ISIS's plan, and the west's trap

The pattern of conflict since 2001 teaches a lesson that western states refuse to learn.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
27 November 2015
USAF F-15E fighters. Flickr/Stuart Rankin. Some rights reserved.

USAF F-15E fighters. Flickr/Stuart Rankin. Some rights reserved.Al-Qaida evolved throughout the 1990s. By the end of the decade it had become a small but potent transnational revolutionary movement rooted in a perverse, unrepresentative version of one of the world’s main monotheistic faiths – Islam, one of the three 'religions of the book' alongside Judaism and Christianity.

Its ambitious aim was to cause the overthrow of the 'near enemy' regimes in the Middle East and southwest Asia, replacing them with 'proper' Islamist regimes; to see Zionism destroyed; and to so damage the 'far enemy' of the United States and its western partners that a new caliphate would grow outwards from the centre of Islam.

At the heart of its doctrine was an eschatological worldview whose timescales were potentially eternal.  Even so, one of its key early tactics was quite specific and immediate – violent actions within the 'near' and 'far' enemies that would provoke massive overreactions and then sow dissension and chaos.  9/11 was the most substantial of these. The attack directly aimed at drawing the United States into occupying Afghanistan; instead, the US response was focused on using Northern Alliance paramilitaries as surrogate troops, and it took several years before the Taliban could return in strength.

Many of the violent assaults of the early 2000s – Madrid, London, Casablanca, Bali, Jakarta, Karachi, Istanbul, Sinai, Amman and many others – were undertaken by groups loosely connected with al-Qaida yet often willing to act under its banner. By 2006, however, what remained of 'al-Qaida central' had limited power, and over the following six years was superseded by ISIS.

The ISIS strategy

ISIS's new version kept the long-term aim of creating a worldwide caliphate. But from 2011, circumstances in Syria (after the start of the Arab awakening) and Iraq (after the American withdrawal) allowed for the rapid creation of an actual proto-caliphate. ISIS was therefore much more focused on territory, and won considerable success in the effort. This eventually resulted in a US-led coalition mounting a strong reaction in the shape of the air-war that started in August 2014: Operation Inherent Resolve.

The intensity of the war has been scarcely reported. It has involved 57,000 sorties and 8,300 airstrikes in Iraq and Syria that as of 13 November 2015, hit 16,075 separate targets. The overwhelming majority of the sorties were flown by US air force (USAF) and US navy planes. The Pentagon estimates that 20,000 ISIS supporters have been killed. Furthermore, the withdrawal of Bahrain, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates from airstrikes in Syria means that this is now essentially a western war (see "Syria, another 'all-American' war?", 12 November 2015).

Such a concentrated war would create the expectation of ISIS being on its knees. Yet the Pentagon also estimates that the number of active ISIS paramilitaries is unchanged from 2014 at 20,000-30,000, while US intelligence agencies say that 30,000 people from 100 countries have joined ISIS (compared to 15,000 people from 80 countries by mid-2014). The air-war, in short, is not defeating ISIS (see "The west vs ISIS: a new stage", 21 November 2015).

Moreover, a significant change in ISIS tactics has occurred. It now combines holding territory with operating overseas in a manner reminiscent of al-Qaida’s approach of a decade ago. In the past year ISIS has sought to make stronger connections with Islamist paramilitaries in several countries – including Libya, southern Russia, Yemen and Afghanistan – and bring them under its own banner. It is also promoting direct attacks elsewhere: among them two attacks in Tunisia (Tunis's Bardo museum and Sousse's beach resort), the destruction of a Russian tourist jet over Sinai, and bombings in Beirut and Paris.

There are almost certain to be more, not least as ISIS is reported to have established an organised wing of the movement with this specific aim (see Eric Schmitt, “Paris Attacks and Other Assaults Seen as Evidence of a Shift by ISIS”, New York Times, 23 November 2015). The plan has three purposes:

* to demonstrate power and capability, including to supplant what remains of the support for al-Qaida

* to incite as much Islamophobia and community conflict as possible, especially in France and Britain

* to provoke an even more intense war from the west, ideally involving western ground-troops.

All this is relevant to the decision by Britain's prime minister David Cameron to seek approval for the Royal Air Force (RAF) to join in the bombing of Syria. It is highly likely that this will be supported by the House of Commons within the next week, unless individual members can rise above the understandable desire that 'something must be done'. But it is significant that behind the rhetoric about destroying and defeating ISIS, the government's intention in terms of the direct assault is actually far more modest.

When parliament's foreign-affairs committee asked Cameron what the overall objective of the military campaign was and whether it was intended to be 'war-winning', he replied: “The objective of our counter-ISIL campaign is to degrade ISIL’s capabilities so that it no longer presents a significant terrorist threat to the UK or an existential threat to Syria, Iraq or other states.” This falls far short of a military victory and no timetable is given even for this limited aim.

Back to the future

The decision to expand the war against ISIS is worth putting in historical perspective. By the end of 2001, three months after 9/11, the US coalition appeared to have destroyed the Taliban and massively damaged al-Qaida. This enabled George W Bush to declare success in his state-of-the-union address in January 2002. Yet al-Qaida went on to facilitate attacks worldwide, and the war against a resurgent Taliban continues to this day.

By May 2003, President Bush could declare “mission accomplished” against Saddam Hussein’s regime after just six weeks, but an immensely costly eight-year war ensued. In 2011, President Obama felt Iraq sufficiently secure to withdraw all US combat-troops, but within two years ISIS was rampant. That same year, France and Britain celebrated the end of the Gaddafi regime in Libya only for the country to disintegrate into a violent, failing state and weapons to proliferate across the Sahel.

What is frankly amazing is that the same mistakes are being made, and that western leaders are falling into the same traps. There is no recognition at all that ISIS is intent on provoking an expanded war, that this is what it is going to get, and that its leadership will be well satisfied with its achievements.

There is an acute and growing tension between the concern for safety and the protection of our freedoms. How do we handle this? Read more from the World Forum for Democracy partnership.

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