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Geopolitics & Security

Why Force Alone Will Not Defeat Islamist Extremism

Commentary3rd December 2015

To defeat Islamist extremism, we need a strategy which is comprehensive.

Defeating DAESH is only a necessary beginning.

Force alone will not prevail. The challenge goes far wider and deeper than the atrocities of the Jihadist fanatics. 

The Islamist ideology has also to be confronted.

Today it can be, in alliance with the modernising and sensible voices within Islam determined to take the name and reputation of the faith of Islam back from the extremists.

A continued failure to recognise the scale of the challenge and to construct the means necessary to meet it, will result in terrorist attacks potentially worse than those in Paris, producing a backlash which then stigmatises the majority of decent, law abiding Muslims and puts the very alliance so necessary at risk, creating a further cycle of chaos and violence.

9/11 came out of the al-Qaeda terrorist training camps of Afghanistan permitted to grow there by the Taliban.

Today, DAESH controls an area of land in Syria and Iraq, the size of the UK; it has a significant presence in Libya around Sirte; it has a foothold in the Sinai and in several other areas; it has the allegiance of Boko Haram in Nigeria as well as groups in other parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.

But you can add to ISIS, Al-Nusra, al-Qaeda, Al Shaabab and half a dozen other such groups.

They're all active, trained, battle hardened, reasonably well armed and funded.

And, in many cases, on the doorstep of Europe.

It is true that our security services are vastly more equipped and experienced in dealing with the threat than in 2001. 

But this is also true of the enemy. They now know that a handful of gunmen prepared to kill totally innocent and random people can traumatise a nation.


The impact of terrorism is never simply about the tragedy of lives lost. It is the sense of instability, insecurity and fear that comes in its wake. It can paralyse a country.


Does anyone doubt that if they could kill thousands not hundreds, they would? Or that they would use any means available to them to do it?

The impact of terrorism is never simply about the tragedy of lives lost. It is the sense of instability, insecurity and fear that comes in its wake. It can paralyse a country. And in the case of nations like ours, with our proud and noble traditions of tolerance and liberty, it makes those very strengths seem like weaknesses in the face of an onslaught that cares nothing for our values and hates our way of life.

Europe is facing this dilemma in a very direct way. It is – with courage and compassion – bringing large numbers of refugees from the carnage of Syria and the wider Middle East into Europe. Greece alone has around 700,000 refugees awaiting clearance. The other week, it had 15,000 people enter in the space of 12 hours.

We need to prepare host communities and incoming refugees for what will be an extraordinary undertaking. Of course it would be inhumane to refuse entry, but I am not sure we fully comprehend the size of this challenge. 

So what are the pillars of such a comprehensive strategy?

First: the immediate task is of course to defeat DAESH. Paris has galvanised opinion. But we need to understand the full nature of what has to be done. They have to be eliminated on the ground not just in Syria and Iraq, but in Libya too and the other countries in which they are present.

Together with our allies, we have to do what it takes to defeat them completely. This will require a combination of military, diplomatic and political measures. This doesn't always have to centre on our ‘boots on the ground’. Our forces can play a supporting role to others.

But destroying this so-called ‘Caliphate’ is an essential part of destroying the concept of it as a unifying structure for extremist groups which underpins so much of the Jihadist propaganda.     

It is also essential to securing a just outcome in Syria which, in turn, is the only solution to the refugee crisis. 

To begin with, many in the West thought Syria was a nightmare but not our nightmare. Now we know we're in it, like it or not.

We must show sufficient commitment to Syria to give us the leverage to be able to negotiate a settlement which will allow the country, over time, to progress with full respect for minorities but without Assad. 

Secondly, in the medium term, we have to construct the force capability, through a coalition of nations willing to commit their armed forces, which would allow us to fight the Jihadist extremists effectively wherever they try to gain a foothold. They must know that they are never safe to plan or to expand. 

Third and longer term, we must realise that the problem is not only the violence of groups like DAESH but the ideology of extremism behind them. It is correct that the numbers of Jihadist fanatics are relatively small. But the numbers who buy into significant parts of their underlying world view are unfortunately much larger.

Islam, as practiced and understood by the large majority of believers, is a peaceful and honourable faith. It has contributed greatly to human existence and progress. But there has to be an end to the denial about the nature of the problem we face. 

