More war in Syria? Why Finland and the other European countries should think twice before supporting it

SoldierIt is always very dangerous to react to events like Paris’ bombings in the following days, when people are still fighting for their lives in hospitals. However, when discussions go on about what should Finland (and others do now in reaction, there are some elements to take into account when discussing the events, whatever strong emotions they may provoke in all of us in Europe.

Point 1: the Islamic State (IS, sometimes called ISIS or DAECH) is a consequence of the wars in the Middle-East, beginning with the war against Iraq

Al Qaeda had already been a creation of the United States, United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and the People’s Republic of China, who, in order to support  supported the Islamist Afghan mujaheddin guerrillas against the military forces of the Soviet Union and the Republic of Afghanistan. A small number of “Afghan Arab” volunteers joined the fight against the Soviets, including Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda received financial, technical and training support from the US and its ally.

After the 11/9/2001 attack on the US, the War on Terror, also known as the Global War on Terrorism, was declared by U.S. President George W. Bush. it has then largely been used by politicians, media in order to justify a global military, political, legal, and conceptual struggle against both organizations designated terrorist and in principle regimes accused of supporting them. it has justified US and allies military operations in Afghanistan, Philippines, Somalia, Northern Mali,  the invasion of Iraq, in particular on the basis of Iraq possessing weapons of mass destruction and supporting terrorism, the support of the Arab Spring and finally the war in Syria and Iraq.

The Islamic State, responsible for the Paris attacks and a number of other terrorists activities, has been created in 2006 with funding and support from Saudi Arabia (mainly Muslim Sunni state), in order to fight the Iraqi (51% Shia, 42% Sunni according to a 2011 poll), the reason seeming to be that there was a fear that the two countries would join in an alliance which would be muslin Shia dominating. The US supported the creation of the Islamic State, because the emergence of an Iraq-Iran block would have possible consequences for oil supply, for political balance (Russia being quite close to Iran), and for the protection of Israel who could have something to fear from such a block. Qatar and some other countries close to Saudi Arabia financed also the Islamic State

Later, the Islamic State (IS) developed when the situation in Syria became confused, following Syrian President Bashar Hafez al-Assad’s implication in mass crackdowns and military sieges on Arab Spring protesters, leading to the Syrian Civil War. The Syrian opposition, the United States, Canada, the European Union and the majority of the Arab League have called for al-Assad’s resignation from the presidency, but he refused and the war continued. The Islamic State got support from the allies to fight Assad’s regime, with for example Turkey allowing IS troops to cross the Syrian border, IS fighters to be treated in Turkey’s hospitals, and coordinating the sale of ISIS stolen oil from Iraq. At the same time, the US, France, UK and Israel for example were providing support and arms to the “Syrian rebels”, including to groups who joined the Islamic State.

This allows to say that the Islamic State is directly or indirectly  a creation of the West and its allies, following the destabilization of the Middle east caused by interventions following the so-called war on terror, which in fact led to more terror.

So one could seriously question the wisdom of using the same methods (such as more war) when the present situation was caused by the use of war to fight terrorism…

Point 2: even if we would be able to destroy the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it would not be the end of the Islamic State or of terrorism

The Islamic State is not the only player on the terrorism’s market, and is not  active in other countries than  Iraq and Syria.

By the 13th of November, there has been 289 terrorist attacks in the world this year with thousands of deaths.

The Islamic State comes only second with 57 attacks (declared or suspected) killing more than 1540 people until now, with a number of attacks killing more people than in Paris.

One competitor (and ally) Boko Haram, which calls itself Wilāyat Gharb Ifrīqīyyah, an Islamic extremist group based in north eastern Nigeria, also active in Chad, Niger and northern Cameroon, has killed more than 3000 people in 48 terrorist atttacks, in addition to kidnappings and killings in their operations. According to Wikipedia, the group had alleged links to al-Qaeda, but in March 2015, it announced its allegiance to the Islamic State.

By comparison, Al Qaeda with 5 attacks and 66 death, mainly with local killings, looks like a small player. But their strategy consists in trying to appear as moderate, compared to the Islamic state, and settle in Syria by attacking the Syrian army, with some help (or at least some neutrality) from the US. They are now targeted by Russia, however.

We should add to this list the group called Al-Shabaa,  a jihadist terrorist group based in East Africa. In 2012, it pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda, and a number of other ones.

So destroying the Islamic State would not end terrorism in the world, as it has a lot of heads and bodies.

