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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Dealing with Terrorism

Jan. 4, 2016

The New Year has arrived, yet the world continues to face the threat of terrorism. In Europe and elsewhere, there are worrisome signs that blame is being shifted to all Muslims for the sake of right-wing political gain. In Syria, Iraq and much of the Middle East, the turmoil shows no sign of ending.

What are the extremists hoping to achieve? And how should the world respond?

In the first of a two-part series on terrorism, a leading French specialist weighs in on the Islamic State militant group’s strategy, to find out how the world should respond.

NHK World’s Sho Beppu spoke to Professor Gilles Kepel, a professor at the Paris Institute for Political Studies, at his home in the French capital.

Beppu: Their priority is to maintain what they call their caliphate in the area between Iraq and Syria. But what we saw in Paris was that they've gone far beyond this territory. Does this mean they've abandoned their original strategy and are now ready to attack targets that are far away?

Kepel: One of their strategies is to hold on to their territories, which Al-Qaeda never did. The other is to attack the West at the same time. That's why they targeted Europe, which they perceive as the West's weak spot. Their aim is to spark a civil war in the West, starting from the Muslim enclaves, that'll destroy Europe and allow the group to build a caliphate on top of the ruins.

This strategy has already been used in Iraq by the extremist group, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the predecessor of the Islamic State group. At a news conference in Baghdad in 2004, the US forces disclosed a document that they claimed had been written by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

In the document, Zarqawi called on his followers to carry out repeated attacks against Shia Muslims so that they would focus their anger against Sunni Muslims and thus trigger a sectarian civil war.

Despite calls for restraint, what followed in Iraq was exactly what the extremist leader had planned.

Kepel: The theory of chaos is very important. The extremists think that the destruction of a society translates as a victory for their caliphate.

Beppu: If the group tries to spark a civil war in France, what would be the fault line, meaning who would be fighting against whom?

Kepel: They think that they can rally all Muslims as a whole in France and Europe against others using extremist ideology. They want Muslims to cut themselves off from the values and culture of French society.

Kepel has uncovered a worrisome trend among young Muslims living on the outskirts of Paris in surveys he's conducted.

Thirty-five percent of first-generation immigrants responded "no" to the question, "Do you think the French government respects Muslims?" But when he asked the same question to 2nd- and 3rd-generation immigrants, the proportion who said "no" rose to 71 percent.

These figures illustrate the growing frustration and anger among young Muslims. Many of the respondents spoke about constant discrimination and a lack of opportunities in France.

The Paris attacks in November were planned and carried out by young Muslims who were born and raised in Europe.

The Islamic State militant group is known to be recruiting young Muslims in Europe through social media and other means, and turning them into jihadists.

Kepel: In order to attack Europe, the extremists are relying on young Muslims who haven't integrated well into society and are frustrated with their situation. These young Muslims are being given the task to destroy European civilization.

Kepel points out another worrisome trend in France: the rise of the extreme right. In the first round of voting in regional elections in December, the first poll since the Paris attacks, the anti-immigration party, the National Front, led by Marine Le Pen, came out as the winner.

Kepel: For the 2017 presidential elections, all the right- and left-wing candidates are convinced that Le Pen will come out on top in the first round, and that they'll end up in second place. They're already wondering how to defeat her in the second round. This is obviously a moral and political failure that corresponds with what the Islamic State group is calling for.

Beppu: In order not to fall into their trap, what should France do?

Kepel: We should avoid saying that we're at war in Europe.

Kepel is critical of remarks made by French President Francois Hollande immediately after the Paris attacks.

"France is at war,” Hollande said. “The attacks in France were an act of war."

Kepel: There is no war on European soil. Police operations and social integration efforts are being carried out. But president Hollande's words are exaggerating the situation. There is an error of understanding. There is no war in Europe. What we should do is analyze our opponent very carefully.

Koichiro Tanaka of the Institute of Energy Economics, Japan, joined Sho Beppu and Aki Shibuya in studio. Tanaka is a specialist in Middle Eastern affairs.

Beppu: In his analysis, Kepel warned that the French people, that French society should not fall into the trap of division, which fits the strategy of the Islamic State militant group. What do you think the world should do to deal with these extremists?

Tanaka: I think we should all go back to 9/11, 15 years ago. It’s not only about the French, but I think we’ve been all wrong since 9/11, that there’s been a conceptual discrepancy in the so-called war on terror. We could fight terrorism, but we cannot militarily defeat terrorism. So there has always been this military surge to counter the terrorists, but at the end we haven’t dug deep into the root causes of terrorism. I think this time, after the Paris attacks, the French government initiated, or at least launched airstrikes against ISIS territories within Syria. But they haven’t taken on the social problems that causes, or that at least allows these people to join these jihadist movements within the European states. As long as they’re left over there, there’s no way to counter the terrorist threats. I think this is the way that we should think from now on.

