Islamic State has become an existential threat to the West

November 18, 2015
Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria's northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. The fighters held the parade to celebrate their declaration of an Islamic "caliphate" after the group captured territory in neighbouring Iraq, a monitoring service said. The Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot previously known as Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), posted pictures online on Sunday of people waving black flags from cars and holding guns in the air, the SITE monitoring service said. Picture taken June 30, 2014.  REUTERS/Stringer (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT) - RTR3WKNM

Militant Islamist fighters wave flags as they take part in a military parade along the streets of Syria’s northern Raqqa province June 30, 2014. REUTERS/Stringer

The Europeans have — it’s not news — tended to be snooty about the Americans. Especially the French, but the attitude is ingrained even in the “special relationship” with the UK.

In interviews with intelligence service people, mostly retired, for a project for the Reuters Institute, I often heard that senior British officers had thought the phrase “War on Terror” to be a stupid one, and that they never used it. It was not a war, they believed. The struggle was not “existential.” It was a serious challenge from serious militants: hard, vicious but finite.

It’s different now. Francois Hollande, the Socialist president of France, has said that the slaughter in Paris last Friday evening was “an act of war.” Pope Francis, at a commemoration service for the 100,000 Italian soldiers killed in the World War One (his grandfather was one of the soldiers who survived) said that “one can speak of a third war, one fought piecemeal, with crimes, massacres, destruction.”

The Europeans aren’t being snooty anymore: Paris, Friday, Nov. 13, 2015, has brought Europe together in an agony of anger — so much, that it is the U.S. president who feels compelled to remind us that we should have a duty of welcome to refugees from Syria.

And there’s another switch. Vice President Joseph Biden, speaking on Monday in Los Angeles, said “I say to the American people: There is no existential threat to the United States. Nothing ISIS can do could bring down the government, could threaten the way we live.”

But the man who commanded the British armed forces from 2010 to 2013 thinks that’s mere complacency. General David Richards said at a history festival in June this year that the threat is existential and “that we need to approach this issue of Muslim extremism as we might approach World War Two back in the 1930s.” In a recent book, he’s said to have told the British prime minister that he lacked the courage to take the fight to Islamic State, being too obsessed with wishing to appear liberal.

There are three main reasons why Richards is right and Biden wrong. First, for some three decades, the nightmare of politicians and secret services has been that rogue states, and/or terrorist groups, would acquire weapons of mass destruction. It runs through “At the Center of the Storm,” the memoir of George Tenet, CIA director from 1996-2004. It kept successive presidents, from Clinton through Bush to Obama, awake at night; prompted their interventions abroad and (in Obama’s presidency) the heavy use of killer drones. It has meant that the National Security Agency (NSA) has now incomparably the largest budget of any intelligence service anywhere, so that the first “chatter” which reveals that the nightmare has real flesh can be detected.

Islamic State might be the organization to put flesh on that nightmare, because it has the money and can buy the expertise to make WMD. An investigation last month by the Financial Times found that in the areas of Iraq it controls, ISIS has “a sprawling operation almost akin to a state oil company that … recruits skilled workers, from engineers to trainers and managers and produces about 34,000-40,000 barrels per 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.”

Put together money, expertise and an Islamist-nihilist philosophy, and you have a weapon of huge destructive power, pointing at both the West and the East.

Second, Islamic State is funding a large increase in its cyber warfare capability. George Osborne, the British chancellor, said on Tuesday that “ISIS’ murderous brutality has a strong digital element. At a time when so many others are using the Internet to enhance freedom and give expression to liberal values and creativity, they are using it for evil.”

Determined cyber attacks mounted by experts in cryptography could disable health and power systems, air traffic controls, nuclear power stations and much else: the human costs could quickly run into the tens of thousands, if closely coordinated.

