Three reasons why we are losing the war with Islamic State.

Have you received the wake up call yet?

You know the one? The moment when you realized that Islamic State may in fact be a bigger challenge to the West than had previously been thought. The one when you realized that the West might actually lose this war?

Recent victories by IS in Iraq and against Assad in Syria did not provide this wake up call. The wake up call came when a 14 year old boy on social media in the UK motivated an 18 year old to plan an attack on a policeman in Australia.

IS has effectively moved the front line in the battle with the West to our own suburbs and indeed our own lounge rooms. But how has this happened and how do we stop it? Are we not only failing to win the war with IS and instead are we actually much closer to losing it?

Here are three things to ponder.

Underestimating the enemy is a sure path to defeat.

When I was a young Officer Cadet in the Australian Army one of the first things I learned was the three ways to think of your enemy. One you want and two ways you don’t. If your intelligence is precise, then it is possible to attack with just the right amount of force to destroy an enemy, but not with so much effort that you leave your flank exposed. This is a strategically good outcome. If however your army radically over-estimates the enemy’s ability, then you may be scared away from attacking at a time of vulnerability.

Alternatively you may attack with too many forces wasting resources and leaving your own flank exposed. Not such a good idea, but not devastating either.

The most dangerous thing to do is under-estimate your enemy and attack with too small a force and be destroyed yourself. This is a strategic disaster.

This is not a new concept. Going back to Sun Tzu’s ‘The Art of War’ the great thinker wrote: “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”

Now think of how our policy makers are speaking of IS. Are we getting the assessment right?

Do we see them as a well-motivated threat (we may not agree with their motivations, but they surely do) that is reaching out into our communities through social media in a clever and planned way? Or do we call them ‘crazy’, ‘zealots’ and a ‘death cult’ that implies a lack of thinking and intellect?

Consider the voice of Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East:

“We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.”

By not understanding and evaluating the IS position we have fallen into the classic trap of under-estimating the enemy as a ‘whole bunch of crazies’. By doing so we have played right into their hands and failed to learn the lesson that is thousands of years old.

Under-estimate your enemy and you WILL lose.

Stop motivating the moderates to join the radicals

Back in January I wrote in The Conversation (here) that the West’s lack of empathy is alienating moderate Muslims and in effect pushing them to the hands of the radicals.

Think from the perspective of a moderate Muslim. Charly Hebdo was a small-scale magazine that published cartoons of Mohammad, which most observers concede where understandably offensive to moderate Muslims. Moderates complained about the cartoons (rightfully) and even called for limitations on free speech for this sort of offensive material.

The extremists responded in terrible, callous, brutal and horrific way by murdering the journalists.

More or less the same time as the Charly Hebdo murders in Paris, 132 school children ranging from eight to 18, and their teachers, were murdered in Peshawar, Pakistan by extremists taking a shot at the perceived complicity with the West by the Pakistan Army. How did the moderates see the West responding to this crime?

Moderates saw over three million people marching in protest at the murder of the 12 French Journalists and demanding the sanctity of free speech. Almost nobody marched for the children. To the moderates it seemed that the right to offend Islam was overwhelmingly more important in the West than the lives of the 132 eight to 18 year olds. Tell me; how does that motivate moderates to join ‘our war’ against extremism?

Giving the weapons to the enemy

Think back to September 11, 2001. There was no Twitter. No YouTube. To join Al Qaeda one had to actually go to Yemen or Afghanistan and train with them.

The world has now changed. Out of every government, social group, business, community group around the world the one that has understood the power of social media the best, is IS. They have effectively moved the frontline of battle from the desert of Syria to keyboards in our suburbs.

To join IS a disengaged youth doesn’t have to fly to Pakistan. He or she just needs to lock the bedroom door and either motivate another kid half way around the world to blow up an ANZAC Day function, or convince her two teenage friends to go to Syria and get married to a militant.

The West might have built social media, but the Middle East is perfecting its use.

So tell me, why aren’t we clamping down on extremist use of social media at least as hard as we clamp down on child pornography? We may not be able to wipe it out, but lets bury it so deep that the 14-year-old boy or the 16-year-old girl can’t find it. So how are we going in this war?

We are under-estimating the enemy, we are pushing moderated into his recruiting queues, and we are giving him the main weapon of attack (social media) without any real action to curtail its use. We are giving the enemy the motive, the manpower and the methodology.

Back To Sun Tzu: “when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away”. 

We think IS is in Syria. They are not. They are in our suburbs. They are in our computes. They are in our lounge rooms. There are children now, today, in bedrooms planning the next pipe bomb.

How much closer do you want them to get?

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