Paris attacks: The West’s fatal misunderstanding of Islamic State

By Rasha Elass, Reuters

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A general view of the scene outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, November 13, 2015. Photo: Reuters A general view of the scene outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, November 13, 2015. Photo: Reuters

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The horrendous attacks on Paris have an eerie resemblance to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in that they seem to have caught everyone off guard.
Until perhaps Friday, the main perception among Western intelligence agencies and Washington policymakers has been that Islamic State poses “no immediate threat” to the United States or the West.
“Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS is more interested in establishing a Caliphate and not so interested in attacking the West,” a retired CIA officer explained during a closed meeting at one of Washington’s think tanks. He was echoing a common sentiment, and insisted that “Al Qaeda remains the main threat.” Even U.S. President Barack Obama recently said with confidence that Islamic State was being “contained.”
But we cannot forget that Islamic State came to the world stage barely over a year ago, when it took Mosul and subsequently one third of Iraq as well as one third of Syria in a matter of weeks. Some of the terror group’s major advances on the ground took mere hours, advances that Obama later said will take years to roll back.
I remember covering the war at that time from Damascus, Syria, and later from Beirut, where I kept in constant communication via the Internet with the Syrian rebels and civilians who had suddenly found themselves under Islamic State rule in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al Zor. During those first few days, many went underground, not sure what to do about their new, brutal occupier, who proceeded to slaughter more than 700 men from the Arab Sunni Muslim tribe of Shueitat because the tribe did not pledge allegiance to Islamic State. The militant group commanded all men of fighting age in Deir Al Zor to report to Islamic State checkpoints, surrender weapons, and either pledge allegiance to Islamic State or leave the territory immediately.
“We never thought the West would allow a group like ISIS to expand, but now I know that we have been played. We have been extremely stupid,” one anti-Islamic State rebel told me on condition of anonymity to protect his family. He sounded embittered by what he called a shocking and swift victory for the group, and he spoke to me from his car, which he said he had parked just outside an Internet cafe to piggy-back on the Wi-Fi signal without anyone hearing our conversation. He said Islamic State had setup checkpoints everywhere.
“The only thing that makes sense to us is that the world wants to dump all its trash here,” he said, referring to the Islamic State jihadists, whom he said were mainly non-Syrian, but other Arab nationals, Chechens, and Westerners. “And then the West will come and bomb them all. This must be the strategy because nothing else makes any sense.”
Conspiracy theories aside, there is some truth to the idea that some countries, as naive and misguided as they have been, privately sighed relief to see their own Islamist nationals travel to Islamist territory to meet their fate.
“It’s better than having them stay in our country,” one Western diplomat told me on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Statistically, a newly arrived jihadist to ISIS territory is killed within weeks, so good riddance.” He added that all the West had to worry about were the “lone-wolf attacks” inspired by Islamic State.
Unfortunately, the Paris attacks have disproved this theory, and it is time to shed other falsely comforting illusions as well.
Namely, let us not forget that some of the United States’ staunchest allies have been, and remain, responsible for facilitating the arrival of money, materiel, and jihadists into Islamic State territory, not to mention providing the ideological guidance for the terror group. They have been doing so in the hopes of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Jihadists have crossed the borders of Jordan and Turkey into Syria, seemingly at will. Qatar, Kuwait, UAE, and Saudi Arabia have not stopped their private citizens from sending money to various Islamist brigades, including Islamic State. They also give airtime to the muftis who provide ideological guidance to Islamic State, religious scholars who condone sectarian killing, gruesome beheadings, and sexual slavery on theological grounds.
It has been too convenient a falsity also for the West to believe that Syria’s war is Syria’s problem, or at least someone else’s problem, when so many world players are already involved in the war there, either directly or by proxy.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had strong words at the ongoing Vienna talks on Syria, attended by foreign ministers of some 20 nations. Standing next to his Russian counterpart, Kerry called the Paris attacks “the most vile, horrendous, outrageous, unacceptable acts on the planet.” But he added that they “encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises that we face.”
Peace and order in Syria are a long way off — Syrians are not even represented in Vienna — but if world players resolve to ensure that the Paris attacks become the nail in Islamic State’s coffin, then at least the Phoenix is already rising from the ashes.
Rasha Elass has recently returned to the United States after covering the Middle East for over 10 years. Most recently, she was based inside Syria to cover the uprising-turned-civil war as a freelancer for several media outlets, including Reuters, LA Times, National Public Radio (NPR), The World (PRI / BBC Radio), and International Business Times (IBT.com), often covering the war without a byline for security reasons.

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