Land of the Rising Jihad

Vladimir Volkov

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The dramatic rise of a terrorist Islamic State in the Arab East caught the world by surprise this summer. Even more worrisome is that nobody has been able to figure out how to foster the strategic cooperation necessary to combat this alarming threat.

In early June, groups of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) intruded upon Iraqi territory. The Sunni Islamic group was just 6,000 strong, with roughly half of them staying behind in Syria where ISIL has been waging war against the government troops of Bashar Assad for more than three years. At the time, nobody imagined how swift and successful their advance would be.

However, their calculations seemed to be right on target. Their drive was supported by the local Sunni tribes that were against the short-sighted anti-Sunni policies of the government, which is headed up by Nouri Al-Maliki, a Shia. Despite their small numbers and a shortage of heavy weapons, it took ISIL only a few weeks to gain control over large territories in the northern and eastern provinces of Iraq and even capture several large cities, including Saddam Hussein’s hometown, Tikrit, and the country’s second largest city, Mosul. The fact that it only took about a thousand ISIL militants to capture Mosul – a city with a population of 1.5 million – is particularly symbolic. The Iraqi military force that was stationed there to defend the city was 30,000 strong and made up of Sunnis and Shias alike, but they left their fortified position without seriously engaging the adversary. “The Iraqi army, which the United States spent 10 years and over $15 billion building, simply fled. They left vast arsenals of weapons to the militants, as well as equipment and vehicles,” said Georgiy Mirsky, a professor at the Institute of World Economy and International Relations at the Russian Academy of Sciences in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine.

The Islamists in Mosul were left with spoils that included 260 modern armored vehicles, heavy artillery, fighter jets, and helicopters. The city itself was plundered; nearly $430 million was stolen from local bank vaults. Soon thereafter, the world saw video footage showing mass executions of Iraqi prisoners of war and reprisals against the local population – the Kurds, the Shias, and the Christians.

Just days later, on 12 June, ISIL launched a full-scale assault on Baghdad and the northern part of Iraq, heading for Iraqi Kurdistan, the country’s main oil-producing region. It was only thanks to desperate last-ditch resistance attempts on the part of the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, and air strikes launched by the Iraqi Air Force and the US-led coalition against ISIL targets, that their advance was stopped.

Despite these efforts, by the end of the month ISIL captured nearly one-third of Syria and a quarter of Iraq, gaining control of a territory with a total population of more than six million. On 29 June, they declared these territories a Sunni caliphate, or the Islamic State (IS). The leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, was proclaimed ‘the caliph,’ and called upon Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the newly established ‘state’ and join with it to continue the armed struggle. This call did not fall on deaf ears; by early autumn, more than 100,000 militants rallied under the black IS banners.

The emergence of the caliphate has effectively heralded the disintegration of Iraq and Syria, whose very statehood had been falling apart since the beginning of the ‘Arab Spring.’ Though the IS has not been recognized as an official state, it already has all the features traditionally required to succeed as a state.

“The situation in the region is as follows: the enemy of my enemy is my enemy. Iran views both the Americans and the IS as enemies. Saudi Arabia considers Iran and Shia Muslims to be their adversaries, along with the fanatics from the IS. The same goes for Bashar Assad and everybody else. Of course that also goes for the Americans, who in turn hate the current Syrian regime with a passion and its ally, Iran, by virtue of proximity”

There is no doubt as to the sort of ideology, principles, and ‘values’ this newly created caliphate is likely to espouse. “What sort of values could outlaws, terrorist, pirates, or radicals have?” asked Evgeniy Satanovskiy, President of the Institute for the study of Israel & the Middle East, in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine. “To rob, kill, and destroy outsiders; wipe out all heretics; capture the ‘stupid white people’ and sell them to those who have the money and are willing to buy them. Otherwise, kill them. To post a few videos showing executions to make people more amenable to paying them money. To rape and sell women and children into slavery. These are their values. These people have no other values.”

Despite their terrorist tactics, the caliphate has managed to build an unprecedented economic base. According to Forbes magazine, the IS is the richest terrorist organization in the world. Its annual revenues – derived from oil exports, historic artifact sales, racketeering, slavery, and sponsorship from some Gulf states – are estimated at $2 billion. In early November, the IS announced plans to introduce its own currency, the Islamic dinar, which should ensure their independence from the Western financial system.

Moreover, the IS has attracted many former members of the Saddam administration who are capable of building state institutions as well as controlling and governing IS territories. The world has never seen anything of the kind until today. “For the first time in history, a terrorist organization is gradually morphing into a state. This situation is completely new,” says Satanovskiy. “The Middle Ages are back, and in their most brutal form, backed by modern weapons systems.”

Follow Bin Laden

It may come as a surprise, but the quick rise of the Islamic State and its unprecedented brutality were a complete shock to the US-led Western community of nations. “Just as they missed the Iranian Revolution, along with the Islamization of the Palestinian resistance movement and bin Laden, they failed to catch the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the Islamic State,” says Alexey Malashenko, the chair of the Carnegie Moscow Center’s Religion, Society, and Security Program, in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine.

