By the final years of Edmund Burke’s life, nearly the whole of British government had become sympathetic to his perspectives concerning the French Revolution. As Burke predicted, the leftist Jacobins grew in power and proceeded to unleash terror upon French society. Having overthrown the existing French government in 1792, the Jacobins began conducting Revolutionary Tribunals and mass deaths by guillotine the following year. By 1794 the number of Tribunal executions reached over 16,000. In many cases the victims included anyone who did not profess support for the Revolution.
For the British as well as greater Western civilization, the French Jacobins posed a direct threat to their livelihood. The Jacobins declared war on Great Britain shortly after their ascendancy, and under the leadership of William Pitt the Younger the British Parliament committed huge amounts of resources to counter the Jacobin threat. After several years of combat, however, Parliament began to experience financial drain. Pitt searched for a means of pulling back from the conflict.
It was in this context that Edmund Burke summoned his rhetorical skills to urge Pitt to continue the fight. Having won acclaim for his Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), Burke committed his pen to the writing of four Letters on a Regicide Peace (1795). In these letters Burke argued that Britain must stay the course to completely annihilate French Jacobinism from the globe. Despite Britain’s progress in containing the threat, he argued, Parliament must make sure it finishes the fight. As Russell Kirk observed in his biography on Burke, the theme of the Regicide letters was “the necessity of making an end of Jacobinism, root and branch (p. 201).”
Unlike the diplomat who was loathe to commit British forces to the Revolutionary War, Edmund Burke in this context was committed to military response. The reason, Burke explained, was the nature of the enemy. French Jacobinism represented an intolerant force that was “resolved to destroy the whole frame and fabric of the old societies of the world, and to regenerate them after their fashion.” The Jacobins, in his mind, amounted to a “sect aiming at universal empire.” Therefore, while the ideology of Jacobinism might have originated in France, Burke warned that it was universalistic in nature. If given the opportunity, the Jacobins would violently extend to the whole of Europe and beyond. Such a dangerous evil put the world in peril, Burke said, and any British politicians who aimed to appease the Jacobins were risking the livelihood of Western civilization.
In his article “Why Conservatives Hate War” for The American Conservative, author William Lind writes that “conservatism seeks above all social and cultural continuity” and that “nothing endangers that more than war.” Ignoring Burke’s nuanced disposition on the subject, Lind argues as if the famous conservative would support anti-war position on principle. “Real conservatives,” Lind argues, “hate war.”
Such a position as Lind’s sounds far more like the Jacobin appeasers and faltering 18th century British statesmen that Burke argued against in his Regicide letters. War may indeed be an unpredictable and dreadful state of affairs, and at times even a threat to social and cultural continuity. But Edmund Burke knew that against certain foes it was an absolute necessary. To not confront the evil, or to pacify it rather than extinguish it, could easily amount to a much greater threat.
A day after the horrible events in Orlando, Americans are again finding themselves in the traumatic and painful wake of a domestic terrorist attack. Yesterday the President remarked that we would all find out more regarding the killer’s motives and intentions, but based on initial reporting we already know what to expect. A radical jihadist with familial ties to the Taliban, and explicit support from ISIL? Anyone living in the United States can finish that narrative. The Boston Marathon, San Bernardino, Umpqua College – the story is becoming all too familiar and all too frequent.
“Senseless” is a word already being utilized to describe the mass murder. It certainly feels that way, and from our Western perspective we struggle to imagine why anyone would ever do such an appalling thing. However, this event wasn’t random and it certainly wasn’t incidental. What occurred was a premeditated, purposeful act of hate originated and planned by a known enemy. The United States is at war with ISIL, and as Sunday’s events agonizingly showed, they are certainly at war with us.
This is the reality which Americans must accept – while our opponent may be Syrian-based, the war we are fighting against them knows no geographical bounds. ISIL’s social media propaganda solicits support from over 48 countries, and every year they bring in far more recruits than our military air strikes terminate. Domestically, the FBI is managing over 900 active investigations into ISIL-related activity, including at least one in every American state. For ISIL, this is total war.
