ISIS and the Cycle of Violence
Following the ISIS attacks in Paris and around the world, there’s a great deal of talk about retaliation. (N.B. The organization changed its name last year to IS, the Islamic State, though most of the world still calls it ISIS and this post will follow suit.) Retaliations suggested include military force, cutting aid to Muslim countries, turning away Muslim refugees, and even declaring war on Islam itself.
These suggested retaliations suggest little knowledge of the structure and goals of ISIS. We have never fought an enemy like this, and the closest we came (Vietnam) did not go well. Above all, we have never directly encountered the Cycle of Violence, and too many of us don’t understand how it works.
I saw the Cycle of Violence first-hand in Sri Lanka, where the LTTE effectively used it to grow, prosper, and often triumph. It began in 1983, when the LTTE was still a fringe group with minimal support among its intended constituency, the Sri Lankan Tamils. The LTTE attacked an army patrol and killed several soldiers. The response of the Sinhalese majority was brutal and misdirected: hundreds rioted in Colombo, killing as many as 3,000 Tamil civilians. There is some evidence that the “rioters” were actually pro-government thugs, yet the response of the Sinhalese majority toward the brutality was not outrage but justification. The effect was dramatic. Suddenly, the LTTE had both credibility and support as Tamils, shocked by the killings, looked for someone else to represent their interests.
The cycle continued. Whenever the LTTE seemed in danger of losing support or legitimacy, it staged a high-profile attack. The government’s knee-jerk response was to punish Tamils in general with restrictions, random arrests and detention, and even (sanctioned or unsanctioned) massacres. Their assumption, not entirely incorrect, was that any Tamil could be an LTTE member, even though the majority were not. This had the effect of alienating the Tamils as a whole and increasing support for the LTTE.
The cycle continued for 23 years, until the Rajapakse government became willing to kill LTTE and Tamil civilians indiscriminately, a strategy that did eliminate the LTTE and brought a temporary end to the hostilities, yet virtually guaranteed another outbreak of violence in the future.
ISIS has learned the game. I can’t say whether they studied LTTE tactics, but their structure is strikingly similar: cellular structures under an all-powerful leader and a single lieutenant.
ISIS’s success at using the Cycle of Violence is already well established. The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs notes that one would expect conflict between home-grown ISIS personnel and foreign-recruited fighters, but that is not the case.
“[ISIS] has been so successful in creating an atmosphere of hatred against all ‘heretics’ and all that Western civilization represents that it has succeeded to attract thousands of foreign and Arab volunteers to abandon previous allegiances and apply to the ranks of the Islamic State. By one estimate, ‘perhaps 12,000 foreign fighters’ have joined the IS ranks.”
If 12,000 fighters sounds small compared to, say, the U.S. Army, consider that the LTTE held the Sri Lanka government at bay for more than two decades while outnumbered as much as 40 to one.
Now ISIS has attacked multiple targets around the world. Everyone’s instinct is to attack, to fear all Muslims, to inflict damage on those we suspect could be ISIS supporters. But that instinct plays into their hands. To do so would alienate moderate Muslims, and to whom would they turn? ISIS would gain yet more power, support, and legitimacy.
Responding to an organization like ISIS or the LTTE takes great restraint, or else the willingness to commit genocide. Our instincts must be held in check, because they work against us. If ISIS is to be controlled through military means, targets must be clearly identified as belonging to ISIS. Collateral damage aids the enemy.
Unfortunately, we in the west have already abused force in the Middle East. From giving them ridiculous national boundaries that ignored religious and cultural realities, to installing brutal dictators in order to protect our oil interests, to killing women and children with drone strikes, we have a long history of failing to care about the people of the Muslim world. Against this background, a single error in targeting or strategy can give ISIS incredible opportunities for growth and advancement.
In Sri Lanka, I was part of a team that helped bring about a six-year cease fire. During that cessation of hostilities, the LTTE began to moderate. They even considered giving up violence and becoming a political rather than military institution. The resumption of the war, driven by extremists on both sides, prevented any such transformation. Yet the potential was there.
Whether such a transformation could happen with ISIS is unclear. But it won’t happen while they are winning, and our current strategy is helping them grow and triumph.