Dropping bombs won’t rid us of Islamic State

Bethan Jenkins outlines some of the issues that parties will need to consider ahead of any discussion of air strikes against ‘Islamic State’.

What is the primary purpose of a weapon? What is it that we hope to achieve by using them? They’ve been involved in everything from Leylandii disputes to the nuclear destruction of whole cities, but their reason for being has driven their development from bone clubs to Predator drones.

Quite simply, they are there to put down the opponent before he (or she) does the same). They are there to help us get our retaliation in first. That is the reason that today’s multi-million-pound weapons deliver their payloads unseen and unannounced.

Therefore, when there is talk of deploying troops with weapons, we have to ask – who is the enemy, and where are they?

It seems a simplistic consideration. But it is hugely important that we ask such fundamental questions about their use because what violent jihadism has brought us over the past 15 years is a new kind of warfare – a warfare which threw the rulebook away and in which we cannot, using any measure of the meaning, claim to have triumphed.

A lot of our political leaders are this week getting ready to forget Sun Tzu and the wealth of strategy and tactics that have informed the winning of wars down the centuries. Because even though the UN resolution passed on Friday cleared the way for action, it did not invoke Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which allows military action in order to restore peace and security.

What should now follow is dialogue between the Prime Minister and other parties. This gives a prime opportunity for parties such as Plaid Cymru to ask the difficult questions we should always be asking before soldiers are committed to putting their lives on the line. Not only should we be asking questions such as whether David Cameron should push for that stronger resolution, we shouldn’t we be cowed into accepting what the Government is proposing, simply because the political climate – and the media – are behind it.

Even on the face of it, the proposition seems quite absurd: following a series of horrific attacks in Paris by men who were mostly French or Belgian nationals, the governments of the West are preparing to bomb the Middle East.

The connection is, of course, Daesh – Islamic State, which later said it was responsible for the attacks. Investigators are still trying to ascertain whether this was indeed the case (Islamist organisations have a long history of claiming outrages – sometimes dozens for any single incident), yet Francois Hollande, David Cameron and others have decided that it is to Syria where we must look for blame.

This is justified with talk of “cutting off the snake’s head”. But the creature that Daesh most closely resembles is mythical: the Lernaean Hydra. According to Heriod’s account, this many-headed creature couldn’t be defeated by Heracles’ orthodox approach to combat. Each time he lopped off one head, another two would grow in its place. In the end, he had to go outside of the rules to find a way to overcome – so far outside that ultimately it was not counted as one of Heracles 10 Labours.

Heracles first gathered what information he could about the Hydra, then engaged, assessed, withdrew and returned with a new and, ultimately, successful approach. You don’t see that happening with our governments. Aerial bombing without the use of ground forces has its roots in the Vietnam War. Its attractions to politicians in office are clear, allowing as it does for them to look tough while minimising the risk of bodybags on our side, to the point where it is not really a consideration.

But where’s the evidence that this strategy has helped defeat our enemies? Or, if it worked in the past, why would it work with Daesh? And how would it defeat those jihadists who – like Paris, like the 7/7 bombings – were born in the country that they have attacked? One feature that links those two attacks with the Madrid bombings in 2004 is that the participants were all aggrieved by Western involvement in the Middle East. Would further bombing of the Middle East dissuade those men and women?

These are questions that need to form part of the national debate in the run-up to any decision. Just how fit-for-purpose are our plans? When you consider that it won’t take violent Islamists off the internet and it won’t stop UK and other Western-born Muslims from seeking them out and becoming radicalised online, that answer has to be no. This will not solve this problem. More importantly, it won’t prevent a further attack.

In that light, bombing Syria becomes the populist’s response. There are plenty of people on social media who say the response should be “nuke ‘em”. But nuke who? And where? Brussels?

The idea that we’ll just get lucky and take out the one person without whom Daesh would throw down their Kalashnikovs and go home is myth. As Peter Hitchens – not a man I frequently quote – pointed out last week: “There is no mastermind sitting in a cage issuing orders. That is James Bond fantasy.”

Anyone who wants to carry out an Islamic State-inspired attack – or al-Qaeda-inspired before it – doesn’t need to undertake a trip to Syria. They don’t need to meet with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They don’t need a secret radio under their bed, dead letter boxes, or Jason Bourne’s access to false passports. It takes one or two radicalised young men, a kitchen knife, a mobile phone with a YouTube app and a restaurant or bar full of unsuspecting customers.

