It’s starting to feel a little bit like World War III. But the current hostilities with the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other Islamic extremist groups don’t conform to any familiar patterns. This is a very 21st century war, with weapons, tactics and battlefields shifting with dizzying speed.
Consider the Chechen rebels, who first fought for independence from Russia, then switched their goal to establishing an emirate covering the Caucasus before finally swearing allegiance to ISIL, which is a part of the viral mutation of Islamic extremism — to the point that Al-Qaeda now seems like the sort of terrorist group that Western countries can do business with, like the Irish Republican Army or the Palestine Liberation Organization before it.
Targets are no longer just iconic places such as the World Trade Center and Tiananmen Square in Beijing, the site of a car bomb attack in October 2013 for which the East Turkestan Islamic Movement took responsibility. ISIL and those it inspires prefer soft targets, like a bar in Paris’ 11th Arrondissement and a community center in San Bernardino, California. The message is clear: No one is safe anywhere.
ISIL’s recruitment procedures have shifted. It now not only wants recruits to fight in Syria and Iraq but also seeks to inspire sympathizers to kill and create mayhem in their own countries. Westerners are worried that terrorists are among the Syrian refugees. ISIL has an analogous worry: that there will be spies among those volunteering to fight for the caliphate. ISIL recently executed a Russian it said was spying for Moscow.
ISIL has gone viral in more ways than one. The group moves and changes at the speed of the Internet. A group with a 7th century ideology and mentality has proved more talented at adapting social media to its ends than the secular Western governments under which the technology was developed.
At the same time, ISIL is the last gasp of the old dispensation — God-dominated and patriarchal, standing against gender equality and religious freedom. ISIL has holy days, not holidays. There is a deep, unhealthy puritanical streak running through ISIL. In a statement released after the Paris attacks, ISIL called the French capital “the capital of prostitution and vice.” ISIL views the very concept of vacations and leisure as essentially sinful, because they deny God by disregarding him.
ISIL can strike its enemies anywhere in the world. The Russian jet downed by an ISIL bomb in October was taking vacationers home from the Egyptian resort city of Sharm el-Sheikh. In November, Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB, informed Thai authorities that terrorists were leaving Syria for Thailand with the aim of targeting resorts in Phuket and Pattaya, where 2 million Russians vacation annually.
Places of leisure and entertainment are increasingly favored as targets because they offend ISIL’s religious values and they are so numerous and difficult to defend.
Tactics and weapons are evolving. It is only a matter of time before commercially sold drones are used as weapons at a stadium or other open-air event. And cyberattacks are likely to increase in frequency and severity. While rival powers such as Russia and China can be effectively deterred in the cyber arena, ISIL cannot.
The governments directly involved in the war with ISIL are considering new weapons and tactics. Russian President Vladimir Putin has even expressed hope that nuclear weapons “will not be needed,” which sounds like a threat. He has drawn a distinction between nuclear warheads and tactical nuclear weapons, the latter of which could prove tempting for powers that do not wish to put boots on the ground in Syria.
Though different from the wars of the past, the struggle against ISIL is very much a war, and its global reverberations make the term “world war” appropriate. ISIL’s reach is broad. It is now targeting China, calling on Uighurs and other Muslim populations to take up arms against the government. At the same time, ISIL is strengthening its influence in Georgia especially in the heavily Muslim areas bordering Turkey. ISIL recruits have already begun passing through Georgia into Turkey and then to Syria, often returning by the same route. One of ISIL’s top commanders, Abu Omar al-Shishani, is from Georgia.
Russia is bombing ISIL targets in Syria and Iraq; aware that some 2,400 Russian citizens are fighting for ISIL, Putin said he would rather fight them in the Middle East than in Moscow. ISIL has a media blitz directed at Canada. And the San Bernardino attacks were praised by ISIL, though initial reports that the shooters pledged allegiance to ISIL on social media were mistaken.
In an effort to deal with the far-flung activities of the enemy, the Pentagon has proposed a string of military bases in Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere in southwestern Asia to collect intelligence and carry out strikes. As Defense Secretary Ashton Carter put it, these “regional nodes … will enable unilateral crisis response, counterterrorism operations or strikes on high-value targets.” The Pentagon is gearing up for hostilities on a global scale.
It took the combination of Paris, the downing of the Russian jet and San Bernardino to make Americans feel we are in a new world war. This war will last for decades, because ISIL is part of a crisis in the Islamic world that will not be resolved anytime soon. Countries such as France have barely begun to deal with their internal Muslim populations. It is easier to envision years of standoff than anything resembling victory.