The solution to stopping the expanding grip of the Islamic State must come from the Middle East itself, an international terrorism expert told Kalispell Rotary Club members on Thursday.
“It’s their problem. It’s not our problem,” Loretta Napoleoni said. “Why are we fighting the wars of other people? Let’s get the Saudis to go and fight.”
Napoleoni, born and raised in Italy, lives part time in Whitefish and has written a dozen books largely about the intricacies of terrorism. She is an expert on terrorist financing and money laundering and advises several governments and international organizations on counter-terrorism.
“The Islamic State doesn’t want to destroy,” Napoleoni said. “They want to build the 21st century version of the caliphate and that is what makes them so dangerous.”
A caliphate is a form of Islamic government led by a caliph, a Muslim leader considered to be a successor to the prophet Mohammed.
Napoleoni prefers to use the term Islamic State because it “carries a much more realistic message to the world than does ISIS or ISIL.
“Using less precise acronyms for propaganda reasons ... will not help us face the current threat,” she said in her latest book, “The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East.”
For centuries Muslims have felt oppressed because they haven’t been able to create their own state, Napoleoni told Rotary members. Now that the Islamic State is determined to succeed in creating a kind of “political utopia,” it’s alluring to a broad spectrum of sympathizers who want to be part of this modern version of the caliphate.
“It’s a true seduction,” she said “They’re saying, ‘Come and help us build our new state and we’ll offer deliverance from centuries of humiliation and suffering.’”
Supporters who can’t come to the Middle East are being encouraged to conduct their own small-scale attacks wherever they live, she said, such as the recent attack at the Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris that killed 12 people.
It isn’t only young western idealists being lured to the Islamic state through social media and other forces.
“Even people with good jobs are going there,” she said. “They tout patriotism. It’s an adventure — they [the recruits] don’t know what war is.”
Napoleoni shared insight about the most recent acts of brutality by the Islamic State: the Jordanian pilot who was burned to death and the two Japanese prisoners who were beheaded.
“It’s a provocation,” she said.
In the case of the Jordanian pilot, “burning a body is prohibited by the Koran,” she said. “It’s the worst possible thing one can do to a Muslim. It’s symbolic. [The Islamic State] is saying we’ll burn to ashes the order of the [current] Middle East and we will create the true state. This is going to be the new order.”
Napoleoni said the Islamic State wants Jordan to be drawn into the conflict so that country will be destabilized like Syria and other areas of the Middle East.
The provocation to Japan also was strategic, she added. In that case the Islamic State made demands that were impossible to meet, such as demanding $200 million — $100 million for each man — in 72 hours.
Japan’s constitution outlaws war as a means to settle international disputes, other than for self-defense, Napoleoni said, so when the Japanese prime minister proposed a constitutional change that would allow the country to participate in coalitions and proposed $200 million in aid to the effort to combat the Middle East terrorism, the Islamic State took note.
“This tells us the Islamic State knew what happened in Japan, so the killing of hostages is a good way to say to the West and Japan, ‘Watch it if you come after us,’” she said.
“This is not the same enemy we faced before,” Napoleoni said.
In her book, she notes that “what distinguishes this organization from all other armed groups that predate it ... and what accounts for its enormous successes is its modernity and pragmatism.
“Its leadership shows an unparalleled grasp of the limitations facing contemporary powers in a globalized and multipolar world.”
It would take U.S. occupation of the Middle East for at least 30 years to stabilize the region, she said, and it’s unlikely Americans would favor that kind of long-term commitment in such a volatile region.
A more effective solution may be to work with tribal leaders to help them understand what the Islamic State wants.
“We don’t know” what they want, she said. “There’s so much misinformation and there are no journalists or intel inside of the Islamic State.”
Napoleoni faulted the United States for not paying attention to the nuances of the Middle East’s political environment in the aftermath of the war with Iraq, and largely delegating its foreign policy to countries such as Saudi Arabia.
“This threat will destabilize an important area of the Middle East,” she said, reiterating her belief that the solution for defeating the Islamic State must come from within the Middle East itself.
For more information about Napoleoni and the books she has authored, go to lorettanapoleoni.net.
Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.