Militants in Syria dream of a big showdown with the US and Europe. There are other ways to defeat them.
‘How can it be that leading politicians learned nothing from 14 years of counterproductive anti-terror wars?’ Illustration: Ben Jennings
Since the Paris attacks, western politicians have been walking open-eyed into a trap set by the terrorists – just like they did after 9/11. They retaliate with bombs, even though bombs are one of the main reasons why we are facing terrorism in the first place: because bombs predominantly kill innocent people, and thus help to create fresh recruits for the terrorist cause.
As I learned from spending time interviewing Islamic State members in Syria and northern Iraq, George W Bush’s “war on terror” turned out to be a classic terrorist recruitment programme of this kind. In 2001 there were roughly a couple of hundred terrorists in the mountains of the Hindu Kush who posed a threat to the international community. Now, after the war on terror has claimed what some estimate to be as many as one million Iraqi lives, we are facing some 100,000 terrorists. Isis was created six months after the start of the invasion: it is Bush’s baby.
How can it be that leading politicians learned nothing from 14 years of counterproductive anti-terror wars? How can it be that they still believe that the best way to get rid of an infestation of wasps is to batter the nests with a sledgehammer?
The Syrian city of Raqqa, which is now populated by only 200,000 citizens, has become one of the favourite targets of the French president, François Hollande. American, Jordanian, Russian and Syrian military jets have been reinforced by French bombers. British ones could soon be joining them, dropping their deadly load on what remains of the city’s foundations – even though out of 20,000 Isis fighters who used to hide in the city, only a couple of thousand remain at most. The majority have long ago fled to Mosul, in Iraq, or to Deir Ezzor, also in Syria.
France is currently bombing everything that looks like camps or barracks: small factories, communal buildings, hospitals. The majority of the Arab world has seen photos of dead children in Raqqa – Isis is doing everything it can to spread them. And for every murdered child, there will be new terrorists. War is a boomerang, and it will come to hit us back in the form of terrorism.
Of course, Hollande has to react. But no one is stopping him from reacting with a bit of brains. As a head of state he should know that urban guerrillas cannot be defeated with bombs. He should know that Isis fighters only march in tight orderly lines or drive in convoys in their propaganda videos. Off camera, they avoid hanging around in large groups and spend their time among the local population, preferably in apartment blocks that house families. That’s the very first chapter in the dummies’ guide to terrorism.
Look at Mosul: this is a city that is home to 1.5 million people, and at most 15,000 Isis terrorists. If you wanted to get rid of Isis in Mosul, you would have to flatten the entire city.
In October 2014 I was the first western journalist to spend time with Isis and return safely. During my stay, we were repeatedly targeted by American fighter jets and drones. It’s hard to overemphasise how quickly our Isis escorts managed each time to disappear among the local population. While driving through the territory of the “Islamic State” with three cars – one of which was usually a decoy for the drones – there was always a 10km distance between the vehicles. We frequently switched positions. The mantra of the Isis fighters was: never be a target.
A bombing strategy employed by France – which, potentially, will now be joined by Britain – will above all hit Syria’s population. This will fill Isis fighters with joy. Hollande could only make them happier if he were to send in ground troops as well: western boots on the ground in Syria is the ultimate Isis dream. Instead of mainly killing Muslims, they are desperate to live out their imaginary apocalyptic showdown between good and evil, in which they can at last fight against the US, the UK and France – on the ground.
They would have a good chance of winning battles there too. These fanatical fighters have excellent military training and love death. Western soldiers love life. The west cannot beat Isis with military means.
But there are ways to beat Isis. First, America has to stop Gulf states delivering weapons to the terrorists in Syria and Iraq.
Second, the west has to help Turkey seal its long border with the “Islamic State”, to stop the flow of new fighters joining Isis.
Third, Isis can only exist because it has managed to ally itself with the suppressed Sunni population of Iraq and Syria. They are the water that carries the Isis project. If the west managed to bring about a national reconciliation in Iraq and Syria, and integrate Sunnis (which in Iraq would have to include former Ba’athists) into political life, Isis would be finished, like a fish out of water.
Is it really so hard to see that the attempt to defeat terrorism with wars has failed? That we have to rethink the war on terror? That we have to finally start treating the Muslim world as true partners, and not as a cheap petrol station we can raid when we feel like it? Bombing civilians will recruit new terrorists. Again and again.