24 Aug 2014

Militants, extremists… or murderous thugs?

The US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel is one of the more personable administration figures populating Washington these days.

Usually this former senator from Nebraska in the flat heartland of America is relaxed and resists hyperbole.

But when talking about IS and their extraordinary challenge to Middle East security a few days ago he looked shaken.

Twelve years after 9/11 he and America are once again talking about a struggle that will last a generation.

The brutal butchery of James Foley has leavened the brew of fear and panic to which western leaders are now having to respond to in the tail of their summer holiday.



The speed with which IS, or ISIS or ISIL or the caliphate (you pick) defeated Iraq’s over-funded and under-motivated army in the north of the country was scary.

Not least because it turns out that all those billions spent on creating a new Iraqi military were an absurd waste of money.

But despite this summer of fear and loathing in northern Iraq we should remember that terrorism of this sort is above all theatre that relies on grotesque extremes to make the point.

Genghis Khan would have been proud of the killers of James Foley.

Here politicians are talking about the need for new laws to curb extremist ideologies and, as Foreign Secretary Phillip Hammond put it today a “barbaric ideology threatening us at home”.

By doing so he is doing them a favour. The thugs speaking on behalf of the caliphate love the notion of a civilisational clash and so it seems do many of our leaders here.

This brutal war is not about ideology nor is it about Islam.

From what we can judge most of these thugs seem to precious little knowledge of the faith for whom they profess to wage war.

Their actions are more about psychology than ideology. Or perhaps psychopathy. By calling themselves Islamic State they have created a lie since they are neither a state nor very Islamic.

But they have also created a conundrum. Their name is a virtual invitation to talk about this conflict in grand civilizational terms.

Why are there not more leaders from Islamic states in the region declaring their outrage that the name of Islam has been high-jacked? Calling them militants or extremists is also misleading.

It implies they have a set of beliefs which exist on a sliding scale from moderate to extreme. Calling them hooligans with knives and guns would be more accurate. Or murderous thugs.

In movie terms this is the Four Lions, the satirical drama about a group of would be terrorists from Bradford meets Clockwork Orange, the Stanley Kubrick classic about a gang of cruel young men.

We journalists and the politicians have something in common with the caliphate “nutters”.

We love the big picture. We revel in the drama unfolding on interactive maps that show the tentacles of the “Islamic State” snaking and swelling like a hydra through the sands of the Middle East and north Africa.

Even though IS is a threat to the region we shouldn’t dignify their war with grand historical notions.

And our governments should insist that the regional leaders who are supposedly our allies step up to the plate and do their bit to call out the so-called caliphate.

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