Diplomatic missions, think tanks, and the media are rife with analyses of the Islamic State. Assessments of how to deal with the jihadist group range from “wait and see” to “degrade and destroy,” and there are even mundane controversies about whether the entity should be called the Islamic State (IS), the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), or Da’esh (the movement’s Arabic acronym)—even though these names carry almost identical meanings.
The IS is posing an unprecedented type of threat to the West, especially to European states.Tweet This
The bottom line is that the self-proclaimed Islamic State, which has now taken hold in large parts of Iraq and Syria, is posing unprecedented challenges to the Western community of nations. The group is a particular threat to European states. To cope with those aspects of the situation that are specific to Europe, EU leaders must focus their efforts on five key areas: counterterrorism cooperation, the interruption of financial flows to the Islamic State, humanitarian assistance, political dialogue, and long-term policy reforms.
A New Form of Threat
During the past few months, the international community has been relatively slow in assessing the threats posed by the Islamic State, and even slower in devising a strategy to counter them. Countless meetings have taken place among stakeholders in the foreign policy, military, and intelligence realms, but actual decisions are being made in several phases and not always in the public domain. Yet the Islamic State presents huge and novel challenges that require innovative responses, including in terms of public diplomacy.
There are striking differences between the Islamic State’s modus operandi and that of other jihadist movements active in recent years, namely al-Qaeda from September 2001 onward and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in 2013. Three particular contrasts are discernible.
First, the Islamic State’s current military strategy—including its funding, equipment, manpower, and operational capabilities—is much more sophisticated than anything the West has witnessed from similar groups. The terrorist attacks in New York and Washington in 2001, in Djerba in 2002, in Madrid in 2004, or in London in 2005, as tragic as they were, were one-off and localized. Some were suicide operations, while others were hit-and-run bombings. In January 2013, AQIM conducted a military surge in Mali, in an attempt to “acquire” an entire country by force and turn it into a base for further operations in the region, using captured airfields and military or communication facilities; but even that attack was very modest compared with current IS operations.
The main difference that characterizes the Islamic State’s approach lies in the vast swaths (or rather, corridors) of land, including oil wells, that the militants control. The group also has at its disposal large quantities of military hardware and significant financial resources. And it has undertaken a massive recruitment of foreign fighters based on religious ideology.
The fall of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul to the Islamic State in June 2014 represented a major milestone. It was a quantum leap in terms of military hardware, as the jihadists captured hundreds of U.S.-made vehicles, tanks, and pieces of artillery, man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), and other weapons from the Iraqi army. The Islamic State quickly transferred much of this equipment to Syria. This gave the group a level of mobility and firepower that is a world apart from that of AQIM in Mali or even the Taliban in Afghanistan. The fall of Mosul was also a quantum leap in financial terms with the militants’ theft of at least $400 million, as well as gold, from the Mosul branch of the Iraqi Central Bank.
With its territorial gains and the associated resources—namely, smuggled oil exports—the Islamic State has acquired “tactical depth,” or the ability to plan operations, attack and retreat, disperse or regroup, hide or move hardware and hostages, train fighters, and generate money. This development makes the threat to Syria and Iraq, as well as to Jordan and Lebanon, much more ominous.
The IS differs from other terrorist groups as it has roots in Europe, Turkey & the Middle East:Tweet This
The second element that distinguishes the Islamic State from other terrorist groups is the deep roots it has developed in Western Europe, the Maghreb, and Turkey, as well as the Middle East, where it has recruited several thousand jihadists. Data show that the larger contingents come from the Middle East (5,800), the Maghreb countries (5,300), the EU (2,600 to 3,000), and Turkey (anywhere between 400 and 1,000). Numbers given by official agencies are substantially higher.
One factor that explains the scale of the Islamic State’s recruitment is the group’s narrative, which is predicated on shallow religious bases. The language used is vague enough yet evocative enough to appeal to young people who have had little or no religious education or who have no deep knowledge of Middle Eastern history. The group’s narrative refers to a notion of “one nation for all Muslims” and mixes historical references ranging from the Crusades of the Middle Ages to the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916.
Of the Islamic State’s European followers, many are born Muslims, while some are converts. The vast majority of fighters are recruited in low-income neighborhoods or in jails through active, well-organized networks. Europe’s economic crisis, problems of social exclusion, religious tensions, and political frustrations provide fertile ground for recruiting of young people—sometimes as young as fourteen—including women and families. Recruitment in the Maghreb and Turkey follows similar patterns.
European recruits are active not only in Iraq and Syria; some return to commit terrorist acts in their countries of origin. France and Belgium have suffered horrendous killings perpetrated by returnee jihadists. Many European jihadists hold European passports and therefore enjoy freedom of movement within the territory of the EU, especially the Schengen area, in which there are no border controls.