In the few days since the Paris attacks, the French government has claimed it is already rolling back Islamic State. On the other side, there are reports of hundreds of civilians dying in these bombing raids. To be honest, I doubt all sides. There’s too many people and organisations with too many vested interests reliant upon our belief and support. Like Heracles, Hollande should withdraw, assess and adjust where necessary. He should share his findings with those he wants to join him, including the UK, before we take any vote on military action.

The real enemy here is not Islamic State. That is just the latest incarnation of an idea we have been trying to deal with for close to two decades. The problem with ideas is that they have no weapon to destroy, and no body to kill. Once we realise that – and once we also realise that the so-called ‘War on Terror’ is a battle against a concept – then it follows that we have to look to other, non-military solutions, such as improving education and opportunity in the Middle East, and combatting exclusion here in the UK.

No one would believe this is straightforward, but I’d be prepared to bet that it would cost less than the price of the ordnance that we are considering dropping on the heads of some of the most wretched people on Earth. And, given the complexity of the Middle East, and our current involvement even in Syria, where we are now in cahoots with the Assad (whose troops’ ferocity matches that of Daesh), who really believes there is an easy answer?

Bethan Jenkins is the Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for South Wales West. She has previously been chair of the National Assembly’s Cross-Party Group on Human Rights and Peace.

13 thoughts on “Dropping bombs won’t rid us of Islamic State

  1. There’s so much wrong with this it’s hard to know where to start!

    “The real enemy here is not Islamic State. That is just the latest incarnation of an idea we have been trying to deal with for close to two decades.”

    Two decades… Never heard of the ‘Gates of Vienna’ then? 1683 – I think that’s more than a couple of decades ago…

    I would say we’ve been trying to deal with it since around 623AD – the only difference is that now it’s coming to a street near you. Maybe that’s what it needs to bring you, and your fellow dreamers, to their senses? The ghazva (attack) in Safar against the infidels in Paris, like so many others, follows a pattern – this is current and probably explains it better than most:


    You appear to be ignorant of history and living in cuckoo land. The real question is – whose side are you on? The enemy within are not all fully paid up Islamists.

  2. There is a figure-head associated with ‘Islamic State’, and he is al- Baghdadi. IS do have weapons, and money to buy more of them. At least some of the Syrian people have wanted Western countries to help them militarily for a number of years now. Neither the US nor Britain, have, nor have had, their publics’ support for a more risky ground war. In part, we don’t see Syria’s problems as being any of our problem. IS is at least as ferocious as Assad’s forces, but was gaining significant ground against Assad’s, until Russia stepped in to help secure certain regions still controlled by him, and valuable to him. IS’ internet capabilities could perhaps be interrupted. But a portion of their communications is handled by people living in other countries, sharing the regular internet platforms. The ideology, such as it is, is spread by the general public, who share their opinions with each other. It doesn’t take much for some simplistic, extreme views, to become common knowledge and commonplace, especially when backed by some terrorist attacks, and photos depicting violence, and stereotype imagery. We certainly never hear of IS’ plans or even their considered views on the development of a caliphate state. While it would be desirable for the Middle East to have better education, and better opportunities, that is a big region, composed of several countries, none of which are ours. What’s more, Syria had schools, and jobs. I agree that residents of the UK ought to have equal opportunities regardless of their ethnicity or religion, but I wouldn’t necessarily agree that currently they don’t have them. People of Indian descent for example, often seem to do very well at school, and in jobs and business. Perhaps time will make a difference, as Muslim people in the UK settle in and do as well as other people here. What won’t help, is propaganda that encourages them to think badly of their lives in the UK. As for bombing in Syria – like all wars, it will kill civilians. It won’t by itself eradicate to negligible, the existence of IS, or of other groups who use terrorism, but with other strategies, it might make the emergence of good governance possible, long before it might otherwise emerge. There have also been reports that air attacks have been coordinated with local forces on the ground.

  3. Thank you for that succinct and accurate description of the current situation, Bethan. It’s ‘compassionate action’ that’s needed, not ‘war’, in order to prevent terrorism of the kind that is happening currently on European soil..

    It’s been said that there is little we as individuals can do from afar except show our support and solidarity for the people of Paris. However, I think there is much that we can do in our home communities and in our own lives.

