The National Security State’s Incestuous Relationship with ISIS

A fundamental aspect of ISIS’ strategy lies in the necessity of a heavy-handed, reactionary response from the West to further their own narrative, ideology and recruiting. Western governments are playing into their hands.

Tom EngelhardtNovember 19, 2015

This arti­cle first appeared at TomDispatch

To continue to grow, ISIS needs the U.S. and its allies to lend them an eternally destructive hand to further smash the worlds around them.

Hon­est­ly, I don’t know whether to rant or weep, nei­ther of which are usu­al impuls­es for me. In the wake of the slaugh­ter in Paris, I have the urge to write one of two sen­tences here: Paris changed every­thing; Paris changes noth­ing. Each is, in its own way, undoubt­ed­ly true. And here’s a third sen­tence I know to be true: This can’t end well.

Oth­er than my home­town, New York, Paris is per­haps the city where I’ve felt most at ease. I’ve nev­er been to Bagh­dad (where Paris-style Islam­ic State ter­ror events are rel­a­tive­ly com­mon­place); or Beirut, where they just began; or Syria’s rav­aged Alep­po (thank you, Bashar al-Assad of bar­rel-bomb ter­ror fame); or Mum­bai (which expe­ri­enced an ear­ly ver­sion of such a ter­ror attack); or Sana’a, the cap­i­tal of Yemen, now part­ly destroyed by the U.S.-backed Sau­di air force; or Kab­ul, where Tal­iban attacks on restau­rants have become the norm; or Turkey’s cap­i­tal, Ankara, where Islam­ic State sui­cide bombers recent­ly killed97 demon­stra­tors at a peace ral­ly. But I have spent time in Paris. And so, as with my own burn­ing, acrid city on Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, I find myself par­tic­u­lar­ly repulsed by the bar­bar­ic acts of civil­ian slaugh­ter car­ried out by three well-trained, well-orga­nized, well-armed sui­cide teams evi­dent­ly orga­nized as a first strike force from the hell of the Islam­ic State (IS) in Syr­ia and Iraq.

The Paris attacks should not, how­ev­er, be seen pri­mar­i­ly as acts of revenge from a dis­tinct­ly twist­ed crew, even though one of the mur­der­ers report­ed­ly shout­ed, You killed our broth­ers in Syr­ia and now we are here.” Instead, they were clear­ly acts of cal­cu­lat­ed provo­ca­tion meant to reshape our world in grim ways. Worse yet, their effec­tive­ness was pre-guar­an­teed because, as has been true since 911, the lead­ers of such ter­ror groups, start­ing with Osama bin Laden, have grasped the dynam­ics of our world, of what makes us tick and espe­cial­ly what pro­vokes us into our own bar­barous acts, so much bet­ter than our lead­ers, our mil­i­taries, or our nation­al secu­ri­ty states have under­stood them (or, for that mat­ter, themselves).

Here in a nut­shell is what bin Laden grasped before 911: with mod­est mil­lions of dol­lars and a rel­a­tive­ly small num­ber of fol­low­ers, he and his move­ment couldn’t hope to cre­ate the world of their fer­vid dreams. If, how­ev­er, he could lure the planet’s sole super­pow­er” into step­ping into his uni­verse, mil­i­tary first, it would change every­thing and so do his work for him. And indeed (see: inva­sion of Afghanistan, inva­sion of Iraq), an oper­a­tion mount­ed for an esti­mat­ed $400,000 to $500,000, using 19 ded­i­cat­ed (most­ly Sau­di) fol­low­ers armed only with paper cut­ters, did just that.

And it’s nev­er stopped since because, just as bin Laden dreamed, Wash­ing­ton helped loose al-Qae­da and its suc­ces­sor out­fits from the con­straints of a more orga­nized, con­trolled world. In these last 14 years of failed wars and con­flicts of every sort, Amer­i­can mil­i­tary pow­er, aid­ed and abet­ted by the Saud­is, the British, the French, and oth­er coun­tries on a case-by-case basis, essen­tial­ly frac­tured the Greater Mid­dle East. It helped cre­ate five failed states (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syr­ia, and Yemen), worlds in which ter­ror groups could thrive and in the chaos of which they could attract ever more recruits.

Wip­ing Out the Gray Zones

Think of the Islam­ic State and var­i­ous al-Qae­da crews as hav­ing devel­oped (to steal a term from com­men­ta­tor John Fef­fer) splin­ter­lands” strate­gies. To con­tin­ue to grow, they need the U.S. and its allies to lend them an eter­nal­ly destruc­tive hand to fur­ther smash the worlds around them. So in response to the Paris attacks, French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hollande’s state­ment that we will lead a war which will be piti­less” was just what the ter­ror doc­tor ordered, as was the grow­ing pres­sure in Wash­ing­ton for a big mil­i­tary response” to Paris. The first French reprisal air strikes against IS’s Syr­i­an cap­i­tal,” Raqqa, were indeed launched with­in two days. 

