Over the past fifteen years one aim of this series of columns has been to see the world from the perspective of those groups opposing the west, whether in Afghanistan, Iraq or elsewhere. One way has been to publish more than twenty consultancy reports from the fictional South Waziristan Institute of Strategic Hermeneutics (see "The SWISH Reports, 2004-14"); a second was a single column looking at the war through the eyes of a young United States marine and an Iraqi ISIS fighter (see "A tale of two men", 16 April 2015). More recent are ten letters from Raqqa, written over a two-year period as if from an ISIS analyst in Raqqa to a friend in Baghdad (see "Letters from Raqqa, 2014-16", 3 January 2017).
Here is another approach to the issue. How might an ISIS planner rate leading political figures in western states – the “far enemy” – at a time when the movement is under considerable pressure in Iraq but still seeks to foment divisions, distrust and Islamophobia in states way beyond the Middle East? (see "After Mosul, what?", 23 February 2017).
There is no doubt about ISIS's brutality. Yet there is also no question that it sees its prospects, especially in western countries, as closely related to the actions and statements of those who use their authority to scorn not just ISIS but Islam and Muslims as a whole. With this in mind, it may be salutary to think how western politicians and others might be ranked in terms of their value that ISIS sees them having to the movement, not least through the polarisation of political views in so many countries. If polarisation aids ISIS, what figures does the movement think helps it the most?
This perception may vary greatly with time, in part in response to unpredictable election results. But an informed attempt to identify the top seven most significant people for Raqqa could look something like the following.
In seventh might come Viktor Orbán, who has been Hungary's prime minister for the past seven years (having served an earlier term from 1998-2002). His ethno-nationalism and strong views on Islam are combined with determination to act against the supposed threat represented by the flow of war refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. He has probably done more than any other leading east-central European politician to voice hostility to Islam, and is therefore of some value to ISIS as it too seeks to promote religious differences.
In sixth position is Vladimir Putin of Russia, not least because of the sheer intensity of Russian military action in Syria, especially the many people killed and injured in airstrikes. This Russian campaign may well not have been directed at ISIS, at least not yet, but the movement will nonetheless welcome military involvement from a country where there are already active oppositional Islamist movements such as the Caucasus Emirate. Some 2,000 Russian Muslims have joined ISIS in recent years and many have been killed. With a Muslim population of over 16 million and a propensity for the government to repress Muslim dissent with considerable force, the view from Raqqa is likely to be that Russia really is a candidate for internal instability.
Until very recently, one western figure who had probably been viewed from Raqqa in a particularly positive light will have been Nigel Farage. Now, his domestic position has been weakened by infighting in his UKIP party and electoral setbacks, while his closeness to Donald Trump may not go down well among the British electorate as a whole. But though his party seems in permanent crisis, Farage's drumbeat rhetoric on Muslims and security, as well as his ability to keep up oressure against any compromise or cooperation with the European Union, make him still appreciated by ISIS. So he is in fifth position, at least for now.
In fourth position is Geert Wilders of the Dutch populist PVV, which could be the largest single party after the elections on 15 March in the Netherlands. This, and his ability to gain support for his vehemently anti-Islamic views in a country widely regarded as one of the more liberal in western Europe, put him ahead of his British ally.
In third place comes Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister. Again, not strictly “far enemy” and scarcely involved in the anti-ISIS war, but his hardline government is seen across the region as utterly dependent on the United States. Furthermore, the occupation of Palestinian territories, the rapid expansion of settlements, the separation barrier and other means of control constitute a running sore right across the Middle East, greatly aiding ISIS as it struggles to maintain its status.
In second position is Marine Le Pen of France's Front National. Her role as leader of the right-wing movement is doubly important as the presidential election in April-May nears. Her likely popularity with ISIS may not outlast that election, at least at its current high level – but it is unlikely to collapse completely. She will remain precious to ISIS, indeed a promise of what may still be to come.
Finally, in first place (and surely no surprise to anyone) is President Donald J Trump. His indiscriminate rhetoric, his stated aim of crushing ISIS, his anti-Islamic sentiments, his willingness to support torture and to detain suspects without trial, his unshakeable belief in American exceptionalism will – all will be welcomed by those ISIS leaders in Raqqa. Unless the unthinkable happens and he is forced out of office the ISIS view will be that there are four good years ahead, at least in this respect.
If ISIS seeks persistently to present itself as the vital bulwark in the defence of Islam, then the sheer range of the enemies ranged against it serves it well. From Wilders to Le Pen, Trump to Putin, from Farage to el-Sisi, the richness and diversity of the opposition will be greatly appreciated – whatever those on the list might think.
The current situation in Syria and Iraq is so fluid that this kind of exercise might well be run every year with differing outcomes. It could all too easily be dismissed as flippant, but that would be a mistake.For behind it lies a largely unrecognised reality: that hatred and anger towards Muslims is of huge benefit to ISIS, even as the shape of its struggle faces fundamental changes in the Middle East.
After all, the world has been here before. The Taliban were gone in ten weeks in late 2001, the Saddam Hussein regime collapsed in three weeks in early 2003, the killing of bin Laden in May 2011 seemed to be the end of al-Qaida. Each proved a false dawn. ISIS in its present form may diminish, but the circumstances behind it remain. Its motivation extends beyond earthly life, and resentment towards the west across the Middle East is far deeper than most people in the former can begin to comprehend.
Whatever might replace ISIS will be greatly influenced by western attitudes towards the Muslim world. These attitudes are determined, in part, by a few key political figures. In this respect, a list of such people might have some value.