Beppu: Talking about the Islamic State’s strategy, some observers say ‘look, what happened in Paris could be interpreted as a sign of the group’s weakness.’ Well, there are airstrikes continuing since last summer and it’s been intensifying. So that’s why they decided to go as far as France to launch these attacks. How do see the current status of the strategy of this group?

Tanaka: At least for the retreat from Ramadi, I think it’s too early to judge what this means. It could be a tactical retreat. I’m not quite sure whether the Iraqi security forces have gained ground in Ramadi so this could be an irreversible gain for them. ISIS may strike back with more forces. Also we should bear in mind that it’s very difficult to hold ground in the province of Anbar, where the Sunni inhabitants are quite against the central government of Iraq.

Now let me use these three concentric circles to explain what I’m talking about. Previously ISIS, or Islamic state, had been trying to expand or strengthen their stronghold in Syria and Iraq by bringing in recruits from the orange circle and even from the yellow circle. Now in recent months I believe they have been changing the strategy, or at least their tactical movement, calling on jihadists not to join them but to stage attacks where they live, at their homeland. So this could just be a tactical way of behaving. It may not be a sign that they have been weakened.

Shibuya: So far, we've been focusing on the strategies of the Islamic State militant group. Now, let's look at the background of the group from a historical point of view.

Kepel: In order to understand the strategy of the Islamic State group, we need to look at it from the historical angle of modern jihadism. In fact, the Islamic State group is the third generation of jihadists.

Kepel says the first generation became active in the 1980s. In 1997, they carried out their most audacious attack on a popular tourist spot in Egypt, killing more than 60 foreigners. This triggered a massive crackdown by the Egyptian government.

Al-Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, represented the second generation. On September 11, 2001, the group attacked the United States, killing nearly 3,000 people. The US responded immediately by attacking Afghanistan, which dispersed the group.

"The regime in Iraq would likely to have possessed a nuclear weapon no later than 1993,” US President George W. Bush claimed in 2002.

A year later, the US invaded Iraq and brought down the government of President Saddam Hussein. But instead of finding weapons of mass destruction or creating a democracy, the country fell into chaos.

It became a breeding ground for extremists, who went on to form a new group calling itself "Islamic State." This is what Kepel refers to as the third generation.

Kepel: After 2005, the extremists started to see Osama bin Laden's generation as a failure. The person behind this idea was a Syrian engineer trained in France who obtained Spanish nationality through marriage. His name is Abu Musab al-Suri. He thought that he had to go further than Phase 1 and Phase 2 in order to make a new jihadism by combining both.

Kepel says the Islamic State group is also taking advantage of the historical confusion in the region.

In June 2014, the group unilaterally declared the establishment of a "state" in an area that straddles parts of Iraq and Syria.

A propaganda video released by the group at that time shows tractors digging up the ground at what the video claimed was the Iraqi-Syrian border.

"The Sykes-Picot border has collapsed," an Islamic State militant declares in the video.

The Sykes-Picot border was the result of a confidential agreement between Britain and France made 100 years ago, during World War One. The two representatives of the countries, Sykes and Picot, secretly decided on how to divide the territories of the Ottoman Empire.

They decided an area originally they called Zone A would belong to France, while Zone B would belong to Britain. The line between the two zones eventually became the border separating Syria and Iraq.

The line was drawn arbitrarily and served the interests of Western countries. But it neglected the ethnic and religious makeup of the region. It's seen as the root of many of the region's problems up to the present.

Kepel: The Sykes-Picot agreement is indeed a very important piece of propaganda. One of the first symbolic actions of the Islamic State group was to destroy the Sykes-Picot border to create some of kind of homeland for Sunnis.

Kepel says the international community is capable of destroying the militant group.

Kepel: The reason why a few thousand Islamic State fighters are holding on to their territory is that, apart from the continuing strength of the Sunni Ba'athist structure in Iraq, in the Sunni Arab regions, the members have diverse interests. In fact, if all the members of the coalition shared the same feeling, that they need to get rid of the group, it would not survive. For example, they'd be asphyxiated if they couldn't export oil through Turkey.

Beppu: Well, professor Kepel was saying that, if all countries unite, it is possible to destroy the Islamic State militant group. What do you think that the world should do to destroy them?”

Tanaka: First of all, we need to deprive them of funds, personnel, as well as safe havens that they use to attack others. We should work closely with the regional states in a coordinated manner. The last thing we need to see is a feud among regional states, just like the one we saw earlier between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Beppu: What do you think is the key to restore order, and bringing peace and stability to the whole region?

Tanaka: Well unfortunately I have to say this, but we need a shocking event that will sort of be a wake-up call to all the countries, and unify the states in prioritizing their objectives. There is no east, there is no west here, there is no Christianity, there is no Islam. We all share the same fate if we don’t unite our fronts in tackling the threats that are now threatening us for the future.