The irony is that both the United States and its current leader are, to some extent, responsible for the destabilization of the Arab East and the rise of Islam. “President Obama lost the international war on terror, and Islamic terror in particular, in a spectacular way. His overtures with the Muslim Brotherhood, predicated on the bribes that Qatar hands out in America, had catastrophic consequences. It was Obama who threw Mubarak under the bus in Egypt. The only thing that saved that country from an Islamic revolution was the army’s return to power. It was Obama who got involved in the civil war in Libya, destroyed Gaddafi, and let the crowd lynch him. As a result, huge arsenals of modern weapons ended up in the hands of terrorists across the entire African continent, and Libya became defunct as a country. It was Obama who refused to heed the advice of his generals and withdrew US troops from Iraq, which led to the country’s disintegration,” continued Satanovskiy. “This is to say nothing of the civil war in Syria – which President Obama fervently supported, and in so doing opened the door to various Al Qaeda factions – or the crisis in Ukraine, which nullified his chances of building a viable coalition to fight Sunni terrorism. President Obama bears most of the blame for the situation in the Middle East, along with the rest of them who are now horsing around with air strikes.”

The United States even played a formal role in creating the environment that would later give rise to Islamism. It is common knowledge that the US intelligence services, along with the Pakistani Intelligence Bureau, played an active role in creating Al Qaeda. The Islamic State’s precursor was founded in the early 1980s by bin Laden, a Wahhabi, in response to the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan; it was then that the call for a war on the ‘infidels’ – a jihad – was first made. A decade later, Al Qaeda continued to wage war against the United States with the events of 9/11. This forced President Bush to authorize an intervention, which was exactly what the jihadists were hoping for. “They did everything they could to coerce Bush into sending US troops to Afghanistan. They wanted a protracted war so that Muslim people would see the blood-covered bodies of women and children who shared their faith. They wanted Muslims to rise up against governments that were allied with Washington. They wanted rebellions and revolutions. They wanted the Islamists to come to power,” explained Georgiy Mirskiy.

Despite their terrorist tactics, the caliphate has managed to build an unprecedented economic base. According to Forbes magazine, the IS is the richest terrorist organization in the world. Its annual revenues – derived from oil exports, historic artifact sales, racketeering, slavery, and sponsorship from some Gulf states – are estimated at $2 billion

Osama bin Laden’s plan nearly succeeded, and it would have if one thing had not gotten in the way. The US Army quickly defeated the Taliban, and the Muslim world did not have enough time to respond in any substantial way. However, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 fanned the flames of jihad and reinvigorated the movement; Islamists from all over the world began flocking to the country to fight against the ‘Crusaders.’ It was at that time that regional Al Qaeda cells were first formed on the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), in the Arab Maghreb (North Africa), and in Iraq (the future IS).

This time around, the war stretched over several years, but again the local Al Qaeda failed to win. “It is their own fault because their brutality, their excesses, and their cruelty turned the local population against them – even their friends, the Iraqi Sunnis,” said Mirskiy. “In 2008, the Sunni tribes in Iraq ultimately decided that while America was bad, Al Qaeda was much worse. Many of them switched sides and allied themselves with the Americans to fight against the Islamists.”

By 2011, Al Qaeda was nearly crushed, which enabled President Obama to begin withdrawing troops from the country. That triggered the ‘Arab spring’ and the ensuing civil war in Syria, which began to attract Sunni jihadists from Iraq who joined forces with the opposition fighting against the Alawi (Shia) regime in Damascus. “Until recently, there were really two concurrent wars underway in Syria. One was the armed confrontation with the Assad regime and the other erupted inside the opposition itself between the moderate pro-Western forces and those monsters from Al Qaeda,” added Mirskiy. “This explains why Obama refused, and still refuses, to provide any serious weapons to the Syrian opposition. He understands that these weapons will end up in the hands of jihadists who were recently fighting in Iraq and killing US servicemen and are still faithful followers of bin Laden.

The war in Syria helped to significantly strengthen Al Qaeda’s faction in Iraq. The Islamists took control of large territories, establishing a brutal criminal regime. In addition, they got their hands on financial resources and weapons during their clashes with the Syrian army and the moderate opposition. “This spring, they knew their time had come. They knew for certain that they were welcome in Iraq, where the public was boiling with outrage over al-Maliki’s ugly anti-Sunni policies,” Mirskiy summarized.

The rest was history. In the early summer, Islamist units invaded Iraq and the government’s army beat a hasty retreat, abandoning their positions and weapons and forcing President Obama to send in the Air Force.

Who is Your Friend?

The effect of the air strikes on IS positions in Syria and Iraq notwithstanding, the only way to defeat the Islamists will be to put boots on the ground. As of yet, no forces capable of launching a serious ground operation against the Caliphate have volunteered. According to experts, there is only a slim chance the United States will launch its own military operation while Obama is in office. In the past, the White House has favored foreign policy based on ending wars. A departure from this course would be tantamount to admitting the previous policy was a mistake – something that would spell political suicide for Obama, whose popularity at home is already at an all-time low.

