ISIS has been beaten. It's been forced out of city after city. Its fighters are dying or have run away. Its resources are exhausted.
And yet once again, there's blood on the pavement and screams filling the air of a Western city. And the note in the bloodied truck links the attack to ISIS.
We didn't beat ISIS because it's not just an army or an alliance. It's an idea. The idea is Islam.
By declaring a Caliphate, ISIS made its existence interchangeable with Islam and its manifest destiny. Losing so many battles has weakened that identification, but there are still plenty of Muslims willing to kill for it. And it isn't because ISIS has radicalized them with some brilliant internet memes, but because it promised to fulfill the ideas and beliefs of their religion.
ISIS is popular because it appeared to have come closest to doing what no other Islamic group had been able to do in a century, resurrect the Caliphate. ISIS was popular because it was Islamic.
It was popular to the degree that it was Islamic. It was popular because it brought back Islamic institutions from slavery to mutilating thieves without any apologies or concessions.
That is the simple truth that our leaders refuse to deal with.
What causes an Uzbek immigrant, along with Pakistanis, Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Tunisians and American converts to Islam, to be willing to kill and die? They aren't killing and dying for ISIS. But the Ummah, the global Islamic tribe that embodies their honor, for the virgins of paradise, and for the cry that accompanied their atrocities. The cry of, "Allahu Akbar."
And until we understand that, we won't beat ISIS. Because ISIS is Islam.
We beat ISIS twice before. Once in its previous incarnation as Al Qaeda in Iraq and in its even earlier incarnation as Saddam Hussein’s regime whose Sunni Baathists went on to play a crucial role in ISIS.
Each time it was reborn as another murderous monstrosity.
We beat Saddam, Al Qaeda in Iraq and the Islamic State. But it keeps coming back because we don’t understand what it is. And we don’t get it because we don’t understand what Islamic terrorism is.
Critics who accuse the US of creating ISIS by bombing Iraq miss the point. ISIS is the latest embodiment of Sunni supremacism and historical nostalgia for the Abbasid Caliphate. Both Saddam and the Caliph of ISIS capitalized on that nostalgia the way that Hitler did on Charlemagne.
We’re not just fighting a bunch of ragged terrorists. We’re fighting against the sense of manifest destiny of a large Muslim population, not just in Iraq and Syria, but in London, Paris and every state in America.
The Islamic terrorist groups of the Middle East are especially dangerous because, as ISIS did with its Caliphate, they can closely link themselves to crucial epochs in Islam. Al Qaeda leveraged its Saudi face to form a visceral connection with Muslims worldwide. ISIS repeated the same trick with its Iraqi link. And large numbers of non-Arabs and converts to Islam rallied from around the world to the Jihad.
ISIS is now the new Al Qaeda. It may not be able to hold on to its Iraqi or Syrian conquests, but it has become an international terrorist organization that is even more dangerous than Al Qaeda. And that may be what it wanted.
Why settle for some dirty and dusty kilometers in Syria or Iraq, when you can have the world?
Like the Palestinian Authority, Hamas and other Islamic terrorist groups, the Islamic State was never very good at running things. The PA won’t make peace with Israel for the same reason that Hamas won’t make peace with the PA: statehood is a compelling imperative, but requires hard work in reality. It’s much easier to send off a few useful idiots to blow themselves up and then collect the Qatari checks.
Civilizations manage societies. Barbarians have more fun destroying things than taking out the garbage or cleaning the streets.
The original Islamic conquests wrecked the societies and cultures they overran the way that barbarians always do. They wouldn’t have succeeded if civilization had not been in a state of collapse. Today’s Islamic conquests are a similar reaction to our civilizational decline.
ISIS claimed that it could win a military showdown: it was wrong. The Muslim Brotherhood’s strategy of political and demographic invasion, sneered at by ISIS, may be less glamorous, but the demographic conquest is going very well. Just ask the frightened natives of Paris and London.
The challenge for Islamic terrorists is turning that demographic growth into military strength. ISIS emerged as the Uber of Islamic terrorism by unlocking the key to turning Muslims anywhere into terrorists with no training or recruitment. While Al Qaeda had pioneered the strategy, ISIS made it work.
Dismissing the terrorists who have been killing for ISIS in the West as “lone wolves” misses the point.
The Islamic terrorist who goes on a stabbing spree in London or a shooting spree in Orlando is no more a “lone wolf” than an Uber driver who picks up a passenger is just some random eccentric. They’re parts of a distributed network that is deliberately decentralized to better fulfill its central purpose.
CVE and other efforts to tackle “online extremism” fight messaging wars that ignore the demographics. But our targeted strikes on ISIS ignore demographics in the same way. We keep looking at the trees while missing the forest. But the forest is where the trees come from. Muslim terrorists emerge from an Islamic population. They aren’t aberrations. Instead they represent its religious and historic aspirations.
ISIS and Islamic terrorists aren’t going anywhere. Defeating them through patronizing lectures about the peacefulness of Islam, as Obama’s CVE policy proposed to do, was a futile farce. Bombing them temporarily suppresses them as an organized military force, but not their religious and cultural origins.
As long as we go on seeing Islamic terrorism as an aberration that has no connection to the history and religion of Islam, our efforts to defeat it will be pinpricks that treat the symptoms, but not the problem.
Only when we recognize that Islamic terrorism is Islam, that the crimes of ISIS and countless others dating back to Mohammed were committed to achieve the goals of the Islamic population, will we be ready to face the war that we’re in and to defend ourselves against what is to come not just in Iraq or Afghanistan, but in America, Australia, Canada, Europe, India, Israel and everywhere else.
We are not fighting a handful of Islamic terrorists. We are standing in the path of the manifest destiny of Islam. Either that manifest destiny will break against us, as it did at the Gates of Vienna, or it will break us. The attacks were once yearly. Now they are monthly. Soon they will become daily.
Every attack is a pebble in an avalanche. A pebble falls in Brussels, in Fresno, in Dusseldorf, in New York, in Munich, in London, in Garland, in Paris, in Jerusalem, in Mumbai, in Boston and in more places than anyone can count. We are too close to the bloodshed to see the big picture. We only see the smoke and hear the screams. We see the boats bringing armies into Europe. We see refugees fill our airports.
Those are the trees, not the forest: the pebbles, not the avalanche. Those are the battles, not the war.
The Islamic State is not going anywhere. It’s not a name. It’s an Islamic imperative. And it’s here.