'Islamic State'

Five Myths about ISIS

This is a cross-post by Anonymous Mugwump

This is the third of the five myths Mugwump discusses. You can read the full post here.

Myth 3: ISIS is not a threat to the West
You wouldn’t think that people would be making the argument that ISIS are not a threat to the West. But Simon Jenkins of The Guardian actually stated on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme that ‘it’s total rubbish [that they are a threat], the most they could do is set off a few bombs in London.’ This argument was given some credible support by Richard Dearlove, the former head of MI6, who said that it was primarily a problem for the Middle East (which it is) but he went on to say countries like the UK were ‘marginally affected.’
There is no doubt the Middle East is the primary victim of ISIS violence but to argue ISIS is not a threat to us is gravely mistaken. Note, even if there wasn’t a threat to the West, given that we have capabilities where Iraq does not, I would still support action. But these groups were plotting to carry out attacks involving chemical weapons against Western countries. It was fortunately caught by Iraqi Security Forces.  (The Long War Journal report refersto Al Qaeda in Iraq[2]). I hope it’s clear by now that we cannot and should not put reliance on Iraq Security Forces for our security. U.S officials have also come out as saying that ISIS is attempting to establish cells in Europe.
Fortunately we do not have to rely on either Richard Dearlove or U.S officials, we have a study! Hegghammer (2013) created his own dataset of Western terror plots using datasets from seven previous studies (these include foiled attacks) for the period 1990 to 2010. He found that one in nine foreign fighters return and attempt to carry out an attack and that out of the 401 plots in his data, 107 were carried out by individuals who were once foreign fighters (veterans). Given that we know that roughly 400-500 British individuals are fighting for ISIS, this represents a significant threat – especially because veterans are both more lethal and more successful:

There is another reason why ISIS poses a threat to the West. Foreign Policy obtained an ISIS laptop which contained

…a 19-page document in Arabic on how to develop biological weapons and how to weaponize the bubonic plague from infected animals… The document includes instructions for how to test the weaponized disease safely, before it is used in a terrorist attack.

Foreign Policy subsequently ran an article which rightly cautioned against reading too much into it because it did not reveal an active capability, merely an intention. However, that intention should still be taken seriously. As Phillip Bobbit observes in Terror and Consent, ‘advances in technology are rapidly lowering the thresholds for the development, deployment and deliverability of WMD.’ He goes on to quote an academic paper published inBiosecurity and Bioterrorism which states ‘this technology is gradually moving into the market place… [This] will soon put highly capable tools in the hands of both professionals and amateurs worldwide’ (p.102-3). Back in 2006,The Guardian ordered the DNA sequences for deadly pathogens over the internet. In their report of the affair, they made it clear why such a threat should be taken seriously:

The DNA sequence of smallpox, as well as other potentially dangerous pathogens such as poliovirus and 1918 flu are freely available in online public databases. So to build a virus from scratch, a terrorist would simply order consecutive lengths of DNA along the sequence and glue them together in the correct order. This is beyond the skills and equipment of the kitchen chemist, but could be achieved by a well-funded terrorist with access to a basic lab and PhD-level personnel.

ISIS has that level of funding and the most telling thing about the discovery of the laptop wasn’t only the intention to create biological weapons but that they had the personnel to do so. That is not to say there aren’t significant difficulties in building these weapons. But that doesn’t lessen the threat and the best way to explain why is through the legal case of Wagon Mound (No. 2) [1967] 1 AC 617. In that case, engineers were careless in taking furnace oil aboard in the Sydney Harbour. So careless that oil leaked into the water and drifted to a wharf where it was set alight accidentally. One of the relevant questions for the Privy Council was whether, despite there being a small risk of the oil catching fire, the engineers had a duty to prevent against it. I believe their Lordships came to the right decision. Lord Reid held

… it does not follow that, no matter what the circumstances may be, it is justifiable to neglect a risk of such a small magnitude. A reasonable man would only neglect such a risk if he had some valid reason for doing so, e.g., that it would involve considerable expense to eliminate the risk. He would weigh the risk against the difficulty of eliminating it… The most that can be said to justify inaction is that he would have known that this could only happen in very exceptional circumstances. But that does not mean that a reasonable man would dismiss such a risk from his mind…