At war with Islamic State

Australia - like other countries of the west - finds itself in a war it is not well-equipped to win

John Hewson

National security | Australia

22 November 2015

The insidious nature of the IS strategy has the potential to wreak havoc for years to come, writes John Hewson.

We are now formally “at war” with Islamic State – apparently they declared war on us, and so we returned the favour.

But it is a very different kind of war, and one it seems the West is not so well equipped to win.

IS is a mostly Arab Sunni jihadist extremist military group, self-proclaimed to be a worldwide caliphate and Islamic State. IS essentially emerged from the failures of the West in the illegal war in Iraq, focusing on a ground war in Syria and Northern Iraq. It is now spreading its terrorist influence around the globe as it recruits sympathisers, often by radicalising youth, and initiating terrorist attacks, as we’ve experienced several times this year in Paris, the bombing of an Egyptian airliner, and various other horrific events.

IS is ruthless and barbaric, and is now largely defined by the excesses of its barbarism – a multiplicity of war crimes and abuses of human rights, beheadings, rape and torture, suicide bombings, ethnic cleansing, the destruction of cultural heritage sites, and so on.

In 2014, IS was so successful in gaining territory and influence in Western Iraq that it nearly toppled the Iraqi Government, encouraging a renewal of US military action, supported by a small coalition, including Australia.

This action has now been “authorised” to extend to bombing raids directed at IS targets in Syria. This action is not without its military and diplomatic difficulties and complexities, coming as it does over the top of the Syrian civil war, where the Syrian Government led by Bashar Al-Assad, heavily supported by the Russians, has also been accused of war crimes, with some 20,000 deaths, nearly half the Syrian population displaced, and millions fleeing mostly to Europe as refugees.

To say it’s a mess is an understatement. While the knee-jerk response of many to last weekend’s Paris atrocities was simply “it’s time to wipe IS off the map”, world leaders, meeting in various summits, have been markedly more cautious. They are still seeking a diplomatic solution, specifically hoping to negotiate a transition in Syria, that would ultimately see Assad and his Government removed, thereby hoping to end the civil war, and improve the capacity to focus on the containment of IS.

In all this, IS is being given more time to plan and execute its terrorist activities around the globe. A principal concern is the failure of the various intelligence agencies to get a handle on such activities, as a major weapon of IS is its capacity to utilize social media for both propaganda and recruitment, a process that is very difficult to monitor, let alone control.

A key IS social media strategy is radicalization, especially of youth. “Lone wolves” and small terrorist cells are very difficult to detect and monitor, especially if they stay off their mobiles and the Internet.

As appears to have been the case in the recent Paris attacks, ring leaders can conceive/plan the attacks initially in meetings, say in Syria, and return to say Belgium to co-ordinate the detail and recruit the key players, some actually “refugees” from Syria accepted as such in Europe, to then easily enter France to execute the plan.

These sorts of activities will be very difficult to stop, especially given the ease with which youth can be radicalized, and the self-fulfilling publicity they generate, easily spurning further, in some cases, copy-cat activities.

We should accept the fact, while not questioning the moral imperative for us to be involved, that by being involved in both the Iraq war, and more recently, we have significantly heightened the risk of terrorist attacks here in Australia.

Disturbingly, it won’t make much difference how much anti-terrorist legislation is passed, or how many times the leadership of a mosque is monitored or questioned, or how many well meaning statements are made by world leaders, or political/diplomatic negotiations are initiated, the risk is that the insidious nature of the IS strategy will wreak havoc for years to come.

This article was also published by the Southern Highland News.

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