ISIS represents the first Intifada against the United States. We have treated Afghanistan and Iraq pretty much the way Israel has treated the West Bank and Gaza, and now, like Israel, we are reaping a whirlwind. Just when we thought we could slip away, ISIS is arising out of the ashes of our wars, demanding our attention. Knowing we can wipe them out with overwhelming force, they dare us to attack as they behead three of our young men – one American, one British, one French. We want to wipe them out, but ISIS represents something virtually unconquerable. They are willing to die, indeed expect to die, in the face of our overwhelming force, but they are going to die with their fists in the air doing as much damage as they can. This passion lies at the heart of Intifada.
To die in this way, especially for young men of military age, represents a very deeply embedded and powerful impulse in the male psyche, even if it can be distorted by ideology. But to focus on ISIS as some kind of brainwashing or manipulation of the uninformed is to miss the point and very reason why ISIS is so successful. ISIS is speaking to young men in particular, but also to young women, who are desperately seeking to give themselves to some cause larger than themselves, who have become deeply cynical about our governments, and, as a consequence, who want to join some kind of resistance. The testimony of this young Canadian man, now in Syria with ISIS, shows this mixture of idealism and defiance very powerfully: https://news.vice.com/video/islamic-state-member-warns-of-nyc-attack-in-exclusive-interview-the-canadian-jihadist
What is ominous is that while Israel’s Intifada is essentially local, ISIS is potentially global. Like the Spanish Civil War, ISIS has become a cause celebre among the young and they are flocking to join. Several thousand are reportedly already there, drawn from numerous western and Asian nations far beyond the conflict. What is ISIS telling them? Stay home, stay in your own country, wreck havoc from there. This puts ISIS potentially far beyond the capacities of Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda was essentially a shadowy and ultimately very small network of extended family, business, and political relations of Osama bin Laden. Brilliant and deadly, Al Qaeda was nevertheless a localized immediate network of no more than several hundred people, virtually all of whom were rooted in the Middle East.
ISIS represents what is now coming – a network of young idealists who are not there but here, who live amongst us, and see ISIS as their front line. They share ideology with ISIS but never leave home, thus potentially making ISIS a global rather than local network. This means that the next 9/11 might not necessarily come from Middle Eastern guerrillas slipping through our border under false pretenses and setting up the attack. It may well be one of our own citizens, one of our own neighbors, who will be launching the attack on behalf of ISIS but from behind enemy lines. ISIS signals global Intifada. Let us make no mistake. Like the Ebola virus, we potentially have a global contagion on our hands.
As we contemplate this, let us consider what we have sown in our comportment in that part of the world, initially since overthrowing Iranian democracy in 1952, and especially since Bush II in Afghanistan and Iraq. Like Israel with the Palestinians, the U.S. leaves in its wake a legacy of hatred and defiance. We misjudged when we entered and we misjudge as we leave. We thought we could judiciously withdraw. Instead, we have ignited a hornets nest, and the hornets are starting to fly about.
One can get a measure of the hatred and defiance involved in those young men and women fighting for ISIS, as well as the widespread support they enjoy, by considering how much both Israel and the U.S. have slaughtered excessive numbers of civilians in the region. With ISIS, the U.S. has suspended any restrictions on killing civilians in ISIS airstrikes. This may kill more of them, but it will not conquer them. It will only deepen their defiance. Beyond ISIS, U.S. drone policy doesn’t even require identifying who will be killed, and it accepts all collateral damage as simply part of the operation. We need to confront this because this is precisely how millions of people across the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, have come to experience and now expect from the United States. Abu Graib and Guantanamo stand as iconic indictments to our disastrous course. Now, with ISIS, we need to understand that what was a local phenomenon is now the beginnings of a global contagion and that this, rather than our vaunted democracy, may end up being our legacy from our wars there.