The current hysteria shown by both politicians and the mainstream media about Islamic State (IS) is so devoid of reason and factual evidence that it is difficult to know where to start in formulating a corrective. As a researcher who has studied terrorism and political violence since 1987, I can say with some confidence that virtually every single statement about the purported threat posed by IS, or the reasons why a small number of Muslims in Western countries want to travel to Iraq to fight with them, is mostly, if not completely, incorrect. More importantly, based on years of research, I can say with confidence that the recent actions taken by Western countries in response to the purported threat – particularly the decision to bomb IS and to arm groups opposed to it, as well as the decision to try and ban individuals from travelling to Iraq – will at best completely fail to bring peace and security to the region; at worst, these policies will lead directly to more terrorism and violence, worsen the situation greatly and create a predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.
In fact, any intelligent observer of events in the Middle East can work out that the rise of IS is, in the first instance, the direct result of years of reckless Western military intervention in Iraq and Syria. The invasion of Iraq, particularly the disbanding of the Iraqi army and Western support for the corrupt and brutal al-Maliki government, lead directly to the formation of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). For its part, over the years of brutal internecine conflict and insurgency in Iraq since 2003, AQI has more recently morphed into IS. At the same time, the West and its Gulf allies have covertly supported anti-Assad rebels in Syria with weapons and training funneled through Turkey. Some of these groups have now defected to IS. In effect, short-sighted, ill-informed Western policy has contributed directly to the political and strategic conditions that have allowed IS to grow into the force it is today. This is called ‘blowback’ in intelligence circles.
As if this disastrous recent history was not enough, the longer history of Western air campaigns shows that it is quite ineffective in winning wars or creating the conditions for peace, especially against rebel movements like IS. The truth is, bombing has an almost zero chance of defeating IS, as six weeks of intensive bombing already shows. In other words, Western countries have decided to adopt a strategy that has virtually no chance of succeeding, and which in the very recent past helped to create the very problem it is now trying to solve. If the definition of insanity, as Einstein put it, is undertaking the same action over and over again while expecting a different result, then the decision to bomb Iraq for the third time in three decades is a perfect example of insanity.
In addition to ignoring recent history and evidence in relation to the perils of military intervention in the region, Western countries have also decided that IS poses a direct threat to them, and have banned individuals from travelling to Iraq to fight for them. The logic here is that foreign fighters will be radicalized by IS and will return home to wage jihad on their home countries. This is more than a little ridiculous: if individuals have decided to make the dangerous journey to Iraq where they have a high chance of being killed in a brutal war, they are already well-radicalized. In fact, preventing potential fighters from going overseas risks aspiring jihadists turning their attention to targets closer to home. If a thwarted fighter launches an attack on London or Sydney in the next few months, it will be nothing more a completely predictable self-fulfilling prophesy.
In fact, the ignorance and short-sightedness of this policy is highlighted by the fact that out of the many thousands who have travelled to Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, Syria and Iraq over previous decades, less than a handful of returned fighters have subsequently become engaged in terrorist activities. Instead, as Denmark is currently finding, many returned fighters are traumatized and disillusioned by their experiences. In effect, they have been de-radicalised after finding that the noble cause they thought they were fighting for was lost in the squalid brutality of internecine war. In other words, according to the best academic evidence available, the threat posed by returning fighters is extremely low. It certainly does not warrant the hysterical response we are currently seeing in the United Kingdom and other European countries. The Australian government’s reaction is particularly over-the-top: restricting press freedoms, confiscating passports and whipping up anti-Muslim hysteria will do nothing except create social conflict and disorder.
On the other hand, every major terrorist attack on Western targets since 2001, including the attacks in Bali, Madrid, London and Boston, has been claimed by the perpetrators to be revenge for Western military intervention in the Middle East. Even the beheadings of Western hostages were justified by IS captors as a response to US bombing. In fact, every major academic study of the past ten years has confirmed that Western military intervention and its policies in the Middle East, including support for the state of Israel, is the primary motivation for anti-Western terrorist attacks. In 1996, a major study by the CATO Institute concluded that U.S. military intervention overseas was the primary driver of anti-American terrorism. The Chicago Project on Suicide Terrorism has drawn the same fundamental conclusion. In other words, the greater risk of terrorism comes not from returning fighters, but from the decision to bomb Iraq once again.
There is no doubt that IS is a brutal insurgent group. However, it is far from the worst such group we have seen in recent decades, and the current measures designed to tackle it will achieve nothing but further blowback. New Zealand has thus far not succumbed to the overreaction and hysteria of Australia, the UK, the US and other European countries. In considering whether to respond to IS, the New Zealand government would be well advised to pay due attention to the academic evidence, rather than ill-informed, knee-jerk reactions and ignorant media speculation. There is plenty of good research and information which could help to make reasonable and effective policies. However, the media and politicians need to take the time to consult it, instead of rushing headlong into another completely pointless and self-defeating war.
This article was originally published as an op-ed in the Otago Daily Times on Wednesday 1 October 2014. Originally, I had entitled it, ‘The Insanity of Western Foreign Policy’, but I presumed it would not get published under that heading.