Third, ISIS, more than any other of the Islamist groups, has the power to attract large numbers of young Muslims — men and women — to come to Syria and Iraq to fight with them, or to remain in the countries in which they were born and become an enemy within these states. The glamour of death, murder and “revenge” seems a powerful draw — amplified, it seems, by the hours many of the young jihadists spend before a screen replete with images of “Crusaders” and Jews murdering Muslims. There is thus a potentially active network of supporters in most of the Western countries, either radicalized or the future targets of radicalization. And there is no way, outside of a locked-down authoritarian state, for all of them be monitored all the time.

The safeguards of a democratic society bounded by the rule of law place limits: a member of France’s internal secret service, the Direction Générale de la Sécurité Intérieure, told the Le Monde reporter Jacques Follorou that, “You have to prioritize, if the lads don’t commit any crime, its complicated to justify phone taps. You can’t put people on whom you have no evidence under 24-hour surveillance.”

This is not quite like any other war; nor can it be fought with previous wars’ weapons. Ranged against Islamic State is the military might of the United States, the European states and, now, Russia. Surely, with the military and intelligence technology at their disposal, they can destroy a force which seeks to bring down 21st century civilization and substitute for it a mediaeval theocracy?

Yet working for the theocrats is the sluggish reluctance of the liberal, consumer societies of the West to gear up for war; to surround themselves with new security systems which will inhibit travel and entertainment; to lose or reduce the liberal safeguards which have been regarded as indispensable. Working for them, too, is a hatred so pure that young men can stride among the bodies of other young men, and women, and shoot those who moved — then blow themselves up. Working for them is the lack of our comprehension about how serious they appear to be.

This, I think, adds up to war: and an existential threat. A threat to our existence, our way of life.


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It was correct to be snooty about the War on Terror for the Iraq part.

Saddam was an awful man but the mishandling of the invasion, lack of planning etc was one of America’s greatest foreign policy errors and transformed a near beaten Jihadi movement in to a significant regional player.

The invasion of Iraq is a mistake whose errors will be burning the west for 20 years to come.

Posted by Ascii_ | Report as abusive

The photo above explains pretty much everything.

Posted by Macedonian | Report as abusive

This is chicken little personified.

Mr. Lloyd may be soiling his undergarments, but there is little reason for such nonsense. Even if they continue with terrorist attacks, a few hundred deaths every few years or so is hardly existential.

Hysteria is not justified, lets act like adults.

Posted by Benny27 | Report as abusive

Mr Obama and a few other politicians say they isis is not threat to the US. Who you going to believe, the truth of your own eyes or mealy-mouthed politicians?

Posted by Davido1 | Report as abusive

Shock and awe.

Yeah that worked.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

Why is provocation for war so important right now?
What we’ve had is nothing more than the freshest, most distinct face of a persistent element. Now, because the media and Christian-representitive and (for some important ‘snooty’ reason) the constituents of calm Britain government, corroborate the titled ‘third war’, I have to listen to social-network dependent people grind their hormones and imagination together to provoke a Ballardian white flash. It is as if modern appetite for variety wants us to name and to own a new war to ourselves – to the witnessing generation.
It is no end – especially not to the existent of the modern, leaking, adapting milieu. It is simply large resources being used in well harnessed world, variable burgeoning world – with death totals taking spotlight over a spilling, European-magnatized population. And those that want to incite such a reaction are simply adding drama to Thanatos.

Posted by Arturo-Bandini | Report as abusive

Another reason why their cancerous presence in Syria and Iraq has to be addressed more forcefully, as the West did against Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. They have to be put on the defensive, their resources drained, their territory shrunk, their leaders killed. They are no doubt on the black market searching for nuclear material; the results would be catastrophic.

Posted by Cassiopian | Report as abusive

ISIS cannot destroy us physically. But they don’t need to do that. If they can commit enough highly publicized attacks to undermine the west’s confidence in our governments to keep us safe, then for all intents and purposes, they will have won, and we will have lost.

