The Islamic State’s Assault on the ‘Gray Zone’
Terror attacks are explicitly aimed at exploiting divisions in pluralistic societies
by KEVIN KNODELL
The leaders of the self-proclaimed Islamic State say they are at war with the entire world. In their view, all must submit or die. It doesn’t matter what color or creed you are.
But for the past few months, Daesh — the Arabic acronym its enemies in the middle east know it by— has been on the defensive as it loses ground in Iraq, Syria and Libya. And it has predictably lashed out with a deadly mixture of calculated attacks by networks and self-radicalized lone wolves inspired by Daesh propaganda.
Terrorists have struck Paris, Istanbul, Orlando, Nice, Kabul, Brussels, Baghdad and slit a priest’s throat in Normandy. They’ve inspired fear, panic and anger. These are all natural responses to traumatic and despicable attacks on innocent people. But they’re also exactly the kind of responses that Daesh wants.
The group thrives on division and rage. Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi — the self-crowned caliph of this death cult — wants to make this a war between Islam and the West. But we don’t have to play by his rules.
And we shouldn’t.
Not long after the Charlie Hebdo attack of 2015, Daesh published an essay in its magazine Dabiq titled “The Extinction of the Gray Zone.” The same issue contained graphic photos of the gruesome execution of Jordanian fighter pilot Lt. Muath Al Kasasbeh, a Muslim who recently completed the Hajj before his plane went down in Syria.
The “Gray Zone” is the group’s name for any place where there is pluralism and multiculturalism. For Daesh’s apocalyptic ideology, a pluralistic and inclusive society is repulsive and must be destroyed. To further that goal, the group seeks to widen the differences which exist, by definition, in a pluralistic community.
In other words, it’s a wedge strategy. And once the Islamic State can drive enough of a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims, it can more easily radicalize and recruit.
Daesh is at war with the West, but it’s also at war with other Muslims who reject its theology — which is most of them. This year Dabiq published a “hit list” of prominent western Muslims for its followers to kill. The list included Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, scholars and several counter-terrorism experts.
The group continues to kill more Muslims, as a group, than anyone else — and local Muslim fighters on the ground are doing the majority of the fighting against the Daesh’s strongholds. And the group’s attacks on multicultural spaces are not just limited to the West, as evidenced by attacks on Beirut, one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the Middle East.
But even as the world stands against them, Daesh realizes that the world is still deeply divided. In its essay about the Gray Zone, Dabiq gloats about how the group plans to exploit those divisions and tear us apart.
“The presence of the [Caliphate] magnifies the political, social, economic, and emotional impact of any operation carried out by the mujāhidīn against the enraged crusaders,” the essay stated.
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“This magnified impact compels the crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves [our italics], the zone in which many of the hypocrites and deviant innovators living in the West are hiding … Muslims in the crusader countries will find themselves driven to abandon their homes … as the crusaders increase persecution against Muslims living in Western lands.”
Daesh wants us to forget about the contributions of our Muslim friends and neighbors. They want us to hate and fear each other. They’re pushing for knee-jerk backlashes.
They want us to ignore Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan American and lifelong Republican who served as the Bush administration’s ambassador to both Iraq and Afghanistan.
They want us to forget Staff Sgt. Ayman Taha, the Sudanese-born economist who became a Green Beret and died fighting jihadists in Iraq. They want us to forget Ahmed Merabet, the French Muslim cop gunned down by jihadists as he responded to the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
And they especially want us to forget that since 9/11, no fewer than 54 jihadist terror suspects or perpetrators came to authorities’ attention as a result of initial tips from America’s 3.3 million Muslim citizens.
“There are an awful lot of patriotic, loyal American Muslims,” Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell told the Huffington Post after the Orlando shooting. “In fact, they are the best sources we have to find these lone wolves in our country.”
The remarks came not long after the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando. We now know that Floridian entrepreneur Mohammed Malik told the FBI to look into Orlando shooter Omar Mateen in 2014 after Mateen told Malik he watched videos of radical cleric Anwar Al Awlaki.
Despite separate warnings from both Malik and a group of Mateen’s co-workers, the FBI dropped their investigation. Mateen went on to kill 49 people.
The presence of militants in the West is very real, and it’s of particular concern to Muslim communities which radicals attempt to infiltrate. “They live in the West, eat in the West, earn their living in the West but they hate the West,” said Ansar Raza, a member of the Canadian grassroots campaign Stop The CrISIS, in an interview with War Is Boring last year.
A group of Canadian Muslims put together the anti-radicalization group after Daesh-inspired radicals murdered two Canadian soldiers. They aren’t alone. From Britain to Denmark there are Muslim groups trying to root out the influence of jihadism in their communities.
We need to acknowledge the threat of jihadist radicalism while at the same time not overstating it. Denying it is counter-productive, and does little to help Muslims fighting to counter it in their communities. But overstating it can lead to terrible policies that fail to solve problems, or make them worse.
Fighting back against jihadism requires not just weapons, but community action, interfaith dialogue, education and a lot more cooperation. This will likely lead to uncomfortable conversations — for all involved — but conversations that need to be had.
For instance, while this fight requires not just weapons, it absolutely will require the use of lethal force — whether it’s warplanes bombing Daesh to stop the massacre of refugees on Mount Sinjar, or tactical teams responding to terror attacks. We need to be ready to fight — and kill — when necessary.
When gunmen prey on the innocent, hopes and prayers won’t stop them.
Refugees and immigrants aren’t going to stop coming. Not while wars, oppressive regimes and droughts continue driving them away from their homes — or quite literally destroying their homes. As they arrive, we can’t pretend that each and every one of them is a purely innocent victim.
At least some will be criminals or terrorists, and to pretend otherwise is naive. That’s a reality we need to face. But to suggest the outright banning of entire ethnic or religious groups to languish in overcrowded refugee camps — that have historically been prime sites to promote radicalism — is equally short sighted.
Particularly when we consider that Daesh has repeatedly denounced Syrian refugees for fleeing, and told them the West will never accept them. Hatred against refugees, many of which have already lost more than most people can imagine, serves Daesh’s narrative of division.
This will also be a long struggle. Daesh isn’t merely a group, it’s an idea. Many of these attackers are inspired — rather than directed — by leaders in Raqqa. Even after armies on the ground move into Mosul and Raqqa, or even kill Baghdadi, the ideology will live on.
Just as the death of Osama Bin Laden didn’t end the war on Al Qaeda. Any frustrated, angry young man with a laptop anywhere in the world can be inspired to carry on the torch. This struggle will be likely be generational.
And unfortunately, it’s probably going to get worse before it gets better. We’ll see more attacks, more death, and lose more of our friends and loved ones.
I can’t promise quick, easy solutions, and anyone who claims they can is a fool or a liar. There will always be another Bin Laden. We will never abolish violence, hate, terrorism or war. But we can choose how we respond.