North Africa, West Asia

When it comes to ‘Islamic State,’ the west just doesn’t get it

There is much the west does not understand about its latest enemy, in which it faces more than 'just' extremists.

Abdel Bari Atwan
9 July 2015

YPG forces in Tal Abyad after taking it from IS. Martin Bader/Demotix. All rights reserved.

As the US ramps up airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Raqqa—the self-styled Caliphate’s capital—and the UK mulls further military involvement, it is surely time to ponder the effectiveness of bombarding densely populated areas, causing civilian deaths and casualties and laying waste to homes and infrastructure.

After fourteen years in Afghanistan and ten in Iraq (not to mention the drone campaigns in Yemen and Pakistan), isn’t it obvious that a military solution is impossible and that, in terms of ‘hearts and minds’, such missions are counter-productive, often propelling ‘moderate’ Muslims into the arms of the extremists?

It seems to me that there is much the west does not understand about its latest enemy.

Islamic State (IS) continues to expand—en masse in Iraq and Syria, and in smaller enclaves elsewhere from Sinai and Libya to Afghanistan. It has demonstrated a burgeoning ability to strike outside its territories, with attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France marking the first anniversary of the declaration of ‘the Caliphate’ last month.

It is my job, as an Arab newspaper editor and author of several books on the subject, to observe and chart the activities of Salafi-Jihadi organisations. It is obvious to me that IS is a very different—and infinitely more dangerous—creature than any of its predecessors, al-Qaeda included.

A debate about whether the western media should use the term ‘Islamic State’ is currently raging, with some arguing that to do so confers a sense of legitimacy. This rather misses the point because IS—incredibly—is already a state to all intents and purposes; what it is called is largely irrelevant.

Under International Law the criteria for statehood are relatively simple. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States concluded that, in order to declare itself a state, the entity must have a clearly defined territory, a permanent population and a government capable of exercising authority over the population, its territories and its resources. Recognition by other states is not a necessary requirement according to Montevideo.

The Islamic State currently rules sovereign territory the size of Great Britain in Syria and Iraq, with a population of approximately 10 million people, its own army, police force and judicial system, and a budget of at least $2 billion per annum. Recent polls suggest that millions of people in the Arab world regard IS favourably.

Do not get me wrong; I am not some kind of apologist for this violent and intolerant entity. My point is rather that the west is underestimating the danger and has yet to work out how best to confront it. Last week President Obama readily admitted “we still don’t have a strategy,” and yet his warplanes were carrying out daily raids in both Iraq and Syria. A war without a strategy seems, at best, irresponsible.

The evolution of IS

IS has not sprung from nowhere. It is the latest evolutionary step in the Salafi-jihadi movement, specifically the global jihadi, anti-American tendency introduced by Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri in 1996. This strand has an explicit goal of re-establishing the Caliphate and expanding it through the Middle East, parts of Africa, much of Asia and southern Europe.

Much as we would like to think so, this is not empty rhetoric. Nobody in the west took Osama bin Laden seriously...until 9/11. The approach to IS displays a more culpable nonchalance when its soldiers have seized whole cities like Mosul, Raqqa and Ramadi, when oil installations and major dams are under their control and when they have effectively dissolved the Iraq-Syria border by establishing new wilayats (provinces) which straddle it.

The response is always the same: bomb the hell out them. But the assumption that military superiority will win the day has not only been proved wrong, it is arguably directly responsible for the evolution of IS.

Al Qaeda used to have one address—the caves in Tora Bora (where I spent three days with Osama bin Laden in 1996 as detailed in my first book, The Secret History of al-Qaeda). When the US wanted to retaliate for 9/11, it knew where to find the leaders, and their daisy cutter bombs all but annihilated the organisation.

Had the Pentagon stopped at that, we would not have IS, the spawn of al-Qaeda, knocking at the southern gates of Europe now. It was the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 that revitalised the organisation and popularised its cause. By 2004 al-Qaeda in Iraq, led by the bloodthirsty Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, had changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

IS, like al-Qaeda, is perceived by many Muslims as fighting the ‘crusaders’ who seek to invade and exploit the resources of Muslim lands. And while the west decries IS violence, its rough justice and its subjugation of women, many in the Muslim world are profoundly conscious of the hypocrisy involved here: the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi, Afghan, Yemeni and Pakistani citizens in US bombardments and drone strikes; the torture and abuse of Muslim prisoners in US detention facilities like Abu Ghraib where water boarding and ‘rectal rehydration’ (anal rape with a water hose) were commonplace; the gang rape and murder of fourteen-year-old Abeer Qassim by five US soldiers of whom one, Steven Green, when charged, explained his conduct by saying “I didn’t think of Iraqis as human.”

Extremism and sectarianism

IS is blatant in its use of extreme violence and acts of sadism. It assures it of wall-to-wall media coverage, terrifies its enemies and inspires its fanatical followers with a sense of omnipotence. Conquering armies have behaved thus throughout history: think Genghis Khan; the Nazi slaughter of millions of Eastern Europeans, Jews, disabled people, Gypsies and homosexuals; think the American atrocity at Mai Lai where Lt William Calley ordered the rape and murder of 500 women and children (interestingly, polls found that most Americans opposed Calley receiving any form of punishment). In the course of the twentieth century, governments killed 170 million of their own citizens, with 62 million killed in the USSR alone between 1917 and 1987.

Atrocity is part of IS strategy, a deliberate, planned policy which was first outlined ten years ago in a Salifi-jihadi ‘treatise’ entitled The Management of Savagery. Meanwhile western governments hide their own role in allowing IS to take root, and in their inability to contain, let alone destroy it, behind this overwhelming and obscene violence.

There is a sense, in much of the media coverage, that if these militants are ‘just’ extremists they are somehow less dangerous, less of a real threat. In fact the opposite is true: what can a regular soldier do against someone who has no fear of injury or death, who actively seeks his own ‘martyrdom’ in battle?

Extremism remains, and increases, because its causes remain.

Apart from the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, there is the Palestinian question. Most western governments are perceived as offering unquestioning support for Israel’s racist and expansionist policies, its violence against the imprisoned people of Gaza and its disregard for international law. While it may no longer be at the top of the Arab world’s agenda, the Palestinian cause remains a powerful grievance and many will have felt a shiver of schadenfreude when IS forces overpowered an Egyptian checkpoint on the border with Gaza last week, causing Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu to complain that IS are “knocking at Israel’s borders.”

Despite the clamour for ‘democracy’, western governments were not prepared for the aftermath of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, which saw the Islamists prevail over the liberal tendency at the polls. There were no complaints, and no threats of intervention, from Washington, London or Paris when Egypt’s elected Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, was deposed by a military coup.

This fear of Islamism has created both the space and the appetite for extremism—the same thing happened in Algeria when Islamists won the 1990 elections but were violently prevented from taking office by the army, abetted by France and Washington. Civil war ensued, eventually producing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The sectarian tensions that have destabilised the whole region and established the fault lines for war are also, to some extent, the product of external interference. Let us consider Iraq: before the 2003 US-led invasion and occupation, sectarian tensions in Iraq were few and Sunni-Shi’a couples were commonplace among my Iraqi friends.

Paul Bremer, who ran Iraq for fourteen months after the invasion, disbanded the Iraqi army—which would have been the most appropriate and effective weapon against the extremists, then as now. Bremer made little effort to understand the complex, ancient culture in which he found himself and had no concept of how tribal loyalties (rather than religious affiliation) underpinned the region’s power structure.

Instead, he took all his major decisions based on a rigidly sectarian paradigm in the mistaken belief that former Iraqi president Saddam Hussain, the higher echelons of his regime and the Baath Party were all Sunni. If Sunnis were bad, then the Shi’as must be good, appears to have been his reasoning. In fact, the majority of Baath party members were Shi’a as were one third of the ‘most wanted’ deck of cards the US produced in advance of the invasion.

