Isis: can the west defeat them?

What a year this has been: war in the Ukraine and the Middle East, suicide bombings in Xinjiang province, Nigeria and Turkey, insurgencies from Yemen to Thailand, massacres in Paris, Tunisia and the Sinai Peninsula. Perhaps future historians will identify this period as the start of WW3 for the next war is unlikely to be as clear cut as WW1 or WW2.  World War 3 will be longer, stranger and more convoluted. The forces involved in the fighting will outrun our capacity to apprehend or even comprehend them.

After 1945, politicians thought the riddle of history had been solved by western-style democracy and a global capitalist economy that would usher in a period of worldwide prosperity and peace. As the west got richer, its economic model, its manufacturing might, would see other less-developed economies copy and follow suit.

Some outdated political thought still believes this to be the case, but the reality is that today’s world is organised at macro and micro levels to serve self-interest. The language of politics and the media could not have been clearer: money and materialism are the undisputed gods and we are in a race to stay in the lead pack. Falling behind is what the UK must not do.

In many ways pursuing self-interest is why the European Community is disintegrating. The EC doesn’t even have the capacity to develop a clear and humane policy towards one of the world’s worst ever refugee crises; guarding our own borders jealously has become the urgent priority.

But hold on, I hear you say, isn’t this supposed to be a debate about whether ISIS can be defeated? Well, I’m coming to that.

The 19th century produced some of the finest writers in the annals of literature –particularly Russian literature – Tolstoy, Pushkin, Turgenev and, most important to this argument, Dostoevsky. These writers developed quite distinct literature but the same constant theme haunted their works.

Russia had come late to the industrial prosperity and commercial expansion associated with Europe, but their education system was producing intelligent thinkers who would have thrived in modern Britain, then the exemplar state. The theme of these writers was of characters who, through no fault of their own, could never hope to match the individual freedom and personal wealth of their European counterparts.

In Paris, Dostoevsky noted that ‘liberty existed only for the millionaire’. For the poor, the common people, liberte, fraternite and egalite was a deception, an unrealisable dream.

Meanwhile, in Britain, our great writers were noting other things.

“The rich have become richer and the poor poorer while the vessel of state is driven between the Scylla and Charybidis of anarchy and despotism” Shelley wrote in the early 1800’s.

We have “a contemptible democratic oligarchy of glib economists” Coleridge said, whereas later in the 1800’s Charles Dickens despaired that cash payment was becoming the ‘sole nexus’ between human beings.

At the start of the 20th century DH Lawrence was repelled by ‘the base forcing of all human energy into a competition of mere acquisition’.

Hang on, didn’t I promise a debate about whether ISIS could be defeated?

The reference to Russian literature was an attempt to show how resentful people feel when they are in the midst of plenty in terms of wealth and freedom, but experiencing little of it themselves.

Shelley, Coleridge, Dickens and Lawrence all felt that the western way of life was devoid of spiritual content; the focus was on material gain. In short, they felt the west had gained wealth but lost its soul. Were they alive today, their conclusions would be far harsher.

Practising Muslims see that lack of a spiritual dimension in the lives of many Europeans and Americans, which is why they label them as infidels because they are not respectful of God. They pray 6 times a day where most westerners do not spend one day a week in God’s house. That is not to say that the Muslim world is not sometimes envious of the material gains they see around them.


The insurgents produced by Iraq and Syria have shocked us with their swift military victories, their brutality, especially towards women and minorities and the way they have seduced young people from the cities of Europe and the US.

The older forms of authority, American and European politicians, Arab despots, puppet rulers, have been seen as outdated and weak unable to respond effectively to a movement that has spread like an infectious disease:

Pakistan, Gaza, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, cyberhackers across the planet and even Chinese irredentists.

The British press has portrayed Isis and its offshoots as uncivilised and uncultured; indeed just last week Andrew Neill opened the BBC This Week programme with a rant against ISIS, calling them scumbags and losers, and leaving us in no doubt about the contempt in which he held them.

But is ISIS really an uncultured set of mindless thugs?

We should remember that this is a group that has taken charge of the internet, has developed sophisticated systems of collecting taxes and organising society, can master modern weaponry, more and more of which it is procuring. Uncivilised and uncultured they may be, but unintelligent they are not.

But how can a group that tells us ‘God is great’ murder suspected gays in their own communities by throwing them off buildings, feed apostates and infidels to the dogs and drown them in tanks of water, cut off hostages’ heads with pen knives, rape captured women en masse and destroy the architectural heritage so loved by the west? We are told they get a deep satisfaction from knowing that the non-Muslim world is seething with anger and hatred at these things.

They can pose the kind of threat that seriously compromises the freedoms so loved in western democracies, feeling a sense of power denied them when their forefathers were shackled by their colonial masters and the despotic rulers who were often propped up by the west. What a profound satisfaction closing down the city of Brussels for a whole week must have given them.

