Opinion: Why bombing Islamic State will only fan the flames

The votes have been counted; Britain is off to join another war in Iraq. Declared in 2001, the fact the ‘War on Terror’ is still raging is a telling sign that the tactics are not working. When two innocent British hostages are beheaded, and videos of their execution are distributed over the internet, it is only right that there is a call for retaliation. Whilst new air strikes may succeed in restricting the movements of the Islamic State on the ground, this will only treat the symptom, overlooking the root cause of the problem. You cannot bomb terrorism out of existence. The normalization of ‘war’ is a counterproductive tactic against Islamic extremism that must be re-addressed if it is to be sufficiently quelled and eradicated in the long term.

You can’t win a War on Terror

“This war will not end until every single terrorist group has been found, stopped and defeated” – George W. Bush, 2001

Behold the Sisyphean task. Terrorism is not an actor; it is a technique to activate an idea, and you cannot destroy an idea. Victory, in an attrition type sense is impossible against an ideology. When America killed Al Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden in 2011, Islamic State’s Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was ready to take up the fight. In Afghanistan, the long struggle against the Taliban is still far from finished, and over the last ten years the failed states of Libya, Yemen and Somalia are all victims of benevolent air campaigns that failed and have since been left to rot.

Despite assurances, many detect a ‘mission-creep’ that an air campaign will naturally evolve into boots on the ground. British Hostage, John Cantile says this is something IS “eagerly awaits[1].” For a radical nihilist ideology, a global war is what is desired; it offers a perfect opportunity for martyrdom. After 9/11, Eric Margolis believed the War on Terror “answered the prayers of Bin Laden and his associates,”[2] drawing America and the west into a long and bloody war. The subsequent 2003 Iraq invasion created a breeding ground for extremism, critically inspiring the deadly wave of ‘home grown’ terrorism with the 2005 attacks in Madrid and London.

Today IS has succeeded in luring the west into another conflict. This new found recognition as the great enemy of the west is set to provide compelling propaganda that has the grave potential to spread global jihad. Russell Brand agrees “there is a direct corollary between bombing and radicalising[3]”. Six weeks into America’s air campaign, the New York Times has reported 6,000 new recruits for IS. Away from the front line, there have already been security alerts on the New York and Paris Subways, a raid in West London to dismantle a terror plot and several text and WhatsApp ‘hoaxes’ of imminent attacks in the west[4]. This hysteria is only the beginning. If bombs do work to break up IS on the ground, this will only encourage fighters to slip back into normal society and wreak chaos in our own cities. Former enemies have also reconciled and united against another western invasion, as the Al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front, and the Pakinstani Talban have both declared their solidarity and support for IS’ struggle.

The coalition of the guilty

But this time we’re told it’s different; it has the support of an ‘Arab Coalition’ including Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and UAE. It is this Arab coalition and our continued support of corrupt regimes in the region that are a part of the problem. There are wide suspicions these trusted states have for a long time played a double hand towards extremism; stoking sectarian tensions through funding, whilst at the same time cosying up to the west for economic and military trade; deals estimated up to $60 Billion in 2012.

In particular, former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton previously raised fears that Saudi Arabia remains to be “critical source of terrorist funding[6]” for groups including al-Qaida, the Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the latter famous for the 2008 Mumbai train station massacre. Despite condemning IS, as a fellow brutal and extreme Sunni regime; Saudi Arabia, has a vested interest in the promotion of Wahhabism against rival Shia states like Iran in the region.

When it comes to Saudi Arabia, the double standards are abundant. How can we say with a straight fact, that we intend fight for freedom and democracy, in partnership with a regime that denies women rights to vote, drive, swim or even leave the house alone? Whilst the be-headings of Alan Henning, Steven Sotloff and James Foley shocked the world for their ‘barbarism’, in Saudi Arabia decapitation is the favoured method of choice for capital punishment. In August alone, Human Rights Watch estimated 19 people were beheaded publicly in ‘Chop-chop square’, Riyadh. Around 9 were for non-violent crimes such as sorcery: in other words they were innocent.[7] Despite John Kerry’s recent trip to the kingdom last month to discuss counter-terrorism, this vow of silence towards blatant human rights abuses continues.


I will repeat myself when I say if we are to stem Islamic extremism, we must treat the cause rather than the symptom. The failure to build up the right regional coalition will only undermine efforts from the outset. In addition we must also find out where Turkey and other regional powers stand in this proxy war that represents a broader, historical sectarian conflict. A stable Iraq must be forged to show that the reconciliation and integration of Sunni minorities is possible. Since Maliki’s former Iraqi government, whose division tore the country apart, brutal Shia militias continue to move unchallenged to commit their own atrocities. So long as the persecution of Sunni Muslims continues they will believe they have no choice but to turn to the Islamic State.

But without war, how can we defeat an extreme ideology? Taking the Cold War as an example, threats of conflict only exacerbated tensions. Eventually the Soviet Union broke down as its ideology was undermined from the inside. In Northern Ireland the concerns of terrorists needed to at least be listened to. Whilst I am not condoning the means by which Islamic State carry out their campaigns, it is without question that the underlying tensions for the continued waves of Islamic Extremism are associated with sectarianism but also past western imperialism and (re-branded) ‘interventionism’. Continued ‘benevolent’ military campaigns that conveniently allow the west to dominate a region that contains 55% of global oil and 45% of natural gas, at the expense of the native population does not go unnoticed. The subsequent ‘campaign of hatred’ was noticed as early as the 1950s by President Eisenhower. As such it is unwise that the people on the ground see this new war on IS as being led by the west. We should really use this moment to test the nerve of states like Saudi Arabia; if they really wish to finish IS then they should lead the campaign themselves.

Sectarian divisions, suspect ally governments and previous western transgressions must be fully addressed rather than simply carpet bombed. 50 civilians have already died, adding to the estimated 140,000 mothers, daughters, husbands, sons, brothers and sisters since 2003[8].  And we’re still waiting on the Chilcot report as well.

By Will Murray 


[1] Cited in http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/11157658/Islamic-State-eagerly-awaits-boots-on-ground.html

1 E. Margolis, cited in Chomsky, Reflections on 9/11, 2011

[3] Cited in http://stopwar.org.uk/videos/russell-brand-asks-obama-and-cameron-war-what-is-it-good-for

[4] Available at http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/tube-terror-attack-hoax-warning-london-underground-9702911.html

[6] Cited in http://www.theguardian.com/world/us-embassy-cables-documents/242073

[7] http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2014/9/5/beheadings-floggingsandamputationsjusticesaudistyle.html

[8] Figures from https://www.iraqbodycount.org

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Categories: Middle East

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