On the outskirts of the northern Syrian town of Kobani hundreds of experienced Islamic State (IS) militants were vaporised by airstrikes last week. Despite showing astonishing temerity and solid small unit tactics in prior months, the jihadist group could not easily break the Kurdish city.
In New Zealand, Prime Minister John Key is giving speeches and interviews suggesting his government could contribute to the coalition campaign against IS. He has promised to make a decision “soon”. But killing the jihadists will not be the best use of our resources and skills.
IS besieged Kobani for more than two weeks and coalition airstrikes were decisive in holding them back. Should IS take the city, it will the worst Pyrrhic victory the group has experienced so far. But IS was likely never a long term threat anyway.
The routing of Iraqi troops earlier this year and insurgency in Iraq and Syria spooked the world by portraying IS as stronger than it really was. Its mistake at Kobani was switching from effective mobile small unit tactics to difficult fixed position siege tactics without the necessary skills to do so.
In the past, IS fighters emerged from engagements relatively unscathed because whenever they encountered an entrenched foe they bypassed the position preferring weaker defences instead. This created an illusion of a quickly spreading jihadist plague across Iraq and Syria. Kobani proves the group is far weaker than conventional wisdom indicated.
Over the past few weeks, the group’s strength has been severely degraded. In committing so many fighters to securing Kobani the group lost territory, irreplaceable people, equipment and more importantly it lost a crucial propaganda victory. Taking a step back, what’s going on with IS reflects weakness of jihadism in general.
As with al Qaeda Prime before them (AQP - Osama bin Laden’s group), IS suffers from the same structural flaw of being a jihadist group in a world which is inexorably turning against that ideology.
While horrific terrorist attacks makes it look like the jihadist ideology is gaining traction, the size of that threat is overwrought. Sure, the United Kingdom’s intelligence service say five Britons join these groups each week and even a few New Zealanders have travelled there. But while some may return home with new skills and stories, they are not the skills needed to be a major threat.
This is because the advanced terrorist skills required to conduct sophisticated high-profile terror attacks are starkly different from combat skills. Precious few fighters in Syria will learn those skills. This puts the jihadist movement in a lot of trouble.
The United States and its allies, enduring years of terror attacks elevated terrorism to a first tier national security priority. A good chunk of US military and intelligence spending now directly supports counterterrorism.
As the coalition airstrikes show, one of the West’s strongest counters is fighting jihadist groups wherever they appear. And the decade-long campaign of US-led unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) strikes against top jihadist operatives has been an extremely effective programme to achieve short term international security.
Capturing jihadists might seem to be the best choice, but we’ve implicitly decided that Guantanamo Bay-like prisons are worse than targeted airstrikes. The preference for military commanders was to capture the jihadists (for intelligence purposes) but we’ve said we don’t want that. Instead the leadership of every jihadist group has been operationally broken using UAVs.
There hasn’t been another 9/11-type attack because being a jihadist commander is now the most dangerous job on the planet. It’s extremely important to maintain this pressure.
Some say UAV strikes lead to the recruitment of more jihadists. But there are differences between incompetent jihadists dying for the cause and exceptional individuals formulating complex plots against transnational targets. UAV strikes generally target the latter.
These people are extremely difficult to replace, so every well-placed missile really does save innocent lives down the track. The Islamic State leadership is now under finely-tuned pressure from a system built to kill or capture people exactly like them.
In response, jihadists have resorted to a last-ditch effort to reach out to aspiring young men to conduct simple attacks in their own countries. This is a sign of the ideology’s weakness, not its strength. If the leaders could perpetrate another 9/11, they would. Some young men have attempted terror attacks on their own, but not enough to reverse the degradation of jihadism.
In reality, these groups are not like the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany. It’s time we realised that jihadism - while frightening - is not an existential threat. Of course, terrorism is an unfortunate part of modern life but it no longer needs the single-minded concentration and monopoly of resources that it has secured over the past decade.
By the time John Key decides whether to join the international coalition to fight IS, the group will be significantly degraded. The jihadists won’t “rampage across the earth” as he said over the weekend.
Mr Key should be looking further ahead than playing whack-a-mole with jihadists all over the world. The developed world is extremely adept at dealing with jihadists as they appear. But the real problem is dealing with the production rate of such people before they get to the perimeter wire. Unfortunately we’re not so good at that.
New Zealand has a real opportunity with the UN Security Council to avoid the easy route of killing jihadists. Instead, Mr Key should focus New Zealand’s attention on mending the aftermath of Iraq and Syria because those two countries are not coming back. They are painfully shifting to reflect their true ethnic, religious and tribal identities and that will need wise coordination.
Mr Key should lead New Zealand to mediate the inevitable negotiations among the various players in those countries. New Zealand’s skills in understanding tribal peoples will be extremely useful in the region over the next few decades. If New Zealand truly believes in international security, it should look past the symptoms of unrest and towards the cause by sitting down and listening to people.