The front lines to this struggle are not merely towns like Fallujah or Mosul. They are familiar cities like Orlando and Los Angeles. Popular nightclubs, sporting events, public transportation, universities, holiday festivals – all of these otherwise enjoyable and peaceful venues are now potential targets for attack. And worst of all, such attacks are being carried out by an enemy most Americans would otherwise never encounter or know much about. What, the mournful residents of Orlando must be asking, did we ever do to them?
It doesn’t help that in a war against ISIL, our government’s leaders rarely frame it as such. Not only should they be accurately portraying the enemy we face and preparing us for the threat, our leaders should be doing everything they can to empower the US military to fully exterminate ISIL. Right now they are not.
The truth is that America can do more, and we should be doing more. This sentiment has been frequently articulated by Republicans and the right, even to such extremes as former presidential candidate Ted Cruz claiming he would “carpet bomb ISIS to see if the sand glows.” Presumptive nominee Donald Trump has said much of the same, advocating both a freeze on immigration as well as the targeting of Syrian civilians to punish terrorists. But these aren’t strategies as much as they are tactics. Simply killing more ISIL members won’t defeat their ideology or stop radicalization, and barring immigration while spreading the violence to civilians will only serve to radicalize more of the 1.6 billion Muslims living in the world.
To actually root out ISIL, and to prevent events like Orlando from recurring, the United States needs a better and more comprehensive strategy. We need a thorough, nuanced, and expansive plan of action which will undermine the terrorist group’s support from the ground up. Such a strategy must incorporate an accurate understanding of existing players in the Middle East, recognition of the appeal that ISIL uses to solicit and maintain its widespread support, and bold initiatives which incorporate successful ventures from the past with new ideas for the future. Nothing less will eliminate the fierce and resilient enemy we face at home and abroad.
We owe our prayers, thoughts, and sympathy to the victims of Orlando and their families. Along with this, we owe them our very best efforts at enacting justice for what occurred. In the upcoming posts I will offer an outline of a military strategy which can accomplish precisely that.
A mere three years ago, the radical terrorist group known as ISIS stood at a mere 12,000 fighters. Today, most estimates place the group’s numbers closer to 32,000 and substantial evidence suggests that ISIS will continue to expand its recruiting pool to over 80 countries. What is most shocking about this surge is that it has occurred during or in spite of America’s military campaign against the group. Operation Inherent Resolve has successfully killed no less than 27,000 fighters through the conduction of 11,000 airstrikes, and yet ISIS continues to grow. Such failure to contain the group has left American politicians and military leaders scrambling for answers and talking points indicative of a better strategy.
Among the alternative viewpoints are those voices calling for a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq and Syria. In the minds of these proponents ISIS’ identity is only tangentially related to the Muslim faith, and the group’s appeal may be more directly linked to “blowback” from foreign influence in the region. Should American forces withdraw, it is surmised, ISIS would be left to its caliphate project but without a major source of its attractiveness. In the meantime the Unites States will have untangled itself from a problem that was never ours to begin with.
The problem with this approach is that it fails to recognize the range of ISIS’ recruitment. Even if ISIS wasn’t or shouldn’t have been an American problem originally, it has certainly become one now. Last year reports by the FBI revealed that American law enforcement agencies are actively pursuing over 900 investigations of domestic ISIS recruitment. The scope of these investigations include one or more in all 50 states, and at least 27% of the suspects identified are or have been engaged in plots to attack our homeland.
Regardless of whether or not an American withdrawal would have positive long term affects in deterring ISIS, few would dispute the proposition that ISIS would immediately claim “victory” in response to an American retreat. Such a boost in public relations would no doubt give ISIS a recruitment spike and bolstering of offensive capability. For a group that sees every non-believer as an enemy deserving death, this would represent an enormous risk with potentially disastrous consequences for American national security.
