Criminal organization, religious extremists? Words matter when it comes to ISIS

Is ISIS a criminal organization with a religious veneer, or something more messianic? How you describe it may be how you decide to fight it, Chris Hall writes, and the Liberals appear to be changing the rhetorical dial.

The Liberals are promising 'significant changes' to the way Canada will take on Islamic State

A former intelligence officer, Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan may be uniquely qualified to know how Ottawa's policy decisions can play out in the far-flung corners of the globe, sometimes to the detriment of those in uniform. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

Justin Trudeau's government continues to grapple with what to do next in the battle against ISIS.

Still, clues are emerging for what the government at least wants to do from the rhetoric the Liberals now use to describe the group and its fighters.

Gone is the language employed by Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, who referred to ISIS as jihadi terrorists, and the fighters themselves as barely human.

"In the territory ISIS has occupied it has conducted a campaign of unspeakable atrocities against the most innocent of people," Harper told the Commons in October 2014, while outlining his government's plan to take part in the U.S.-led air strikes.

"It has tortured and beheaded children. It has raped and sold women into slavery. It has slaughtered minorities, captured prisoners and civilians whose only crime is thinking differently."

Flash forward, and the still nascent Liberal government is adopting a rhetoric all of its own these days as Canadians, and our coalition partners, await a decision on what is to be Canada's new role in the battle to contain ISIS.

This week John McKay — the parliamentary secretary to Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan — said the minister considers ISIS as kind of criminal enterprise requiring, in his words, "significant changes" to how the government will approach a new mission.

"He's now indicating that you have to look at it with a different set of lenses," McKay told CBC's Power and Politics. You have to "look at what the core issues are, and that this is, in fact, basically a criminal organization with a religious veneer on it."

Criminal organization

That phrase — criminal organization with a religious veneer — appears to be borrowed from the book Dirty Entanglements: Corruption, Crime and Terrorism by Louise Shelley, who used it to explain why analysts were having trouble capturing the essence of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, with its extensive criminal activity in North Africa, including drug trafficking and hostage-taking for ransom.

ISIS also engages in illegal activities, from enslaving women for ransom to selling oil on the black market.

Islamic State billboards are seen along a street in Raqqa, eastern Syria, which is still controlled by ISIS. It reads: "We will win despite the global coalition". (Nour Fourat/Reuters)

But ISIS is more than just a criminal organization. It is a group whose core, as the journalist Graeme Wood wrote last year in The Atlantic magazine, is a theology that must be understood to be combatted.

Sajjan, himself, is not only a former Canadian Forces intelligence officer, who did three tours of duty in Afghanistan, he's also a former police officer.

The view that ISIS, at its heart, is more criminal than extremist, is one he would at least consider.

In a speech last week, Sajjan noted that coalition countries failed to act against corruption in Afghanistan. Had they done so, he asked rhetorically: "Could we have prevented a U.S. surge from having to go on?"

He then provided his own answer: Yes.

Language matters

Sajjan then went on to talk about al-Qaeda, saying, "as with most organized crime groups, or even terrorist organizations," it evolved to take advantage of small grievances and alienation to wield control and power.

The anticipation now is that Sajjan's much-anticipated plan will include greater intelligence gathering, as well as more training of Kurdish fighters in the kind of warfare that might stop the expansion of ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria.

Harjeet Sajjan answers questions from Conservative MPS asked first in french and then english 1:58

Also, a new focus on trying to cut off the illegal means by which ISIS makes money to finance its campaigns.

But the idea that ISIS is merely a criminal gang varnished by religion is simply wrong, says André Gagné, a professor of religion and theological studies at Concordia University in Montreal.

"Of course ISIS engages in criminal activity to raise finances," he says. "But it is misguided to think that ISIS is not a form of religious extremism."

The language matters, he says. Not just in accurately depicting what motivates ISIS fighters to behead infidels and enslave people of other Muslim sects, or to bomb civilians sitting a café in Paris, but in figuring out what has to be done to stop it.

In his article, "What ISIS Really Wants," Wood wrote the group's devotees follow a distinct variety of Islam where the beliefs about the path to judgment day underlie its entire strategy.

Apart from being messianic, "the reality is that Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes it has drawn psychopaths and adventure seekers...

"But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam."

Change the rhetoric

For his part, Gagné says ISIS fighters believe that the land of their caliphate must be recaptured from the West, and must be rid of any vestige of Western influence.

So why might the Liberals want to change the language around them?

Gagné believes the Trudeau government is following the lead of U.S. President Barack Obama in trying to distinguish ISIS from moderate Muslims, and in attempting to reinforce the idea that Islam is a religion of peace that's been distorted by ISIS.

"I think the Trudeau government also believes it has to keep its campaign promise of ending the air strikes."

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper rises in Parliament to vote for the air combat mission against ISIS in October 2014. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

That is, of course, a political choice.

Sajjan has referred to the importance of keeping that commitment, and in recent days he's spoken more and more about the importance of not repeating mistakes of the past.

Though what, exactly, those mistakes are he hasn't fully fleshed out.

He's referred at different times this week to his deployments in Afghanistan and how soldiers there discussed "how our political leadership failed us."

On in another exchange, he told MPs that the plan he'll be putting forward makes sure "that we get this right so we don't make the mistakes of the last 10 years."

It's becoming a patented partisan refrain, but the past decade is littered with mistakes.

Today Afghan forces are relinquishing parts of the country back to the Taliban.

Libya, too, far from being stabilized by the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, is a failed state again — its people and oil wealth threatened by ISIS and local warlords as the U.S. and its allies renew their efforts to train a security force to keep the country from falling further into chaos.

In taking on ISIS in Iraq and Syria there will be no easy fix, but getting the terms pinned down off the top would at least be a start.

About the Author

Chris Hall

National Affairs Editor

Chris Hall is the CBC's National Affairs Editor and host of The House on CBC Radio, based in the Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. He began his reporting career with the Ottawa Citizen, before moving to CBC Radio in 1992, where he worked as a national radio reporter in Toronto, Halifax and St. John's. He returned to Ottawa and the Hill in 1998.


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