In revenge for last week’s terrorist attack in Paris, the French air force dropped 20 bombs in one night on the Syrian city of Raqqa. It may well be the headquarters of Daesh, but Raqqa is also home to 500,000 civilians; the French bombing destroyed a command centre, training camp and munitions dump, it was claimed.
Other countries followed France’s lead; the US promised to step up its own airstrikes against the group, while British Prime Minister David Cameron said that it is his “firm conviction” that Britain should extend its airstrikes against Daesh targets. On the home-front, the focus has been on the security issues supposedly posed by British citizens who might harbour Daesh sympathies, along with the terrorists who may be hiding among Syrian refugees in Europe. While these responses have been formulated to tackle the extremist group, it is likely that Daesh will view them as a victory for its tactics.
Daesh has been attempting to draw Western countries, the US in particular, into the conflict in Syria for some time. The gruesomely awful beheading videos, some of which have addressed US President Barack Obama directly, are designed to do just that and have been successful; since September 2014, the US has been leading a coalition of states in a sustained aerial campaign against the group. As of 6 October this year, the US and its allies had conducted 57,843 sorties in support of operations in Iraq and Syria. Despite the airstrikes, Daesh has still managed to advance; for example, in May it seized Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra just days after capturing Anbar’s provincial capital Ramadi, an hour away from Baghdad.
Some politicians are calling for stronger action against the group in the wake of the Paris attacks. South Carolina Senator Lindsey Grahame believes that the US should, “Go in on the ground and destroy their caliphate.” Presidential candidate Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon seeking the Republican nomination, said American troops on the ground would “probably” help the anti-Daesh effort.
In the words of counter-terrorism analyst Harleen Gambhir, Daesh deliberately “set a trap” for Europe with the Paris attack, a provocation seeking to set the conditions for an apocalyptic war. The extremists believe that everything which is happening is part of an “end of the world” process, leading to a showdown between an army of Muslims from across the world and the “crusaders”, which is said to be set to take place in the village of Dabiq, in Syria.
They have been seeking to bring forward that battle by goading the international coalition to confront it in Dabiq. In the video showing the beheading of US citizen Peter Kassig, his masked executioner announced, “Here we are, burying the first American crusader in Dabiq, eagerly waiting for the remainder of your armies to arrive.” According to journalist Graeme Woods, during fighting in Iraq last December, perhaps inaccurate reports which claimed to have spotted US troops produced a rapturous response on Daesh Twitter accounts. Waging a war directly against the worlds’ superpowers will undoubtedly attract new recruits to the terrorists’ cause.
Former hostage Nicholas Henin believes that it is central to the group’s world view that other communities cannot live together with Muslims, and their antennae are tuned towards finding supporting evidence for this belief every day. As the news broke that the Paris attackers included French nationals and a Syrian refugee who had arrived in Europe via Greece (although this is now believed to be false), Daesh/ISIS is no doubt watching carefully.
In the aftermath of Paris, David Cameron has announced plans to host a donor conference early next year to raise “significant new funding” to “tackle” the flood of refugees coming from Syria. More than half of the state governors in the US — 26 states, in fact — have said that they oppose letting Syrian refugees into their states. Less than 24 hours after the tragedy, Poland’s incoming European affairs minister told the wpolityce.pl website that the country would pull back from an EU-wide quota commitment to relocate refugees across the continent. US politicians Ted Cruz and Jeb Bush, meanwhile, even urged the US government only to allow Syrian Christians to go to America.
Europe’s increasingly popular right wing parties capitalised on the fear of “home-grown” terrorism to stoke up anti-Islam, anti-Muslim sentiment following Paris. On Monday, Marine Le Pen, head of France’s National Front Party, tweeted: “Islamic fundamentalism must be annihilated, radical mosques must be closed and radical imams must be expelled.” Meanwhile, UKIP leader Nigel Farage warned that some Muslims in Britain are “conflicted in their loyalties.” Ordinary, non-threatening Muslims are already paying in the price in terms of Islamophobic attacks.
This response is exactly what Daesh is aiming for. Pledges to ignore refugee quotas do not protect European governments, they work in the extremists’ favour, whereas an organised programme of resettlement will enable Europe to screen refugees before they arrive and give governments a better chance of weeding out potential or actual terrorists. The images of Muslim refugees welcomed warmly by crowds of supporters in Germany, for example, demonstrate the opposite of what Daesh wants.
The group’s strategy is to polarise Western society. As it explained after last January’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine, such events will lead, it hopes, to a situation where, “Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatise… or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.” It calculates, according to Harleen Gambhir, that a small number of attackers can force a profound shift in the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim citizens and, as a result, the way that European Muslims view themselves.
France’s aerial bombing of Raqqa did not just hit an ISIS command centre, training camp and munitions dump, by the way; it also hit a stadium, museum, clinics, a hospital, a chicken farm and a local governmental building, killing and wounding civilians. Our response to Daesh/ISIS should be more humane; it is in this way that we can defeat the group, at least in terms of propaganda material. By overreaction, division, fear and prejudice, we are playing into the terrorists’ hands.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.