Point 3: You cannot fight terrorism with war

France is wounded. French people are feeling threatened, as where the Americans after the destruction of the twin towers. The French President needs to be bold, because new elections are coming, and he is accused of weakness. And it is quite well-known that declaring and conducting a war has in the short term at least a positive impact on the popularity of the leaders.

But you cannot declare war to something which is everywhere, which is not a country or a town. Even if we destroy the Islamic State, which i doubt because it is present in a lot of other countries than Syria and Iraq, it will begin again from another base.

In addition, the wars are feeding terrorism. It is a very powerful communication tool that terrorist groups are very good at using. And the presence of so-called “crusaders” appeal to the heart of a number of people, in countries where history is very present. In addition, wars create dramas, poverty, destruction of families, which are classically facilitating the recruitment for groups like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State, which are providing an aim, a structure,  and surviving support for those who do not want to migrate to other countries.

That is the reason why the wars that occidental countries have lead in Afghanistan, in Libya, and in Iraq have not stopped terrorism, on the contrary they have increased it. And France proposes to go to war? When will they realize that following and supporting the US, who have other objectives in terms of oil and influence is not necessarily a winning strategy?

Point 4: The Islamic State is the richest terrorist organization in the world, with billions of dollars available and hundreds of million dollars as monthly income

The reason why terrorism is able to develop, and in particular the Islamic State, is that they have money. If you look at their recruitment ads in Europe, they propose a stable salary (300 euros a month last time I looked), a place to live, food and clothing. So for young people who, in countries like France, are left without this level of resources, or are attracted by the perfume of adventure, or are just angry about le society, it looks like an attractive offer.

This comes from the fact that the Islamic State is very rich. According to a 2014 report, “Islamic State: the economy-based Terrorist Funding” written for Thomson Reuters by Jean-Charles Brisard, international consultant and expert on terrorist and Damien Martinez, Director for Governance, Risk and Compliance at Thomson Reuters, the Islamic State relied heavily until 2006 on illegal activities to finance its operations. It also received private and institutional donations (mainly from NGOs) originating from Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait. Since this period, it has diversified its source of income, and relies on other sources such as:

  • the practice of terror against the local people and international travelers: Since its inception, the IS has relied on kidnap and ransom and criminal activity to fund its activities, targeting businessmen, local politicians and clerics, in addition to foreign nationals. According to estimates, the IS raises as much as US$10 million per month through ransom payments.
  • a local tax system: In its quest to establish administrative and civil control over its conquered territory, the IS has implemented taxes on a variety of commercial activities. In Mosul alone, IS is believed to raise US$8 million in taxes each month (taxes on goods, on cash withdrawals from ATM, road taxes for cars, custom taxes on trucks crossing their territory, a protection tax for non-Muslims…). The report estimates that in total, the extortion/tax system imposed
    in areas under its control in Iraq and Syria could generate as much as US$30 million per month for IS
  • revenues from oil (US$45 million per month): according to a recent article from the Financial Times, estimates by local traders and engineers put crude production in Isis-held territory at about 34,000-40,000 barrel a day. The oil is sold at the wellhead for between $20 and $45 a barrel, earning the militants an average of $1.5m a day.
  • revenues from natural gas were estimated in the report at the level of  US$40 million per month
  • revenues from phosphate, cement and sulfur: phosphate mining,  cement plants and sulfuric and phosphoric acid plants fell under the control of the Islamic State, and at a 50 % discounted price they could get an income of US$60 million per month.

There has been a lot of discussions about IS resources. Bloomberg reports that the US government has seriously underestimated the IS oil resources. The new estimation are very close to the ones of Thomson Reuters’ report from last year.

In addition, according to the same article by Bloomberg, beyond oil, the Islamic State “is believed by U.S. officials to have assets including $500 million to $1 billion that it seized from Iraqi bank branches last year, untold “hundreds of millions” of dollars that U.S. officials say are extorted and taxed out of populations under the group’s control, and tens of millions of dollars more earned from looted antiquities and ransoms paid to free kidnap victims”.

Point 5: why western countries have difficulties attacking the Islamic State on the financial battleground

When the war is clearly not the best solution to solve the problem of terrorism, one could think that launching a financial war would be a solution, as the main expenses from the Islamic State are the fighters’ salaries, as the majority are mercenaries and apparently ready to change side if they are not paid.

There has been some timid initiatives to diminish the oil production, with the U.S. mainly targeting refineries and storage depots, but the  majority of the group’s oil revenue has increasingly been coming from crude oil rather than refined oil. In addition, oil is no more the main revenue from the Islamic State. So, even with a change of strategy concerning the targets for US, Russian and French aviation, it is quite difficult to stop the oil production.