    Firstly, we can all reflect on whether there is anyone towards who we feel hatred, fear or a wish to harm, and do whatever inner work is going to help to free us of that poison.

    Secondly, we can think of any groups or individuals in our own communities who are excluded, oppressed or ostracised, and take action to build bridges of support and understanding with them.

    Thirdly, we can make contact with the Muslim community closes to us in whatever way seems appropriate, to discuss the possibility for unity and collaboration and a shared public expressions horror and sadness that human beings of any cultural background can be capable of carrying out such acts as occurred in Paris. Acts which, by the way, are routine in times of war but the horror of which is brought clearly home to us when it happens on our own streets in peacetime.

    There can be NO justification for such acts, but so that we can take effective action to try to prevent or limit anything similar, we MUST make attempts to understand what deformation of the mind can make it possible for young men to behave like that while believing they are supporting a just cause and doing ‘god’s will’? What distortions of the truth have they been fed? What desperate unmet need for meaning and acceptance must they be seeking to be susceptible to the twisted messages of hate generated by the leaders of a movement like IS?

    If we are serious about wanting change rather than descending into the abyss of an endless and intractable war of ideologies, resulting in death and destruction with no hope of ‘victory’ we have to be asking these questions urgently now, and acting on whatever understanding we can gain.

    While the reaction of the French government in wanting to ‘eradicate’ IS is understandable in the light of their pain, fear and perhaps a sense of powerlessness, alongside the need to ‘do something’ as a response to the abhorrent attacks in Paris and elsewhere, it seems to me tragic and even absurd for them, and even more so our own government, to make belligerent threats of ‘war’ and ‘killing’ and ‘destruction’ against IS when that is exactly what the IS leaders welcome and want. It means IS have succeeded in getting us to follow their life-negating agenda in a way that will ensure them a continuing stream of desperately misguided young recruits.

    As well as doing everything in our power to prevent any attacks against our citizens, using every security measure in our power, we should be trying to understand what attracts young people to the psychopathic philosophy and actions of IS, and taking every step possible to address and prevent that by providing alternative ways for these recruits to express themselves and feel valued in their communities and their society. Without enthusiastic members, IS and its leaders will be reduced to nothing more than the toxically damaged individuals that they are, and we can take real steps towards building the mutually tolerant and peaceful world that we all owe to our children.

  4. While it is good to see that there are still people in public life who can quote Sun Tzu and Hesiod, the essential problem is in the very title of the organisation which Bethan chairs: we are all in favour of peace and we are all in favour of human rights, but what do we do when we must choose between them?

    There can be no human rights in large parts of Syria and Iraq so long as IS remain in control of them – and they are obviously not going to go peacefully.

    The Obama Administration’s policy of basically ignoring the situation has not worked. The fact that IS are now on the offensive in Europe and elsewhere has reminded us of the lesson we learnt the hard way from Afghanistan in 2001: we cannot allow terrorists a secure base from which to plan and organise attacks. The theory of why this is so was developed by another student of Sun Tzu, Chairman Mao, who also demonstrated it in practice.

    So just doing nothing is no longer an option – if it ever was.

    The article is right about one thing: simply dropping a few bombs is not an answer. For a start, any air strikes have to be co-ordinated with efforts on the ground. That may mean choosing between two unpalatable options, the deployment of Western infantry or a working arrangement with Assad’s army. On a broader level, diplomatic action has to involve all the major players, including Assad and Russia. Above all, the military and the diplomatic must be co-ordinated with the political, even the cultural. We in the West really need to be asking ourselves, perhaps before anything else, what we really want out of all this in the end. Only then will we have a coherent ideological answer to IS.

  5. Bethan is right to draw the analogy of a Hydra and to identify the problem as being essentially ideological. I think she needs to review the history however. This problem is far older than two decades. The West was arming the Jihadists in Afghanistan more than 30yrs ago and Lawrence of Arabia was allied to the Wahabis a century ago.
    Nevertheless Bethan points her finger at the problem but she does not define it. Still less does she confront that ideology. Yes we can all agree that killing people for their belief or lack of belief is wrong. However few politicians are ready to argue that it is wrong to justify that killing and even sanctify it. It cannot be compatible with a free society to believe that those who change their religion or deny any religion should be killed. And yet we do tolerate such thoughts and we even call countries, which set such ideas in law, our friends and allies. How far can you tolerate the intolerant?

