The threat ISIS is posing to the free world is not unprecedented. For hundreds of years piracy has undermined international maritime trade, forcing western powers to pay dowry, or tribute, to the pirates and their host states. The Barbary states (today’s Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) were the worst, so much so that in in 1786 Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “Our trade to Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean is annihilated unless we do something decisive. Tribute or war is the usual alternative of these pirates. If we yeild [sic] the former, it will require sums which our people will feel. Why not begin a navy then and decide on war? We cannot begin in a better cause nor against a weaker foe.”
Once elected US President, Jefferson put words into action and dispatched a warship to the North African coast, but the vessel was grounded and its crew captured. It took President James Madison to do the job properly. In 1815 Madison sent to the Mediterranean a squadron under Commodore Stephen Decatur. In the words of Caleb Carr, author of The Lessons of Terror, Decatur removed the threat of piracy to American commerce by “sinking Barbary ships, killing high Barbary officers and officials, and generally convincing the pirate states that the United States was better left alone”.
However, the analogy of ISIS to the pirates is not sufficient, and therefore, the remedy is different as well. The pirates were interested solely in the material results of their activities, and for example, they were happy to exchange prisoners for ransom. Hitting them in their soft underbelly, like Decatur did, was sufficient to calm them down or to divert their ambitions elsewhere. ISIS, on the contrary, is a radical Islamist movement, with a strong global Jihadist ideology. Their path to establishing their desired Caliphate leads through the killing of not only Christians and Jews, but also of fellow Muslims who don’t subscribe to their beliefs. Stopping them requires a different approach and different means.
With all the differences of circumstances and background, ISIS reminds me of the Nazi movement. The Nazis were not only about revenging the humiliation of the German defeat in World War One or about grabbing land – which they eagerly did indeed when allowed so by Western appeasement. They had a racist ideology which called for the establishment of their version of a Caliphate – The Reich of 1000 Years – where there was no place for Jews and the Slavs of Eastern Europe were regarded as Untermenschen, subhuman, to be exploited as slaves.
All attempts to come to terms with Nazism failed, because a radical ideological movement cannot compromise. The only way to stop Nazism was to inflict on it a total defeat and later to uproot it from Germany. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was right when in the Casablanca Summit of 1943, he outlined the only way the war should be over: By an unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany.
The Western response to the threat of ISIS – at least in rhetoric – seems to echo the resilience shown against the Nazis seven decades ago. In his speech at the United Nations on September 2014, US President Barack Obama said that “the terrorist group known as ISIS must be degraded, and ultimately destroyed.” Last week, at the G20 Summit in Ankara, he reiterated the resolve “to eliminate Daesh as a force that can create so much pain in suffering for people in Paris, in Ankara and other parts of the globe.” And President François Hollande, speaking during a joint session of both houses of the French parliament, said that France was at war with ISIS.
In practice, however, ISIS will not be defeated by airstrikes and sporadic killings of its leaders only. It will be defeated by a concerted effort shouldered by the Western community, which will include a strong cooperation of intelligence agencies, drying up the sources financing ISIS, clearing mosques of inciting Imams, and, unfortunately, decisive military operations which will break the backbone of ISIS in its own home base.