Isis is a force with shifting borders and anonymous, tightly-guarded leaders. They are not open to negotiation and their aims are continuously revised. Their cult has no fear of death and this makes them able to kill thousands, willingly sacrificing their own lives in order to do so.

Their training is thorough and their secret camps are impenetrable. Their funding is largely a source of mystery and their capacity for large-scale theft of oil and weaponry gives them wealth and power which to Europe and America appears unstoppable. Finding who buys their oil and who sells them weapons is a guessing game.

There is also the deadly thought that even worse atrocities are possible than those so far committed. For example, plunging a test tube of deadly bacteria into a huge reservoir – not a difficult security to breach – could cause devastation way beyond the scale of bringing down an airliner or two. It would be the easiest act of sabotage to commit and a lethal strike against an enemy population.

The one obvious cause to which ISIS might give their support is the Palestinians who are 85% Sunni Muslim. Palestine’s territories have been ruthlessly annexed by the hated Jewish state of Israel, backed largely by American might. By asking why ISIS has not thus far taken that step I would suggest we can learn some important lessons about them and the Caliphate it has established.

10 assorted reasons why ISIS came into being:

  1. The Anglo-American War on Iraq and the resultant displacement of its people
  2. The US and the UK dismantling the Iraqi Army
  3. Replacing Saddam Hussein with a Shiite regime in a largely Sunni land;
  4. The West’s dependence on the hated al-Sisi in Egypt and Al-Maliki in Iraq
  5. Incoherence over Syria. Who exactly do the West and Russia support?
  6. Assad’s cynical actions in massacring his own people
  7. Turkey’s neo-Ottomanism whereby the Turks looked to become the leading power in the Balkans rather than befriending the West. (Turkey is a secular state BUT minute’s silence at football match at weekend)
  8. The actions of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States in suppressing minorities. The Saudis are seen by Isis as being American allies.
  9. The failure of the Arab Spring because the west did not see it through (Tunisia has sent the most jihadis)
  10. The West indulging in dangerous diplomatic games with poor networks of intelligence gathering.

ISIS will always find it easy to recruit from populous countries like Pakistan and Indonesia where the younger dispossessed generation feels it has little to lose, but what accounts for their success in recruiting from the relatively affluent and stable lands – like high-achieving London schoolgirls or quiet apparently westernised families in Bradford, Luton and North London?

Isis’s control of the internet has been central to this development. Many young Muslims who live in Europe and the States take little notice of the news as it is portrayed in the western media. After all, the only deaths that seem to matter in our media are of British, Americans and Europeans with the rest of the world reduced to mere numbers. A serious train crash with fatalities in Pakistan would barely merit a mention; half a dozen killed in the US would make the front page.

Most young British Muslims are avid users of social media and their screens paint a golden picture of what life is like under the Caliphate. Young women are required as breeders of future Jihadis so they are seduced to Islamic State by portraying life in Raqqa as some kind of paradise. Many are lured there by their own family members who have gone on ahead.

On Channel 4 on Monday was a documentary which showed how young Muslim women were using twitter to link with hate preachers and to set up a network of like-minded women across London. While they talked hatred against the society in which they live at these meetings, their young children played around them in a crèche. Incredibly, the London tax-payer was funding the hire of the premises to the Muslim women as a learning and friendship circle.

Isis’s capability of controlling the internet threatens serious damage to Europe and America in the future: banking and trade, power grids, home and airport security, transport are all vulnerable if the internet falls.


We could be blind optimists and anticipate an ultimate victory for the powers of freedom. The military phenomenon that is ISIS can be degraded and destroyed. Or it could rise further, fall then rise again. The state can use its powers to impound passports, shut down websites and enforce indoctrination into ‘British values’ in schools, but is this the way to combat an outbreak of people wanting to break away from the state because of what it represents?

The origin of Isis is that it grew out of Al-Qaeda but with a different aim: to establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East and do whatever it took to achieve that. Then the concerted bombing raids by the western powers tore apart the fabric of their newly-created society; moreover, lacking bombs or air power it was a form of attack to which they had no answer. So…

They took a leaf out of Al-Qaeda’s book and went for the soft underbelly of the so-called free world. Unlike the tightly orchestrated Islamic State, the expectation of personal freedom among the population in Europe and the States is what laid them wide open to revenge attacks.

Paris was Isis’s way of responding to the appalling loss of Muslim life due to the attacks on ‘their land’. Muslims have been slaughtered in their thousands in the Caliphate by western bombing, such that the 130 innocents murdered on Friday the 13th is a drop in the ocean. In short, they wanted to give us a taste of our own medicine.

And yet the politicians demand that ISIS be wiped out by even more ferocious air power, power that will kill more civilian innocents than soldiers of Islam. For the jihadi soldiers can go to ground and save their skins, something the civilian population cannot do.

