Books

David Kilcullen
Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State

In fighting terrorism, warns David Kilcullen, we should be careful what we wish for. We set out to eliminate al-Qaeda and instead, after a full decade of fighting, we got the Islamic State. Kilcullen, a strategist in global anti-terrorism strategies and adviser to, among others, the United States, offers part history, part enlightened analysis, part commentary, part provocation and part mea culpa in tracking the dramatic and disturbing rise of IS.

In 2004, Kilcullen – an Australian Army lieutenant-colonel with a PhD in Islamic extremism – was tasked to help shape Australia’s counterterrorism efforts with regional partners and allies when 9/11 and other attacks, including the Bali bombings that left 88 Australians dead, saw Western governments focused on one movement and one man: al-Qaeda and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The counter-strategy, Kilcullen asserted at the time, should be to fight al-Qaeda’s clout by “disaggregating” the organisation, “to dismantle, or break up, the links that allow the jihad to function as a global entity”.

Washington’s policy in Iraq contradicted that to the hilt: conflate all enemies of the West into one basket called “terrorism” and pound them to smithereens. The “mindless obstinacy” of then-US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, resulted in what Kilcullen labels “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia”. The sad legacy: an ugly war that continues, a tidal breakdown in law and order, spreading insurgency across the region, the near-destruction of Syria, the suffering and alienation of millions, and a flood of international recruits into IS.

Kilcullen says the West now faces “a larger, more unified, capable, experienced and savage enemy, in a less stable, more fragmented region”. His answer, for now: a heavier air campaign against IS, and giving Western forces the authority to fight IS offensively, not only in training roles. “Hawkish”, he admits, but why so tough? Because if the West doesn’t go full bore against IS, Iran surely will, giving Tehran reign over huge tracts of the Middle East. “We have to go hard now,” Kilcullen warns ominously, “or we’ll end up having to go in much harder, and potentially on a much larger scale, later – or accept defeat.”

He acknowledges people in the West are tired of fighting extremist terror, and admits so himself, but reminds us, too, of Trotsky’s taut observation: “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”  NK

Quarterly Essay, 144pp, $22.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 30, 2015 as "David Kilcullen, Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State ". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: NK