ISIL planted a bomb on a Russian civilian airliner, killing everyone aboard, which Russia finally acknowledged this week. ISIL was behind the gun and bomb attacks in Paris that killed 129 and injured hundreds. On Wednesday, ISIL bragged about bringing down the Russian airliner, threatened the U.S. including New York (as they had previously threatened Washington), and beheaded two hostages, one Norwegian and the other Chinese.
So ISIL has very quickly made direct enemies of France and Russia, and now China, and threatened the U.S. France has declared war on ISIL, though perhaps not formally yet. Russia has vowed vengeance, and now so has China.
This kind of thing didn't happen in the 20th century or even earlier in this century. Before this, even a terrorist group would try to play off one major power against another, or divide them in some way, or at least seek an ally willing to provide funds, arms and safe havens to befuddle their adversaries, or just their competition.
ISIL is not doing that. Already the enemy of a number of countries in the Middle East, ISIL seems to be waging war on the nation state itself. If not the concept, then the nation states as currently organized. But for all intents and purposes: the nation state.
This takes what has been dubbed asymmetric warfare to its logical conclusion. ISIL's most potent symbol so far is the soda can bomb which it claims brought down the Russian airliner.
Meanwhile, the President of France is declaring total war, vowing to eradicate ISIL. But reports so far suggest that France's only international action, its air strikes, have not been very effective. Same with Russian air strikes, which seem to kill as many civilians and ISIL's enemies as they do ISIL fighters.
ISIL seems to be trying to exploit the weakness of the nation state, which is political. Nations can protect their citizens, though not absolutely. Most analysts believe that for example the U.S. is pretty well protected against ISIL attacks--see here and here and here and here-- but since 9/11 the terrorist's greatest weapon is the suicide attack, so it is always possible. Otherwise, domestic gun massacres have killed far more Americans than terrorists, especially if 9/11 is excepted.
But nations cannot tolerate the political cost of being shown up and terrorized. Anger and fear are natural, but politicians feed hysteria, they bluster and turn against each other. National unity is weakened or exposed as a house of cards. Or conversely, a virtual dictatorship is the source of temporary unity, often engaging in suicidal violence.
Russia has vowed vengeance, China has vowed justice, and France has vowed eradication. Depending on how those terms are defined, Russia and China have a shot. France has little chance. ISIL can invite their violent ire because it doesn't care how many innocent people get killed when it is attacked. Innocent death is another recruiting tool. Meanwhile, they have inspired bluster and the appearance of impotence from nation states who have no model for fighting them.
The only leader so far who has spoken the grim reality is President Obama (as Ryan Lizza noted in the New Yorker.) In his press conference, after describing all that the U.S. has done in counter-terrorism and diplomacy, etc. he said:
" And keep in mind that we have the finest military in the world and we have the finest military minds in the world, and I’ve been meeting with them intensively for years now, discussing these various options, and it is not just my view but the view of my closest military and civilian advisors that that would be a mistake -- not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before, which is, if you do not have local populations that are committed to inclusive governance and who are pushing back against ideological extremes, that they resurface -- unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.
And let’s assume that we were to send 50,000 troops into Syria. What happens when there’s a terrorist attack generated from Yemen? Do we then send more troops into there? Or Libya, perhaps? Or if there’s a terrorist network that’s operating anywhere else -- in North Africa, or in Southeast Asia?
So a strategy has to be one that can be sustained. And the strategy that we’re pursuing, which focuses on going after targets, limiting wherever possible the capabilities of ISIL on the ground -- systematically going after their leadership, their infrastructure, strengthening Shia -- or strengthening Syrian and Iraqi forces and Kurdish forces that are prepared to fight them, cutting off their borders and squeezing the space in which they can operate until ultimately we’re able to defeat them -- that’s the strategy we’re going to have to pursue."
It's important to note that ISIL's war on the nation state is not its primary goal. ISIL is at war with everyone and everything that isn't ISIL. It wars against other terrorist groups (as its lethal attacks recently in Lebanon) and specifically other religions as well as other sects. In its destruction of ancient monuments, it is at war with the past and with cultures it hasn't invented.
With several of its known leaders killed in recent weeks, it's not clear if this latest flurry is a sign of strength or desperation. But at the moment, ISIL has the nation state flailing.
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