The disbanded Iraqi army—which was established before Saddam came to power—was firmly nationalist and, contrary to Bremer’s belief was mixed, in sectarian terms, with its fair share of Shi’a generals. Embittered by Bremer’s treatment of them, many Sunni commanders joined the insurgency, taking whole brigades with them. These elite ex-army men are now playing a leading role in the Islamic State’s devastating military successes, training fighters, planning military strategy and directing intelligence units.

Zarqawi’s al-Qaeda in Iraq (later ISI) was quick to exploit sectarian tensions and Sunni resentment of US-backed, discriminatory Shi’a rule. Iraq descended into bloody chaos—the environment in which extremist groups thrive.

In Afghanistan, where rival warlords ruled in the aftermath of the civil war, people initially welcomed the Taliban because they brought a semblance of law and order. Today, in Iraq and Syria, where central government has all but collapsed, those who have not fled advancing IS troops have extended a wary welcome, and IS enjoys considerable support from influential and warlike Sunni tribes in both countries.

We cannot ignore the feebleness of the national army in Iraq (for reasons we have outlined above), whose brigades simply run away when IS attacks. The government and its western backers have been relying on Shi’a militias to battle the extremists—but they are just as vicious and prone to committing atrocities as IS; Kurdish forces have also been deployed, but their agenda is essentially separatist.

Despite official declarations to the contrary, there is a lot of support for extremist groups among the elite in major US/UK regional allies Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries. This presents London and Washington with something of a dilemma, hence the focus on ‘moderate’ Islamist groups and the flagging up of internecine fighting between, say, al-Qaeda, al-Nusra and IS or the Taliban and IS.

It is difficult not to conclude that American and European foreign policies—entirely predicated on self-interest, be it oil, the desire to control strategic locations, or ‘homeland security’—have much to answer for.

Local factors

There are, of course, many local factors that have also allowed this rogue Islamic State to flourish, as well as its own strategy and careful planning. IS has adopted a provincial model of wiliyat, each with its own semi-autonomous local government; this means local populations can effectively control their own economies through Shura councils and are therefore more likely to respond positively and remain loyal to their new rulers. Militarily, this means that IS has active units throughout the state and can fight on several fronts simultaneously.

Numerous former al-Qaeda affiliates have shifted their allegiance to Islamic State, meaning that they have a wide-ranging geographical network—from the Caucasus to Somalia—upon which to build. Regional instability produces the security vacuum in which jihadi groups flourish. There are currently seven civil wars in progress in Muslim countries—in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia and northern Nigeria—and in each country IS is active and growing in strength. Egypt, too, is in danger of descending into chaos; it is losing control of the Sinai and a new IS affiliate going by the name of ‘Sinai Wiliyat’ launched ferocious attacks on army and police targets this week, killing at least 100.

I have not even touched upon the Islamic State’s exploitation of digital technology—particularly social networking platforms and anonymous interfaces—which has allowed it to propagate its ideology throughout the world and recruit tens, if not hundreds of thousands of fighters, as well as offering instructions to those intent on carrying out ‘lone wolf’ attacks. IS uses sophisticated encryption techniques to evade detection and has an evolving ‘cyber army’ which has already successfully hacked US military targets.

The future

The questions I am most often asked concern the future direction of IS and what can be done to halt it. I do not think the answer involves foreign interference of any kind except—possibly—passive diplomacy designed to broker peaceful outcomes.

The nightmare scenario would see all the major jihadi groups uniting under the IS umbrella and sectarian violence escalating into region-wide war. In this case, IS would quickly gain dominance over much of MENA.

The best hope lies in the most powerful jihadi entities—al-Qaeda, the Taliban and IS—fighting and destroying each other. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri no longer impresses, however, and elderly Taliban leader Mullah Omar has apparently disappeared, leaving many of his followers saying that they will join IS if he does not issue a video proving he is alive.

Failing violent implosion, only a long term, carefully thought out, and region-wide strategy could work. A concerted effort by the region’s policy-makers and influencers to introduce and nurture values of tolerance, unity, mutual co-operation and peace would have a good chance of ousting IS... because hatred, anger and resentment are the oxygen it needs to flourish.

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