Are ISIS seeking the very reaction they are getting?

How hard it is to counter violent extremism that holds up marginalisation and victimisation as raison d’être – and now, in the case of ISIS, as raison d’état. Seeing the news about Egypt’s bombardment of Libya last night, I recalled something I wrote on this blog eighteen months ago with regard to Syria. My point then was that al-Qaeda – today I guess I would have written ISIS – surely wanted nothing more as a reaction to its atrocities, than that the forces of the West would align even more closely with the repressive regimes in the Middle East from under which they emerged.

So they must be ecstatic today, seeing Cairo, Amman, Riyadh and others line up with Washington, western Europe and their allies – including Israel, of course – to fight them. The relatively repressive measures being implemented against some Muslim youth in western democracies are presumably the painting-by-numbers response to the Islamist terrorist threat that the terrorist strategists sought. But they are of course as nothing, in human rights terms, when compared with the actions taken by the hated regimes in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere in the region against people they see as a threat to their stability. And all this will be held up as proof – QED! – that the unrighteous leaders of these countries remain enemies of true Islam, hand-in-glove with the crusaders.

Easy to say and harder to do, but this is why the West and its allies have to take a long-term and comprehensive approach to the phenomenon of violent extremism. The argument for 'softer', upstream measures that can in the longer term help stem the disaffection and alienation which is the true recruiting sergeant of ISIS is not the woolly liberal peacebuilder’s argument as painted by some commentators. It is the rational strategic response to a very simple ‘vanguardist’ strategy Lenin would surely have recognised all too clearly, in which the vanguard forces those in power to behave exactly how the revolutionaries have painted them.

Of course force is needed to counter force, and a coalition must deliver that. But in the meantime other coalitions – of parents, civil society, business, politicians, and social and religious leaders – must come together to stem the causes of alienation by ensuring that young people are listened to, have jobs and the opportunity to make their lives.

And as a start, perhaps we should take a leaf from Orwell’s book and use a more accurate terminology. We don’t just need a strategy to ‘counter terrorism’, nor ‘counter violent extremism'; nor even one that merely ‘counters extremism’. Surely what we need is a more positive approach that neutralises and avoids alienation by engaging with young people on their own terms as members of society and the creators of their peaceful and productive future.