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The status of al-Qaeda as the leading edge of Islamist terrorism is at an end. Enter ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (al-Sham loosely denoting the Levant). It is no exaggeration to say that this organisation, a military in all but recognition, is the gravest manifestation of Jihad in modern times.

For the past few months, ISIS has swept through deserts of Syria and Mesopotamia, beheading anyone who opposed them, and mutilating anyone who fell short of its understanding of Sharia law. The formerly Iraqi city of Mosul was for a period of days subjected to the meanest hell. It takes energy even to imagine it – the bleeding necks and purple heads, the screaming children and crackling gunfire.

Al-Qaeda wouldn’t have dared to dream this. No effort of Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad or a thousand other outfits has conquered this size of territory, acquired this much modern weaponry, or achieved this level of consistency in battlefield success. What we are witnessing is unprecedented.

In Slate magazine, Daniel Byman described the accomplishments of ISIS as follows:

“The territory already under its control is larger than (the State of) Israel, and it is not some barren desert: It includes oilfields, electrical grids, prisons, small manufacturing centers, and the weapon depots abandoned by the Iraqi military, including arms provided by the United States. When ISIS fighters conquered Mosul, they seized the central bank—and its reported $425 million. By comparison, al-Qaida’s budget before 9/11 was about $30 million—and we called it rich.”

Those who have ever wondered what society would be like under a Bin Laden-approved government need wonder no more. The pre-medieval has returned, but – like a steampunk horror movie – the barbarian hordes now posses M16s, Jeeps and video cameras on which to record their deeds.

To list all the macabre events individually would be a Marquis De Sade novel and end up just as long (and unreadable), so let’s isolate a few especially horrid cases:

Yesterday, a video emerged of ISIS fighters spraying gunfire at random civilians from a Humvee on their entrance into Iraqi villages. The organisation also boasted of killing 1,700 US trained Iraqi soldiers during the same invasion. Since then, it’s been reported that an ISIS member has posted a photo of a decapitated head on twitter along with the devilish caption “This is our football. #Worldcup2014”.

That should be enough to communicate the point. These truly are a new breed of monster, lacking in whatever qualities separate us from animals.

What is all this cruelty aiming at exactly? Well, the Independent Newspaper has helpfully translated a manifesto published locally by ISIS fighters.

    • “People have tried secular rule – now it is time for an Islamic state.
    • Women should wear loose-fitting clothes and leave home only when necessary.
    • Shrines and graves should be destroyed.
    • Only flag allowed to be carried is the ISIS one.
    • Places have been opened for police and soldiers of the ‘unbelievers’ to repent.
    • Drugs, cigarettes or alcohol (are) banned.
    • Tribal leaders must not become traitors by working with the government.
    • All Muslims (are) to pray at the mosque at the correct time.
    • Money we have stolen from the government is for the public. Only the imam of mosques can spend it – thieves will have their hands cut off.
    • We are the soldiers of Islam and we have taken on the responsibility of re-establishing the caliphate.”

This is fairly generic Islamism. A gun-sight trained on all that makes life worth living. 

So what are we to do? Obama and Cameron have so far behaved like headless chickens. It is likely that there will be drone strikes at some point. Boots on the ground are unlikely. Iran is offering help, but this should be declined.

A fundamental impotence confronts the West, largely of our own making. We simply haven’t got the military bases or the number of personnel to engage ISIS directly. Only the US base in the Gulf is well positioned enough for Western intervention. Other possibilities are mostly wishful thinking. Israel  – for example – could conduct (heroic) air raids, but this would probably result in protests from our effete ‘leaders’ and the harem of anti-logic that is the United Nations. Turkey meanwhile is not our friend, has never been our friend, and will never be our friend where it counts. Jordan isn’t strong enough to repel an army the size of ISIS, and finally, Britain’s army has been stripped to its bare bones and cannot conceivably act alone.

We are left in the position of a mere observer to world-history. That is what happens when military budgets are decimated.

In the unlikely event that Downing Street telephones me for advice, my policy would look something like this – We should be dropping thousands of explosives on any ISIS position cleanly separated from civilians. In Syria, a massive bombing campaign should commence against the ‘rebels’. Assad should not be armed further by NATO but the creaking equipment he has employed thus far will need spare parts, compatible ammunition (only Russia can supply this) and fuel. NATO should not obstruct the supply of these materials.

Although in reality none of us will ever be consulted for our views on this unsightly morass, we must nevertheless stay interested in its outcome.

The ISIS climacteric is fundamentally a pitched battle between the future and the past. Only a fool would say we have no dog in that fight.