that’s not going to defeat the idea. Indeed, it will actually help perpetuate the idea because, to a large extent, Islamism is a victim mentality. It thrives on being defeated, and its adherents entrap others by saying the reason for Islam’s low status in the world today is because Muslims aren’t devout enough. That is, violent Islamists will continue being defeated on the battlefield until Muslims are devout enough to warrant victory.

Ultimately, though, impressionable Muslims turn to ideologies like that of Islamic State because it presents an explanation for the world that fits in to the selfish reasoning of society—and I’m not talking about Muslim society, I’m talking about modern society. The explanation goes like this: You, Muslim, are not well off because the infidel West oppresses you. You can never become well-off because the infidel West won’t let you. There’s no point integrating yourself into the infidel West, because that way you’ll lose your Muslim identity and effectively become an infidel. The only way to succeed is to reject the infidel West and support those who want it bring it down.

The laziness aspect here is that the targeted individual sees an explanation that blames others for his or her (or his or her family’s or community’s) socio-economic situation. It’s easier to blame others for your situation—and much easier to resign yourself to that fate—than it is to take fate by the reins and get yourself out of it. Explanations are never black and white. The reason for the socio-economic depression of the Muslim community and family and individual in Western society is not only the community’s or family’s or individual’s fault. The state and the majority society shares some blame, too. But neither is it solely the fault of the state or the majority society. Ultimately, it is the individual and the community that will have to use the tools available to it to lift themselves into the middle class, just as previous rounds of immigrant communities have the world over. 

But I digress. It feels as if we in the West do not have a strategy to defeat Islamic State, or all the other manifestations of Islamist violence. Everything we have been doing thus far is tactics. We are in no danger of losing this war. But we need to develop a strategy if we want any chance of winning it.

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