The Islamic State: Militants Meet Military

By Misha Munim, J.D./M.A. Candidate, University of Ottawa Faculty of Law

The brutality of ISIS – or the “Islamic State”–  has dominated headlines across the globe. Its name now prompts imagery of beheadings, weapons, and ruthless, masked men. But what’s the connection of this lethal movement to Canada? Is there one?

In a recent speech, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani urged ISIS supporters to kill “disbelieving” Canadians, Americans, Australians, French and other Europeans. In response, Harper’s office has said that it would “not be cowed by threats” while innocent people “live in fear of these terrorists” and that Canada “will continue to work with allies to push back against this threat”. So, how, exactly, is Ottawa pushing against this threat?

Boots on the Ground: One of Three Tactics in the ISIS Battle

Firstly, Citizenship and Immigration has revealed its initiative to invalidate passports of Canadians who have left the country to join extremist groups, such as ISIS, in Syria and Iraq. Secondly, and most recently, Prime Minister Harper has announced launching air strikes against ISIS. Thirdly, what I will focus on, is the deployment of Canadian military advisory troops on the ground in Iraq.

US Secretary of State John Kerry is sticking to the post-drone technology usual script, of “no boots on the ground” for the Americans. Canadian boots, however, may have a different fate. Prime Minister Harper has announced the deployment of 69 military “advisers” for up to thirty days – 26 of whom are already on the ground. The role of the Canadian mission will be to “provide strategic and tactical counsel to Iraqi forces before they start tactical operations against ISIS”. This is strictly an advise and assist role; Canadian officers are supposed to help the government and forces of Iraq be more “effective” against ISIS. They are expected to advise from Baghdad, not fight in the field.  This is Canada’s contribution to help prevent any escalation of the humanitarian crisis.

Realistic Approach?

What is troubling, is the question of what makes Canada think it is in fact equipped to advise Iraqi forces on what they should be doing to combat ISIS. If we can draw any lessons from counter-insurgency warfare, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is that local intelligence i.e. knowledge of the local area, terrain, and people, is one of the most useful tools in suppressing combatants (see Lyall and Wilson: Rage Against the Machines; Greenhill and Staniland: Ten Ways to Lose at Counterinsurgency). This has been an especially useful tool in distinguishing combatants from non-combatants to minimize civilian casualties. If you don’t know the terrain, you don’t know where combatants may be hiding. Even the CIA’s counter-terrorism drone operation in Pakistan has utilized local human intelligence by gaining insight from anti-Taliban Pashtun tribesmen about where terrorists reside. This information helped drones hone in on militants and deliver strikes with precision (see B.G. Williams, The CIA’s Covert Predator Drone War in Pakistan in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism).

If anything, Canadian advisers might learn more from the Iraqis themselves, about what would actually be effective on their territory. We are not talking about providing expensive military equipment and technology that a developed Western nation like Canada might be able to offer Iraq – we are simply talking about advice.  Sure, Canada wants to help in escalating the humanitarian crisis, but it’s important to be realistic about how much “advice” Canada can really offer while putting troops at risk.

On the Home Front: Where should the focus be?

According to Stratfor, a global intelligence firm based in Texas, the menace of ISIS – seizing territory, killings, etc – is likely contained in the Middle East and Europe. This makes sense. What is a real fear at home, however, is the possibility of (1) individuals going abroad and becoming “radicalized” by the ISIS ideology returning home to carry out attacks and (2) sympathizers of ISIS at home carrying out lone-wolf attacks. These are, arguably, real threats.

As such, Canada must be vigilant at its ports of entry. Both intelligence and frontline officers at the Canada Border Services Agency must perform due diligence in identifying foreign fighters returning from conflict regions.

What about anti-radicalization? Where should law enforcement focus its efforts? The term “Islamic” in ISIS has directed the focus on Muslim communities. Imams are being pressed for interviews and Muslim groups are rising up to defend themselves by condemning ISIS. But ISIS is a unique creature. It promotes an ideology that is not driven by religion, but rather, fantasies of power and domination. Its perverse vision of an Islamic caliphate is, many would argue, far removed from any theological doctrine. Muslim leaders and community members across the world and in Canada have spoken out against the movement’s barbaric interpretation of Islam. Within Canada, it is important not to over-police Muslim communities, and focus on maintaining ties of trust and partnership on that front.

The focus, in my view, should be developing a stronger knowledge base. This means understanding ISIS ideology, understanding why people are buying into it, and motivational factors influencing people to join the cause. For instance, the Calgary Police Chief was recently questioned about the threat of ISIS in Canada, and he stated that what lures people to ISIS is “money”. But is this true? Statements like these must be backed by facts. For instance, through Public Safety’s examination of the phenomenon of home-grown radicalization, initial scholarly studies that made a correlation between socioeconomic status and radicalization, have been debunked. Recent studies by CSIS show that home-grown terrorists in Canada have never been motivated by money or socioeconomic circumstances: they are often educated and financially stable. So, the same kind of knowledge and understanding must be developed about foreign fighters sympathizing with ISIS. On an individual level, what are they seeking? There will likely be a multitude of factors at play, and the answers are far from clear. There will certainly not be a clear-cut solution, but developing a better grasp on understanding the phenomenon may take us a long way.

The growth of ISIS is a complex phenomenon. There are so many factors involved: frustration over a fragmented region; a perverse yet powerful ideology winning followers; growing anti-Western sentiment; and the promise of power and domination. Perhaps, all this suggests that as a starting point, the Canadian national security apparatus  should be better informed about ISIS before battling it; before deploying troops to one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Image  by  qua pan via Flickr

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