At West Point I learned that technology forces warfare to evolve. The reason soldiers today no longer ride horses into battle, use bows and arrows, and wield spears, is because of the gun. The reason people no longer fight in trenches, as they did during World War I, is because the tank and airplane were greatly improved and mass-produced. But there is a technological innovation that has changed warfare more than the gun, tank, or airplane. That technological innovation is mass media.
Today most people’s understanding of violence is naive, because they do not realize how much the Internet and social media, the newest incarnations of mass media, have changed warfare. The most powerful weapon that ISIS has is the Internet with social media, which has allowed ISIS to recruit people from all over the world.
For most of human history, people from across the world had to send a military over land or sea to attack you, but the Internet and social media allow people from across the world to convince your fellow citizens to attack you. Several of the people who committed the ISIS terrorist attack in Paris were French nationals, and it now appears that the two people who committed the mass shooting in San Bernardino were influenced by ISIS.
To be effective ISIS needs two things to happen. It needs to dehumanize the people it kills, and it also needs Western countries to dehumanize Muslims. When Western countries dehumanize Muslims, this further alienates Muslim populations and increases recruitment for ISIS. ISIS commits horrible atrocities against Westerners because it wants us to overreact by stereotyping, dehumanizing, and alienating Muslims.
Every time Western countries stereotype, dehumanize, and alienate Muslims, they are doing exactly what ISIS wants. A basic principle of military strategy is that we should not do what our opponents want. In order for ISIS’s plan to work, it needs to dehumanize its enemies, but perhaps more importantly, it needs Americans and Europeans to dehumanize Muslims.
ISIS cannot be compared to Nazi Germany, because the Nazis were not able to use the Internet and social media as a weapon of war and terrorism. Trying to fight ISIS the way we fought the Nazis, when today the Internet and social media have dramatically changed twenty-first century warfare, would be like trying to fight the Nazis by using horses, spears, bows and arrows. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers during the September 11th attacks were from Saudi Arabia, one of the United States’ closest allies. None of the hijackers were from Iraq. ISIS seems to have better mastered the weapon of the Internet than Al Qaida, because ISIS is more adept at convincing French and American citizens to commit attacks.
Because technology has changed warfare in the twenty-first century and allowed ISIS to wage a digital military campaign, it is naive to believe that we can defeat terrorism by conquering and holding territory, which has become an archaic and counterproductive form of warfare. During the era of the Internet revolution, it is naive to believe that we can use violence to defeat the ideologies that sustain terrorism. ISIS and Al Qaida are global movements, and with the Internet and social media, they can recruit people from all over the world, including people on American and European soil. And they only have to recruit a tiny amount of Americans and Europeans, initiate a single attack, and kill a few people to cause the huge overreactions that they want from their opponents. Let us not react in ways that ISIS wants.
Paul K. Chappell graduated from West Point in 2002, was deployed to Iraq, and left active duty in 2009 as a Captain. An author of five books, he is currently serving as the Peace Leadership Director of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and lectures widely on war and peace issues. His website is www.peacefulrevolution.com.