All of this is like man­na from heav­en for the Islam­ic State, the more piti­less” the bet­ter. After all, that group’s goal, as they write in their mag­a­zine and online, is the extinc­tion of the gray zone” in our world. In oth­er words, they seek the sharp­en­ing of dis­tinc­tions every­where, which means the open­ing of abysses where com­plex­i­ty and inter­ac­tion once exist­ed. Their dream is to live in a black-and-white world of utter reli­gious and polit­i­cal clar­i­ty (and calami­ty), while engag­ing in what Amer­i­can pun­dits like to term a clashof civ­i­liza­tions.” And – what a joy for the Islam­ic State! – Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates are already respond­ing to the Paris attacks, as Mar­co Rubio did, by call­ing for just such a civ­i­liza­tion­al con­flict with rad­i­cal Islam.” As he put it, This is not a griev­ance-based con­flict. This is a clash of civ­i­liza­tions… And either they win, or we win.” Jeb Bush sim­i­lar­ly respond­ed: This is an orga­nized effort to destroy West­ern civ­i­liza­tion and we need to lead in this regard.” The answer, of course, is war.” Var­i­ous Repub­li­can can­di­dates are also now call­ing for only accept­ing Syr­i­an Chris­tians as refugees here. You can’t be more black and white than that. 

In the Euro­pean con­text and with the destruc­tion of those gray zones” in mind, the Paris attacks should also be con­sid­ered the Islam­ic State’s first for­ay into the pol­i­tics of the 2017 French pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Think of those mass killings as a whole­heart­ed endorse­ment of the extrem­ist can­di­date Marine le Pen, whose poll num­bers were already on the rise even before the attacks, and her anti-Mus­lim, anti-immi­grant Nation­al Front Par­ty. She is now, in effect, IS’s cho­sen can­di­date, the one most like­ly to go after gray zones. In the process, of course, pres­sure on France’s large, increas­ing­ly iso­lat­ed Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion will only increase.

Such attacks are guar­an­teed to put wind in the already bil­low­ing sails of far right-wing par­ties all across Europe. It should, for instance, have come as no sur­prise that, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Kon­rad Szy­man­s­ki, the Euro­pean affairs min­is­ter for Poland’s new far-right gov­ern­ment, almost instant­ly declared his coun­try unlike­ly to abide by recent­ly nego­ti­at­ed Euro­pean Union (EU) quo­tas on accept­ing refugees from the Greater Mid­dle East. And we’re only going to see more of this in the post-Paris world. With the assis­tance of IS and oth­er jihadist groups, the elim­i­na­tion of such gray areas in Europe could, in the end, help crack the EU open, while push­ing France’s Mus­lims into an even worse sit­u­a­tion, which would, of course, mean more poten­tial recruits for groups like the Islam­ic State.

In oth­er words, from IS’s point of view, the Paris attacks and oth­er acts like them rep­re­sent a poten­tial horn of plen­ty. Sad­ly, it’s not the only orga­ni­za­tion that will reap such ben­e­fits – and I’m not just refer­ring to oth­er jihadist out­fits either. Such acts are, after a fash­ion, sim­i­lar­ly use­ful in the West­ern world. Think of it as a kind of unspo­ken bar­gain between two civ­i­liza­tions” from hell.

Take the Unit­ed States, a place where, in the years since 911, the dan­ger of being attacked by an Islam­ic ter­ror­ist could be slot­ted in some­where between being shot” by your dog and being shot by a tod­dler who has found a loaded, unlocked gun in your house, purse, or car. Among the many per­ils of Amer­i­can life from car crash­es to sui­cide, E. coli ill­ness­es to floods, injuries from crum­bling infra­struc­ture to mass killings by non-Islam­ic lone wolves, Islam­ic ter­ror­ism remains at the bot­tom of the bar­rel in the com­pa­ny of oth­er fright­en­ing but rare events like shark attacks. Yet the Amer­i­can nation­al secu­ri­ty state has essen­tial­ly been built and fund­ed to pro­tect you from that dan­ger alone.

Put anoth­er way, the offi­cials of that secu­ri­ty state have bet the farm on the pre­em­i­nence of the ter­ror­ist threat,” which has, not so sur­pris­ing­ly, left them eeri­ly reliant on the Islam­ic State and oth­er such orga­ni­za­tions for the per­pet­u­a­tion of their way of life, their career oppor­tu­ni­ties, their grow­ing pow­ers, and their rel­a­tive free­dom to infringe on basic rights, as well as for that com­fort­ably all-embrac­ing blan­ket of secre­cy that envelops their activ­i­ties. Note that, as with so many devel­op­ments in our world which have caught them by sur­prise, the offi­cials who run our vast sur­veil­lance net­work and its stag­ger­ing ranks of intel­li­gence oper­a­tives and ana­lysts seem­ing­ly hadn’t a clue about the IS plot against Paris (even though intel­li­gence offi­cials in at least one oth­er coun­try evi­dent­ly did). Nonethe­less, whether they see actu­al threats com­ing or not, they need Paris-style alarms and night­mares, just as they need local plots,” even ones semi-engi­neered by FBI inform­ers or cre­at­ed online by lone idiots, not lone wolves. Oth­er­wise, why would the media keep prat­tling on about ter­ror­ism or pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates keep hum­ming the ter­ror tune, and how, then, would pub­lic pan­ic lev­els remain rea­son­ably high on the sub­ject when so many oth­er dan­gers are more press­ing in Amer­i­can life?

