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


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.

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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What It Means When The Jews Of Germany No Longer Feel Safe

A neo-Nazi has been buried in the former grave of a Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender – not an oversight, but a deliberate provocation. This is just one more example of antisemitism on the rise in Germany, and society's inability to respond.

At a protest against antisemitism in Berlin

Eva Marie Kogel


BERLIN — If you want to check the state of your society, there's a simple test: as the U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, John Jay McCloy, said in 1949, the touchstone for a democracy is the well-being of Jews. This litmus test is still relevant today. And it seems Germany would not pass.

Incidents are piling up. Most recently, groups of neo-Nazis from across the country traveled to a church near Berlin for the funeral of a well-known far-right figure. He was buried in the former grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender, a gravesite chosen deliberately by the right-wing extremists.

The incident at the cemetery

They intentionally chose a Jewish grave as an act of provocation, trying to gain maximum publicity for this act of desecration. And the cemetery authorities at the graveyard in Stahnsdorf fell for it. The church issued an immediate apology, calling it a "terrible mistake" and saying they "must immediately see whether and what we can undo."

There are so many incidents that get little to no media attention.

It's unfathomable that this burial was allowed to take place at all, but now the cemetery authorities need to make a decision quickly about how to put things right. Otherwise, the grave may well become a pilgrimage site for Holocaust deniers and antisemites.

The incident has garnered attention in the international press and it will live long in the memory. Like the case of singer-songwriter Gil Ofarim, who recently claimed he was subjected to antisemitic abuse at a hotel in Leipzig. Details of the crime are still being investigated. But there are so many other incidents that get little to no media attention.

Photo of the grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

The grave of Jewish musicologist Max Friedlaender

Jens Kalaene/dpa/ZUMA

Crimes against Jews are rising

Across all parts of society, antisemitism is on the rise. Until a few years ago, Jewish life was seen as an accepted part of German society. Since the attack on the synagogue in Halle in 2019, the picture has changed: it was a bitter reminder that right-wing terror against Jewish people has a long, unbroken history in Germany.

Stories have abounded about the coronavirus crisis being a Jewish conspiracy; meanwhile, Muslim antisemitism is becoming louder and more forceful. The anti-Israel boycott movement BDS rears its head in every debate on antisemitism, just as left-wing or post-colonial thinking are part of every discussion.

Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

Since 2015, the number of antisemitic crimes recorded has risen by about a third, to 2,350. But victims only report around 20% of cases. Some choose not to because they've had bad experiences with the police, others because they're afraid of the perpetrators, and still others because they just want to put it behind them. Victims clearly hold out little hope of useful reaction from the state – so crimes go unreported.

And the reality of Jewish life in Germany is a dark one. Sociologists say that Jewish children are living out their "identity under siege." What impact does it have on them when they can only go to nursery under police protection? Or when they hear Holocaust jokes at school?

Germany needs to take its antisemitism seriously

This shows that the country of commemorative services and "stumbling blocks" placed in sidewalks as a memorial to victims of the Nazis has lost its moral compass. To make it point true north again, antisemitism needs to be documented from the perspective of those affected, making it visible to the non-Jewish population. And Jewish life needs to be allowed to step out of the shadows.

That is the first thing. The second is that we need to talk about specifically German forms of antisemitism. For example, the fact that in no other EU country are Jewish people so often confronted about the Israeli government's policies (according to a survey, 41% of German Jews have experienced this, while the EU average is 28%). Projecting the old antisemitism onto the state of Israel offers people a more comfortable target for their arguments.

Our society needs to have more conversations about antisemitism. The test of German democracy, as McCloy called it, starts with taking these concerns seriously and talking about them. We need to have these conversations because it affects all of us. It's about saving our democracy. Before it's too late.

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