Paris attacks: The West’s fatal misunderstanding of Islamic State

November 15, 2015
ATTENTION EDITORS - VISUAL COVERAGE OF SCENES OF INJURY OR DEATHGeneral view of the scene with rescue service personnel working near covered bodies outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, November 13, 2015.   REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer      TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY      - RTS6W3I

A general view of the scene outside a restaurant following shooting incidents in Paris, France, November 13, 2015. REUTERS/Philippe Wojazer

The horrendous attacks on Paris have an eerie resemblance to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, in that they seem to have caught everyone off guard.

Until perhaps Friday, the main perception among Western intelligence agencies and Washington policymakers has been that Islamic State poses “no immediate threat” to the United States or the West.

“Unlike Al Qaeda, ISIS is more interested in establishing a Caliphate and not so interested in attacking the West,” a retired CIA officer explained during a closed meeting at one of Washington’s think tanks. He was echoing a common sentiment, and insisted that “Al Qaeda remains the main threat.” Even U.S. President Barack Obama recently said with confidence that Islamic State was being “contained.”

But we cannot forget that Islamic State came to the world stage barely over a year ago, when it took Mosul and subsequently one third of Iraq as well as one third of Syria in a matter of weeks. Some of the terror group’s major advances on the ground took mere hours, advances that Obama later said will take years to roll back.

I remember covering the war at that time from Damascus, Syria, and later from Beirut, where I kept in constant communication via the Internet with the Syrian rebels and civilians who had suddenly found themselves under Islamic State rule in the eastern Syrian province of Deir al Zor. During those first few days, many went underground, not sure what to do about their new, brutal occupier, who proceeded to slaughter more than 700 men from the Arab Sunni Muslim tribe of Shueitat because the tribe did not pledge allegiance to Islamic State. The militant group commanded all men of fighting age in Deir Al Zor to report to Islamic State checkpoints, surrender weapons, and either pledge allegiance to Islamic State or leave the territory immediately.

“We never thought the West would allow a group like ISIS to expand, but now I know that we have been played. We have been extremely stupid,” one anti-Islamic State rebel told me on condition of anonymity to protect his family. He sounded embittered by what he called a shocking and swift victory for the group, and he spoke to me from his car, which he said he had parked just outside an Internet cafe to piggy-back on the Wi-Fi signal without anyone hearing our conversation. He said Islamic State had setup checkpoints everywhere.

“The only thing that makes sense to us is that the world wants to dump all its trash here,” he said, referring to the Islamic State jihadists, whom he said were mainly non-Syrian, but other Arab nationals, Chechens, and Westerners. “And then the West will come and bomb them all. This must be the strategy because nothing else makes any sense.”

Conspiracy theories aside, there is some truth to the idea that some countries, as naive and misguided as they have been, privately sighed relief to see their own Islamist nationals travel to Islamist territory to meet their fate.

“It’s better than having them stay in our country,” one Western diplomat told me on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter. “Statistically, a newly arrived jihadist to ISIS territory is killed within weeks, so good riddance.” He added that all the West had to worry about were the “lone-wolf attacks” inspired by Islamic State.

Unfortunately, the Paris attacks have disproved this theory, and it is time to shed other falsely comforting illusions as well.

Namely, let us not forget that some of the United States’ staunchest allies have been, and remain, responsible for facilitating the arrival of money, materiel, and jihadists into Islamic State territory, not to mention providing the ideological guidance for the terror group. They have been doing so in the hopes of toppling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Jihadists have crossed the borders of Jordan and Turkey into Syria, seemingly at will. Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have not stopped their private citizens from sending money to various Islamist brigades, including Islamic State. They also give airtime to the muftis who provide ideological guidance to Islamic State, religious scholars who condone sectarian killing, gruesome beheadings, and sexual slavery on theological grounds.

It has been too convenient a falsity also for the West to believe that Syria’s war is Syria’s problem, or at least someone else’s problem, when so many world players are already involved in the war there, either directly or by proxy.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had strong words at the ongoing Vienna talks on Syria, attended by foreign ministers of some 20 nations. Standing next to his Russian counterpart, Kerry called the Paris attacks “the most vile, horrendous, outrageous, unacceptable acts on the planet.” But he added that they “encouraged us today to do even harder work to make progress and to help resolve the crises that we face.”

