ISIL’s terrorism is not a reaction to Western foreign policy

A fighter for the Islamic State parades down a street in Raqqa, the proclaimed capital.
A fighter for the Islamic State parades down a street in Raqqa, the proclaimed capital.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

It seems as though every atrocity committed against the West by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) is followed by claims in the media that such attacks are the result of our military action against them. The former mayor of London Ken Livingstone told the BBC yesterday: “All these terrorist attacks, the statements they make on their websites and so on are all about foreign policy.” He added that the French-led military intervention against the regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad was “coming back to haunt [it].”

This attitude isn’t isolated. Not long after the Paris attacks, Stop the War Coalition, which organized the million-plus march in London against the war in Iraq in 2003, tweeted an article claiming Paris “reaped the whirlwind of Western extremism.” It was hastily deleted. Writing for Salon, foreign-affairs columnist Patrick L. Smith opined, “We brought this on ourselves,” while in The Guardian yesterday, the Al Jazeera English presenter Mehdi Hasan suggested that the Paris attacks were the result of geopolitcal blowback.

Claiming that terror attacks such as those that shook Paris on Nov. 13, are a “blowback” isn’t just offensive to its (mainly Muslim) victims—it misreads the very nature of ISIL. It amounts to an excusal of the terrorist group’s intentions, as if to say that ISIL would not have done any of this if the US, UK, France, and company weren’t so meddlesome. This is a convenient tale, which is told to push a non-interventionist foreign policy, but it doesn’t reflect reality.

Yes, ISIL did grow out of chaos that sprung from the US invasion of Iraq. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. But that is not the whole picture. Chalking recent ISIL activity to blowback or revenge is an attempt to divert a sociological debate onto foreign policy, when we need to talk about how we break ISIL’s pull within Europe and the Middle East.

For a start, ISIL also grew out of the chaos in Syria, which was the result of a popular uprising against its dictator, Assad, as the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East and North Africa. Its earliest recruits were motivated by different reasons, including a desire to remove Assad from power and end the civil war. But just as many were simply looking for an excuse to exercise religious fundamentalisms that predate both the conflict in Syria and the Iraq War.

ISIL is hardly reacting solely to Western aggression. For why then would the vast majority of its victims be practicing Muslims? Before the Paris attacks, Beirut was struck by a double-suicide attack, killing over 40 people. ISIL took responsibility for that. ISIS-claimed terror attacks have also hit a peace rally in the Turkish capital of Ankara in October, a beach resort in Tunisia in June, a mosque in Yemen in March (killing over 130), and a hotel in Libya in January. Are the foreign policies of all those countries to blame too? How did they provoke the ire of ISIL?

The idea that ISIL is chiefly motivated by Western provocation further falls apart when we remember the fate of the Yazidis—an Iraqi ethnic group that has suffered horribly for the mere crime of existing the way they do. The Yazidis were attacked and killed in such a ferocious manner that many have called it genocide; and thousands of Yazidi women were abducted, killed, raped, or forced into sexual slavery. None of that could conceivably be called “blowback” for Western foreign-policy fumbles.

Similarly, ISIL has executed, persecuted, and imprisoned people from other minorities, including Christians and Shia Muslims across the territory it influences. It has also garnered pledges of allegiance from Boko Haram in Nigeria, responsible for killing and abducting thousands of innocents. ISIL has also declared war on India—another country with no history of military intervention in the Middle East.

The vast majority of ISIL’s victims have been Muslims, not Europeans, who have had nothing to do with western foreign policymaking. This isn’t by accident, but by design: the Islamic State’s main aim is to conquer all territory in the Middle East and “unite” Muslims under its banner. It is happy to do so through the infliction of terror, rather than winning hearts and minds. And these political aspirations exist with or without the orchestrations of Washington, London, or Paris.

Let me state the obvious: ISIL doesn’t attack targets in revenge, it attacks as a strategy to cause chaos, instill fear, and attract recruits. It merely uses revenge, or perversions of Quranic literature, as thin justification. Its long-term goal is to submit the entire world to its ideology, and build a global Caliphate based on its interpretation of Islam. And that isn’t my own interpretation. ISIL’s own magazine, Dabiq, repeatedly predicts a global clash between its own khilafah (caliphate) and the West. In its inaugural issue, Dabiq carried extensive excerpts from the musings of ISIL’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who claimed he was the global leader of all Muslims and would unite them (forcibly, if necessary) in one land. It predicted that, within five years, ISIL would capture and unite large tracts of land, including all of (largely Hindu) India and Central Asia.

ISIL’s designs are not a reaction to imperialism. They are a mimicry of it.

We can disagree over the extent to which US foreign policy caused the initial chaos that led to ISIL. We can even disagree on what is the best way to confront Islamic State (I favor an Arab-led force, as opposed to more Western boots on the ground). But there should be no confusion about ISIL’s ambitions. The ultimate aim, according to its own statements and publications, is global conquest through war. The idea that we can avoid conflict if we mind our own business is utterly naive.