The Right Will Win if the Left Doesn’t Forcefully Confront ISIS

By now the facts of the terrorist attack on Paris are becoming clear, and they are not pretty. The massacre appears to have been plotted and organized by ISIS members. At least one was apparently a French national radicalized domestically, but early reports suggest that at least a few came into France as refugees from Syria.

There’s no sugarcoating the reality that these facts will be touted at length as a victory for the xenophobic right wing across the western world. Nor is it only Paris. ISIS terrorists were responsible for killing dozens in Beirut the day prior to the Paris attacks. That attack itself followed closely on the heels of the downing of a Russian jetliner in Egypt that was probably due to terrorist activity.

In light of these events, it’s no surprise that even staunch liberals Francois Hollande and Bernie Sanders are sounding aggressively militaristic in response.

While it is obviously true that ISIS owes its existence to the Bush/Cheney invasion of Iraq and that war itself is usually a counterproductive measure that creates more problems than it solves, it is also true that ISIS is not your average run-of-the-mill terrorist problem. As Graeme Wood explained in The Atlantic, ISIS is not simply another Al Qaeda, in the sense of being a group of disjointed, angry young men upset with western intervention in the Muslim world. They are an end-times sect dedicated to bringing about the final resolution by following step-by-step instructions in the Quran for creating the caliphate. This includes seizing and controlling the crucial area of Dabiq:

The Islamic State has attached great importance to the Syrian city of Dabiq, near Aleppo. It named its propaganda magazine after the town, and celebrated madly when (at great cost) it conquered Dabiq’s strategically unimportant plains. It is here, the Prophet reportedly said, that the armies of Rome will set up their camp. The armies of Islam will meet them, and Dabiq will be Rome’s Waterloo or its Antietam.

“Dabiq is basically all farmland,” one Islamic State supporter recently tweeted. “You could imagine large battles taking place there.” The Islamic State’s propagandists drool with anticipation of this event, and constantly imply that it will come soon. The state’s magazine quotes Zarqawi as saying, “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify … until it burns the crusader armies in Dabiq.” A recent propaganda video shows clips from Hollywood war movies set in medieval times—perhaps because many of the prophecies specify that the armies will be on horseback or carrying ancient weapons.

Now that it has taken Dabiq, the Islamic State awaits the arrival of an enemy army there, whose defeat will initiate the countdown to the apocalypse. Western media frequently miss references to Dabiq in the Islamic State’s videos, and focus instead on lurid scenes of beheading. “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive,” said a masked executioner in a November video, showing the severed head of Peter (Abdul Rahman) Kassig, the aid worker who’d been held captive for more than a year. During fighting in Iraq in December, after mujahideen (perhaps inaccurately) reported having seen American soldiers in battle, Islamic State Twitter accounts erupted in spasms of pleasure, like overenthusiastic hosts or hostesses upon the arrival of the first guests at a party.

One could interpret this to mean that ISIS desperately wants “Rome” to attack them in order to fulfill prophecy, and that by avoiding conflict ISIS would lose credibility. But that underestimates the gravity of the problem. The Islamic State currently holds a large enough territory to declare itself a “state” and create propaganda boasting of its supposed “caliphate.” The momentousness of that reality can be infectious to dispossessed, idealistic young men:

We met for lunch in Footscray, a dense, multicultural Melbourne suburb that’s home to Lonely Planet, the travel-guide publisher. Cerantonio grew up there in a half-Irish, half-Calabrian family. On a typical street one can find African restaurants, Vietnamese shops, and young Arabs walking around in the Salafi uniform of scraggly beard, long shirt, and trousers ending halfway down the calves.

Cerantonio explained the joy he felt when Baghdadi was declared the caliph on June 29—and the sudden, magnetic attraction that Mesopotamia began to exert on him and his friends. “I was in a hotel [in the Philippines], and I saw the declaration on television,” he told me. “And I was just amazed, and I’m like, Why am I stuck here in this bloody room?”

Simply leaving ISIS alone will not prevent this. Compared to ISIS, Al Qaeda at its worst seems like the last gasp of a dying medieval world whose angry young men preferred to go out in a blaze of glory launching kamikaze attacks against the west rather than be subsumed by the dreaded cultural imperialism of McDonalds and miniskirts. Bin Laden claimed to be creating a caliphate, but he had no actual territory with which to make his case. There was a credible western policy rationale for suggesting that beefing up domestic security and simply leaving them to rot without bashing the hornet’s nest overseas might be the best approach.

ISIS, however, is not Al Qaeda. ISIS is a doomsday cult with enough territory to form their own country, intent on inspiring devout Muslims around the world by creating the last Caliphate in a final battlefield showdown with the West. Leaving them alone will not diminish the appeal they have to disaffected Muslim youth nor dry up their recruiting power. Leaving them alone will not lessen their enthusiasm for striking at the Great Satan.

It would be as if a radical Christian end-times sect somehow took Jerusalem and started trying to fulfill the prescriptions of the Book of Revelation step by step, and was winning victories as part of the Lord’s Army pushing for a global crusade.

At a certain point it wouldn’t matter if that sect literally sent its people to commit acts of terror, or if it merely inspired them. Either way, it would be necessary to demonstrate that they will not, in fact, succeed in fulfilling prophecy or else the problem will only continue to get worse.

In order to prevent future attacks, ISIS’ unique propagandistic spell must be broken. It must be denied the territory that allows them to claim their caliphate. It will ultimately need to have the showdown it so desperately wants against the entire unbeliever/apostate world (which includes most Muslim nations), and it will need to lose that battle in dramatic fashion. And as Charles Pierce notes at Esquire, the rest of the Muslim world will need to be on board and prevented from supplying funding to ISIS, in order to make it perfectly clear that it is ISIS and its followers who are apostates from Islam, not the moderates.

In the long run stability cannot be achieved in the region without a peace process that gives Iraqi Sunnis democratic autonomy from Shi’ite oppression, and that resolves the brutal civil war in Syria. But it will be impossible to achieve those goals as long as ISIS has free rein in the region and continues to attract a legion of new recruits from around the Islamic world not only to fight within its borders, but to conduct attacks outside of them as well.

Nor is there any particular reason that the left should oppose the intervention of a multinational coalition to accomplish this goal. We celebrate the actions of Abraham Lincoln and the Union Army in putting an end to the evils of slavery in the American South. We cheer when police arrest abusers of women and violent cult leaders domestically. ISIS is no different from these simply by being located in a different nation. It is a group of patriarchal, gun-loving homophobic conservative religious fundamentalists intent on widening its sphere of influence. Liberals everywhere should strongly oppose that.

It’s also simply good politics. The Right is poised for a big win in France’s upcoming regional elections, and Republicans will be looking to ride anger and disgust over these and any future ISIS attacks all the way into the Oval Office. Democrats have little incentive to play a coy and isolationist game at this point, from either a policy or political standpoint.

Geopolitically, the reason ISIS exists where and how it does is a product of the power vacuum and civil wars in Iraq and Syria. Culturally, however, the reason it attracts so many converts and radicalizes so many abroad is because of its unique prophetic promises, funding and territorial holdings. We can’t easily solve the first part of the equation because the United States’ awful, bumbling invasion of Iraq was in large part responsible for creating it. We can and should as liberals, however, do something about the second.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.