Peace and order in Syria are a long way off — Syrians are not even represented in Vienna — but if world players resolve to ensure that the Paris attacks become the nail in Islamic State’s coffin, then at least the Phoenix is already rising from the ashes.

This column appears courtesy of the Project for Study of the 21st Century. See www.projects21.com for further commentaries.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the United Arab Emirates among nations that have tacitly allowed citizens to support Islamic State.

36 comments

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I think in both journalist and intel circles you get group think and an unwillingness to stray from perceived wisdoms.

This leads to massive failures in intel as those in that community tend not to want to rock the boat as they are scared of damaging career prospects.

Posted by Andrew__ | Report as abusive

Very good piece.

My only quibble with the coverage of the attacks is the fact the Western media still refuses to openly discuss the role played in our policy towards Syria by narrow Israel-first and Turkish agendas. We started off interested in replacing Assad with a Saudi puppet. But the failures of the rebels caused our policy to morph into a more subversive and nefarious one, namely replacing Assad with a more militant anti-Iranian and anti-Kurdish “coalition.” ISIS was thus formed directly out of our new policy. The western media are heavily controlled by neoconservatives and the Israel-first crowd and have actively covered up the role the US played in the creation and arming of ISIS.

Posted by RVM2 | Report as abusive

“The world’s fatal misunderstanding of the consequences of muslim immigration”

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

And now here comes the Islamic State’s misunderstanding of the West and the rest of the world. There will be a reply.

Posted by Justin1313 | Report as abusive

The West’s fatal misunderstanding of Islamic State is the time. Time when you could wage wars on colonies without spreading them to metropolis has gone.

Posted by stapol | Report as abusive

Bah. Long on encouraging the West to do something and short on what to do. Bomb the heck out of “them” as if they don’t have civilians, hospitals and baby milk factories? Boots on the ground? The government should burn through national treasure and the lives of American boys in order to stabilize a region that has been a source of terrorism since as far back as I can remember (Eisenhower)? The problem here is that there is no apparent solution that is cheap, easy, and effective. And the expensive solution hasn’t worked very well either.

Posted by sandy12345 | Report as abusive

We don’t even know who we are dealing with so the first thing that should be done to prevent this from happening on our shores is to close our borders tight and get serious about screening all who cross until we figure out a realistic way of dealing with this ideology.

Posted by CorrectOpinion | Report as abusive

France has no one else but itself to blame for these horrible attacks due to there support of the so called ‘rebel’s’ in Syria (who are all terrorists). Terrorists that France, the UK, and most especially the US have armed and supported.

THE SYRIAN REBELS ARE ALL ISIS.

And then there is the disgusting Wahhabi kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
As the West keeps rolling out the red carpet to these terrorists, Saudi Arabia keeps funding these attacks. Just follow the money trail……..

Posted by No_apartheid | Report as abusive

The propaganda machine of the civilized world should paint a picture of those terrorists as anti-humanity, purposeless and miserable misfits in the civilized world. In my opinion the media has not done enough to spread the notion that
terrorism is the symbol of a failed ideology or religion of Muslim. Should Muslims
be just spending their lives on the earth to prepare for a glorious after-life by killing innocent people?

Posted by jlpeng | Report as abusive

A very mediocre article, full of conspiracies and little else. Doesn’t belong on Reuters.

Posted by AndyF. | Report as abusive

The media shows a bright, smiling picture of the “mastermind” as if he accomplished something. It’s the same with the lone gunmen that destroy lives. Media coverage makes celebrities out of them. They don’t care if their dead. In their sick minds, they’ll be glorified. They’re psychopaths. They should remain anonymous. Their pictures should only be shown if they’re at large and need to be caught. Then a mugshot or artist rendering. That’s the fatal mistake that can be fixed. As long as people in the Middle East don’t tolerate trivial variances to their ‘religions’ there will be bloodshed. Boots on the ground won’t change anything in the long run.

