Quarterly Essay

By James Brown

I left Baghdad seven years ago, but the city Blood Year takes me back to seems more distant than the moon. How quick and easy to forget the desperate reality of everyday life in that place — a city in which dumped children, “eyes gouged out, ears, little limbs and genitals hacked off,” are the literal embodiment of cruel political calculus. In which the needs of al-Qaeda in Iraq prompted a macabre secondary market to procure kidnapped children to be dumped.

Once again, David Kilcullen has become our avatar navigating that netherworld, forcing us to negotiate our own sensibilities in order to understand the rationale that drives the Islamic State. It’s no easy task: he punctuates an Australian political debate on terrorism dumbed down by prime ministerial invocations of the death cult and its deranged diaspora of foreign fighters and remotely radicalised youth.

For all the talk of Australia’s political and security leaders in the year since Mosul fell, little insight has been provided into the motivations of ISIS. Kilcullen’s essay sheds much-needed light on its origins, tracing its lineage from both Iraq and al-Qaeda and explaining its resurgence through the sanctuary provided by a chaotic Syrian civil war. ISIS’s leaders are focused on their own political survival first and foremost, Kilcullen reminds us, and willing to commit atrocities against their own people if that’s what it takes to solidify and strengthen their position. But these are not capricious barbarians: al-Baghdadi himself is a scholar — he and his followers were schooled through the terrorist universities that US prisons like Camp Bucca became.

By any measure Islamic State has been wildly successful, sometimes in spite of its own strategies, policies and military tactics. As Kilcullen notes, it is now a state-like entity, controlling more territory than Israel and with a larger population than New Zealand. This success, I suspect, has surprised even the most committed of ISIS commanders. A senior military commander within Islamic State interviewed last year concluded that their campaign “got bigger than any of us. This can’t be stopped now. This is out of the control of any man. Not Baghdadi, or anyone else in his circle.” An anonymous NATO official writing in the New York Review of Books conceded glumly in August that “Nothing since the triumph of the Vandals in Roman North Africa has seemed so sudden, incomprehensible, and difficult to reverse as the rise of ISIS. None of our analysts, soldiers, diplomats, intelligence officers, politicians, or journalists has yet produced an explanation rich enough — even in hindsight — to have predicted the movement’s rise.” Islamic State has become a viral political campaign, fuelled by actual and perceived conventional military victories.

The IRA had Gerry Adams to carry forth its message, drive recruitment and secure funding from the diaspora. ISIS has tens of thousands of Twitter accounts, professionally produced snuff films and communications experts producing a stream of media missives. (Our political leaders should be able to understand this campaign better than most.) And here, I think, is the fertile ground on which the counterstrategy against ISIS will be found. I agree with Kilcullen that the United States and its allies and partners (both in the West and the Middle East) could do more to contain the advance of ISIS on the ground (although I don’t necessarily think that this translates to a larger role for the Australian Defence Force). It is far more difficult to contain ISIS in the arena of public perception.

But countering the ISIS narrative is not impossible. The group’s need to stay connected is its vulnerability. In June, coalition aircraft destroyed an ISIS command-and-control building after a foreign fighter accidentally provided the building’s coordinates in a boastful selfie posted to Twitter. And Islamic State’s politico-media operatives can be targeted in Special Forces operations in the same way. Like any Western political party, ISIS values leaders who can shape their political communications campaigns. Such skills are in shorter supply than the ability to operate heavy weapons and manage fighters on the battlefield. Attrite enough of Islamic State’s media commanders (the nodes in their political communications networks) and we will start to see the group’s momentum falter. Consider, for example, the impact on Columbia’s FARC movement after its spokesman was killed in 2008.

Destroying the ISIS narrative does need actual tactical wins on the ground, and they are in short supply at the moment. US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter was scathing in his assessment of the Iraqi Security Forces in Ramadi, who “vastly outnumbered the opposing force, and yet they failed to fight.” That’s not to say the Iraqis have lost all will to fight — ISIS recently executed several of its commanders for fleeing Iraqi security forces tenaciously defending the Baiji oil refinery. But the campaign to re-take Mosul is some way off and efforts to re-train the Iraqi Army look to be a matter of years, not months.

Australia has not even begun its national effort in the battle of ideas — the counter-messaging war. The statements of our political leaders remain stilted; efforts to engage Muslim communities have too often been haphazard and hasty. An $18-million centre for counter-narratives is still just an announcement. The real question is why this critical component of the fight has received such limited funding. If it was worth spending $3 million to advertise the Australian government’s Intergenerational Report, surely it is worth spending much more than $18 million on a campaign to destroy a threat the foreign minister judges to be the most challenging for Australia since the Cold War. This is an effort on which our best advertising agencies and our brightest scholars should be engaged. And as Kilcullen rightly points out, it will need to be a continuous campaign in a world of persistent conflict.

The most important contribution of Blood Year, though, is to the debate on the balance between national security and freedom currently underway in Australia, thanks to the misguided attempts to strip citizenship rights without trial from those the immigration minister suspects of having been involved with ISIS. Kilcullen identifies the impossible task that voters set for leaders — guarantee us perfect safety from terrorism, but within the constraints of a liberal democracy governed by the rule of law. Little has changed in this regard since the attacks in New York of 2001. Governments cannot inoculate us against every ill, nor stop every terrorist madly committed to the destruction of an Australian target. But our rule of law is precious, worth defending, and even worth risking our lives for. Someday the seemingly unstoppable momentum of ISIS will abate. We must be careful that we don’t spend too much of what we truly value in order to bring ISIS down.

This is a reply to David Kilcullen’s Quarterly Essay,