The President writes on 'IS'

The President has written in the Tablet on the robust response required in dealing with ‘Islamic State’. The text of the article appears below, reproduced with the kind permission of the Tablet.

Terrorist organisations in past decades have had clear aims and objectives. Not so Islamic State, whose apocalyptic vision of a final conflict with the West demands a robust response, says a former diplomat well versed in responding to militant organisations


Long ago, in another life, I was the Foreign Office’s head of counterterrorism, a newly created post. Unlike any other FO job, it brought you into contact with bodies you would not as a diplomat normally expect to encounter, from intelligence agencies to special forces. As Terry Waite went missing in Beirut in 1987 in my first few days on the job, I became a frequent visitor to Lambeth Palace, again a far remove from a conventional diplomatic posting to London. Getting Waite out of the clutches of Hezbollah proved a tough nut to crack and it fell to my successors to achieve it. But at least we were reasonably confident that, in the absence of an abortive hostage rescue attempt, he was not going to be killed.

We knew roughly what Hezbollah wanted in exchange for Waite and the other Western hostages. In prison in Kuwait were a group of Shia terrorists, known as the Dawa 17, some related to the Hezbollah head of security, Imad Mughniyeh, who was killed in Damascus by an Israeli car bomb in 2008. We knew that our hostages were being held as a bargaining tool to secure the release of the Dawa 17.

We had other terrorist threats to deal with of course. The Palestinian terrorist band Abu Nidal was extremely active. Again we knew that its terrorist attacks were aimed at forcing Western governments to impose territorial concessions on Israel. And there was, of course, the IRA. British withdrawal from the island of Ireland was the straightforward demand in exchange for which we could have peace.

That was then. We now have two terrorist groups. We have al-Qaeda, which, while extreme, is at least comprehensible in that its aims, too, are largely territorial – the removal of all Western forces from Muslim countries, the destruction of the state of Israel and the overthrow of corrupt leaders in the Islamic world who place man-made law above sharia. And then we have Islamic State or IS – whose theology is strictly and literally based on earliest Islam – and its twisted interpretation of the Prophet’s writings of 1,400 years ago.

IS has no interest in seeing a peaceful outcome of the struggle between its pure form of Islam and what it sees as crusader forces. There are no concessions we in the West could make, no withdrawal of forces, which would temper their bloodthirstiness. Last June, the IS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared the return of the caliphate with himself as the new caliph. Once a caliphate is declared with a legitimate caliph, all Muslims who recognise the caliphate are, according to IS’s reading of Islam, obliged to come to live there and swear allegiance, baya’a, to the caliph. A number of militant groups have done this, the latest being Boko Haram in Nigeria.

The caliph himself cannot make permanent peace (he must wage jihad at least once a year) nor can he recognise borders. IS takes a literally apocalyptic view of the future where the armies of Rome and of Islam will meet in Syria, at Dabiq, as anticipated by the Prophet, and where the final victory of Islam will take place. The instruments of terror used by IS serve the twin purposes of arousing shock and awe, and inspiring young Muslims to join in the excitement of jihad. Their victims are not bargaining chips as in the days of yore.

What marks IS out from the Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia is the important distinction that IS sees itself as surrounded by unbelievers (as was Muhammad in Medina) and therefore justified in visiting the most extreme punishments prescribed in the ancient texts – beheading, crucifixion and slavery – on apostates and kuffar, non-believers. The leading IS spokesman put it succinctly: “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women.”

Whether the regular ritualised killings and mass executions will eventually sicken even the most gung-ho jihadists is still an open question. More hopeful are the reports from Iraq and Syria of multiple desertions, perhaps prompted by an awareness that IS is not invincible, witness its failure to take Kobane on the border with Turkey from the Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, and the evidence that coalition air strikes are reducing some IS strongholds. These include the town of Al-Baghdadi that was retaken by Iraqi government forces last week.

But it would be rash indeed to predict the early demise of IS. They still control an area larger than the UK, including key towns such as Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq. I asked a Lebanese friend recently how we should deal with IS. His answer was unequivocal: air strikes, no Western boots on the ground but arm the Kurds massively. And pressure the Turks to seal their border with IS territory to deny them further access to arms, fighters and money. A constant reduction of IS territory, confronting them with strong local forces (and perhaps, pace my Lebanese friend, some limited Western special forces?) may just pay the necessary dividends to demonstrate IS’s vulnerability. Without territory, IS is hamstrung. The caliphate believes in a structured society observing the strictest implementation of sharia. It has no wish to be a guerrilla army like al-Qaeda.

While IS is busy recruiting Muslims to come to live in its territory, we have the bizarre spectacle of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in parallel urging all European Jews to “return” to their homeland. The attacks on synagogues, Jewish shops and the desecration of Jewish cemeteries are despicable. But the answer from European Jews and the authorities must not be to bow to this terrorist intimidation.

The reaction of the European public to the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and Danish cartoonists has not been to ban free speech but to demonstrate massively in favour of it. We should similarly stand shoulder to shoulder with our Jewish friends to offer them support and insist on our authorities giving them protection. Nothing could better distinguish liberal Western states from Islamic State than their determination to protect human life and not to extinguish it.

Sir Ivor Roberts is president of Trinity College, and a former British ambassador to Yugoslavia, Ireland and Italy.