Posted by lacardin | Report as abusive

Islam has a problem. It is a patriarchal and deeply self-centered religion, much like christianity. If ISIS is truly a “perversion of Islam,” then Muslim leaders need to clean house and hunt down ISIS. Instead of issuing fatwas against cartoonists and writers…. issue them against ISIS. And hunt them down?

Why does this not happen? Because ISIS is likely not a perversion of Islam. It is just Islam.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

One thing left out, the institution of sharia and the cleric.

Shari a is not really a “body oƒ ˆislamic law” but an institution in the nation of islam which enables the ambitious cleric to build a career based on their interpretation of koran and haddith, garner a following, build a militia and broker political power as a dictator. When they have a militia in pursuit of a successful career if they feel strong the attack other clerics and their followers , or if they feel subordinate they point their fingers at other clerics and say “That is not the real islam.” This is their standard operating procedure for distributing political power. The winner is the will of allah.

And according the ayatollah khomeini this process is democracy at its best because the followers choose their cleric while in the west he says that big money chooses the apolitical leader.

The law part of sharia is the cleric gets to make the laws and the muslim submits to them.

As long as there is an institution of sharia which enables the cleric to build a career and broker political power there will the threat of violence to the western world. These are political dictators and through history we know that political dictators do not give up their power willingly.

This period of active islamic violence has been going on since the late 18th century from the wahhabists who saw their goal as to reduce the influence of the western world, return islam to its 7th century roots, and helped to reinstate the Saud family.

Any one of these ambitious clerics is pleased to see the western world bomb their rivals but they believe in the same thing, the right of the cleric to use the institution of sharia to gain political power.

There are some reform muslims who seek to change this and bring Islam into the modern world.

Posted by quacknduck | Report as abusive

TE Lawrence’s quest for pan-Arabism ended in proving the absurdity of the concept in the face of deeply rooted Arab divisions. This author’s words crumble against the same divisions. The West’s shortcomings are incalculably smaller than the Arab world’s–and arguably the Muslim world’s–shortcomings in building a civil society.

Western intervention in that process is not to be denied, but the region’s inability to overcome Western intervention lies entirely within its own failure to understand itself. Arabs–and Muslims–are horribly, horribly lost.

Posted by cleanthes | Report as abusive

First of all what the West has failed to understand is the dynamic between religious intolerance and ritualistic fundamentalism.
https://nicichiarasa.wordpress.com/2015/ 11/15/religious-intolerance-versus-ritua lic-fundamentalism/

Posted by BetterFailing | Report as abusive

“Even U.S. President Barack Obama…”
Even???

Posted by DaveF1 | Report as abusive

How did we handle the Japanese Empire in 1945. How did we NOT land troops? No, not with the Atomic Bombs. That was an after thought to hurry the process. The main strategy was firebombing the main island of Honshu, especially Tokyo. No concern about “collateral damage.” Why? We were at war. War is not nice. It’s not good. It’s a matter of “Get them before they get you.” Doesn’t have to be by “boots on the ground.” Saturation or carpet bombing of EVERYTHING including oil fields will do just fine. And don’t tell the truck drivers. They may not be the killers, but they are aiding and assisting the killers by supply oil for money to the ISIS. You say to still accept the refugees. Only 0.1% are “bad guys.” Well, 0.1% of 100,0000 is 1,000. 1,000 extra killers running amuck in the U.S. No thank you.

Posted by chekovmerlin | Report as abusive

Saudi Arabia should have to take the refugees. They are the ones funding ISIS.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

““We never thought the West would allow a group like ISIS to expand, but now I know that we have been played. We have been extremely stupid,”
Yeah, thank Obama.

Posted by UgoneHearMe | Report as abusive

Mighty Russia, you have done well convincing the west to bomb ISIS against their own previous interests.

Posted by coolmark82 | Report as abusive

This is just not true. Just google Marc Trevidic, the French anti-terrorism judge to have your theory disproved. Quoting a retired CIA officer and a wester diplomat does not amount to much. Sorry.

Posted by senomokne | Report as abusive

The only people not understanding ISIS is the President of the United States and his followers.

This “JV team” has proved that they are indeed not contained as President Obama claimed just 12 hours before the Paris attacks that they were.

Obama and his followers are on a different mission than those that want to defeat ISIS and end this horror.

