Q&A feature in the Orange County Register by Jonathan Winslow, published on January 11, 2016. To access the original article, click here.
Oh, the times, they are a changin’.
In the wake of the attacks on Paris and San Bernardino, the world is facing yet another paradigm shift – one of terrorism’s lamentable place in our world.
While still a relatively young insurgency, the methods of the Islamic State render the group a rowdy foe. Even now, it’s working to construct the state that al-Qaida never managed to achieve, leaving the corpses of former countrymen in its wake.
Coupled with self-radicalized terrorists born within our borders and molded by the Internet, these new realities are leaving governments scrambling to keep their citizens safe in an unstable world.
Further complicating the world stage, North Korea last week conducted a nuclear test – one it claims was a successful hydrogen bomb detonation. Condemnation has rained upon North Korea from the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and the United Nations, though the state of world affairs leaves what action – if any – will be taken up in the air.
James Coyle, director of Chapman University’s Center for Global Education, is an expert on terrorism, national security strategy and Middle East politics – among many other topics.
Co-author of “Politics in the Middle East: Culture and Conflict in the Middle East,” published by Prentice-Hall, Coyle also has held several positions in the federal government. Over the last three decades, Coyle has been director of Middle East studies at the U.S. Army War College, first secretary for political-military affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, senior political analyst for Palestinian affairs and special assistant to the FBI/New York Joint Terrorism Task Force.
We sat down with Coyle to discuss world affairs and the new realities of terrorism after Paris and San Bernardino.
QUESTION Given the growth of the Islamic State group in recent years, did the Paris and San Bernardino attacks come as a surprise or were these types of attacks to be expected?
ANSWER First of all, I'm going to contradict you, if I can. ISIS is not growing any more. ISIS is actually on the retreat. They’ve lost quite a bit of territory in Iraq. They’re being pummeled in Syria. The groups outside of Iraq and Syria that call themselves ISIS, they’re really nothing new.
A lot of these groups, five years ago, were all considered al-Qaida affiliates – now they’re ISIS affiliates. Basically, they’re groups that are unhappy with the governing structures of whatever country they’re in. They’ve chosen to use an Islamic ideology to motivate their base. Before, they were loyal to Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden’s dead and ISIS is on the rise, so they’ve sworn allegiance to them. They’re the same groups, they’ve just changed names in a sense.
Paris is not a surprise to me. Paris was a disaster waiting to happen with the large waves of immigration that had been passing through France, not just in the last year but in the last 50 years. It was just a matter of time until this sort of thing occurred.
San Bernardino is a surprise. First of all, the shooters themselves – it appears their connection to the radical groups overseas was tangential. In reality, these are what the press is calling “self-radicalized” individuals. We haven’t seen that before. There’s not really a lot you can do to stop that. The FBI, since 9/11, has done a very good job of stopping any of these attacks inside the United States, but how do you do that? You penetrate organizations, keep track of them. But if you have a guy and a gal sitting in San Bernardino who aren’t in touch, are not using these groups for support, how do you stop them? It was a surprise, and I think we’ll probably see more.
QUESTION What should the takeaway be from these attacks for policymakers as they work to prevent further attacks?
ANSWER You cannot win this battle militarily. Neither on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria nor using homeland security here in the United States. This is a battle for hearts and minds. Everyone who works this field, from (retired) Gen. David Petraeus on down, will tell you the same thing. Yes, you do have to provide a modicum of security. Granted, but that’s only step number one. You’ve got to win the hearts and minds.
This is the difficult part. The United States can’t really be engaged in that debate. That is a debate within the Muslim community itself. The moderate voices in the Muslim community need to engage with the radical Islamists. There are elements within the Quran that substantiate that Islam is a religion of peace. Surah 5 says that if you kill an innocent man, it’s the same as if you have killed all men in the world. A message like that is antithetical to the message of ISIS. That dialogue has to be encouraged, but we can’t be the ones holding that dialogue. We’re not part of the community, and our voice – because we’re outsiders – is suspect from the very beginning.
QUESTION What are some of the major differences, in goals and methods, to consider when looking at the Islamic State as opposed to an entity like al-Qaida – are we seeing the start of a new age of terrorism?
ANSWER It’s only methodology. The goals are the same. The goals are Islamic rule over Muslim lands. The sole difference that I see is that al-Qaida was looking at this as a future goal. The original goal of al-Qaida was the elimination of the Saudi monarchy. They weren’t even interested in the United States. Eventually, bin Laden decided he could not get rid of the Saudi monarchy, which he called “the near enemy,” unless he got rid of the organization that was propping “the near enemy” up. That was the United States, which he identified as “the far enemy.”
So, even though we remember al-Qaida because of 9/11, that was not the main thrust. The main thrust was the elimination of the Saudi monarchy and the imposition of a more authentic Sharia law on the Saudi peninsula.
Now, in the case of ISIS, they’re not even interested at this point in the Saudi peninsula. Their goal is the establishment of Sharia law throughout Muslim lands, but they’ve actually created a caliphate and are trying to establish a government. They’ve established a caliph, they’ve got taxation services, a military, garbage collection – they’re trying to be an actual state. Al-Qaida never got that far.