Of course a large majority of Muslims completely reject DAESH-like Jihadism and the terrorism which comes with it.

However, in many Muslim countries large numbers also believe that the CIA or Jews were behind 9/11. Clerics who proclaim that non-believers and apostates must be killed or call for Jihad against Jews have twitter followings running into millions.

Those who believe in concepts of the Caliphate and the Apocalypse – so much part of DAESH propaganda – stretch deep into parts of Muslim societies.

A belief in innate hostility between Islam and the West is not the preserve of the few.

Every day millions of young people are taught a view of the world and religion completely incompatible with peaceful co-existence. As with, for example, some of the madrassas in Pakistan and the Al-Majiri schools of Northern Nigeria indoctrination of children is happening on a daily basis.

In the West as a recent documentary in the UK showed, there are community centres, mosques, seemingly innocuous charity organisations, that are fronts for this ideology.

The ideology has deep roots. We have to reach right the way down and uproot it. 

We need, in a similar way to the campaign on the environment, to agree an international Global Commitment on Education where it is part of each nation’s global responsibility to promote cultural and religious tolerance and to eradicate cultural and religious prejudice within their education systems, formal and informal.

It is not acceptable for Governments to support extremist groups whether violent or not.  

Where hostility and hatred towards others is being promulgated whether in the mosque or the community centre, it should be exposed and stopped.  

Fourth, on the positive side, we have to support those who are confronting the religious doctrines of the extremists. There are now many brave and serious theologians – like those from the Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo and Sheikh Abdullah Bin Bayyah – who are showing how the true teaching of Islam leads to peace and reconciliation with the modern world.

But they need the weight of a concerted international effort behind them.

We have to organise the use of the internet to disseminate messages of peaceful co-existence and hope. But we have to do it at scale.

We have to build the alliance between Judeo-Christian civilisation and those within Islam who are prepared to lead the fight against the perversion of their faith and the extremism which goes with it; and we have to do it with urgency and heft.

Fifth, sometimes we look at the Middle East and see such a mess we prefer to stay out. Paris – as if we needed further reminding – shows the futility of that.

The Middle East’s harsh and tumultuous transition is our affair: because it is near to us, because it is where the heart of Islam beats, because we have our own large Muslim populations, because we have allies – not only Israel but Arab nations too – who expect and deserve our support and whose support we need to succeed; and because if we don't act, then into the vacuum will step those whose interests and values may be opposed to our own.

It is better to see the Middle East and indeed Islam as in a long process of transition – the Middle East to achieve rule based economies and religiously tolerant societies; and Islam to recover its rightful place as a faith of progress and humanity. 

Looked at in this way, this is not an impenetrable mess to stay clear of; but a life and death struggle in which our own interests are intimately engaged.

Across the region, we should be supporting those who are fighting back against the extremism. In each case, we should be promoting those who will work for a modern and open-minded future for the Middle East and Islam. The Gulf States, Egypt and Jordan are our allies. Where our allies have their own challenges of change and modernisation to go through, we should be helping them to evolve in order to avoid the de-stabilisation of revolution.

Where there are groups or nations who are trying to impose or export an ideology of extremism, as with Sunni extremist groups of various varieties or Shia, as with Iran and Hezbollah, we should be actively opposing their influence.

And we should not lose sight of the continuing, crucial importance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, important in its own right, important for what a resolution of it means for the principle of peaceful co-existence and important also because it stands in the way of the obvious convergence of interest between Israel and the Arab nations.

We should learn the lessons of the whole period from 9/11 to today and try to forge a new synthesis of foreign policy which recognises the need for an active policy of engagement, but in a way sophisticated by our experience not incapacitated by it.

For Europe, there is a huge calculation to be made. This security threat is at our door. It is actually within our home. We have a paramount interest in defeating it, which is why last night’s vote in the British House of Commons was so important.

Europe has to create, within its nation states, the armed force capability to allow us not just to play our part but to lead. We have to educate our own citizens and those now coming to our countries on what our values and way of life mean, why they matter to us and why we will defend them to the last.

This is a battle we will win. There is no doubt in my mind of that. From one corner of the world to the other, the overwhelming majority of people want to live in harmony and peace. The Islamist fanatics will never kill the spirit of our civilisation. They will be defeated. We will endure.

But it will require leadership, vision and a determination that only full measures will do.


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