The rela­tion­ship between that ever-more pow­er­ful shad­ow gov­ern­ment in Wash­ing­ton and the Islam­ic ter­ror­ists of our plan­et is both mutu­al­ly rein­forc­ing and unnerv­ing­ly inces­tu­ous. Both, of course, emerge as win­ners when the gray zones begin to dis­ap­pear. When Paris is hit, after all, law enforce­ment agen­cies in the U.S. instant­ly increase their alert lev­els”; the CIA direc­tor push­es back hard against hand-wring­ing over intru­sive gov­ern­ment spy­ing” and the min­i­mal­ist restric­tions on elec­tron­ic sur­veil­lance put in place in recent years; the FBIheight­ensits sur­veil­lance of Amer­i­cans under inves­ti­ga­tion for appar­ent ties to the Islam­ic State”; and, among oth­er things, more police patrols are sent out in major cities, while local law enforce­ment vig­i­lance” ris­es even in places like Nia­gara Falls, New York. In Los Ange­les, post-Paris, extra patrols were typ­i­cal­ly sent to crit­i­cal sites’ and [the city’s police depart­ment was] mon­i­tor­ing the ongo­ing sit­u­a­tion, even though it said there were no known threats.”

The lack of obvi­ous threats is, of course, beside the point when Amer­i­can safe­ty” is at stake! In the mean­time, the road toward a more locked-down, secre­tive, gov­ern­men­tal­ly intru­sive, less demo­c­ra­t­ic world is being well paved.

A Dance of Death

Think of this as a kind of glob­al danse macabre in which ISIS attacks – eight com­mit­ted guys, some pos­si­bly trained in com­bat in Syr­ia or Iraq, with AK-47s, sui­cide vests, and rental cars – spread death, chaos, pan­ic, and alarm in our world at next to no cost at all. In response, Wash­ing­ton and its allies engage in a big-bud­get ver­sion of the same, includ­ing inten­si­fied air cam­paigns which will, of course, end up tak­ing out civil­ian tar­gets and infrastructure.

Think of what the U.S. mil­i­tary does when it heads out to destroy those gray zones as the Kobane or Sin­jar Strat­e­gy. Kobane was a large­ly Kur­dish town on the Turk­ish bor­der that IS mil­i­tants besieged and par­tial­ly took in 2014. They were dri­ven back ear­ly this year by the same com­bi­na­tion of forces that recent­ly retook the town of Sin­jar in north­ern Iraq: Kur­dish fight­ers and Amer­i­can war­planes. By the time both were retak­en, Amer­i­can bombs and Islam­ic State IEDs and boo­by-trapped hous­es had insured that those towns would be large­ly unin­hab­it­able wrecks, lit­tered with corpses and the skele­tons of build­ings.

Sim­i­lar­ly, plans by the U.S. to inten­si­fy the bomb­ing of those Syr­i­an oil­fields under the con­trol of the Islam­ic state (to cut into its sup­ply of funds) reflect a strat­e­gy that, what­ev­er its imme­di­ate suc­cess­es, is guar­an­teed to fur­ther wreck the infra­struc­ture of the region. This will help ensure that, no mat­ter what hap­pens to the Islam­ic State, Syr­ia” or any state struc­ture like it will be no more. Such acts of destruc­tion, large­ly from the air, have been tak­ing place across the Greater Mid­dle East since 2001. From Libya to Syr­ia, Iraq to Yemen, the Sin­jar Strat­e­gy has demon­stra­bly done lit­tle to bring suc­cess to the U.S. and its allies in their var­i­ous wars. It has, how­ev­er, helped cre­ate a zone of failed and increas­ing­ly frag­ile states. It has left uproot­ed pop­u­la­tions lead­ing skele­tal lives in haunt­ed lands that are also hunt­ing grounds for extrem­ists of every sort. Con­sid­er this the dream world of Osama bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Bagh­da­di, as well as the per­fect breed­ing ground for yet more extreme night­mares of our age. A dance of death indeed.

As it hap­pens, I’ve bare­ly rant­ed and not yet wept. If any­thing, on reach­ing the end of this piece, I find myself depressed. The future shouldn’t be so easy to see or so repet­i­tive­ly pre­dictable. And it’s a ter­ri­ble thing to know that, as the gray zones of our plan­et con­tin­ue to dis­ap­pear and wrecked worlds spread, the tem­po of that dance of mutu­al death and destruc­tion stands every chance of speed­ing up as the music” only grows louder.

Tom Engel­hardt is a co-founder of the Amer­i­can Empire Project and the author of The Unit­ed States of Fear as well as a his­to­ry of the Cold War, The End of Vic­to­ry Cul­ture. He runs the Nation Insti­tute’s TomDis​patch​.com. His new book is Shad­ow Gov­ern­ment: Sur­veil­lance, Secret Wars, and a Glob­al Secu­ri­ty State in a Sin­gle-Super­pow­er World (Hay­mar­ket Books).
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