As IS threats become ever more prevalent, David Watts urges the West to deepen its understanding of this redoubtable foe, and rethink its strategies in countering the cycle of terror.
The bodies of Abdel-Hamid Abaaoud and his partner in the St Denis, Paris flat where they made their last stand after the most devastating terrorist attack that Europe has so far witnessed lays testimony to the fact that the West has yet to understand either the ideology of the Islamic State or the sophistication of its organisation.
Both are far more substantial than the West appears to be aware, unlike other terrorist groups.
The French prime minister, François Hollande, had already declared his country ‘at war’, as if some 800 airstrikes on Syria by his air force did not constitute very much the same thing for the defenceless citizens of Syria below.
As French MPs stood to applaud the news of the terrorists’ deaths, they might as well have been lauding the brilliance, audacity and courage of the IS operation. They certainly could not show the same appreciation of their own side’s failed intelligence operation, which must rate as the most comprehensive since the last attack in the French capital, when we were told improvements would prevent against any recurrence.
The French authorities were quick to blame their fellow European governments for not warning them that the 28-year-old Belgian Abaaoud had travelled from Syria to his St Denis hideout. It was only bank transfers and telephone monitoring that had led them to the St Denis address.
To most observers, these two elements would seem to be the absolute basics of terrorism monitoring, especially when the key figure seems to have made no secret of his allegiances.
But more disturbing, once again, were the hints of complicity or at least of foreknowledge of the attack. Once identified, there was a flood of information from the authorities and, once again, the discovery of Abaaoud’s passport near his body in an apartment which had already had 5,000 rounds of ammunition fired into it. The same scenario had played out at the scene of the last Paris attack, and at 9/11. How would it be physically possible for a passport to survive intact in each case?
Certainly the credibility of French intelligence, and European policing in general, are now stretched beyond all bounds after it transpired that the mastermind of the attack had crossed at least three international borders in getting to his target. How could it be that such simple things as border checks had not picked him up on his way, unless his journey was expected?
The fact that he could do it proves that IS is no al-Qaeda with regard to its operational aspects. Its operatives are clearly well-briefed and supported in the field and there appears to be none of AQ’s rather amateur field craft.
AQ’s raison d’être lies in opposition to the West’s presence in the Middle East, especially around the Holy Sites in Saudi Arabia. There is nothing of the religious fervour that lies at the heart of IS, which is why some of the few visitors to Raqqa come away with tales of its young men constantly reciting the Koran as they walk the streets.
This is not some sort of Islamic street corner gang where all renegades are welcome, whatever their qualifications. Just to become an IS member requires Islamic credentials and a strong background in Koranic study. Its leaders could match the scholarship of many establishment figures in the Middle East who claim authority as world Islamic scholars.
This is partly where the West has been going wrong—not recognising the heartfelt religious motivation of its opponents and addressing them on that level rather than in the crude street jingo applied by Western politicians to things they don’t understand.
Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls ‘the prophetic methodology’, which means following Muhammad’s prophecies in punctilious detail.
IS believes it is destined to be central to the events of the apocalypse—the end of the world as we know it—as the Christian and Muslim worlds collide in a final denouement.
Since this event is predicted to be centred around the Raqqa area and is recorded in the Koran, no serious commentator can take issue with this central contention.
How to tackle this mess from the war front in the Middle East to the home front, which is now as much a war front as the Syrian heartland of IS has become?
The first thing is surely to make sure that each nation’s national security and legal framework is as strong as it can be and geared to catching terrorists before they can do harm. Borders must become real and heavily patrolled, despite dreams in Europe of a borderless continent which is a dangerous misconception at this moment in history.
The first contention on the international front is the obvious one but which no Western government seems able to endorse: that no amount of smart bombs and missiles can overcome a 7th century mediaeval conviction which has apparently stood the test of time. Unless those nations, of course, are willing to waste the lives of those who adhere to it on a formidable scale.
The West must learn new ways to go and communicate with those on the ground in the Middle East and show that we are willing to try and overcome the deficit in cultural, political and economic matters between the Muslims and others.
Dealing with the formidably radical IS will be a major challenge. Even finding the correct, qualified and sympathetic interlocutors willing to risk their lives to work with the West would be an exemplary achievement.
But that surely is what Westerners now need to turn their minds to: trying to take the situation forward on a practical level rather than wringing their hands over what to do next.
Such an enterprise bringing together the contending parties would require sophisticated co-operation between civilian experts, military men and intelligence on a scale not yet seen.
But surely that has got to be the way forward. The world must try and spin off this ever-accelerating wheel of terror.