Observations of an ex pat: Defeating ISIS

How do you defeat an idea, especially an idea wrapped in the cloak of religious infallibility?

Now add the complications of long-held justifiable grievances against Western society; unbalanced personalities and a communications network which can transmit hate messages to anyone, anytime, anywhere.

This is the problem The West is facing in its battle against Islamic Jihadists.

Following this week’s incident outside the British parliament it was revealed that British intelligence agencies had 10,000 “persons of interest” that they were monitoring in the UK. In the past year they had stopped 13 terrorist attacks from Islamic terrorists and 4 from far right groups.

Almost simultaneously both the Pentagon and the UN issued reports saying that ISIS is far from defeated, despite the claims of Donald Trump and the Iraqi government.

The physical territory controlled by ISIS has shrunk to a pinpoint of its former self which—at its height—was the size of France. But ISIS is still there. The UN and Pentagon estimate that up to 30,000 committed Jihadists remain in Syria and Iraq. Another 5,000 are in Libya. A thousand are in the Sinai and up to 8,000 are active in Afghanistan.

Their tactics have switched from the creation of an expanding geographic base to the more traditional terrorist structure of loosely-tied individuals and small groups united by radical ideas—with differences.  The biggest difference is that the link between the central authority and the terrorist on the ground is increasingly forged through cyber space rather than physical contact.

Computer-based Jihadist recruiters surf the internet in search of vulnerable personalities looking for a cause through which to channel their grievances. These can be anything from prejudice to mental illness. One of the suicide bombers in the 7/7 London bombings is believed to have been spurred into action by a broken love affair.

Once hooked, the would-be terrorist is carefully flattered and cultivated by his digital mentor. He is made to feel a key component in a structure that needs him to don a bomb-packed suicide vest or drive a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders.

Other wannabe Jihadists find their way to the battlefields of Middle East and Central Asia. When defeated many of them return to their European homes and are thrown into prison, or possibly sent to Guantanamo Bay where they brutalized by Western captors seeking an understandable vengeance and further radicalised by Islamic inmates.

The dusty pages of history offer possible solution to this downward spiral.  During World War Two, hundreds of thousands of German Prisoners of War were sent to camps in Britain, the US and Canada.  Their treatment is credited with helping to lay the foundations for today’s successful liberal Germany.

In the United States there were 371,000 German POWs spread across 650 camps. Initially they were treated in the traditional manner. There was a camp commandant who was responsible for keeping them behind barbed wire. Day-to-day activities were controlled by German officers who were by and large, hardened Nazis. The result was that the brutal regime and fascist ideology of Adolf Hitler was mirrored in the camps.

By March 1943 it was apparent that the American government was missing a major opportunity to turn a large number of Germans away from Fascist authoritarianism and towards traditional Western democratic values.

The first step was to segregate the officers—or hard core Nazis—from the non-commissioned ranks. The next was to educate the prisoners. Initially the emphasis was on cultural aspects such as music, art and literature. The idea was to make the re-education process enjoyable so that the prisoners would want to move onto the next stage of learning the philosophical and governmental structures which underlay the cultural aspects.

It worked. At the end of the war one million re-educated Germans held in American, Canadian and American returned to Germany – most of them converted to Western values.  Can the same or similar tactics be used to convince Jihadists of the error of their ways? The brutal, vengeful alternative does not appear to be working.

* Tom Arms is a Wandsworth Lib Dem and produces and presents the podcast www.lookaheadnews.com

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Nigel Jones 18th Aug '18 - 2:31pm

    I have just come across this and think it’s good. If people are driven by ideology to see us as their enemies, then treating them badly only confirms their belief in us as enemies. They need firm treatment and that can be part of the aim to win their respect, but it will only be effective in an atmosphere in which we regard them as human beings while seeking to persuade them of a better ideology than the one they have adopted.

  • Ed Shepherd 19th Aug '18 - 8:35am

    I am not sure that the analogies between denazification and deradicalisation are strong. Nazi-indoctrinated Germans came from a society that had within living memory been democratic. German society had once been based around the same religion and culture as the people who were carrying out the denazifying. Even then it did not work fully and lots of unrepentant Nazis went back to West Germany to live to a ripe old age in freedom. Some of them even got well paid making space rockets for NASA. ISIS extremists might not be inclined to listen to European Christians telling them how great are the values of European Christians. There are lots of flaws in Western Values as one look at the current crop of Western politicians will confirm. The motives of ISIS and many other Isamist extremists often seem to relate to the appalling way in which the Western Democracies have interfered with the Middle East to the detriment of the people who live there.

  • There are indeed flaws in Western values and that would need to be part of a conversation with captured Islamists if such a conversation were to start. It is also part of Christian values, that people are prepared to admit when they get things wrong. The point about the actions of Western countries in the Middle East is relevant in so far as it confirms the Islamists in their views against the West, but the problem goes much deeper. Surely it starts with an ideology that says anyone who does not agree with them is an infidel to be killed or forced to convert.

  • Simon Banks 23rd Oct '18 - 6:03pm

    The picture given of treatment of German POWs is not the whole story. Many in the US were told at the end of the war they were going home, only to find themselves in the UK interned again and used as cheap labour. Segregation of Nazis and non-Nazis, while the right idea, did not always work: mistakes were made and cost at least one life. What did make a real impact, thought, for many still in the UK well after the war ended and coming closer to a normal life was that if they contacted their MPs, for example about a pointless work restriction, the MPs replied politely and helpfully! This helped overcome the jaundiced view many had of democracy.

    However, these were mostly men who were never convinced Nazis. The decisive point for the real Nazis was probably the completeness of defeat. Fighting on was pointless and also, the Nazi ideology did not really allow for defeat, so maybe something was wrong with it. The problem with IS is that defeat cannot be so evident.

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