It doesn’t have quite the same proud ring to it as the last coalition we joined to intervene in Iraq: the “Coalition of the Core” to take on Islamic State militants is no “Coalition of the Willing”, the mighty grouping of heavyweights such as the United States, Great Britain, Palau, the Marshall Islands and Costa Rica (actually, Costa Rica was added by “mistake” and then taken off) that attacked Iraq in 2003. Indeed, the Brits apparently don’t even like the word “coalition”, presumably both for the unpleasant memories of Tony “I’m With Stupid” Blair’s decision to participate in the illegal attack on Iraq, and the bad odour in which the Tory-Liberal Democrat government of David Cameron has brought coalitions.

Australia’s involvement in the group (not debated in Parliament, while David Cameron will devote a full day in the House of Commons to securing a vote in support of the UK’s participation) was announced not by our own government but, fittingly, the US Secretary of State John Kerry. As The Guardian pointed out, the coalition seemed to have a strange absence of Muslim countries or, for that matter, countries actually in the region, other than Turkey, which must be absolutely delighted not merely to be on the same side as the PKK, but part of a grouping that is funnelling weapons to them. One would have thought that cutting off the flow of funds to IS from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Sunni sheikhdoms would have been a key first step, they being our allies in the War on Terror etc, but IS has, if nothing else, made for unusual alliances on both sides.

What’s the great threat that has brought together the Coalition of the Core? Western politicians have long since moved on from using the original justification for action against IS — the one initially invoked by US President Barack Obama when he announced airstrikes — that it was an  operation aimed at humanitarian goals and to prevent genocide. That was always an inconvenient rationale, given that even if one confines one’s sights to Islamic militants, there are plenty of other locations where brutality and mass slaughter merit intervention. Instead, exactly as IS wanted to achieve with its snuff videos of beheadings, it is now held to pose a serious threat to the West. Let’s look at the comments of some politicians.

“So, who’s not telling the truth about the terrorist threat of IS — the politicians, or the security officials?”

“ISIL’s brutal ideology…poses a severe threat to Iraq, the region, and the United States,” Kerry warned last month. His cabinet colleague, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned “they’re beyond just a terrorist group. They marry ideology, sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess, they are tremendously well-funded.” Australian politicians have been even more extreme. “There’s no doubt that the murderous rage of the so-called ISIL movement does pose a threat not just to the people of Iraq but to the region and to the wider world,” Tony Abbott said on the weekend. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop explicitly referred to IS as a “heightened terrorist risk to Australia” that had to be “tackled head-on”. It was, she said, a “far greater threat than we faced after Afghanistan.”

Problematically, however, reality sometimes intrudes even among politicians. Contrary to Hagel’s hysterical estimation of IS’s “strategic and tactical military prowess”, Kerry declared at the NATO summit that IS was “not as disciplined as everybody thinks. They’re not as organized as everybody thinks.”

But the claims seriously fall apart when compared to the estimation of terrorism officials. Last week the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security said there was no “specific, credible threat” to the US from IS. One of the most senior terrorism intelligence officials in the US, Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, went further last Wednesday and said there was “no credible information” IS was planning an attack on the US, and that any attack it attempted would be “limited in scope” and “nothing like a 9/11-scale attack”.

So, who’s not telling the truth about the terrorist threat of IS — the politicians, or the security officials?

Then again, the one guaranteed way to ensure IS does make us less safe from terrorism is to launch another military assault on a Muslim country, thereby radicalising more Muslims in the West — which seems to be exactly what we’re now doing.

The line from the politicians is that IS is some sort of super terrorist group, beyond al-Qaeda, better resourced, more brutal, with a more apocalyptic ideology — indeed, IS is an ideology, Bishop warned, making it like some sort of virus that would survive military attempts to wipe it out. Thus, add “unkillable” to the list, which helpfully guarantees that you’ll always need a War on Terror. In time, of course, years hence, another terrorist threat will be hyped as even worse than IS, just as IS is now worse than al-Qaeda, just as the latter was “a new type of terrorism” after 9/11, and another coalition will be stitched together to deal with it. Let’s hope the 2020s version has a better name than “Core”.

Get Crikey for $1 a week.

Lockdowns are over and BBQs are back! At last, we get to talk to people in real life. But conversation topics outside COVID are so thin on the ground.

Join Crikey and we’ll give you something to talk about. Get your first 12 weeks for $12 to get stories, analysis and BBQ stoppers you won’t see anywhere else.

Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
12 weeks for just $12.