Maybe it’s not a caliphate, and, granted, it has lost significant ground within its original proposed Iraq and the Levant borders.
But whether the West wants to recognize the Islamic State (I.S.) as a national entity, the terrorist organization is gaining supporters and territory, and that is serious cause for concern.
No longer contained within the boundaries of geography, I.S. has become a pancontinental evil that has, through careful internet and global social media manipulation, found recruits in virtually every country on Earth.
Like a perverse whack-a-mole that is defeated in one country only to spring up twice as strong in another, I.S. has broadened its reach to inspire radicalized and suicidal individuals in Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States to kill as many innocent people as possible in some misguided quest for jihadist justice.
Over the summer, the main focus of these attacks was in Europe, especially France and Germany.
At first glance, there seems to be no rational behind the vicious slayings and no objective in their carrying out, other than to instill horror and fear in the hearts of all those who do not accept the word of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as Islamic gospel.
But as Niccolò Machiavelli once said, the only way to conquer your enemies is to know them, and understanding what is behind the Islamic State’s thinking and what its objectives are is the only method by which its violent extremism can be eradicated.
So far, the West has focused its efforts on countering the Islamic State through military campaigns aimed at its territories inside Iraq and Syria.
Limiting I.S.’ grasp of a physical base is important, but the fight to extinguish its influence beyond physical borders cannot be conducted solely through sorties and ground attacks.
Against a state that is defined by the universality of the internet rather than a physical base, and driven by a pervasive ideology as opposed to a national identity, military attacks are anachronic and do little to address the real reason why I.S. has taken root in the minds of its followers.
The most recent terror acts — especially those in Europe and the United States — have been conducted by individuals or small groups of individuals, radicalized by a vehement and pervasive ideology.
I.S.’ faculty to use its tenacious brand of radicalized Islam to inspire violence is evident in the recent attacks in London, Nice, Orlando, Paris, Brussels and San Bernardino.
In each of these attacks, I.S. was able to effectively exploit its distorted vision of Islam and jihadism to convince others to undertake violent acts on its behalf.
The only way to stop I.S., then, is to crush its ability to tap into local grievances and motivate bloodshed.
To do this, the world must recognize that I.S. and its followers constitute a borderless state that is founded in religious narratives and ideas that are selectively extracted from the Quran and swathed in modern social discontent.
Hence, the only viable weapon to confront I.S.’ gnarled Islamic theology is to work hand-in-hand with legitimate Islamic organizations and Muslim religious leaders to expose the inaccuracies of the group’s jihadist ideology and to show how it deviates from the fundamental message of the Prophet Mohammed.
Attacking I.S. on its own turf, a sleek internet and social media campaign should be launched internationally countering extremist jihadist theology and offering an alternative vision of Islam that is pluralistic, tolerant and geared to the modern world and the changing contexts of contemporary society.
That campaign, with a budget far cheaper than that of a military arsenal, could out-slick even the most Hollywoodish internet videos, social media and apps being churned out by the I.S.’ hypermodern propaganda machine.
And it could counter the terror group’s message of hatred and violence by drawing on an intellectual connect with Islam’s rich heritage and history.
It is high time that the war against the Islamic State be moved beyond the physical battlefields of geography and into the terror group’s real territory, the world of virtual reality.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected]