Islamic State, a long-term prospect

A powerful coalition seeks to destroy the 'caliphate'. But IS draws confidence from key assets beyond the reach of a blunt military strategy.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
9 April 2015

Eleven years ago this week, the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq fell as United States troops and marines occupied Baghdad and headed north towards Mosul. The war seemed over. Afghanistan also seemed much quieter by that time. Only three weeks later, on 1 May 2003, George W Bush could deliver his “mission accomplished” speech from the flight-deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

Now, Iraq is at the heart of another war involving a US-led coalition, one which extends through Syria. At the centre is Islamic State, regarded as the most dangerous of the many extreme Islamist paramilitary movements now active. The latter include Boko Haram in northern Nigeria and its neighbours, al-Shabaab in Somalia and northern Kenya, Ansar Dine, al-Nusra, al-Qaida in Yemen, the Caucasus Emirate, the multiple militias in Libya, the remaining parts of the original al-Qaida in Pakistan - and this is but a partial list.

This week’s advance into Tikrit by the new coalition is widely seen as a stage in Islamic State's inevitable slow retreat. Several US sources have cited the number of IS militants targeted as evidence of this: General Lloyd Austin, head of US Central Command, has reported that over 8,500 had died under the bombardments in Iraq and Syria, and secretary of state John Kerry claimed that up to half of the paramilitary leadership had been killed. 

The airstrikes, as such figures suggest, have indeed been pitched at an intensity that goes largely unrecognised in western states and unreported in its general media. Since mid-August 2014, 5,548 Islamic State targets have been hit, including 234 in the last fortnight of March alone. And yet, overall, the assaults seem to have made very little difference. No wonder other informed American sources are sceptical about arguments that ISIL is in retreat.

For Islamic State remains firmly entrenched in most of those parts of Iraq it seized in its rapid expansion in June 2014, and is expanding its territorial control in Syria. Moreover, groups in Nigeria, Libya, Afghanistan and Egypt have pledged allegiance to it.  A United Nations report says it has now attracted over 25,000 foreign fighters into Syria and Iraq, including many hundreds from each of several western European countries. The same report estimated that 6,500 foreign fighters had gone to Afghanistan and hundreds to Libya, Yemen and Somalia. The escalating conflict in Yemen has also led the US defence secretary Ashton Carter to warn of an increase in al-Qaida-linked territorial control in the country   

The seven pillars

Islamic State, the claims of retreat notwithstanding, is far from cowed. On the contrary, it can count in its favour seven powerful factors.

First, its core narrative has a powerful appeal - that Islam is under attack from the west, betrayed by unworthy regimes in the region, and that IS itself itself is the vanguard in defence of “true” Islam.  The movement can also highlight the many tens of thousands of Muslims killed by the west in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and many other countries.

Second, IS gains indirectly from decades of Saudi funding across the Islamic world for hundreds of madrasas and other education centres which all promulgate the wahhabi tradition of Islam from whose intellectual sources it also draws sustenance.

Third, Islamic State is reinforced by the widespread experience and perception of marginalisation, especially among young people across the Middle East and north Africa. Even Tunisia, now undergoing a positive if rocky democratic transition, is a prominent Islamic State recruiting-ground, not least because of graduate unemployment running at 30%. Such marginalisation underpinned the Arab awakening, but its failure in some key countries makes it all too easy to sell the idea that non-violence is useless and violent Islamist revolution the only way.

Fourth, Islamic State has paramilitary capabilities honed in conflicts not just in Iraq and Syria but also in Afghanistan, Libya, the Caucasus and elsewhere. There are now many thousands of young men that are combat-trained, many of them against elite western troops.

Fifth, the movement is further gaining from the very fact of direct control of large swathes of territory. It has proved capable of establishing a "caliphate" with functioning transport, economic, energy distribution and legal systems. The sheer symbolism of a created caliphate is far more significant than is recognised in the west, particularly in the context of the reading that Islam has undergone a centuries-long retreat before and since the end of the Ottoman empire.

Sixth, Islamic State benefits from the reprisal actions of Shi’a militias against Sunnis in Iraq and from the rooted predicament of the Palestinians, again demonstrated by the assault on Gaza in July-August 2014.

Seventh, IS regards as particular long-term asset the detention of thousands of extreme Islamists in prisons across the world. For incarceration almost invariably means further radicalisation: from Camp Bucca in Iraq in 2004-07, which did so much to provide the core paramilitary leadership of today's Islamic State, to the ongoing experience in Britain and other western countrie  

The wrong timescale

Against these supporting factors, the Islamic State leadership is facing three major challenges. First, it is rather more narrowly hierarchical than most Islamist movements and may therefore be vulnerable, at least in the short term, if its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is killed. Second, it is also diminished by the sheer brutality of its methods. These may be designed to scare many and incite others to react, but they also degrade its standing in the eyes of the overwhelming majority of Muslims.

Third, and whatever the actual impact of the new coalition’s airstrikes, a wider political coalition represents a formidable adversary to Islamic State. Apart from western states it includes Iran and, to an extent, Russia and China (which have their own Islamist concerns). In Iraq itself, the government of Haider al-Abadi is beginning to make overtures to Sunni clans, a process that may undermine Islamic State in the longer term.

Fourth, and perhaps most significant of all, is that mere control of territory is not enough: there is abundant evidence that extreme movements that might initially be welcomed if they bring order in place of chaos can steadily lose that initial support if their subsequent rule is hard and repressive.

That too, however, may take years not months. And this leads to the central dilemma, not for Islamic State but for its enemies. The US-led policy is to confront Islamic State with considerable forces. At present the focus is on an intense air war, but could well extend beyond that. The campaign might in time weaken the movement, but that period also allows its propagandists to emphasise the narrative that Islam as a whole is yet again under attack. In other words, the current coalition may be falling into a trap, as its predecessor did in Afghanistan and Iraq.

It is the timescales that are wrong. The decay of Islamic State from within is probable, eventually. But the process may be averted if it can maintain sufficient support by its making a claim to be defending a wider cause. That is at the heart of the problem for the United States and its allies, and it is not at all clear that they can or will face up to it.

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