The perplexing war with militant Islam
Out of the chaos of the Syrian and Iraq civil wars, a new group of Sunni Muslim fanatics has risen to eclipse al-Qaida and become a whole new kind of threat to global security. Having conquered a vast territory, these militants have erased the border between Syria and Iraq and declared a new caliphate under their leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. In the name of their extremist religious beliefs, they commit atrocities with unprecedented zeal, from mass beheadings of Christians and Shiite Muslims to burning captives alive. And their mastery of media and propaganda has widely disseminated their fanatical ideology, reaching even as far as Canada and inspiring attacks inside our borders.
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was a normal enough Canadian, albeit a drug user with mental-health issues. Amid his difficult life, a message reached out from across the world to give him direction and he became something else. Like a guided missile, he made his way to Ottawa and detonated in the heart of our democracy. His attack did no lasting harm to our nation, although he did kill a young soldier, Corporal Nathan Cirillo.
The attack also shut down the nation’s capital, startled our national security apparatus, and made it very clear that Canada cannot escape the shock waves of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.
As Canadian fighter pilots drop bombs on Iraq and our special forces kill enemy soldiers in battle, there is no doubt that we are at war again. But it is a new kind of war. Our enemy is known by many names, but more importantly, despite their use of terrorist tactics and their love of terrorizing, they are not a terrorist group.
They are militant Salafi Islamists and they control an area in Syria and Iraq bigger than Britain, with a population of millions. They provide government services, they have created a semblance of law and order, and they are the most murderous savages the world has seen in a very long time.
Anyone who doesn’t believe precisely what these militants believe is labelled a ‘kuffar’—an infidel—literally, an unbeliever. This designation grants special status, allowing infidels to be killed or subjugated at will.
They call themselves Islamic State, but are known by the rest of the world as Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) or, by those who don’t want to afford them the status of a state, the transliterated Arabic acronym Da‘ish.
Call them what you want, but we’ve seen this before. Occasionally groups arise that believe themselves different, better, more pure. And they believe everybody else on Earth should follow their model and their way of thinking. Those who can’t or won’t are marked for death or subjugation. In broad strokes, ISIL is not different from the Nazis. They want to force us to follow the main tenets of their beliefs—what we think, how we live, even what we draw.
However, their method of war is far different. The package of ideas ISIL is selling—a special relationship with god, a chance for like-minded Muslims to achieve purity on Earth and perhaps die in the attempt to establish their caliphate—functions like a virus, and the group like a cult.
This virus spreads across the Internet, ensnaring vulnerable young men and women and inciting them to engage in attacks in their home countries: England, Denmark, France, Australia, the United States…and Canada.
It means that while Canada is dropping bombs in Iraq and Syria, it is also facing a new situation at home. To say there is a war in Canada is too strong, but the reality is that this enemy is present here, inside our borders. It has struck already, and the probability is that it will strike again.
When it does attack again, it will be unlike any other situation our police and tactical response teams have faced. These inspired extremists seek maximum damage and they seek to die in the process. They are human missiles bent on detonating, and stopping them is no easy task.
A new threat requires a new response
Retired Lieutenant-Colonel Steve Day spent more than a decade in Joint Task Force 2, Canada’s top special-operations unit. As its former commanding officer, he is literally one-of-one as an expert commentator on Canadian security matters. JTF2 keeps an extremely low profile in the media.
The attack on “October 22 was not a surprise,” says Day. “None of that was a surprise. I’m surprised it took as long as it took for it to happen.”
Day sees things in starkly military terms, as those trained to defend the nation must. Attacks like those in Canada in October present only a limited tactical threat to Canada; they cannot change our way of life or make a lasting impact on our country. They are like lightning strikes, painful but fleeting. However, lurking within such attacks is a real strategic danger. If we overreact and allow ourselves to be provoked, then we could be drawn into situations that do change us, and not for the better.
“If we allow these lightning strikes to prevent us from doing what we’re doing, then we’re letting them win,” says Day. “We’ve blown the threat out of proportion. This is not an existential threat to this nation, unless we make it one.”
While Day believes the tactical threat is misconstrued and a little over-hyped, he does acknowledge that it presents a serious challenge to our national security apparatus.
“ October 22 was not a surprise. None of that was a surprise. I’m surprised it took as long as it took for it to happen.”
The attack on the office of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris in January was multiple levels of sophistication higher than what happened in Canada. Threats like that concern Day.
In Ottawa, there was “only one active shooter, relatively lightly armed. If it had been a bit more sophisticated—multiple shooters and better armed—then that is a bad, bad day,” he says. “We were fortunate. If we get into a sophisticated, even quasi-sophisticated attack, we are in trouble.”
Generally speaking, Canada’s local police forces are not trained or prepared for such combat. In addition, as security forces, they share a limiting factor: they do not have what the military calls unlimited liability, which is the ability to be ordered into fatally hazardous situations, to advance aggressively toward a hostile position to make contact with the enemy. “The only people who have unlimited liability are military forces,” says Day. “You cannot order a police officer to their death. They can only volunteer.”
On the other hand, the way we employ counter-terrorist forces such as JTF2 currently doesn’t provide a practical solution to terrorist strikes either. It currently requires ministerial authority to employ JTF2 inside Canada, Day notes, so the response to an attack like what occurred on Oct. 22 would likely be outside the desired time frame.