On the opposite end of the spectrum are those calling for greater and more robust investment in the military campaign against ISIS. Many of these proponents directly link the appeal of ISIS to the Muslim faith itself, with some even going so far as to say that Muslim immigration to the United States should be halted and Muslim neighborhoods should be monitored. The issue with this approach, aside from its legal complications, is that it risks aggravating and radicalizing the 3.3 million Muslims presently living in America. However one may interpret the Quran and its teachings on jihad, numerous studies indicate that at present over 80% of American Muslims express at least some opposition to ISIS and its tactics. Nearly half want to see more vocal opposition from their clerics and religious leaders.
Should law enforcement action be taken against this group, such numbers would undoubtedly change for the worst. With greater sympathy for ISIS would come the strong potential of increased domestic recruitment and attacks. To understand this, non-Muslim Americans should consider the same methodology if it were applied to themselves and their own beliefs. If an American politician or media spokesperson were to claim that Westboro Baptist Church was an isolated hate group, for example, many evangelicals including mainstream Baptists would express immediate approval. But if that same politician were to claim that Westboro Baptist’s behavior was indicative of a larger evangelical problem, those same mainstream Baptists would feel stereotyped, threatened, and unjustly linked to a radical group they don’t agree with.
Close analysis thus reveals that both alternative strategies will make the problem worse. To truly defeat ISIS, the United States must reject both avenues and instead adopt a strategy that focuses not only on ISIS’ institutions (personnel, territory, and resources) but also the problems of its identity and ideology. American politicians must communicate an understanding of Islam that unifies ISIS dissenters and emboldens them and their religious leaders to further decry the terrorist group’s association with the Muslim faith.
Such a strategy requires facing off against ISIS in the realm in which it has experienced the majority of its success: namely, social media. Unlike al-Qaeda, which mainly releases leader-focused media involving sermonizing and long diatribes, ISIS prefers a sensationalist approach. On average, ISIS puts out 40 or more high-quality social media products (violent videos, dramatic short films, etc.) per day. Evidence abounds that the group also engages in crowd sourcing and similar tactics to amplify its message. To defeat ISIS and truly cut off its primary recruiting pipeline, the United States must match the group’s investment in social media and respond with a unified counter message that exposes the group’s failures and effectively severs them from the Muslim faith.
The components of this campaign exist, but presently they are disorganized and fragmentary. US government efforts, such as its “Think First, Turn Away” initiative focus particularly on overt negative messaging and lack the broad religious support to be effective. Isolated Muslim grassroots efforts such as “My Jihad” and “Not in My Name” remain separate from the authority of religious figures such as Shawki Alam (Grand Mufti in Egypt), Abdulaziz al-Shaikh (Grand Mufti in Saudia Arabia), and Mehmet Gormez (highest cleric in Turkey) who have previously denounced ISIS. And many nongovernmental organizations working to better the lives of peaceful Muslims, such as Lazuardi Birru in Indonesia, remain disconnected from international efforts.
Americans must encourage these ISIS dissenters to link their efforts and respond in a unified voice. Steady amounts of publicity, including a daily stream of quality material blending both negative and positive messaging, will be required. The voice of every Muslim from refugees, former terrorists, clerics, to common practitioners should be amplified to explain both what Islam is not (a religion conducive to the type of violence practiced by ISIS) and what it can and should be (a religion of tolerance and peace). This amplification must be fueled by media outlets worldwide, and it will likely take cooperation between international nongovernmental organizations, religious experts, cinema elites, and government clandestine agencies to be successful.
Critics, many of whom have neither read nor studied the Quran, will say that such a project is doomed from the start. They will say that the Muslim faith is inescapably tied to violence. A strict interpretation of the Muslim holy book’s 9th chapter, they will argue, prevents moderation and lasting peace with infidels. Lest we engage in hypocrisy, I would encourage such critics to examine their own worldview (be it Judaic, Christian, atheist, or otherwise) and remind themselves why and how they are not tied to the violent practitioners of their own movement. Beyond this I would argue that we as American citizens have a responsibility to uphold the legacy of religious liberty imparted to us. Do we not have a moral duty to strengthen the voices of religious peace, and thereby quell the hatred of our enemies?