ISIS: Looking to the North

by Andrew Stuttaford

Over in the Financial Times, there’s an interesting piece on Putin’s friends abroad, but this passage in particular caught my eye:

The current Egyptian government believes that the Obama administration’s failure to support former President Hosni Mubarak, during the Egyptian revolution of 2011, revealed the US to be both duplicitous and naive. 

Hold that thought, now read this (from the Daily Telegraph) (my emphasis added):

Islamic State militants are planning a takeover of Libya as a “gateway” to wage war across the whole of southern Europe, letters written by the group’s supporters have revealed. The jihadists hope to flood the north African state with militiamen from Syria and Iraq, who will then sail across the Mediterranean posing as migrants on people trafficking vessels, according to plans seen by Quilliam, the British anti-extremist group. The fighters would then run amok in southern European cities and also try to attack maritime shipping.

The document is written by an Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil) propagandist who is believed to be an important online recruiter for the terror in Libya, where security has collapsed in the wake of the revolution that unseated Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 . . .

[British] security officials also share Isil’s view about the possibility of using people trafficking boats to smuggle fighters into Europe. Thanks to its vast, porous desert borders with Sub-Saharan Africa, Libya has long been a key operating hub for trafficking boats heading into Europe, but numbers have escalated dramatically since the collapse of the Gaddafi regime.  Italy’s interior ministry estimates that at least 200,000 refugees and immigrants are poised to make the crossing from Libya to Sicily or the tiny island of Lampedusa, Italy’s southernmost territory. Last year more than 170,000 arrived in Italy by boat, including tens of thousands of Syrians fleeing the civil war in their home country. . . .

Nasser Kamel, Egypt’s ambassador to London, warned Britain brace itself for ‘boats full of terrorists’ unless action was taken in Libya. He spoke after 2,164 migrants were rescued at sea in a 24-hour period over the weekend in what has been described as an ‘exodus without precedent’.

“Those boat people who go for immigration purposes and try to cross the Mediterranean … in the next few weeks, if we do not act together, they will be boats full of terrorists also,” he said. . . .

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Isil’s leader, has since laid claim to Libya as part of his “Caliphate”.  Whilst on the whole that remains more rhetoric than reality, support for the group in this war ravaged state is growing. In September, Abu Nabil, an Iraqi and key leader within Isil, travelled to the country to build support for the group. His men took control of much of Derna, a traditionally conservative city in the east of the country, that is now being run according to the extremist group’s strict Shariah law.  Hundreds of Libyans who had travelled to fight alongside Isil in Syria have started to return to fight for the group on home turf, residents say. They have expanded the group’s influence into the east of the country, taking controlling of parts of Sirte, a former Gaddafi stronghold.

Barack Obama (January 7, 2014) on ISIS:

I think the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant. I think there is a distinction between the capacity and reach of a bin Laden and a network that is actively planning major terrorist plots against the homeland versus jihadists who are engaged in various local power struggles and disputes, often sectarian.

And since then there has been the claim that ISIS is somehow “not Islamic.”

The term “out of his depth” comes to mind.

In this context, this lengthy, intriguing piece by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic on ISIS is very well worth your time. Its implications are terrifying.

Some extracts:

The Islamic State, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), follows a distinctive variety of Islam whose beliefs about the path to the Day of Judgment matter to its strategy, and can help the West know its enemy and predict its behavior. Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

The millennialist temptation takes many forms, is perennial and, at its worst, very, very dangerous, but it is not something that a president wrapped up in the soft certainties of the end of history can be expected to understand.

Wood:

The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.

Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it….

Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people. The lack of objective reporting from its territory makes the true extent of the slaughter unknowable, but social-media posts from the region suggest that individual executions happen more or less continually, and mass executions every few weeks. Muslim “apostates” are the most common victims. Exempted from automatic execution, it appears, are Christians who do not resist their new government. Baghdadi permits them to live, as long as they pay a special tax, known as the jizya, and acknowledge their subjugation. The Koranic authority for this practice is not in dispute . . .

Centuries have passed since the wars of religion ceased in Europe, and since men stopped dying in large numbers because of arcane theological disputes. Hence, perhaps, the incredulity and denial with which Westerners have greeted news of the theology and practices of the Islamic State.

The incredulity and denial are true enough, and, ironically, Wood’s history (at this point) in a sense reflects very similar thinking. Contrary to his assertion, wars of religion (even if largely unacknowledged as such) did very nicely for themselves in Europe during the last century. Both communism and Nazism were, in many respects, millennialist cults (think of that “thousand year” Reich), and, as such cults can do, they killed millions.

ISIS may well try the same.

As for ISIS attacks on southern Europe (and in the end it would not just be southern Europe), it’s important to remember that the writings of one propagandist do not necessarily translate into deeds, but . . .

As the atrocities in France and Denmark remind us, Europe’s intertwined immigration and Islamist crises are already bad enough. They may well be about to get much worse. 

The Corner

The one and only.