Lost in the fog

Published in The Express Tribune

The first suicide bombings on French soil. The worst attack on Paris since Hitler. An ‘act of war’, and a ‘state of emergency’, not heard of since Algeria. After a funeral bombing in Baghdad. After a massacre in Beirut.

Which begs the question: is this the new normal now – the age of the perma-war? The Kissinger dream (via a new book): that ‘action [leads] to reaction [and] reaction [demands] more action’?

It would seem so. ‘Things get worse’ would be a pretty accurate summary of which way the world’s spun since the Twin Towers fell in on themselves 14 years ago.

14 years since Osama and Zawahiri exulted in bloodying the face of the ‘Far Enemy’; while the world watched footage of W.T.C. workers hurl themselves to their deaths.

14 since Afghanistan was invaded, and Donald Rumsfeld lamented ‘there aren’t enough targets’ to bomb.

13 since Iraq was torn open, under a Vice President that long quoted Isaiah to overseas troops: ‘I heard the voice of the Lord, saying, whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And Isaiah said, “Here I am. Send me.”’

12 since a Jordanian from Zarqa, fond of tattoos and drugs, left life at the video store and turned to terror. He was useless in Afghanistan (cracked ribs and flop bombings), so he showed up in Iraq.

9 since Zarqawi founded an outfit that shocked and repelled Osama and Zawahiri, self-proclaimed intellectuals, in the joy it felt at killing and maiming Muslims. Zarqawi’s men cared nothing for Far Enemies or Great Satans. They cared for killing the Shia and, hopefully, igniting sectarian civil war.

Three since I.S.I.S. was driven out of Iraq and into Syria, into the arms of the Assad regime. Zarqawi, long dead now, left behind a legacy Osama never dreamed of: a group that codified the rape of children and sex slavery.

Two since al Qaeda, disturbed by the sectarian scale of what was happening, excommunicated I.S.I.S. Zarqawi’s ‘total war’ on the Shia was bad for business, wrote Zawahiri.

And a week since I.S.I.S claimed responsibility for hitting three capitals in two days: suicide bombings in Beirut and Baghdad, and mass slaughter in Paris.

And as the timeline comes to an end, from 2001 to 13 November, 2015, we arrive humbled. Very little makes sense, so what does anyone write in these pages anymore?

Yes, there’s plenty noise at hand, and various axes to grind. There’s Ann Coulter screaming, ‘What’s the upside of letting millions of Muslims migrate to Western countries?’ Perhaps the fact they’re fleeing the maniacs that did this in the first place?

There’s also denial – from Friday the 13th truthers to false flag morons. While Pakistanis fight over Facebook filters, even well-intentioned Bono couldn’t resist a bit of self-indulgence: ‘the first direct hit on music that we’ve had in this so-called War on Terror.’

But there are also explanations: that France has gone hard after I.S.I.S via airstrikes in both Iraq and Syria, that several thousand of its troops fight in Mali, that disaffection in its Arab and African locals is simmering, that recruits from France are flowing Da’esh’s way.

Yet all of it seems improvised – the explanation that there is no explanation, seems the only one we have. A searing piece on the rise of Da’esh, written anonymously in the New York Review of Books, lent us a way out: ‘The story is relatively easy to narrate, but much more difficult to understand.’

Firstly, no one could predict I.S.I.S. would become the ‘dominant vehicle of Sunni anger’ in the Middle East. Zarqawi’s brutality alienated his own supporters in Iraq, while the Free Syrian Army always seemed the logical leader of the resistance in Syria. Yet it thrived.

Second, logic demands I.S.I.S. would have been pulped by now: opening up fronts against Assad, the Quds, the Kurds, the Free Syrian Army, and al-Nusra (while beheading American and Japanese journalists) all at the same time. It hasn’t.

Third, it in no way pretends to be a classic guerilla operation: it fights pitched battles and loses thousands of fighters with embarrassing regularity. Yet it holds.

Fourth, the ‘brown discontent’ that is said to empower Da’esh, doesn’t cut it. As the article points out, ‘The large number who came from Britain were blamed on the British government having made insufficient effort to assimilate [immigrants]; then France’s were blamed on the government pushing too hard for assimilation. But in truth, these new foreign fighters seemed to sprout from every conceivable political or economic system…[rich or poor], as much from the social democracies of Scandinavia as from monarchies (a thousand from Morocco), military states (Egypt), authoritarian democracies (Turkey), and liberal democracies (Canada).

‘It didn’t seem to matter whether a government had freed thousands of Islamists (Iraq), or locked them up (Egypt), whether it refused to allow an Islamist party to win an election (Algeria) or allowed an Islamist party to be elected (Tunisia).’

Fifth, I.S.I.S. is not a capable administrator: municipal services in areas under its rule have collapsed.

Sixth, nor is its ideology coherent: it was thought ‘culturally inappropriate’ and reliant on too narrow a sectarian base, even by al Qaeda: ‘And the al-Qaeda leaders were not the only Salafi jihadists who assumed that their core supporters preferred serious religious teachings to snuff videos.’

But nowhere is it ebbing. Even Iraq’s warlord-president Nouri al-Maliki, thought a prime suspect in repulsing the Sunni community, has been replaced by an inclusive successor – to little avail.

And be it airstrikes American or Russian, Da’esh has only gained ground. Will the French make the difference in Raqqa?

Concludes the Review, ‘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. We hide this from ourselves with theories and concepts that do not bear deep examination…It is not clear whether our culture can ever develop sufficient knowledge, rigor, imagination, and humility to grasp the phenomenon of I.S.I.S.’

‘But for now, we should admit that we are not only horrified but baffled.’

And that, again, leaves us humbled. How do we fight what we cannot understand?