Will defeating Islamic State take more than a generation?
US General (Ret.) John Allen recently said that it will take “a generation or more” to defeat the Islamic State (IS) movement. He is the senior American envoy for the coalition fighting the radical Muslim organization. One may assume that what Allen means by such a statement is that he predicts that IS will be holding onto territory for a long time. If it were to lose control of all its land, its existence would then become a problem of terrorism rather than being a military one. Allen added that if IS is not defeated it would wreak havoc on the world order.
It seems bizarre that anybody would choose to make such long-term forecasts, the more so as earlier this year, US President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a three-year military campaign.
General Allen’s remarks, whether realistic or not, can serve for more detailed reflection on what it would mean if IS controlled territory of a substantial size in say 20 years from now. This would indeed have a major impact on the world order, or better said, world disorder. It would also have particular consequences for the Muslim world, the West, Russia and many other countries. Israel and the Jews, though minor players, would be affected by the global impact and by possible targeted attacks by IS.
As far as the Muslim world is concerned, the Arab Spring has already added Libya, Yemen and Syria to the roster of failed countries. The continued existence of IS may cause Iraq and possibly other countries to be added to that list. As IS is an extremist Sunni movement, it is directly opposed, with no inclination to compromise, to Shi’ite Muslims. The longer IS lasts, the greater the threat to the Shi’ites.
That would mean that eventually IS would likely confront Iran, the leading Shi’ite country. Iran has been an international troublemaker and hardly any external forces have reacted to it militarily in the current century. The more powerful IS becomes, the more it will have to challenge Iran in as many ways as possible. As IS also opposes the Sunni countries presently ruled by various royal families, the instability in these countries would increase substantially as well. The same is true concerning Egypt.
For the West, the threats would be of a varying nature.
A prime concern is Europe’s dependency on Arab countries for its oil supply. Instability in oil-producing countries, such as Iraq and Libya, has been dealt with so far without great trouble. Instability in Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern suppliers may have a much bigger effect. A shortage of energy supplies would exacerbate the already existing problem that the next generation in the West will be less well off than the present one.
A second repercussion for the West would be a possible increase in terrorism. In the previous century, terrorist acts perpetrated by Muslims in Europe were often carried out by non-Europeans. One example is the murderous attack on the Goldenberg restaurant in Paris in 1982. Of a far greater dimension were the 9/11 murders in the United States by Saudis.
In the new century, however, terrorist attacks in Europe committed by Muslims have shifted in nature, with many of the perpetrators being EU residents. That was partly the case in the huge 2004 Madrid attack. It was certainly so in the 2005 London murders, the killings of French soldiers and Jews by Mohamed Merah in 2012, the murders in front of the Brussels Jewish Museum in 2014, and the killings in Paris and Copenhagen earlier this year. Similarly, domestic Muslim terrorism manifested itself in the US, with the Boston marathon bombing in 2013, for instance.
So far, IS’ calls for Western Muslims to carry out terrorist acts in their countries of residence have not made much impact. There is a greater fear of terrorism from European jihadis returning from Syria and Iraq, but so far, violence originating from them has materialized only to a limited extent.
The lack of results from IS’ calls for murder may bring with it a shift back toward terrorist attacks perpetrated by foreign jihadists. There have been threats and rumors of having them brought into Europe amongst the boat refugees arriving from Libya, or smuggled through the Balkans. Some foreign jihadists may have already immigrated, but this has not yet led to any incidents. Yet if we speak about decades of sizable continued IS activity, it is likely that there will be attacks from terrorists disguised as refugees.
Substantial Jihadi-caused terrorism in the West will lead to further stereotyping of all Muslims.
The previous massive influx of Muslims and its ensuing social problems, including the lack of successful integration, has already led to the rise and/or growth of anti-Islam nationalistic parties in various countries.
These include Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands, the Swedish Democrats, and above all, France’s Front National. Substantial Muslim terrorism is not only likely to increase the popularity of these parties but will influence the positions of other parties, who will have to compete for the votes of those with harder positions regarding Islam.
What would all this mean for Jews living abroad? Not much good. Attacks on others are often followed by attacks on Jews. This was true for the Merah, the Charlie Hebdo and the Copenhagen killings.
In this unforeseeable complex future, what can a small country such as Israel do? It must improve its intelligence structure and be very flexible in its policies.
The threats are substantial. Israel may find itself with IS or other terrorist organizations on all its borders.
There may also be, however, a number of opportunities.
No other country has accumulated as much experience in effectively fighting Muslim terrorists of various kinds as Israel. Israeli know-how in this field is already in demand and that is only likely to increase.
This fact is not well-publicized, but in future it should be, to improve Israel’s image with the Western mainstream populations.
A second opportunity may lie in Israel using the anti- IS sentiment in the West to highlight that the majority Palestinian faction, Hamas, is not very different from IS. Israel hasn’t done much about this until now, but at the same time, the grounds for response from the West have been far less fertile than they may become in the future.
A third opportunity for Israel could be the possible change in political alliances in the Middle East. Some Arab states might consider that whatever hatred they promote of Israel to be less beneficial than allying themselves with Israel against IS, which has become a real threat to many Arab states. A recent poll showed that Saudis consider Iran to be their largest threat, followed by IS, and that Israel ranks third.
All these are very rough hypotheses. Strategists, however, need a point of departure when contemplating the future. If IS will indeed last a generation or more, we are currently at a very early stage in its life-cycle. Even if only part of these hypotheses are accurate, they could be helpful in developing successful strategies for Israel’s future.
The author’s recently published book, The War of a Million Cuts, analyzes how Israel and Jews are delegitimized, and how one can fight these attempts at delegitimization.