The Islamic State’s third distinctive feature is its communications strategy, which makes former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s videos filmed in the mountain ranges of Afghanistan and Pakistan look like antiquated tools. The militants conduct a massive “marketing” campaign that uses all modern means of communication and focuses mainly on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube. With this campaign, the Islamic State pursues three parallel objectives: to threaten and terrorize Western audiences; to disseminate propaganda for recruitment purposes; and to intimidate the populations of territories the group wants to conquer. The jihadists also fight back when Western countries try to limit their electronic communications, for example by creating tens of thousands of new Twitter accounts when some are blocked.
The Difficulties of Building a Coalition
The Islamic State is committing multiple crimes according to national and international law: territorial invasion, murder, ethnic cleansing, slavery, torture, population displacement, hostage taking, extortion and theft, trafficking of oil, promotion of violence and hatred, proselytism, and recruitment of terrorists—to name just the most important. Such crimes call for a multifaceted response, starting with the authorities in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan, Arab and non-Arab countries in the region, and Western partners.
In Iraq, the Islamic State’s surge has been possible because of a series of hidden alliances with local tribes and remnants of the regime of the country’s former president Saddam Hussein, as well as logistical and financial support from regional states and other actors. More broadly, given the turbulent history of the Middle East and fractious regional relationships, the agreements and alliances necessary to roll back the Islamic State will inevitably form a very intricate architecture.
A striking feature of current discussions has been the initial reluctance of Arab governments and Turkey to clearly condemn the Islamic State’s actions, although several prominent Muslim clerics have declared their opposition to the group. Turkey’s prudence was partly understandable in view of the 46 Turkish hostages held until recently by the Islamic State, but the kidnappings did not provide a complete explanation for Ankara’s stance. Another key factor is the Islamic State’s anti-Western narrative, some of which appeals to Turkey’s religious conservatives—and their views matter politically to the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). But among the Turkish population at large, perceptions seem to be changing substantially as an increasing number of citizens distance themselves from the Islamic State’s atrocities. After the October 2 vote in the Turkish parliament on the country’s possible role in the coalition, the exact modalities of Turkey’s eventual participation remain to be determined.
In this complex and volatile environment, the basic elements of a possible anti-IS coalition have emerged. Perhaps most importantly, a solid coalition of the various Iraqi political forces is a precondition to all other efforts. An Iraqi-led operation is all the more necessary because there is no appetite in Western countries to commit ground troops, as U.S. President Barack Obama and French President François Hollande have made clear.
The Western-Arab coalition has made distinct progress recently. On September 23, five Arab states took part in the first strikes against IS in Syria and Iraq: Bahrain, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Belgium, Denmark, France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Australia have also committed air forces. On September 24 in New York, the Turkish president declared for the first time that “ISIL is a bloody terrorist organization” and made several subsequent statements pointing to the possible military involvement of Turkish forces. On the same day, the UN Security Council unanimously passed a resolution calling on UN member states to “cooperate and consistently support each other’s efforts to counter violent extremism.”
In Syria, the Western coalition will stay away from the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, despite Damascus’s renewed effort to present itself as an indispensable actor. Strikes in Syria by the United States and Arab countries have targeted IS-controlled oil refineries and IS assets.
Finally, it is clear that the Islamic State—despite its name(s) and proclaimed intentions, and despite having been covertly supported by some states—remains a nonstate actor and a major terrorist organization. Given the accumulated atrocities, it is unthinkable for the coalition to engage in discussions with the Islamic State.
The Risks and Impacts of Confrontation
Any interaction with the Islamic State is fraught with danger. While aerial strikes targeting IS assets in northern Iraq are now gathering pace, operations against the militants in Syria are much more complicated. From an international legal perspective, Iraq has issued a call for help that legitimizes interventions by other countries, while Syria has not.
The Islamic State’s offensive in Syria is severely affecting civilian populations. On September 18, Syrian Kurds fleeing the violence issued a call for help at the Turkish border. Confronted with a humanitarian disaster that only compounded the refugee crisis triggered by the Syrian civil war, authorities in Ankara decided on September 19 to open the border. In less than forty-eight hours, over 100,000 Syrian Kurds entered Turkey.
The more territory and border crossings the Islamic State controls along Turkey’s southern frontier with Syria, the higher the risk will be of an accidental confrontation, and the more complicated border management will become. As the Islamic State reinforces or expands its presence in Syrian cities bordering Turkey, there will be mounting tension as more Syrians will seek refuge in Turkey, and emotions will increase among Turkish Kurds as Syrian Kurds are being murdered by IS just across the border.
Beyond the specific situation along the Turkish-Syrian border, the Islamic State will be tempted to react to an increased military offensive by a Western and Arab coalition by bringing pressure to bear on members of that coalition. In Australia, one country that had committed military assets against the Islamic State, preventive arrests were made following intelligence reports that members of the group were planning attacks on Australian soil. Similar terrorist acts were thwarted in Belgium, which had also pledged to help combat the jihadists.
Threats and Priorities From a European Perspective
In plain terms, the challenge posed by the Islamic State for European states is primarily a homeland security threat.
The EU’s 28 countries have a total population of 505 million. Counting citizens and immigrants, these states’ Muslim population is about 20 million. For 2,600 to 3,000 young men and women to be actively involved in jihadist movements may therefore seem almost negligible. This would be an erroneous assessment, in part because estimates are growing by the day.
