The international community seems to have been caught off guard by the brutality of ISIS. The beheading of two Americans, the murder of many Christians and Muslims, and the widespread support for these brutal killers has taken the world by surprise. But we should have anticipated this, because for the last half century, the international community has rewarded precisely the kind of behavior by ISIS we now condemn. In brief, terrorism has proved to be a successful tactic. It works. That’s why ISIS engages in it. That’ why Al Qaeda engages in it. That’s why Boko Haram engages in it. That’s why the Taliban engages in it. And that’s why Hamas engages in it.
Compare the visibility and success of groups that employ terrorism as the main tactic for responding to their grievances, with comparably aggrieved groups that reject terrorism. Hamas is more popular than ever among Palestinians following their kidnapping and murder of three Israeli schoolchildren, their brutal slaughter of the Fogel family, and their deployment of rockets and tunnels against civilians from civilian areas. The same is true of Hezbollah.
Now comes ISIS which is quickly becoming the terrorist group of choice for disaffected radicals, because their brutality is now in the headlines.
Contrast these successes with the failure of the Tibetan people to achieve any progress in their quest to end an occupation even longer than the one Israel is accused of maintaining. The world demands statehood for the Palestinians, while allowing the Kurds to remain stateless despite treaty obligations and other promises. Why? Is it because the Kurds have rarely engaged in terrorism, whereas the Palestinians have specialized in it since the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization in the early 1960s—and even before that?
Success begets emulation, and the success of terrorist organizations is spreading quickly. No one should be surprised.
ISIS has already achieved success as a result of their brutal terrorist acts. Millions of dollars has been paid to them as ransom for hostages. They have used this money to recruit more members. Now other Muslim terrorist groups want to join forces with them, because they have shown that within the world of brutal terrorism, they stand out for their unmitigated and televised brutality.
Consider the following hypothetical situation. A new group with a serious grievance hires an immoral or amoral consulting firm to advise them on the most effective tactic for achieving their goals. Such a consulting group might well recommend that they emulate Hamas, ISIS, Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups, rather than the Tibetans or Kurds. This advice would of course be immoral but it would be truthful as a matter of simple cost-benefit analysis.
In the end, the only way to defeat terrorism is to reverse the cost-benefit calculus. This would require an international agreement whereby every country in the world would pledge to refuse to give in to terrorists, to pay ransom to terrorists, to legitimate terrorist organizations or to treat them as morally and politically equivalent to the democracies they are fighting. It would also require that no country release captured terrorists from custody and that they place them on trial or extradite them to a country that will.
We are doing exactly the opposite today. World leaders, such as Jimmy Carter and Desmond Tutu, demand that we treat Hamas, which is indistinguishable in its overall brutality from ISIS, as a legitimate political organization. The United Nations General Assembly grants statehood to a group that began as a terrorist organization and continues to honor terrorists who murdered children. The Nobel Peace Prize Committee honors Yassir Arafat, the Godfather of terrorism, who persisted in this tactic until the day he died. European countries pay ransom to terrorists. Any many European nations—Italy, Germany, Great Britain and others—have freed terrorists, including mass murderers, who have returned to lives of terror. Even Israel has engaged in prisoner exchanges with terrorist groups.
It is one thing to negotiate—directly or indirectly—with terrorists who hold innocent people as hostages. Such negotiation may be a necessary evil. Democratic nations are sometimes forced to negotiate with the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan and other criminal gangs. But we should never honor or legitimate them, as we have done with Palestinian terrorists. Nor should the world condemn and place on trial democracies that fight against terrorist organizations which use their own civilians as human shields. The current misguided approach to terrorism is a prescription for emulation and repetition of terrorism as the tactic of choice.
So let’s not be surprised when a group like ISIS learns the tragic lesson of history and emulates success and visibility rather than failure and invisibility. ISIS is doing exactly what the immoral consulting firm would advise it to do. So we shouldn’t be surprised. Instead we should reverse course and develop responses to terrorism that never allow this tactic to succeed. Terrorists must never be allowed to win, as they are, unfortunately, doing today.