What can we do to win the conflict begun by ISIS

It is always better to wait a few days before commenting on such a horrific episode as that which occurred last Friday in Paris. We did exactly this following the Charlie Hebdo attack and we decided to do the same on this occasion. With almost 130 dead and more than 350 wounded, Paris has never been so vulnerable, Europe has never been so divided, a conflict has never been so exceptional. Life goes on, life must go on, but first it is necessary to take stock of some points. The first is that we need to act, or rather counterattack,but we must do so in a rational and clinical way.

People hold hands to form a human solidarity chain at Place de la Republique near the site of the attack at the Bataclan concert hall in Paris, November 15, 2015. REUTERS/Pascal Rossignol

The events in Paris go to show that our world is governed by chance. Think for a moment: you go to your favourite bar, or your usual restaurant, and while you are sitting there, in a place you consider comfortable, friendly and familiar, an armed commando arrives and begins to assassinate everyone present. None of us would have ever imagined that the comfortable,friendly, familiar place could be a terrorist objective. Here chaos theory reaches its zenith, underlining how non-linear dynamicsare part of our lives. But here too is a starting point for aseries of reflections that can mitigate the chaos.

The greatest problem today is that a conflict­­­–it would be pointless and foolish to call it by any other name– is being fought against an enemy that is perceived by many to beunidentified. Who is ISIS? What is ISIS? Which cells are active? Where are they active? What is the real leadership? How does it mutate? The available intelligence seems unable to answer these questions succinctly. Sun Tzu’s Art of War notes the importanceof knowing who you are fighting: “Know your enemy and know your self and the outcome of one hundred battles will never be in doubt”. In Europe we know neither our enemy nor our selves. Is it impossible, therefore, to halt what is occurring? No, because herea more complicated scenario exists, one that requires an unequivocal effort. There are four considerations that emerge from the events of Paris, once we take away the rhetoric and the gut reactions that can be such dangerous distractions at times like these.

Firstly, whenfaced with strategies that are so detailed, the response must be equally detailed. This means more intelligence andgreater use of informers, with all the risks involved in these activities. In January, when the attack on the editors of Charlie Hebdo took place, on these pages we called for a global conference on terrorism. We also called for specific measures such as the “real time sharing of information on terrorist cells or the creation of one or more global databases that were not the sole domain of the CIA or any other single national secret service”. Was anything done? No. Not because of conspiracy theories or speculation on social media, but because of national interests.  While preservingthese interests, one aspect seems to have been lost: in a world that is free and globalized, where borders do not exist, chaos can act undisturbedwithin the vacuums left in each individual country. Just think of cyber-terrorism. Are air raids the solution for this?Apparently not, because where should they strike? Who? What? The risk of shooting, literally, into the crowd is too high. A superficial awareness of things is far more damaging than ignorance. What is required, therefore, is a counterattack against the known leadership of ISIS. The external activities of the Caliphate clearly have a double purpose. Onone hand they distract attention from facts on the ground in the Middle East, on the other they demonstrate the search for attention that cannot be obtained by solely playing to the gallery, for exampleby destroying works of art. Translation: firstly, ISIS in order to live and to proselytise it (also) needs to be at the centre of attention, secondlyit has understood that the Europe and the West’sstatic defensive model is ineffective in the long term. The higher the wall is erected, the stronger will be the catapults constructed to overcome it. This is what is happening. It is fundamental to keep this point in mind and exploitit strategically and tactically to our advantage.

The second consideration is that we are caught upin something that we do not fullyunderstand, a conflict that is not ours, a war of religion that first and foremost,is internal to Islam. Control of the Middle East is the focal point. Sunni and Shia have been fighting for decades within a context of total uncertainty, in which clans and tribal structure are the connecting fabric of an area that is strategically impossible to govern. Within such a context ISIS has built its power base, using the most brutishpropaganda to make desperate young people dream of a better future(and offering the social elevation of martyrdom) and through the exploitation of the administrative vacuums mentioned above: terrorism has moved on to the next level, that of conditioning our daily lives. But this aspect could mean, as has been widely discussed in diplomatic circles, that the strength of ISIS is diminishing in the territories that it controls. ISIS is acting on a massive scale in order to win back consensus and demonstrate its strength to the world, just as the puffer fish does when it feels threatened. Aswe move onto the next point we can see that the terrain for this type of action is fertile.

The third point concerns what will happen next.Is closing the borders the right gesture? Personally I believe that it is useless, because the sleeper cells are numerous and have already been present in the territory for years, not to mention the potential impact of cyber terrorism, a sphere in which ISIS is lagging behind, at least for now. The attackers are predominantly people who grew up among us, side by side with us, but who eluded the guidance of the moderate Islamic community, the other victims of this barbarism. Feeding racial hatred andcalling fortheexpulsion of immigrants only further embitters a relationship of coexistence that is already difficult. It is not our fault or theirs if it is difficult: neither side in this caseseeks a conflict. It is terrorism that seeks a conflict, because it knows that it can exploitchaosto its own advantage. Therefore, it is better to act in a clinical, coordinated and energetic way directly on the source of the problems. Is this possible? Given the experience of intelligence agencies of some countries, such as Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy, yes it is.

Finally, the fourth consideration is perhaps the most alarming. Europe’sfragility is not confined solely to the France-Belgium axis. Though it is true that these countries are more susceptible (just think of the de facto ghettoization of the Paris suburbs)it is equally true that the molecular structure of ISIS is similar everywhere. How can we explain to our children what is happening? How do we describe our weakness?How do we explain that our freedom, along with that of the moderate Muslims, is in danger? Do so calmly without digression. Education, rationality and knowledge are the best weapons to use against anger, violence and terror, a terror that can be fought.

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