More importantly, the Islamic State’s power to attract young, underemployed, loosely indoctrinated people can be very high. The combination of recruitment circuits, networks of sympathizers, and returnees from the Middle East with a mission to recruit more jihadists produces a substantial potential for social destabilization, especially as radicalized Muslim communities tend to be geographically concentrated. What is more, this radicalization is happening in a political context in which xenophobia and extreme right-wing political parties are rising at an accelerated pace.
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Given this context, the overwhelming aims for European governments must be to severely curtail the recruitment of European jihadists by the Islamic State, impede the recruits’ transit to Syria and Iraq, and put returnee militants under strict surveillance. Preventing jihadists from leaving Europe is also key. The European countries concerned have already revamped procedures and launched new forms of cooperation to address these tasks, but they should do more. The implications of such steps are momentous and concern many domains: freedom of movement within the EU, management of the Schengen area, counterterrorism coordination, antiterrorism legislation, regulation of political activities, and even freedom of expression.
Curbing the Islamic State’s propaganda on the Internet and social networks is another important task. This effort will have to be sustained over many years and, despite the sensitivity of the subject, European authorities will need to find a way to inform the general public of its importance.
To achieve these objectives, EU foreign policy makers must focus on five specific priorities.
The first agenda item for the EU is enhanced international counterterrorism cooperation. Efforts in this field have started yielding results within the EU and between the EU and the United States. As for Turkey’s cooperation with its Western partners, despite major improvements, more work is needed to secure border controls and international transit zones in airports, step up exchanges of information, and tighten arrest and extradition procedures.
This is all the more important because Turkey is the main (and almost the only possible) entry point for jihadists going from Europe to Syria. The Islamic State will therefore be determined to keep the route open, while the EU (and the United States) should do everything in its power to secure full cooperation from Turkey to keep it closed. Policies to deter the Islamic State are bound to be the number-one subject of discussion between Turkey, a NATO member and EU applicant, and the West for many months to come.
The second priority for the EU is to shut off oil production by the Islamic State as well as the routes that the group uses to smuggle oil from its strongholds to Turkey and beyond. Local interests and intermediaries abound along many international borders; in the case of the Syrian-Turkish frontier, every gallon of oil that the Islamic State exports is additional funding for the group’s terrorist activities. This must stop—and that is why air raids over Syria have focused on oil production facilities and why counterterrorism cooperation must improve. It is also important to prevent EU traders from buying any of the smuggled oil products.
Third, the EU must focus on humanitarian assistance, a sector where the union has a strong capacity. Humanitarian operations in the region will remain a necessity for some time, as the staggering numbers of displaced Syrians and Iraqis will increase in the short and even medium term. The main burden of hosting Syrian refugees has so far been on Lebanon, Turkey, and Jordan, but Iraqi Kurdistan is now also under intense pressure to accommodate those fleeing the violence. The ordeal of displaced Iraqis, including Yazidis and Christians mostly fleeing to Iraqi Kurdistan and Turkey, adds another dimension to the international humanitarian effort. At the same time, IS attacks on Syria’s Kurdish region have triggered yet another mass exodus. Military airlift capacity and military protection are needed to rescue or deliver assistance to these threatened communities, some of which will need to be resettled on a quasipermanent basis.
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Questions abound for decisionmakers. Is the idea of a safe zone in Syria for refugees, as promoted by Turkey, a realistic one, and at what price? And what plans can be made for the long-term or permanent resettlement of refugees, for example Yazidis and Christians, in the region or in the EU?
These issues represent considerable challenges for countries in the region, the EU, the donor community, and the UN’s refugee agency. There is a distinct need for an inclusive dialogue and planning process for refugee issues. This is no longer an issue pertaining only to humanitarian agencies; it has become a major political subject, especially between the EU and Turkey. The EU has committed some €2.8 billion ($3.5 billion) of aid to Syrian displaced persons and refugees, but Turkey has received less than its share of the assistance because it will only accept cash donations.
The EU’s fourth priority is political dialogue with countries in the region. UN Security Council Resolution 2178 of September 24, 2014, provides a framework for discussion at the international level, while the coalition of the willing is the focus of military planning. The EU should concentrate on a dialogue with Jordan and Lebanon, two countries deeply destabilized by the turmoil in Iraq and Syria, and with Turkey.
Finally, the EU must prioritize longer-term policy revisions. When the new EU leaders who were appointed in this year’s institutional reshuffle begin to revamp the European Neighborhood Policy, they will have to look hard at how to handle intricate situations like Iraq and Syria more efficiently. To do this, EU foreign policy makers must better integrate the union’s various tools—humanitarian assistance, development aid, counterterrorism cooperation, border management, accession negotiations, and trade agreements—with the diplomatic aspects of the EU’s work and the military involvement of some European countries. Rebuilding synergies within the EU’s toolbox is not just a challenge in the context of the Middle East, but this area is certainly one of the most pressing test cases.