Indeed, the response to the October attack on Parliament Hill was, it has been widely noted, less than optimal. While the sole assailant was killed within minutes of the attack beginning, poor communication between the various forces responsible for security caused long delays in clarifying the situation. In the aftermath, the RCMP have been assigned responsibility for the protection of Parliament Hill and the entire Parliamentary precinct, which makes up at least 20 buildings in downtown Ottawa. Multiple reviews are still underway as Canada’s police and security forces grapple with this new threat.
The citizens feel threatened, which is bad
It is easy to get a sense of how people in the nation’s capital perceive the threat. You just have to ask, because everyone is eager to talk about ISIL. Melissa Baumann, 21, is an earnest Carleton University student who follows the news and is well aware of ISIL and what they do.
“No, I do not feel safe,” says Baumann. “I don’t think distance makes a difference to how real it is, or how safe we are. I wish the government would take the threat more seriously. It did happen in Ottawa. People don’t seem to take that as a real threat, but it is.”
But our response should be calibrated and careful, says Baumann, in keeping with our history. “We shouldn’t display the same intolerance they’re displaying. Canada has learned that being intolerant is not a good thing. Intolerance isn’t going to help.”
The real battlefield is in the mind of citizens like Baumann, who debate how to respond to threats both real and implied. And that is what ISIL wants: to make us feel threatened.
One lone shooter (and another lone driver in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que.) may have slipped past the national security radar, but others haven’t. In late 2014, according to the Canadian Security and Intelligence Service, at least 93 Canadians were designated as high-risk travellers seeking to leave Canada to support ISIL. They are consequently under surveillance or have had their passports seized. At least 80 Canadian citizens have returned to Canada after fighting for ISIL or providing support to them. At least 145 have left Canada to join extremists overseas.
Canada is dropping bombs in Iraq and Syria, and it is also facing a new situation at home. To say there is a war in Canada is too strong, but the reality is that thisenemy is present here, inside our borders.
Shawn Brunet, 41, is a thoughtful government employee who works for the Royal Canadian Mint. He lives in Ottawa’s Byward Market. If you ask him if he’s worried about the threat of ISIL-inspired terrorism, he will tell you we should escalate the fight.
“Where I live, I don’t feel threatened, no,” says Brunet. “I recognize it is a threat that could affect me, but I’m not worried about it because there’s not much I can do.
“They’re trying to go backwards in time in the way they treat people. It makes me think that eventually we will get to a boiling point. Their barbaric actions are going to be opposed. Airstrikes alone won’t eradicate the causes. Eventually they’re going to have to mount ground attacks.”
The end-game is uncertain, but certainly difficult
“Sprouting New Limbs, ISIS Raises Fears of Unending War,” the front page of The New York Times’ website declared on Valentine’s Day, 2015. Unending war in the Middle East is now a disconcerting probability, particularly given that U.S. President Barack Obama has stated that the goal of this new war is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIL.
The coalition fighting against the militants now numbers more than 60 countries. And what a strange coalition it is, comprising the usual allies such as the United States and Great Britain, as well as Arab allies including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. In addition, long-time foes Iran, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and even al-Qaida itself are also working toward the destruction of ISIL.
ISIL is an enemy without precedent, but what it will take to destroy them is unknown. “I am a firm believer in hunting these people down and if we can’t capture them, killing them,” says Day. “They are a cancer.”
However, beating cancer is not exactly straightforward.
“I don’t know [what it will take to destroy ISIL], and I don’t think anyone has the answer to that,” says Thomas Juneau, a former strategic analyst with the Department of National Defence and one of Canada’s leading experts on the Middle East. He is now a lecturer at the University of Ottawa. “The airstrikes will contain it, but nobody has any illusions that airstrikes are going to defeat it. What you need is a political solution. But we are very, very far from that.”
As Juneau predicted early last fall when the Canadian mission in Iraq began, even then ISIL’s expansion had hit its limit, due in large part to the difficulty it would face moving into Kurdish- or Shiite-majority territory, and the even greater difficulty it would face attempting to cross the borders of countries such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon.
The only solution to the ISIL problem is political, not military, says Juneau. The rise of ISIL, he says, can be attributed to a widespread sense of alienation among Sunni Muslims in Iraq and he believes the way to defeat it can be found in a robust power-sharing agreement in Baghdad.
This is at best a long-term and uncertain prospect. The Sunni tribes that rule the area north of Baghdad have previously been conscripted into efforts to achieve a greater Iraq, but this descended into sectarianism and failed. And dealing with the Syrian civil war remains an open question.
The unpalatable reality is that we may be stuck with ISIL for the foreseeable future. While Juneau is reluctant to make any long-term predictions, he doesn’t see any easy way out of the situation.
“I don’t expect there to be new borders in 2020,” he said. “I still expect Syria to be in civil war. And there’s a good chance that there will be one or another Sunni extremist organizations active in the region.”
How it will all end is uncertain, but it is the subject of strenuous debate all around the world. Many think that ISIL is intent on fulfilling a Koranic prophecy which they believe will lead to the apocalypse, as crazy as that sounds. To make this happen, they need an army of infidels to invade their caliphate.
They may get their wish.