Three reasons the West is losing the war with Islamic State

Islamic State is not just in the Middle East – it exists in the West’s suburbs and computers. EPA/Aamaq Media

Recent victories by Islamic State (IS) in Iraq did not provide the wake-up call that it poses a bigger challenge to the West than previously thought. The call came when a 14-year-old on social media in the UK allegedly motivated an 18-year-old to plan an attack on a policeman in Australia.

IS has effectively moved the frontline in the battle with the West to our own suburbs. The West is not only failing to win the war with IS, it is actually much closer to losing it.

Underestimating the enemy is a sure path to defeat

When I was a young Officer Cadet in the Australian Army, one of the first things I learned was the three ways to think of your enemy: one you want and two ways you don’t.

If your intelligence is precise, then it is possible to attack with just the right amount of force to destroy an enemy, but not with so much effort that you leave your flank exposed. This is a strategically good outcome.

However, if your army radically overestimates the enemy’s ability, then you may be scared away from attacking at a time of vulnerability. Alternatively, you may attack with too many forces, wasting resources and leaving your own flank exposed. This is not such a good idea, but not devastating either.

The most dangerous thing to do is underestimate your enemy and attack with too small a force and be destroyed yourself. This is a strategic disaster.

This is not a new concept. In The Art of War, Sun Tzu wrote:

All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.

In the war against IS, the West’s policymakers are not getting the assessment right. Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations Commander for the United States in the Middle East, said:

We have not defeated the idea. We do not even understand the idea.

By not understanding and evaluating the IS position, the West has fallen into the classic trap of underestimating the enemy as a “bunch of crazies”. By doing so, it has played right into IS’s hands and failed to learn a thousands-year-old lesson: underestimate your enemy and you will lose.

Stop motivating the moderates to join the radicals

In January, I wrote that the West’s lack of empathy is alienating moderate Muslims and in effect pushing them into the hands of the radicals.

Charlie Hebdo was a small-scale magazine that published cartoons of Muhammad, which most observers concede were understandably offensive to moderate Muslims. Moderates complained about the cartoons (rightfully) and even called for limitations on free speech for this sort of offensive material.

The extremists responded in a terrible, callous, brutal and horrific way by murdering the journalists.

At the same time as the Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris, extremists murdered 132 school children ranging from eight to 18 – and their teachers – in Peshawar, Pakistan. They were taking a shot at the Pakistan Army’s perceived complicity with the West.

More than three million people marched in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks to demand the sanctity of free speech. But almost nobody marched for the children.

To moderate Muslims, it seemed that the right to offend Islam was overwhelmingly more important in the West than the lives of the 132 children. Would that motivate moderates to join the West’s war against extremism?

Giving the weapons to the enemy

Out of every government, social group, business, community group around the world, IS has best understood social media’s power. It has moved the frontline of battle from the Syrian desert to computer keyboards in our suburbs.

To join IS, a disengaged youth doesn’t have to fly to Pakistan. They just need to lock the bedroom door and either motivate another kid halfway around the world to blow up an Anzac Day function, or convince her two teenage friends to go to Syria and get married to a militant.

The West might have built social media, but the Middle East is perfecting its use.

So, how is the West going to win this war? It is underestimating the enemy, it is pushing moderates into IS’s recruiting queues, and it is giving IS the main weapon of attack (social media) without any real action to curtail its use. It is giving the enemy the motive, the manpower and the methodology.

Back To Sun Tzu:

When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away.

The West thinks IS is in Syria. It is not. It is in our suburbs, our computers. Our children now are in bedrooms planning the next pipe bomb.

How much closer do you want them to get?