'Bombing and War Are Not Going to Work - We Need a Whole New Strategy with the Islamic State'

The following is an excerpt from author and renowned terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni's new book, Islamist Phoenix (Seven Stories Press, 2014).  Napoleoni will speak with journalist Chris Hedges and Ted Rall Tuesday, December 2 at an event at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, titled, "The Islamic State and the Crisis in U.S. Foreign Policy." For tickets, call 212.874.5210 or visit www.nysec.org.


The Islamic State, rather ingeniously, lured the U.S. into a fight when it released the video of James Foley's beheading, writer and terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni explains in a telephone interview. The author's new book, The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, is a concise reality check about  a group that is unlike any the world has seen before. In fact, according to Napoleoni, it is not even an "armed organization any more. It is a state, a modern, pragmatic state, a wholly different phenomenon from Al Qaeda or the PLO."

The sooner the world realizes this, the better. The Islamic State is incredibly seductive to young disaffected Muslim men, the word over. In fact, at one point in the book, Napoleoni compares IS to Israel, in that its "main aim is to be what for Sunni Muslims what Israel is for the Jews, a modern state on ancient land."

Once IS is better understood, says Napoleoni, it behooves the world to "talk to them," and "to find out what they want." This would be to exercise a kind of behind the scenes diplomacy that the world has not seen since before the Cold War.

"Obama is between a rock and a hard place," Napoleoni concedes, but she also thinks that Americans are ready for a new approach, not the same failed ones. "People are tired of being afraid," she says. She is fascinated by the comments Pope Francis recently in Turkey, where he said he would like to talk to them. "That can be good for us," she says. "If the Pope is saying that, we have to listen."

Here is an excerpt from her fascinating book:

Chapter 8: Contemporary Pre-Modern Wars

Since June of 2014, world leaders have been battling the rising power of the Islamic State. We have seen them presenting their electorates with plans for dealing with the threat, laden with novel terminology. And IS has responded—at some times with acts of barbarity, such as the beheadings of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, and at others through statements made by European IS members and hostages like John Cantlie.

How did an armed organization, virtually unknown just three years ago, come to challenge the world’s greatest powers? Not only militarily, on the battlefields of Syria and Iraq, but ideologically, using all the modern means of communication?

The answer lies in the progressive breakdown of the nation state in Syria and Iraq. Emptied of their role as representatives of their populations, these nations’ governments regressed to the conditions of pre-modern enclaves.

The Disembodiment of Arab Nations

In Syria, the Arab Spring met with a violent response and, amid the indifference of the world, a dream of democracy collapsed. This was brilliantly summarized by Ali Khedery, who served as special assistant to five American ambassadors in Iraq and as senior adviser to three heads of US Central Command from 2003 to 2010. “Facing Assad’s army and intelligence services, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraq’s Shia Islamist militias and their grand patron, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, Syria’s initially peaceful protesters quickly became disenchanted, disillusioned and disenfranchised—and then radicalised and violently militant.”

Sectarian fronts opened almost overnight and peaceful protests morphed into a civil war, which in turn degenerated into a modern proxy war, with several rich Gulf states bankrolling their own Sunni armed groups in pursuit of revenge against Iran, their number one Shia enemy, and Assad, Tehran’s Arab ally. Many of the international rules of war were broken, including prohibitions on the use of chemical weapons against civilians, and the wealthiest villas in Aleppo were looted. In the blink of an eye, a twenty-first century nation was riven by seemingly intractable conflict.

In Iraq, Nouri al Maliki, ignoring his promises to share power with other political groups, consolidated it instead, through a sectarian campaign aimed at destroying his rivals. He attempted to arrest his vice-president, Tariq al Hashimi, “supported by Iran and armed with US-made Humvees, M-16s, and M1A1 tanks.” The same ordeal was reserved for a second prominent Sunni rival, the finance minister Rafea al-Essawi, who abandoned politics and fled to his tribe’s stronghold in Iraq’s Anbar province.

“Facing mass unrest, Iraq’s Sunni Arab provincial councils voted for semi-autonomous rule like that of the neighboring Kurdistan region. Maliki blocked the implementation of a referendum through bureaucratic ploys, in contravention of Iraq’s constitution. Demonstrations of civil disobedience erupted across the Sunni provinces, as millions of Iraqis once again saw that they had no stake in Iraq’s success—only its failure. Claiming intelligence that al Qaeda had penetrated the protest camps, Maliki crushed them with lethal force. Several dozen people were killed during an Iraqi military raid in Hawija in April 2013, further inflaming what were already spiking sectarian tensions.”