Posted by Wastedyrs | Report as abusive

@cleanthes wrote:

“The West’s shortcomings are incalculably smaller than the Arab world’s–and arguably the Muslim world’s–shortcomings in building a civil society.”

Here’s the thing, these people have had civil society that predates any of your civil society ideas. If by civil you’re refering to the romans and their attempts at building model cities by a certain template, that didn’t last, and was consumed by the same entropic ills found in every society.
These same people have seen nation-states and empires rise and fall and had great temples, graineries, roads, palaces, written language, and codified laws while your ancestors were fighting for scraps of a hog in some ancient european forest.
Any society that allows thirteen million people to be driven from their homes has some serious shortcomings.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

They might as well of just hung out a sign that reads “come and bomb us”, if there is one thing you could count on from this type of tragedy, is the west will implement more airstrikes against a perceived enemy.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

They might as well of just hung out a sign that reads “come and bomb us”, if there is one thing you could count on from this type of tragedy, is the west will implement more airstrikes against a perceived enemy.

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

They pose no existential threat, which is probably what they mean. The art of terrorism is to viscerally offend populations so that governments over react and spend too much and decrease freedoms, essentially becoming fanatic nations like those control by the Islamic fanatics.

Posted by brotherkenny4 | Report as abusive

This article is whistling in the dark in total ignorance and lost in unreality.

Posted by FounderChurches | Report as abusive

Daesh is unclean. Their impurity defiles the prophet Mohammed. All Daesh Korans are to be burned in order to restore fallen Mohammed from apostasy.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

The french president said the attack was a declaration of war. Islam declared war on all non-believers when the Koran was written. That’s how stupid the west is.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

And by the way if you want to win the war against ISIS you start at the Mosque where the vile hatred of non-Islam humanity is propagated, and those that are funding the radical mosques, the Saudis. But the US government is in the pocket of the Saudis and nobody would dare to actually talk about the REAL root of the problem. Read your US propaganda fellow Americans and go on dreaming that there is any coherent US strategy with a realistic chance of success in the next 100 years. You keep dreaming.

Posted by tribeUS | Report as abusive

Bush went to war with one of the few secular and anti-Islamist regimes in the Middle East and sits and jokes with the Saudi Royal family who are the source of most Islamist backing and most of Al Qaeda.

Hilarious, the war on terror indeed.

Posted by Ascii_ | Report as abusive

testing one two
Very good piece.

My only quibble with the coverage of the attacks is the fact the Western media still refuses to openly discuss the role played in our policy towards Syria by narrow Israel-first and Turkish agendas. We started off interested in replacing Assad with a Saudi puppet. But the failures of the rebels caused our policy to morph into a more subversive and nefarious one, namely replacing Assad with a more militant anti-Iranian and anti-Kurdish “coalition.” ISIS was thus formed directly out of our new policy. The western media are heavily controlled by neoconservatives and the Israel-first crowd and have actively covered up the role the US played in the creation and arming of ISIS.

Posted by Breadie | Report as abusive

Please stop calling these lone wolf terrorist ringleaders “architects”. It disrespects one of the most noble professions on the planet, and confuses the average reader. Architects design buildings and spaces, they coordinate complex teams of supportive professionals like engineers and planners to accomplish a positive goal, they dream of how things could be, all the while knowing that less than 1% of those dreams will ever materialize in the real world in their lifetime, and they embrace both history and future socioeconomic trends as they go about their work. Terrorists do none of this.

Posted by roc1 | Report as abusive

@roc1, Webster – Full Definition of ARCHITECT

1
: a person who designs buildings and advises in their construction
2
: a person who designs and guides a plan or undertaking

Posted by Whipsplash | Report as abusive

Very well written article , precise enough to understand what the mistaks west nd USA & its allies doing , These guys hav vigo champs to ride , million dollar sale of oil daily , effectively use social midia but never traced nd cught , every west country hav info nd nos how many fighters hav gon for syria nd returing back , but jailed ?? Who come ??? Innocent people hav lose their for how long ???

Posted by SAM786 | Report as abusive

Saw two Daesh soldiers yesterday, using torn pages from a Koran to wipe up their jizz. How disrespectful and obtuse they can be.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive