The Islamic State is winning.

The discovery that the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL is 10 years old is a horrifying one. Created as an umbrella organization for Al ­Qaeda in Iraq, ISIL rose to the forefront of media attention in 2013 when it merged with the Syrian al ­Nusra Front forming the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Within less than two years, an unknown group of jihadist fighters in central Iraq had risen to a powerful force that now controls an arsenal of territory around the s​ize of Belgium.

Territory controlled by ISIS is an arsenal ­ the foreground for a political, rather than military campaign in which they are succeeding. The West is failing in the test of psychological warfare, with the potential for disastrous consequences.

The legacy of Iraq hangs heavily over the Middle East ­ yet already the danger falls of repeating it. The indiscriminate failure of intelligence agencies to recognize in its rudimentary stages the danger of ISIS mirrors the results of the United States collaboration with the mujahedeen during the Soviet War in Afghanistan. The speed with which the organization rose to prominence is terrifying, but unsurprising. ISIS is not simply a military organization, nor are they rabble of psychopathic desert fighters so often portrayed in media coverage of the crisis. They are politically and economically powerful.

The political situation in the Middle East is fragile and hesitant at best. The United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan is unconvincing, disorganized and tainted with the threat of continuity. ISIS exploited a political standoff in Iraq between Shia ­led government and the minority Sunni Arab community in its rise to prominence, and it will not hesitate to take advantage of future power vacuums in the region.

The problem of the West with ISIS is a fundamental lack of understanding. On the surface, their patterns of behaviour make little sense to the average voter. They are predicted to have between $​1­3 million a day in daily revenue,​control large swaths of oil­-powered territory, but have little interest in indulgence. Their brand of apocalyptic Islam has alienated them even from the organization that created them. They wage the jihad that other jihadists fear. They welcome foreign involvement in their organization and have intimate knowledgeable of the online world and social media use. T​hey ​are the unidentifiable, indecipherable other. This is the first problem.

It’s easy and reckless to declare ISIS’ despicably brutal tactics of execution, torture, kidnapping and oppression as a particular brand of systematic, religiously motivated insanity. This goes against the obvious fact that ISIS is very popular. Estimates place the n​umber of foreign fighters in ISIS ​to over 20,000, not including the numbers of ́jihadi brides’  lured to the middle East. ‘They’ are not ‘they’ ­: ISIS is in the Western world. Adventure, loyalty or boredom are drawing to fight in the Middle East thousands who abandon their loyalty to their state territory, for a state without a politically defined territory.

Not only are they popular, their structural organization allows them to control the political workings and everyday management of occupied territory. The recent killing of twenty ­one ​Christians in northern Libya is not the first, nor will it be the last. Systematic executions of hostages are a terror tactic that is a significant factor deterring any official Western movement into the Middle East. The current coalition bombing campaign is irrational and ineffective. The economic and political shadow of twenty years of military intervention in the Middle East hangs over a refusal to put boots on the ground. Meanwhile, America and its allies are paying upward of $​5000 an hour putting fighter jets ​in the air to bomb Toyota pickup trucks.

What is ISIS’ end goal? Some would argue they’ve already succeeded. We’ve been backed into a corner – we reacted to late and in the wrong direction. To launch another military intervention now would start another war, and it’s not a war that’s certain to be won. The hesitant attack rhetoric echoed by Western leaders isn’t fooling anyone. Hidden in the deserts and mountains of Iraq and Syria is a Hydra that no one is willing to confront. Cut one head off and another will grow in its place. The West is not prepared to get involved in another Middle Eastern conflict ­ nor are we prepared, and rightly so, to confront ISIS with equal brutality. Further alienation of the Middle Eastern region gives ISIS excess ammunition, and widens the geographic divide already littered with the landmines of resource exploitation. So we arrive at the power gap, and the true victory of ISIS’ actions: the West hides away from moral responsibility, all the while feeding the Islamic State’s cause.

We’re seeing this all wrong. ISIS isn’t hiding, they’re watching. Our move.

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