Posted by Sewblon | Report as abusive

Never forget that John Lloyd is not ‘mister’ but comrade. He’s been member of two Communist and on Socialist parties.
In my country the membwrship in Communist party is decared as a crime= But noone follows the law.
So all the rulers – president Plevneliev, Parliament speaker Tsacheva and prime-minister Borisov are Communist activist. And UNESCO Secretary General Bokova – a high-ranking Communist educated in Moscow is nominated fot UN Secretary General.

Posted by Ifandiev | Report as abusive

Another term for the enemy is “Islamo-fascism” which shift focus to the similarities and differences to “Euro-fascism” or the first half of 20th century. As well as seizure of state power and territory in Spain, Germany, Italy and military power, there were also supporters and sympathizers in the political, economic and ideological makeup of Britain, France, USA etc.

The TV news had video from Russia of long range heavy bombers dropping strings of bombs and salvos of cruise missiles hitting Raqqa. It may soon just be a stretch of rubble as was Grozny for Putin’s victory in the second Chechen War. The US may do well to let the Russians do “the dirty work” and continue with their close support with precision weapons and special forces of Kurdish and Arab forces to control more territory and kill primary IS fighters.

Perhaps the French have some good ideas how to reduce the ideological/religious/economic support for Islamofascism from Saudi, Turkey and Pakistan citizens ? The USA has a bad record of making more enemies than friends in such matters.

Posted by Neurochuck | Report as abusive

This article is a joke .The writer must be living in the world of fantasy to describe the terrorist attacks ob this magnitude as existential threat to Europeans.I dont think he has bothered to check on news in other countries especially in muslim countries where attacks of this magnitude happens quite frequently and nobody in the west described them as existential threat to the muslims.A single attacker in Norway that managed to kill nearly 100 innocent civilians not long ago was never described in such manner.

Posted by Jawipekan | Report as abusive

Mass deportations seems the only ‘weapon’ that will end the conflict.

Posted by Het_Russ | Report as abusive

The problem is most journalists do not truly understand the Muslim “faith.”
It isn’t a “religion” as we normally understand – only 15% of the Koran is “scriptural” – but a political, economic and social structure with religious undertones.
Essentially, its an excuse to rape, pillage, steal and murder your “non-believer” neighbors following the example of Mohamed.
These folks are stuck in the 7th Century and all we can do is to rid the world of them.

Posted by TPAINE3 | Report as abusive

It is not bias or prejudice when a clear pattern emerges, as this one did long ago, of violent attacks by Muslims. It is obvious that Muslim dominated cultures have not provided an adequate emotional foundation for their people to live in peace among civilized people.

We should not allow people raised in the Muslim culture to enter inside our borders. Not as immigrants. Not as refugees. Not as students. Not as tourists. Not as anything.

Of course, we should help care for the refugees. We should contribute generously to support people driven from their homes into temporary living arrangements. Over there. There is plenty of land in the Middle East for this purpose.

Posted by glennday | Report as abusive

Hey Reuters, how about you stop doing ISIS’ recruiting for them? STOP calling this loser a “mastermind”. And STOP showing glorified pictures of him riding atop a car holding an instrument of death. Shameful you.

Posted by HCollins | Report as abusive

Lloyd gives us three scary dangers that ISIS poses to western peoples none of which, in and of themselves, is an existential threat. His actual argument is
1. ISIS presents several grave dangers to life and property in democratic countries.
2. Democratic countries cannot protect themselves from these dangers through police powers.
3. Therefore democratic countries have to resort to war.
4. War is an existential threat.
5. Therefore ISIS is an existential threat.
The logical and evidential problems with this argument are manifold. The first seven paragraphs are appeals to authority at best and red herrings at worst. In #4 (the last 4 paragraphs), he might be claiming, though never states explicitly, that war is an existential threat because liberal, democratic nations must give up liberal democratic freedoms during war, but then the argument becomes circular with #2 (and is unsupported in any case). I could go on, but Lloyd does not even believe he proved his point definitively–he concludes with an equivocating “I think.” Just awful.

