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How To Slay The ISIS Dragon, A User's Manual

Just how should the West deal with terrorists as ruthless as ISIS? Hunt them down, ally with their enemies, mess with their minds? Some concrete options, but there's no time to waste.

ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria
ISIS fighters in Aleppo, Syria
Torsten Krauel

-OpEd-

BERLIN — We can deal with the ISIS terror group, or Islamic State, the way Moscow handled a Lebanese group that abducted a Soviet diplomat in the 1980s. The KGB located the family clan behind the group and took the eldest son of the clan's chief hostage. Soon after, the chief began to get mail. In one package, there was one of the son's fingertips, another time an earlobe. The diplomat was quickly freed, followed by the son. Never again has anyone in the Middle East taken a Russian hostage.

We can deal with ISIS the way Bonn did with a Roma group. In the early 1990s, many beggars suddenly appeared in German cities. Bonn officials discovered that a Roma king in western Romania had sent them. His objective was to become the European Roma emperor, and he wanted to emphasize his ambition through sudden wealth. Bonn informed all other European Roma kings of his plans. They made it unmistakably clear to the would-be emperor that they didn't want an emperor. The beggars disappeared shortly after.

Or we can deal with ISIS the way the Americans responded to ISIS forerunner al-Qaeda in Iraq. Its Jordanian leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi aimed to become the Sunni spearhead against the Shia-dominated government. The United States first saw to it that Zarqawi's tribal clan, which plays an important role in Jordan, renounced him in every way. That represented a tremendous loss of face for him. Then the U.S. Army assured the Iraqi Sunni clans they had its protection. With Washington's support behind them, the clans annihilated Zarqawi's band. In return, the U.S. saw to it that Iraqi Shias didn't get too cocky with the Sunnis.

Crumbling the "caliphate"

Berlin would be wise to leave the Russian method to the Russians. The American method is, in view of the U.S. Army's retreat, presently not feasible. But the German method is an approach that could be used to deal with Zarqawi's much more brutal successor, Iraqi Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his group ISIS. No sooner did Baghdadi conquer a few Syrian and Iraqi cities than he was already calling for a Sunni "world caliphate." Delusions of grandeur like that offer the West an opportunity. While Baghdadi comes from a well-respected family, his tribe is one of many in Iraq.

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Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — Photo: U.S. Armed Forces

Countless other tribal chiefs in the entire Arab region feel no inclination whatsoever to submit to a self-appointed "caliph." With them, the West could build a line of defense. It’s high time. If the ISIS blitzkrieg isn't stopped, the psychological and political balance in the entire Persian Gulf will tip. ISIS funding from some Gulf emirates shows that things are already beginning to slide. If this continues, the situation will also become dangerous for Europe.

Sending weapons to the Kurds is only a stopgap measure to deal with immediate active defense. What comes after that has to be strictly adapted to feeling in the region. The main factor is fear — historical, religious, ethnic fears that go back deep into history favor the "Islamic State." Saddam Hussein's former deputy Ibrahim al-Duri, who is now associated with ISIS, sketched this out last January. The fight against the Iraqi central government, he said, aimed at "destroying the Safavid-Persian alliance."

He was referring to recently resigned Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his close ties to Tehran. But the reference to the Safavid dynasty, which made Iran an empire 500 years ago, shows just how far-reaching the fear is.

The Safavid state extended from eastern Turkey to Afghanistan and comprised most of Iraq. The Safavids, originally a Sufi sect, made Shia Islam the state religion and unmercifully persecuted the Sunnis. Do Baghdadi and his partners in murder believe that an Iran armed with nuclear weapons wants to restore the Safavid empire? Then it is hardly surprising that ISIS terrorists bomb Shia mosques and Sunni shrines with equal abandon.

Mitigating fear

Such terrorist lust for power is often fueled by the anxieties of minorities. One hundred sixty years ago, Taiping rebels against the Qing Dynasty held similar moral notions as those held by ISIS, were just as brutal, and within a few months had overrun half of south China just as ISIS has in Iraq. Their leadership was mostly comprised of members of the embattled Hakka minority. And they lost the rebellion because the powers that be played the different clans and interest groups involved against each other.

The Hakka also formed the backbone of Mao's brutal peasant army in its early days. With al-Qaeda, Yemenite immigrants in Saudi Arabia and members of south Pakistani Baloch tribes played a significant role. The Taliban depends on Afghan Pashtuns. ISIS draws Syrian Sunnis who for decades have been oppressed by the Alawites, Iraqi Sunnis who fear Iraqi Shias, and young Pakistanis from Great Britain who have no social status to speak of and whose parents fled pogroms in India.

To mitigate all the fear that plays to Baghdadi's advantage, containment of the Iranian atomic program is important. Alliances are essential to break his aura of omnipotence. Without carefully chosen alliances with tribes in the wider Mesopotamian region and without the involvement of all the states in the area, delivering weapons to the Kurds will prove ineffective.

Sunni clans that detest ISIS need the security of knowing that they're not alone. Perhaps a resolute joint policy from Riad, Amman and Ankara would be enough to do that. But financial help might be called for. It could also be that additional targeted military actions are required to ensure the security of these partners.

The West should weigh this matter-of-factly. Every action that lays bare Baghdadi's delusions of grandeur is helpful. What the West should avoid at all costs are signs that it prefers one regional population over another. That would render the policy of alliance pointless. But something has to happen. If Baghdadi's terrorists continue to conquer and murder largely unhindered, the price of intervening will be distinctly higher later than it would be today. If the West doesn't do anything, Berlin is going to rue the day it dithered when it was time to act.

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