  6. We have to be wary of the potential power-brokers who might have sat back and spawned the creation of the monsters and demons that we are now attacking. It is less than a century since the demise of the Ottoman empire and the last Ottoman Caliphate and no doubt many in this area, still regret the demise. This is not about Islam, it is about interested parties in the conflict wanting to have power and perhaps achieve some restoration of old periods of glory. The roles that we play have be considered very carefully – the UK, France and most of the EU countries in one form or another have been here before and should be wiser for it,

    Our media has been irresponsible in naive reporting of events in the area, presenting simple good and bad options for people to side with. This whole scenario now is an unfathomable mess, with too many conflicting interests. We need to step back and take a stance that will allow us to see things more clearly in a non partisan way and then hopefully play a key role in the ultimate peacemaking.
    We cannot go into a conflict siding with so-called good rebels fighting against demonic terrorists, where we have allies in the region who are complicit in supporting the demons we will be attacking. We want an end to the brutality, but we need to be very wary that our weapons are not being used to support the true demons in the area – the creators and supporters of IS/Daesh and all their affiliates and similar.

    There are no innocent parties in this area where many minorities have long been held in total contempt, by the powerful majorities. The Allawites of Assad and Hezbollah have always been regarded as abhorrent, low life untouchables by the traditional Sunni establishment in neighbouring countries. It is amazing to think that Syria held together as well as it did, as a secular state, run by a minority for as long as it did. How we in the west have become sucked in to describing one side as good and another as bad is both shocking and bizarre to say the least. IS/Daesh was designed as an instrument to provoke outrage and disgust, but for what ultimate purpose – a state that was always doomed to fail or perhaps a forerunner or distraction for something much more sustainable and substantive?.

    There are centuries of history of genocides in this area and Turkey, an ally of ours in NATO, still refuses to acknowledge the Armenian genocide, which is now a century old – a history lesson that should make everyone looking on be very concerned at what is developing.

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. I helped Bethan put this piece together and as she’s in the middle of the Historic Environment Bill, she’s asked me to respond.

    Kevin Bates succinctly sums up the problem – how do you defeat an enemy whose ranks continue to swell? Former military colleagues of mine told have me how, in Afghanistan, gun battles would go on for hours because once the firefight was under way, farmers and other people nearby would often go home to fetch their Kalashnikovs and join in. The lessons from Afghanistan – and as far back as successful counter-insurgency campaigns such as Malaya – should be considered ahead of aerial bombing, whose effectiveness – as pointed out in the piece – remains in question.

    John R Walker – anyone who confuses Islamism with Islam and then resorts to “either you’re with us or you’re against us” Dubya-isms already knows they have no argument.

    Alice expands on the new kind of warfare point by highlighting how sharing content has helped Daesh bring the fight to Europe. That has to be a new headache for our security apparatus. Regarding education and other non-military responses, of course this needs a great deal more thinking through (we didn’t really have the space here to expand on it). Yes, Syria had schools, but as you point out the war has continued for several years without anyone doing anything about it, seriously damaging or destroying the country’s infrastructure in the process. In addition, the war in neighbouring Iraq has played a significant part in IS’ expansion (and the absurd Taliban-esque governance they have brought with them, which would have closed many schools). Of course, many Muslims settle very successfully in this country. But we are seeing second, third or fourth generation Muslims that are becoming radicalised. The question is – why? Answer that question before arming our warplanes.

    John Winterson Richards raises another big dilemma – a moral one, of when to act? As I and others have said, this war has gone on for some time without intervention from the West. It is only now that it has fetched up on our door that we’re doing something about it (beyond drone strikes on individuals), so I don’t really know why the atrocities being visited upon the people of Syria is worse now than it was three years ago. But the question posed in this piece remains: Will bombing deal with IS? Our contention is that IS’ power comes not from its on-the-ground military strength, or even from its obscene ideology. It comes from the easy way in which its senseless style of attacks can be emulated. I would certainly agree that we need concerted diplomatic efforts alongside any military action.

