I was going to write about the future of intelligence but I just saw a nice graphic by The Economist on the spread of ISIS:
so I’ll write about them instead.
The main Economist article is http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21656690-islamic-state-making-itself-felt-ever-more-countries-how-much-influence
I won’t summarize their article about the current state of affairs; read it yourself. I can add a few comments to highlight the future though.
Surveys on Muslim attitudes to violence consistently show that most Muslims reject violence done in the name of Islam: 65-75%. That is the numeric range that describes the reality of ‘the vast overwhelming majority of peace-loving Muslims’ we see emphasized by politicians and media whenever an Islamic terrorist act occurs, two thirds to three quarters according to when and where the surveys have been done. The last high quality survey in the UK arrived at the figure 68%, comfortably in that range. The other side of the same statistics is that 32% of British Muslims stated some support for violence.
ISIS draws from that quarter or third of Muslims who are comfortable with using violent means to further or defend Islamic interests. Like the IRA in the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’, with very similar support statistics, a small number of actual front-line terrorists can rely on about a third of their host population for their support, even though those most of those people will never actually join in the actual violence. The key factors in both situations are that a group feels aggrieved about something, and some people have stepped forward to fight under the banner against that something. For the IRA, it was perceived oppression of the Catholic republican community that wanted to return to a United Ireland. For ISIS, it is initially the perceived war against Islam, even if no-one else has admitted to there being one, amplified by the dream of producing a strict, fully Islamic state that can act as a hub for stricter Islamification of other regions.
Like the IRA, ISIS offers potential glory, a perverted form of status and glamour, excitement, and even a promise of paradise to young people with otherwise few opportunities in life who want to be someone. Picking up a gun and joining jihad compares favorably to some people to standing unemployed on a street corner, surrounded by a nation of people of whom almost all are doing better than you in life.
That lack of hope is abundant and growing, but in the UK at least, it is largely self-inflicted, since immigrant Muslim communities often separate themselves from the rest of their host society and thereby the opportunities otherwise on offer. Muslims who integrate with the rest of society cope happily, but many choose not to integrate and for them, it is a spiral downwards that provides a fertile ground for radicalization. Detecting and subduing radicalization is more difficult if the underlying causes are increasing.
The Middle East has huge problems, and many of them increase hostility to the West as well as between countries in the region. That also will increase. Current income from oil will reduce greatly in the next decades as the world moves away from oil towards shale gas, nuclear and renewables for energy. As income shrinks in an already unstable environment, the number of that third willing to turn to violence will increase. Add to that better communications, growing awareness of western freedoms and lifestyles and potential for new forms of government and those pressures are amplified further.
That will increase the supply for ISIS. it is easy to manipulate attitudes in a community and turn people to violence if an oppressor can be identified and blamed for all the problems, and pretty much the entire West ticks that box if the facts are cherry-picked or omitted, distorted and spun enough in the right way by skilled marketers. ISIS are good marketers.
Extreme violence by a large enough minority can force most peace-loving people into submission. ISIS have shown quite enough barbarity to scare many into compliance, terrifying communities and making them easier to conquer long before their forces’ arrival. Many of the hopeless young people in those newly conquered territories are willing to join in to gain status and rewards for themselves. Many others will join in to avoid punishment for themselves or their families. And so it rolls on.
The West’s approach to holding them back so far has been airstrikes on front lines and drone attacks on leaders. However, ISIS is something of a cloud based leadership. Although they have a somewhat centralized base in Iraq and Syria, they make their appeal to Islamists everywhere, cultivating support and initiating actions even before they enter an area. It is easy enough to kill a few leaders but every extremist preacher everywhere is another potential leader and if there is a steady stream of new recruits, some of those will be good leadership material too.
As the Economist says, ISIS have limited success so far outside of Iraq and Syria, but that could change swiftly if critical mass can be achieved in countries already showing some support. Worldwide, Muslim communities feel a strong disconnect from other cultures, which skilled manipulators can easily turn into a feeling of oppression. Without major modernization from within Islam, and of which there is little sign so far, that disconnect will greatly increase as the rest of the world’s population sees accelerating change technologically, economically, socially, culturally and politically. With so much apparently incompatible with Islamic doctrines as interpreted and presented by many of today’s Islamic leaders, it is hard to see how it could be otherwise from increasing disconnect. The gap between Islam and non-Islam won’t close, it will widen.
ISIS welcomes and encourages that growing gap. It provides much of the increasing pressure needed to convert a discontented young person into an Islamic extremist and potential recruit. It pushes a community closer to the critical mass or resentment and anger they need.
The rest of the world can’t change Islam. No matter how much politicians try to appease Islamists, offer concessions to Muslim communities, or indeed to repeatedly assert that Islamic violence has ‘nothing to do with Islam’, the gap will grow between strict Islamic values and everyone else’s. ISIS will be guaranteed a stream of enthusiastic recruits. Those Muslims to whom stricter interpretations of their religion appeal are diluted throughout Muslim populations, they are not separate groups that live apart, that can easily be identified and addressed with outreach campaigns or surveillance. Only by reducing advocacy of strict Islamic values can the gap stop widening and begin to close. That obviously can only be done by Muslim communities themselves. Any attempt to do so by those outside of Islam would simply add to perceived oppression and act as justification towards extremism. Furthermore, that reduction of advocacy of extremist interpretations of Islam would have to be global. If it persists anywhere, then that region will act as a source of violence and a draw to wannabe terrorists.
So like most other observers, it seems obvious to me that the solution to ISIS or any other extremist Islamic groups yet to emerge has to come from within Islam. Muslims will eventually have to adapt to the 21st century. They will have to modernize. That won’t be easy and it won’t happen quickly, but ISIS and its variants will thrive and multiply until that happens.