It was Victor Hugo, a Frenchman, who famously said ‘Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come’. If we believe that we can bomb into oblivion the Muslim extremists’ belief that their religious conviction is superior to anything the west has to offer then we are very mistaken. For ISIS and other extremist factions, their time has come now.

Dabiq is a small town in Syria where, according to Islamic extremists, one of the final battles will be fought between Islam and the Infidel. Dabiq is also the name for ISIS’s glossy online magazine which it publishes in 8 languages. It cannot be burned any more than the internet can be burned. Whatever military defeats ISIS is subject to, the terrorists cannot be finally defeated and crushed like Hitler was defeated and crushed. Its leadership will be re-sited, the publication of its magazine resumed.

Surely the priority in Syria at the moment is sorting out the government of that country. Rather than sanctioning another round of air strikes by another foreign power (us), the priority should be sitting round a table with the Russians to create a co-ordinated programme for replacing Al-Assad. Next would be placing a significant army of troops on the ground – virtually a UN force – that can strike at ISIS more accurately and effectively, targeting the military rather than blanket bombing.

Is this a religious war? Yes and no. It is not one religion pitted against another. ISIS believes that all rules and government should come from Allah and that democracy is an abomination because men are attempting to do what should be Allah’s prerogative thus Sharia law.

As Allah cannot be contacted directly, his words and message are interpreted by Imams, Mullahs and Ayatollahs. The priests can tell the people what Allah demands. Therefore any attempt by the west depicting Mohammed in cartoons or making jokes about Islam demeans and undermines the clerics’ authority; these same clerics who tell the jihadis that Allah is angry with the infidels at their disrespect and must be dealt with accordingly.

In other words, this conflict is about power and religion is the very effective armour.  The world today is at the winning hearts and minds phase and ISIS is doing that far more effectively with fellow Muslims than the west is.

To crush ISIS and the caliphate militarily is possible, but that will only breed another movement that will span another generation.

Tighter borders might prevent the export of terror, but in a free society, the exponents of terror are just as likely to come from within.

What’s done is done in terms of the west’s appalling foreign policy, but it is now time to take stock and demonstrate our strengths.

These are some of the things the west is doing which I believe to be wrong:

Failing to exploit the divisions in the enemy’s ranks. The schism within Islam between Shia and Sunni and even the sects within those two orders are ripe for exploitation. As we have learned no love is lost between Isis and Al Qaeda. Divide and rule is a powerful military principle.


It was the top Chinese general Sun Tzu who rated ‘know thine enemy’ as a key tactic in war. Even the non-combatants, the ordinary people must know the enemy so that a nation’s voice is properly informed. That is why I set the quiz! Answers later.

Sun Tzu also said:

The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting

We need to know our enemy in this war so that we can stand up to it in a spirit of wisdom and good judgment rather than revenge and reaction.

Otherwise, what I have labelled World War 3 will still be being fought in a hundred years’ time and during that time immense collateral damage to people and places will have occurred.

Yes, I believe we can beat Isis, but on the evidence of the west’s responses thus far, it is not likely.

The Islamists feel the need to proclaim just one God, their God, and one prophet, their prophet Mohammed. That is why they need to tell their followers that heaven is a wonderful place that awaits their martyrs. Life on Earth is secondary to the life that awaits them after death.

The Quran is interpreted by the religious power brokers in a way that favours the extremist movement and we seem ineffectual at questioning this process.

Everything in my talk thus far has conformed to a view of international relations that we are spoon fed by various media, but I have my doubts.

There is a powerful view – and much evidence to support it – that ISIS and its offshoots are a result of the west’s neo-colonialism. For example, Boko Haram, a movement that is breeding fear among the population of Nigeria, Chad and other central African countries, is the creation of the western alliance. That we have armed and supported them to enable us to offer the governments of these lands our western protection. In other words, it’s a protectionist racket.

Another view is that the west doesn’t actually mind Isis being in Syria because they will eventually topple Assad, a regime that sides with Russia. And as Isis threatens Iraq more, the west can offer protection to Al Maliki and his government. One thing is sure: more air power will not defeat Isis, only strengthen it. Isis can boast that all the might of the west cannot defeat Islam.

If you think I am entering fantasy land with these final speculations, I would urge you to google ‘Dan Glazebrook’, one of the most perceptive and experienced Middle East commentators. What he writes will shock you to the core. In particular, look out for his take on the bringing down of a Russian jet by the Turks this week.

We must find a way, through education, rolling back poverty and disease, and most importantly, proper and fair-minded diplomacy to make the world a safer place. Six separate nations mindlessly bombing ISIS bases in Syria will only act as a recruiting sergeant for ISIS whereas sitting six nations round a table and negotiating a peace and new government in Syria stands a chance of defeating the insurgents.

Nothing less than the future of the planet is at risk.



© Alan Combes, 2019. All Rights Reserved

Alan Combes