The Catch-22 of a War against ISIL


Following Tony Abbott’s announcement that Australia would be joining the “international mission” to fight the “death cult” Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), News Limited newspapers across the country ran an editorial by Herald Sun columnist Susie O’ Brien supporting the move. O’ Brien claimed that Abbott had gotten it right and the Greens had it wrong by suggesting it was a case of “mission creep”.

Despite admitting that she “proudly marched against the US invasion of Iraq decade ago,” O’Brien argued that the situation was different this time around. The Iraq government has been calling for international assistance to help stop the atrocities being committed by ISIL on its people (and help it regain the territory ISIL stole from it), unlike in 2003 when the West intervened without such permission – and instead in lieu of the then government. Additionally, it was wrong “to sit around and watch a small group of sick, depraved radicals kill and torture hundreds of innocent people”.

This is typical of the type of rhetoric that has been employed by our politicians and media to rationalise entering into an armed conflict with ISIL, by framing it as our “moral duty” to defend the helpless people they are harming and to protect ourselves from their growing international network of terrorists. Of course, it is all very compelling stuff. What sort of freedom-loving, liberal society would let a group of people murder and persecute others – and ourselves – based on their draconian religious fundamentalism?

The problem is, the predicament with ISIL isn’t as simple as putting on our hero uniforms and going to save helpless civilians from an evil villain. It’s actually quite a bit more convoluted, and represents more of a Catch-22, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” scenario.

In an article for The Guardian, Chelsea Manning made some very strong points about how to approach ISIL, based on her “experience as an all-source analyst in Iraq during the organization’s relative infancy”. She suggested that ISIL knows exactly what it is doing by baiting the West to return to combat in Iraq and the Middle East, because “when the West fights fire with fire, we feed into a cycle of outrage, recruitment, organizing and even more fighting that goes back decades”.

Militant Jihadism is a self-sustaining ideology because it is based on the belief that the problems in the Middle East were caused, or can be related back to, Western interference in the region. As a direct example, ISIL, which subscribes to Sunni Islam – the largest Islamic denomination – gained traction because of the disenfranchisement of Sunni Muslims in Iraq by the government that was installed after the US invasion and supported by the West. This is an example of how the West naively tries to promote democracy, secularism and liberalism in the Arab World, but ends up fueling ethnic rivalry and propagating an Islamist insurgency instead.

Subsequently, whenever the West is drawn into conflict with Jihadist groups, like ISIL, it reinforces the Jihadists’ central assumption that the West is out to get Islam. Jihadists see themselves as the underdog, getting knocked down and sometimes even dying for their cause. But this is exactly the type of poetic martyrdom that attracts other Jihadists to join their crusade. And its this same image that appeals to many disillusioned Muslims across the Western world, who struggle with internal conflicts and identity crises caused by the perceived ideological dichotomy between the West and Islam; a dichotomy that the West is only subscribing to by getting hooked into a conflict with ISIL.

So if Western nations go to war with ISIL, they will counter-intuitively be fueling future waves of Jihadist groups that will display the same behaviours as ISIL has. And, as ISIL is showing, Jihadist groups will only grow stronger and more sophisticated as they learn from prior experiences of their predecessors. ISIL may lose the battle at hand, but the war being waged under the banner of Jihad will last on. And we certainly have no “moral duty” to allow this to happen.


For your consideration, here are the four points that Chelsea Manning offered as an alternative strategy for containing ISIL:

Counter the narrative in online Isis recruitment videos – including professionally made videos and amateur battle selfies – to avoid, as best as possible, the deliberate propaganda targeting of desperate and disaffected youth. This would rapidly prevent the recruitment of regional and western members.


Set clear, temporary borders in the region, publicly. This would discourage Isis from taking certain territory where humanitarian crises might be created, or humanitarian efforts impeded.


Establish an international moratorium on the payment of ransom for hostages, and work in the region to prevent Isis from stealing and taxing historical artifacts and valuable treasures as sources of income, and especially from taking over the oil reserves and refineries in Bayji, Iraq. This would disrupt and prevent Isis from maintaining stable and reliable sources of income.


Let Isis succeed in setting up a failed “state” – in a contained area and over a long enough period of time to prove itself unpopular and unable to govern. This might begin to discredit the leadership and ideology of Isis for good.

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