For the observer, it looks like it would be easy to attack the Islamic State by pressuring its customers. One of the main problem seems that people buying this oil are either local groups who are sometimes even opponents to IS, or the local population, or people from surrounding countries allied with us and making big profits from the trade with the Islamic State. until a recent time, for example, Turkey was the main place where oil deals were performed bi the Islamic State. The reason why the US, France, and the UK are until now seldom speaking of a strong embargo in IS products may be that the main customers of the IS are those who are buying their weapons and their product. Saudi Arabia, for example, is known to be one of the main customers for the French economy. This “Realpolitik” may have cost the lives of a number of Parisians.

In term of hostages, who are financing the Islamic state, the US as a rule do not pay ransom, which is not the case of other countries, such as France,who are known to be paying, directly and indirectly, even when they deny it. This policy should be questioned, as it may lead to more kidnapping, and more money for the Islamic State.

Another way to attack the Islamic State could be to block their financial assets. According  expert Jean-Charles Brisard, the Islamic State freely uses the Syrian and Iraqi banking networks and can access through them to international banking networks. No one has yet thought to break these channel. Why? It looks like there are some strategic financial interests involved, so important that the western countries prefer to go to war than to increase the control of financial flows.

As suggested by some experts, we could also expect intelligence agencies to better coordinate their investigations of the middlemen who facilitate its oil sales. Banks and auction houses must be more alert to cutting off trade in pilfered antiquities. Neighboring countries — notably Turkey — still need to do more to stop the flow of illicit money and goods through Iraq and Syria.

So one could wonder why the war seems more urgent and more important than these economic and financial measures.

Pojnt 6: fight terrorism in our countries and on the web

Terrorist movements such as the Islamic State are using two main modes of recruitment: extremist imams and the internet.

From the point of view of extremist imams in moderate countries, we have a serious problem, with the development of Salafism. Salafis are fundamentalists who believe in a return to the original ways of Islam. They are not necessarily extremists, but they believe in Sharia law and consider it a higher law than national laws and Constitutions. However, they are not always politically radical, but Salafism encompasses a huge range of beliefs – extending from non-violent religious devotion at one extreme, to Salafi Jihadism at the other. For this reason, we should develop a common approach on how to deal with Salafism in the West and extremist preachers calling for the Jihad and acting as recruiters for the  Islamic State.

A second mode of recruitment if the IS is the use of the web, and in particular of social media. As indicated by the MIT Technology Review, “the Islamic State is an Internet phenomenon as much as a military one. Counteracting it will require better tactics on the battlefield of social media […] ISIS has been the prime mover among Islamist groups that have lured 25,000 foreigners to fight in Syria and Iraq, including 4,500 from Europe and North America, according to a U.S. government report released this week”. The article is particularly interesting, as it proposes not only for internet companies to close accounts and to delete gory videos, and to share information with law enforcement, for  Government agencies to prepare and disseminate  counter-messages and fund general outreach efforts in Muslim communities, for NGOs to train religious and community leaders in how to rebut ISIS messaging, and to create websites with peaceful interpretations of the Quran but also “a widespread effort to establish one-on-one contact online with the people who are absorbing content from IS and other extremist groups and becoming radicalized“.

These elements should be part of a specific effort of the EU to act together to counter terrorist groups on the web and win the real war there. It requires only limited money, human resources, some new European Regulations, and a lot of collaboration. When will we see it?

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It would be the role of Finland, Sweden, Germany  and other countries not yet members of the Syrian coalition  to push other EU countries  involved in Syria and Iraq to sit down and think strategically instead of reacting emotionally (and sometimes for electoral reasons) by increasing the war effort, which has until now just increased terrorism.

 

 

A lot could be said about the internet battle, as it is one way of recruiting jihadist for the terrorist groups: why is the EU fighting strongly on this battlefield, occupied only for now by Anonymous, the hacker group targeting the Islamic State on the web…

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For all these reasons, it would be useful that Finland, and other EU countries, play a positive role in supporting efficient ways of fighting terrorism, and put the EU outside the battlefield,  in a position to help the Middle East find diplomatic solutions to the present problems. if we are one of the groups fighting on the ground, who will help find peace?



Categories: Defence, Government

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1 reply

  1. War is bad… but, in reality, targeted military interventions can restrain the progression of terrorist groups. One rather successful recent example is the 2013 Serval operation without which the state of Mali would have fallen! The question is should we let ISIS take control over entire Syria and Kurdistan and the whole of Irak and beyond? If not, shouldn’t EU consider all the tools at their disposal… including military ones?

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