How to defeat Islamic State


Malcolm Nance

I make some big claims for the power of competing truths to shape the reality of politics, climate change, economics and much else besides.  But could competing truths help do what the US and other Western militaries seem unable to do: defeat and destroy Islamic State?

Malcolm Nance is an American counter-terrorism expert, a former naval officer, spy and torture-resistance instructor who became famous in 2007 for writing that “waterboarding is torture… period.”  He has now published a book,  Defeating ISIS, in which he argues that we should be using ideology to fight ideology, recasting how the many Muslims who support and supply Islamic State (IS) see the organization.

Currently, Islamic State is able to claim it really is a state because on the map of the Middle East it seems to control a large swathe of territory across northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq:


That landmass is bigger than many recognised states, and for the people who live within it, Islamic State is the unchallenged sovereign power. But in fact, as Nance points out, Islamic State really controls a “constellation” of towns and cities in otherwise largely uninhabited desert, linked by roads and other lines of communication.  His point is better (but still not perfectly) illustrated in this map:


This out-of-date New York Times map may give a more accurate sense of the real IS territory:


Nance argues that we can “disrupt the narrative” of Islamic State being “this oval of a nation state that has been carved out of” Iraq and Syria, by breaking those lines of communications.  He reckons this could be done by parachuting in small insurgent forces to take over particular stretches of highway; then, when IS fighters are forced to come out of the towns to combat those insurgents, using aerial bombardment to obliterate them.  IS would thus be revealed to control only a string of municipalities, not a broad territory.

Having challenged the “State” part of Islamic State’s identity, Nance goes on to challenge the “Islamic” part.  He sees IS not as radical Islamic extremists like Hezbollah, but as an Islamic cult.  And he defines cultism as the “corruption of a mainstream religion for personal or political purposes”. He sets out numerous ways in which Islamic State doctrine departs from traditional Islam, including the practice of Takfir, the declaration that someone is an unbeliever and is no longer Muslim (with perilous consequences for that individual’s health).  Nance argues that, through the “megaphone” of mainstream Islam, anti-IS forces should be broadcasting the message that “ISIS’s belief system endangers your soul” and that “having contact with them is like having contact with demons”.   By challenging the Islamic credentials of IS, Nance believes, we can starve them of popular support and so undermine the foundations of their power.

The Economist last week explored a similar vein, with an article subtitled “Can the beliefs that feed terrorism be changed”?  A jihadist, the writer suggests, sees the world divided into two categories of places:

  • Dar al-Islam, the realm where Islam prevails
  • Dar al-Harb, where the enemies of Islam are found

Under such a binary framework, the jihadist will have little qualm about attacking those not living in Dar al-Islam.  But in Islam, other options exist beyond these two categories, including:

  • Dar al-Dawa: the “abode of invitation”, where Islam can be freely practised even though it is not the majority faith
  • Dar al-Ahd: the “abode of contract”, a place that lives in established peace with Muslims

Given these further options, the susceptible jihadist or IS sympathiser might look at the West, with its generally liberal attitude to faith and religious practice, through a quite different lens.

Both The Economist and Malcolm Nance also advocate likening Islamic State to an ancient Islamic sect, the Khawarij (meaning “the outsiders”), a group that assassinated a caliph and practised Takfir. According to Nance, members of Islamic State really hate being compared to the Khawarij – and that must be a good thing.


“Charity millions ‘going to Syrian terror groups'” claims Telegraph in data-free shock

Disasters Emergency Committee - give with conf...

Disasters Emergency Committee – give with confidence (Photo credit: HowardLake)

The Telegraph, a respectable British national newspaper, has today run an alarmist headline on its front page suggesting that several million pounds donated to Britain’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC, whose members include the British Red Cross and Oxfam) for humanitarian relief in Syria have instead gone to terrorists.  Can it possibly be true?

Let’s first deal with those weaselly inverted commas in the headline.  These are conventionally used by journalists to indicate that a claim has been made by someone else; the newspaper is only reporting what has been said.  Yet nowhere in the article is anyone reported to have uttered the words “going to Syrian terror groups” — those quote marks are being abused.  More importantly, no one mentions “millions” of pounds.  The people quoted in the article speak of “some” money going to extremist groups (William Shawcross, chairman of the Charity Commission),  “stuff” being “diverted” (Peter Clarke, former head of anti-terrorism at the Metropolitan Police) and “some charitable aid” being “diverted to terrorists in Syria” (Robert Halfon MP).  No one, other than the Telegraph apparently, feels able to quantify the amount of cash being mislaid.

It is surely inevitable that in the chaos of the Syrian civil war some charitable funds will go astray.  Who honestly believes that doesn’t happen even in peaceful places like Kenya, Nigeria and Pakistan (all of which have Islamic militant groups ready to scoop up errant cash)?  It could be a few thousand pounds.  It could be tens of thousands.  Who knows?  Certainly not the Telegraph.  The “millions” of their headline derives from the £20 million the DEC has heroically raised in its Syria Crisis Appeal.  But as far as we can tell from all the statements reported, none of the experts are suggesting the share ending up in the wrong hands is anywhere near that large.  In fact most of them talk of risks and possibilities rather than known facts:

There is a risk that funds raised in the name of ‘charity’ generally or under the name of a specific charity are misused to support terrorist activities, with or without the charity’s knowledge

individuals supporting terrorist activity might also claim to work for a charity and trade on its name and legitimacy to gain access to a region or community

It is perfectly feasible for charities to be established as a sort of cover

You can think of a host of different ways in which people giving money with the best possible intentions could find that it has been misappropriated

Informed speculation possibly, but speculation nonetheless.  Not one word directly quoted justifies the Telegraph headline.

The problem is that such headlines are bound to put people off giving money to reputable charities helping desperate Syrian civilians.  Yet we can’t accuse the Telegraph of any falsehood.  Their headline might be true.  We simply don’t know.  All we do know is that they have presented no evidence for it, and none of the experts they quote said anything like it.  Such sensationalist truth-bending tactics are to be expected from the tabloids — the Daily Mail is guilty of almost exactly the same misrepresentation — but the Telegraph ought to know better.

Donate to DEC’s Syria Appeal here

Chemical red line

Syria-Homs- KArmAlzyton 23-2-2012

Syria-Homs- KArmAlzyton 23-2-2012 (Photo credit: FreedomHouse)

“The Syrian government has crossed President Obama’s red line.”

It’s a curious kind of truth, isn’t it?  Artificial, in a sense, like an agreed rule in a game: if a player rolls a double six then he/she gets an extra turn.  In this case it’s taken a great deal of work to prove the double six was indeed rolled, and the conclusion has been rather muddied by the suggestion that the other player may also have rolled a double six, but nevertheless the umpire who set the rule has now ruled: an action has occurred and therefore a reaction should follow.

There are good legal reasons for the red line.  International law permits the use of measured force by governments against their own rebellious citizens, whereas 189 states have signed up to the Chemical Weapons Convention prohibiting the use of chemical weapons under any circumstances.  But in practical terms, it’s an irrelevance.  93,000 people have now been killed in the Syrian civil war, almost all of them by conventional gunfire, artillery and bombing.  The few who might have died of sarin poisoning (approx. 150 people) are, in the grand scheme of things, beside the point.

The most obvious truth is, surely, that the US, Britain and France are sick of watching the Assad-sponsored slaughter, are worried that the opposition are on the verge of collapse, and want an excuse to intervene more forcefully.

But after Iraq that’s not a truth that any western government can voice.  So instead, the President of the United States has to fall back on a different, arbitrary truth — about Weapons of Mass Destruction (again).