    I don’t think Jon Owen Jones is right in arguing that the actions of Daesh are not condemned and in some instances are even excused or condoned in some political quarters. We considered this but decided that, given that the whole world has unequivocally condemned the Paris attacks, we felt that it was more useful to focus fully on the issues surrounding the bombing of Syria. How far do we tolerate the intolerant – this is a debate that is likely to go on as long as people have the right to debate it. I think it’s a given that this is a slippery slope and we need to ensure that in upholding values of freedom and choice, we don’t erode them through intrusive surveillance and over-powerful, unaccountable government. My own view – as it was some years ago when a Christian hate preacher from the US was banned from entering the UK – is let them speak, and let us ridicule them. It’s their job to persuade. The real problem comes in identifying why they are inspiring others. I think that’s the crucial question.

    Aledf examines the history of the region and our involvement in it and there’s no doubt that it is far from a record to be proud of. Not sure I hold with any neo-imperialist arguments (if that is what is inferred), but there is no doubt that bombing (quite apart from its capacity for indiscriminate killing) lacks the kind of finesse and light touch required for a solution here.

    Once again, thanks to everyone.

  8. Duncan, I didn’t say that the actions of IS weren’t being condemned. I drew a distinction between the actions and the ideology that justifies that action. It is the later that is often not confronted.Your comments are a further example of this.

  9. May I attempt a summary of the points on which (nearly) everyone agrees?
    We need to contest and defeat murderous Jihadism. That’s not just ISIL/Daesh but Al Shabab, Boka Haram and numerous Al Qaeda affiliates. The recent bombing in Mali was not a Daesh operation. A first step in ths fight is removing ISIS/Daesh from control of large expanses of territory in Syria and Iraq, though that is only a first step. It has to be done by military means but those means should not provide a propaganda coup to other jihadists around the world. That means doing the job with forces consisting largely of muslims (a “crusader” army would land us back in another Afghanistan type mess). And it means not incurring thousands of avoidable civilian casualties. Bombing without ground forces will not remove ISIS/Daesh and it will cause lots of civilian causualties, Launching a bombing campaign without ground troops therefore is not a policy it; is an emotional spasm. Until we can put together a coalition of ground forces, bombing is counter-productive. Refusing to talk to Assad just shows we are not serious or living in a fantasy world. No coalition of forces is viable without the Syrian army. Churchill allied with Stalin, whom he hated on every level, to defeat Hitler. Then. job done, he became a cold war warrior. The fundamental things apply: my enemy’s enemy is my friend; one fight at a time.
    All the other hearts and minds measures that Bethan mentions are necessary too. It isn’t either treat Muslims with respect and try to remove grievances or crush ISIS/Daesh. It’s both. References to the Ottoman siege of Vienna are idiotic. We were at war with France in 1815. Couldn’t be more irrelevant.

  10. Duncan,

    Nice article – I wasn’t really referring to imperialism, but maybe I went around te houses and didn’t et to t point. I was really thinking that many of our allies in the area are not as committed to the defeat of IS as we tend to present. We in the west have collectively condemned the Assad government, which we now refer to as regime and we are seemingly taking sides with the Sunni majority views of the area.

    We use the usual rhetoric of these sorts of conflicts in referring to the free Syrian army etc and it all smacks to much of engineering public opinion in our countries and we are oversimplifying the situation. I refer to us in te west as countries that should no better, meaning we should understand the complexities a lot better than the rhetoric suggests and overtly supporting one viewpoint will negate any chance we have of being involved as ultimate peacemakers in the region.

  11. Jon, It’s my understanding that there is some disagreement as to Daesh’s ideological roots, with various commentators ascribing their approach to Sunni militancy, Wahhabism, various Jihadist thinking and Islamism as devised by Sayyib Qutb and others, to which bin Laden and al-Qaeda subscribed.

    I strongly suspect it’s a combination of them all, with fighters coming from different countries and different circumstances. It certainly isn’t clearly defined by IS’ leadership. Either way, all of these strains have been condemned by the overwhelming majority of Muslims as a violent misrepresentation of their faith, and most people – ourselves included – agree with that.

  12. Duncan the belief that it is justifiable to kill unbelievers, apostates and homosexuals is common to all the groups you sight. Furthermore it is legislated for in many Islamic countries. Whilst the action is often condemned the belief system rarely is. I am not an Islamic scholar and I suspect neither are you. Your comforting assertion that all this is a violent misrepresentation of faith is less than convincing(unless you desperately seek convincing). A more tolerant Islam needs an ideological reformation or renewal.

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