Two Shia leaders, Assad backed by Russia and al Maliki backed by the West, abused their power and violently repressed the call of the people for true democracy. Both leaders reneged on their promises. Assuming power after the death of his father, Assad had inflamed mass hope with the promise democratic reforms. Similarly, al Maliki had pledged to rule according to the constitution and to preside over Iraq’s first truly democratic government.

Iraq is the mirror image of Syria, backsliding into pre-modernity. Damascus leads by a few years in this depressing process; the disintegration of the Iraqi state has only just begun. And the Islamic State has shown an extraordinary understanding of the similarities between the countries, exploiting them with remarkable timing.

Will the West and the world deal with Iraq differently than they have with Syria, especially now that the Islamic State has proclaimed its Caliphate? This is a question that nobody can answer. In the past, neither the US nor Europe could find a formula to overcome Russia and China’s veto on any military intervention in Syria. While everybody knows that Assad guarantees the Russian fleet access in the Mediterranean, China’s reluctance springs from how badly the Europeans and the Americans have handled regime change in Libya, leaving a profoundly unstable country. And after the lies Bush and Blair used to justify their invasion of Iraq, and the high price paid by Coalition forces, the West is in no rush to topple another Arab dictator.

The current policy of containment in Syria may prove insufficient when faced with an armed organization that has morphed into a state. Indeed, the nature of the challenge that the Islamic State poses is very different from the one presented by conflicts in areas where the modern state has collapsed.

World War III

In the summer of 2014, Pope Francis declared that World War III had already started, a miasma of conflicts spreading across the globe, bearing little resemblance to the two world wars of the twentieth century. Instead, these conflicts are reminiscent of pre-modern warfare, managed not by sovereign states but by warlords, terrorists, militias, and mercenaries, whose ultimate goal is territorial conquest with the aim of exploiting people and natural resources. None of these wars are waged to create nation states.

Missing are the trenches, battlefields, and even international rules that to some extent used to set codes and boundaries for the behavior of combatants. The Geneva Convention has been consigned to the trash bin. The parties to these various conflicts are all guilty of severe excesses, including religious violence, wanton destruction, and even genocide. Even some regular armies behave as militias. In Nigeria, Amnesty International has filmed Nigerian soldiers and members of the Civilian Join Task Force, a civilian militia, cutting the throats of prisoners suspected of membership in the notorious Islamist militia Boko Haram, and throwing the decapitated bodies into mass graves.[6]

From Nigeria to Syria, from the Sahel to Afghanistan, the victims of this new war are largely civilians. In Nigeria, according to estimates by Amnesty International, 4,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed in attacks carried out by Boko Haram and the Nigerian army in the past year. In Syria more than one million people have been displaced, and 200,000 have been murdered, since the beginning of the civil war.

Similar statistics can be gathered at the edges of the European Union. From April to August 2014, the UN estimates that 1,129 civilians have died in violent clashes between the Ukrainian National Army and separatist, pro-Russian militias. Other unofficial statistics report a much higher figure.

What we face are pre-modern conflicts that harness modern technology, a deadly combination that hugely increases civilian casualties. One striking example is the shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July 2014 over Ukrainian airspace.

Professor Mary Kaldor of the London School of Economics, author of New and Old Wars: Organized Violence in a Global Era[7] has written that globalization plunges some regions into conditions of anarchy similar to philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s famous description the state of nature: “The state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all . . . with a continual fear and danger of violent death.” Life before civil society was “nasty, brutish and short.” These are the conditions into which parts of Syria and Iraq have regressed today.

Globalization has undermined the stability of a number of authoritarian regimes, from Libya to Syria to Iraq and beyond, by making people aware of their political conditions. The fall of Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a political vacuum that rival tribal militias—from liberals to hard-line Islamists—have filled with violence. The violent responses to the Syrian Arab Spring and the Sunni Iraqi uprising have created a similar vacuum. The common objective of the many armed groups that have filled it is the conquest of political and economic power for the purposes of exploitation. These groups harbor no intention of creating a democratic state, nor a new nation in any modern sense of that term. On the contrary, anarchy is the best environment for the pillaging of resources and exploitation of people.

The process of the state’s degeneration and collapse is therefore the root cause of the pre-modern nature of today’s conflicts, and is a phenomenon increasingly tied to economic factors—to the drastic impoverishment of large regions and populations.