Posted by RossRBB | Report as abusive

My eyes tell me what is happening. My ears listen and understand. My mind comprehends because I can read history and think.

Anyone, and I mean ANYONE who does not understand and appreciate that Mordor is on the march, and the threat is not only real, but existential, is doing their best Helen Keller impersonation.

We have little time left before these cancer cells are so widely and deeply embedded in our body politic that the best medicine available will only kill the host.

Time is short, and the hour is indeed late.

Posted by Militarybooks | Report as abusive

France, the United State’s oldest ally, experiences a horrific act of terror that kills 130+ of its citizens, and your response seems best summed up as “They’re not so snooty now!”. Absolutely abhorrent. You should be ashamed. You’re not, but you should be.

Posted by KenCs | Report as abusive

This is laughable. Does Mr. Lloyd know what the word “existential” means? An estimated 200,000 Syrians have been killed since the civil war began out of a population of 23 million. That’s almost 1 percent. It would be as if 3 million people were killed in the US. And western countries whine in fear when 10 or 100 are killed. That many are killed every day in Syria, South Sudan, or Congo.

Americans are afraid to bring 100 possible terrorists from Guantanamo to high security prisons in the US. We always react just like ISIS or al Quada want us to. We look pitiful. It’s embarrassing.

Posted by jpipersson | Report as abusive

Existential threat? No, real, continuing, and growing threat coupled with official and media complicity.

Posted by GetReel | Report as abusive

Surely this is the stupidest 1050 words ever compiled in the English language. They’re going to nuke, cyber attack, and recruit against us….to death? America has a GDP of 17 trillion dollars, 11 aircraft carriers, thousands of nuclear weapons…ISIS is no more an existential threat than Switzerland or Mozambique.

Posted by beaufoxworth | Report as abusive

Funny that everything I’m hearing from the Left about dealing with Assad sounds remarkably similar to what I heard a decade ago about dealing with Saddam.

Posted by Bohonk | Report as abusive

The U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Japan and last I checked Japan still exists.

ISIS is a threat and a threat that should be taken seriously. But they are not an “existential” threat. A bigger threat is that we’ll over-react to high-profile but small probability risks and create more problems than we solve.

It’s worth remembering (or knowing) that the wars conducted in response to the 9/11 attacks cost twice as many American lives as the attacks themselves. In toppling mid-east strongmen we also created the conditions that allowed ISIS to metastasize. As a result of our overreaction to Al Qaeda, we now face a more virulent and well funded adversary.

Maybe the lesson here is: first do no harm.

Posted by EverywhereOnce | Report as abusive

Jhon Lloyed every knows , who’s buying oil from ISIS, Who s giving Arms to ISIS ? Who com they use social networks frequently but can’t traced.??

Posted by SAM786 | Report as abusive

They are not even Muslims , they r making Muslims ashamed & defending , Even Prophet Mohammad (SAW) 35 sayings that there will “Khawarjis” (People expelled from Islam) b/c of there wrong interpetions & intentions to use Islam for their own purpose , they will be the “dogs of hell” . This is not islam which These terrorist doing , what is need of the time is to educate the people of Arab , education is the only solution to eradicate these barbaric organisations.

Posted by SAM786 | Report as abusive

Our greatest vulnerability is to an Electro-Magnetic Pulse, which can be created by exploding a high-altitude nuclear bomb. The result would be to take out our entire electrical grid for 1-10 years. The resulting disruption and social chaos could kill millions. We are totally unprepared for this event.  /commentary/2015/08/18/time-refocus-emp -threat/31915021/

Posted by ITrebor | Report as abusive

Daesh is an apostate mob. I saw a Daesh soldier urinating on a Koran, while his friend drew a naked Mohammed as war graffiti on a Toyota truck.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive

If Daesh is actually doing the work of God, then why do their latrines in Raqqa have pages of the Koran being used for toilet paper? This is disrespectful to use the Koran in such ways. Daesh is apostate army of asses.

Posted by Solidar | Report as abusive