In my mind, we’re looking at three separate groups. Al-Qaida is your traditional terrorist organization. It had a central authority in Bin Laden. He and his henchman directed operations around the world, and it was pure terrorism: killing a second party in order to influence a third party for political goals. The second group is ISIS. They’re not really a terrorist group, they’re an insurgency. They want to overthrow the government in Iraq and Syria, replacing it with themselves. It’s an insurgency. We sometimes make the mistake in lumping them together because sometimes insurgents will use terrorist tactics. They’re not trying to influence somebody, they’re trying to set up a state.
Now, you’ve got the third “group,” and when I say “group” I don't really mean an organized entity, more like an amorphous mass. It’s all these people around the world that are self-identifying with ISIS or even with al-Qaida. That’s the group we have to be careful of, that’s the group that’s relatively new. There’s always been that element out there. You have these terrorist waves that come through periodically, this is another wave. What’s different? The Internet.
The Internet not only allows people to become radicalized without ever meeting anybody from the organization, it allows them to communicate with people, order whatever materials you need for a terrorist attack and even publicize what you’ve done in a way that was not possible in the old days.
QUESTION In light of recent events, there have been many reports of religious intolerance – people being assaulted even for just looking how a Muslim is believed to look, and a presidential candidate discussing a ban on Muslims entering the country. Even so, it’s been said that Muslims are the chief victim of the Islamic State. Could you comment on this current state of religious intolerance?
ANSWER If you look from a historical viewpoint, the United States has always had a very strong nativist streak within it. Every ethnic group that comes into this country is opposed by people who were here first. The German Americans didn’t want the Irish to come, the Irish didn’t want the Italians to come, the Italians didn’t want the Poles to come and the Poles didn’t want the Slavs to come. The latest is we don’t want the Mexicans to come, and now we don’t want the Muslims to come.
It happens. It’s true that terrorism makes it worse. I’ve heard the phrase “not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslim,” which, by the way, is not true. There are lots of non-Muslim terrorists out there. But it strikes fear into people and they have a tendency to overreact, simple as that.
What we have to remember is the First Amendment of the Constitution says Congress shall pass no law on the establishment of religion. That’s the Constitution.
QUESTION Cooperation between the United States, China and Russia seems to be a major make-or-break element in dealing with the current state of world affairs. In terms of these relations, what are the biggest obstacles to a united dismantling of Islamic State and containment of North Korea, and how can we hope to overcome them?
ANSWER The biggest obstacle is national interests. The national interest of the United States is not that of Russia or China. Where those interests converge, there can be cooperation. Where they don’t, there cannot be. We would like Russia to cooperate with the United States against ISIS. That’s good, except that leaves the American-backed opposition untouched. That’s antithetical to the Russian national interest, which is to keep Assad in power. (Bashar Assad is the president of Syria.) It doesn’t make sense to cooperate against ISIS when Russia also wants to take out the American-backed groups.
Same thing in North Korea. Yes, both the United States and China are interested in maintaining stability on the Korean peninsula. Both of us are opposed to North Korea having nuclear arms. It sounds easy! There ought to be a large basis for cooperation. In point of fact, however, the Chinese have decided the best way for there to be stability for the peninsula is for North Korea to continue on its way. The concern is that if there were anything to destabilize the North Korean regime, then China would suddenly be inundated with a massive wave of North Korean refuges. Where our national interests converge, it's fine, but eventually you reach a point where our interests and theirs are not the same.
It's a question of where the goals are in the hierarchy. In China’s case, the goals in which the U.S. and China cooperate on in North Korea are lower in the hierarchy than stability on the peninsula.
QUESTION North Korea appears to have conducted another nuclear test. It may or may not have been a hydrogen bomb, but China, the U.S., Japan, South Korea and the U.N. are upset over what happened. Is there any long-term significance to this, or is it just another in a series of provocations by North Korea in recent years?
ANSWER It’s the latter. This is their fourth nuclear test. The first test took place under the Bush administration. There’s now been three tests under the Obama administration. China is not going to allow any sort of significant sanctions to be placed against North Korea. We can count on China to condemn the tests, we can count on them to verbally chastise North Korea, but we cannot count on them to actually support anything that would hurt North Korea.
When the first nuclear test occurred during the Bush administration, the United States actually considered launching a unilateral strike to take out North Korea’s nuclear facilities. They didn’t do it, for a simple reason. Seoul is 40 kilometers from the DMZ, and North Korea has had 50 years to zero in long-range artillery on Seoul. North Korea has chemical warheads – not for bombs, not for missiles, but for good-old-fashioned artillery. The Bush administration received an assessment at that time that if there was an attack and North Korea response against Seoul, you could be talking hundreds of thousands of deaths in the first few minutes. That hasn’t changed, and that’s not going to change. As long as North Korea has the ability to respond that way against an American ally, the United States’ hands are tied. And as we talked about before, when you talk about China and Russia, it’s because of their national interests that they aren’t interested in responding either.