Globalization has brought prosperity in some regions, such as China and Brazil, and poverty in many others, such as the Middle East and parts of Africa. The crisis of the state in Africa is linked to both climate change and the race of rich countries to grab the continent’s resources. In the Middle East, other phenomena have contributed to this impoverishment. In Iraq, for example, a decade of economic sanctions has transformed the nation with the highest level of education in the Arab world to one in which women do not have the right to work. The process of regression to a pre-modern society has gone hand in hand with the nation’s impoverishment.

The deadly combination of globalization and rising poverty has stirred up widespread insecurity and fostered tribal armed conflicts under the banners of religion and faction. Conflicts have inevitably become multipolar. In Mali, Tuareg separatists and Islamic factions are fighting amongst themselves and at the same time against the government; in the Central African Republic, Muslim and Christian militias are involved in a bloody war, which threatens to become genocide, while members of the national army take positions according to their creeds; in Western Africa, al Qaeda in the Maghreb is active almost everywhere.

Brutal violence characterizes all of these conflicts—often on camera. The most striking example is the killing of the American journalist James Foley by the Islamic State; the video of his beheading quickly made the global circuit of social media.

However, it would be misguided to lump the Islamic Caliphate’s war of conquest in Syria and Iraq in the same category with the pre-modern conflicts described above. Though the war of conquest that IS is waging is part of Pope Francis’s World War III, it differs fundamentally from the contemporary pre-modern conflict that other armed groups are waging.

Redefining the Modern State

The Islamic State shares in the ambitious goals of the founders of the European nation state, articulating these goals in a contemporary and modern way. Like Israel’s, IS’s concept of a nation state is ethno-religious, rather than solely ethnic. It also attempts to fulfill all the requirements of the modern state: territoriality, sovereignty (for now recognized only internally), legitimacy, and bureaucracy. Instead of being satisfied with small enclaves, it seeks to create a twenty-first century version of the ancient Caliphate and shuns the idea of permanent anarchy. On the contrary, in the conquered territories, one of the first tasks that IS carries out is the imposition of Sharia law.

The Caliphate considers the maintenance of law and order to be its responsibility, and implements them, if in a rough and rudimentary manner. The Caliphate is also responsible for the protection of the areas under its command from enemy attack. Hence, the Islamic State also takes up the task of national security. Law and order and national security are the two key indications that distinguish a modern state from a pre-modern enclave run by war lords and barons. The other important element is the consensus of the population, what Rousseau defined as the social contract, its legitimacy.

There is no doubt that the Islamic State aims to establish consensus by any possible means. Unlike other armed groups, for example, it is using the revenues from strategic resources, like oil wells and hydro-electric dams, not only to bankroll a war of conquest but also to rebuild key socio-economic infrastructure inside the Caliphate.

Sophisticated propaganda is committed to promoting the image of a real state, legitimized by the Muslim population, not only locally but also internationally. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi is presented to the entire community of Muslims, the Umma, as the new Caliph, a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed. The Caliphate spreads images of a regular army, quite different from the armed gangs of al Qaeda or Boko Haram, an army that is fighting traditional battles on fields and in trenches, using modern weapons (ironically, for the most part American and Russian, stolen from the Iraqi and Syrian army respectively). It recruits internationally with sophisticated propaganda; its foreign soldiers come from Europe, the US, Asia, North Africa, Australia, and even New Zealand. While it may be engaged in sectarian cleansing, the Caliphate is missionary and offers anyone the opportunity to convert to Sunni Salafism and thus become a citizen. Those who refuse and cannot flee are executed. It negotiates with foreign powers for the release of hostages, showing a pragmatism that al Qaeda never has.

Where the Islamic State differs from the modern nation state is in the means used to achieve this geographical and political construction: terrorism. While revolutions are regarded as an acceptable source of legitimacy for the modern state, terrorism is not.

Amid the existential crisis of modern democracies in a multipolar world, and in the midst of the destabilization of the Middle East, against the background of a World War III reminiscent of pre-modern conflicts, the true challenge of the Islamic State rests on its nascent efforts at nation-building. Regardless of whether the Caliphate succeeds in establishing itself as a new state in the near future, the new model with which it has experimented will inevitably inspire other armed groups. The failure of the West and the world to address this issue will have devastating consequences for the world order.

Excerpted with permission from Seven Stories Press -- Islamist Phoenix (Copyright, 2014).

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