Paris is just the beginning. The devastating attacks claimed by ISIS that killed scores in the French capital last week are a sign of things to come and a clear indication that efforts to combat this scourge have been a failure thus far.
The “global war on terror,” launched by the Bush administration after September 11 and continued by the Obama administration, has been an abject failure by any objective measure. Terrorism today is far more prevalent around the globe than it has ever been, in large part because of some of the policies of the American “war on terror.” With ISIS metastasizing around the globe, we seem further away from the objective than ever.
I’ve found that the best way to think about comprehensive counter-terror strategy is the boiling-pot analogy. Imagine that you’re presented with a large pot of scalding water and your task is to prevent any bubbles from reaching the surface. You could attack each bubble on its way up. You could spot a bubble at the bottom of the pot and disrupt it before it has a chance to rise. Many bubbles might be eliminated in this way, but sooner or later, bubbles are going to get to the surface, especially as the temperature rises and your counter-bubble capabilities are overwhelmed.
The other pathway is to turn down, or off, the flame beneath the pot—to address the conditions that help generate terrorism. When it comes to the question of ISIS in particular and broader terrorism in general, Western counter-terror strategy has focused on the bubbles and not the flame. While significant resources have been invested in intelligence and homeland security, too few have been invested in resolving the conditions that generate terrorism. In fact, too often, the West has contributed significantly to those conditions. In the case of ISIS, no event did more to create the conditions for its emergence than the US invasion of Iraq and the subsequent dissolution of the Iraqi state.
Today France is facing an all-too-familiar quandary. In the wake of the unprecedented attacks, the French government is looking for ways to respond. Already there is news of increased French airstrikes on ISIS positions in Syria. We can recall that earlier this year, Jordan was in a similar situation, when its country was stunned by the gruesome execution of one of its pilots, who was burned alive in a cage. Nationalist music played on state-run TV stations for the next few days as Jordanian airstrikes hammered ISIS-held territory. Perhaps it satisfied the raw anger many felt, but it did little to weaken ISIS.
Turning down the flame that is causing ISIS to bubble over into Western capitals will require a very different approach. Currently, the United States, Russia, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Jordan the UAE, Iran, and others have conducted strikes of some sort against the terror group. The military budgets of this coalition, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the movie Independence Day, make up close to 70 percent of the entire world’s military spending, while ISIS is a mere nonstate actor with no formal military and certainly no intergalactic space invaders.