By the same token, it would be difficult for the US administration to change their tone vis-à-vis the main opponents of the Islamists – the Assad regime in Syria and Iran, which was added by Washington to the ‘axis of evil’ – and invite them to join the anti-Islamist coalition that is currently being built. Such a turnaround would not only cause Obama to lose face, but also drive a wedge between the US and its closest allies among the Middle Eastern monarchies, whose military potential is rather low. “Their armies are worth very little. In fact, they would be useless against the Islamic State fanatics,” Mirskiy noted.

The Kurdish Peshmerga militia proved they were capable of holding their own against the IS militants. However, their numbers are too small to bring a large-scale military campaign to ‘IS soil.’ At the same time, the United States, who could fall back on the Iraqi Kurds as the only realistic and reliable ally in the region, are forced to hold back their assistance. They must also contend with the opinion of yet another important partner, Turkey, which has avoided any direct confrontation with the Islamists thus far.

What is particularly symbolic is that Ankara refused to send its well-trained and well-equipped army to help the Kurds to defend Kobani, a strategic stronghold in the north of Syria, that has been besieged by heavily armed IS troops since mid-September. In late October, Turkish President Recep Erdoğan was forced to make concessions in the face of growing protests from the Turkish Kurdish diaspora and publically explain his government’s inaction. Because of the close ties between the Syrian Kurds and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is a designated terrorist organization in Turkey, he sees no reason to help one group of terrorists wage war against another.

It is certainly no coincidence that he has taken such a stance. “Today, the Turks have essentially pitched one group against the other in Kobani. They sit back and watch the Syrian Kurds and Islamists destroy one another,” concluded Evgeniy Satanovskiy. “Turkey has its own agenda. Fighting the Islamists is not one of their objectives at all.”

It appears that this strategy has been favored by nearly all parties involved in the events unfolding in the Arab East. “The situation in the region is as follows: the enemy of my enemy is my enemy. The usual scenario would be ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend,’ but it is the other way around there. Iran views both the Americans and the IS as enemies. Saudi Arabia considers Iran and Shia Muslims to be their adversaries, along with the fanatics from the IS. The same goes for Bashar Assad and everybody else. Of course that also goes for the Americans, who in turn hate the current Syrian regime with a passion and its ally, Iran, by virtue of proximity.”

The United States’ double-edged policy in the region only confirms this idea, and it prevents Washington from rallying a truly effective anti-Islamist coalition. “US policy [in the Middle East] has an Alice in Wonderland absurdity about it, everything being the opposite of what it appears to be. The so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ is, in practice, very unwilling to fight IS, while those hitherto excluded – such as Iran, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and the PKK – are the ones actually fighting [against the Islamists],” noted Patrick Cockburn, a well-informed and reputable journalist in the field, in an essay published by CounterPunch.

According to Noam Chomsky, a renowned political thinker, publicist, and professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the desire on the part of the United States and their key allies to go it alone to solve the problem of countering the Islamists acting outside of the internationally recognized framework leads to the same consequences.

America would make its job much easier if it turned to the UN Security Council for authorization to use military force against the IS, as that is the only international body empowered to make such decisions. This would help to get all key regional powers on board, including Iran. However, Washington, London, and other allied capitals have completely ignored this possibility. “The reason is the US and Britain, Israel, and their followers are rogue states. States that disregard international law. It doesn’t apply to them. They do what they want,” Noam Chomsly explained at an open lecture at MIT in October. “They have a monopoly force and they want to have a monopoly force, and they use it as they like. This reduces the range of possible solutions to these issues.”

A Global Phenomenon

In the meantime, the Islamic state skillfully plays on the contradictions between its adversaries and continues to work toward its objectives. The next one seems to be Kobani – if captured, this city would give the Islamists control over this region’s entire northern border with Turkey. Next they may well turn their attention to Iraqi Kurdistan, now desperately defended by the Peshmerga units. “They really have no need for the Kurds themselves – they would simply wipe them all out – but they do need oil,” explained Georgiy Mirskiy. “The Islamic State has its own oil, but if they manage to capture the resources located in Iraqi Kurdistan, this would give them the economic base to sustain them for many years to come.”

Mirskiy believes that IS expansion may move south toward Jordan and Saudi Arabia, where they enjoy a great deal of support among local Sunni sympathizers. If the Islamist troops manage to traverse Jordanian territory and reach the Sinai Peninsula, they could join forces with the militants engaged in guerrilla warfare against the Egyptian government, headed up by Marshal el-Sisi. “If the IS reaches that point, they could form a front against Egypt in Sinai on one side, and also join forces with Hamas to form a front in the south against Israel,” explained Mirskiy. “And if they make a move toward Saudi Arabia and take control of the oil producing countries in the Persian Gulf, this would up-end the entire situation in the region.”

Obviously, the White House takes the growing threat from the IS very seriously, no matter what opponents of the current President say on the matter. In late November, President Obama accepted the resignation of Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, welcome news to the Islamists (judging by their reaction on Twitter), while the community of experts expressed hope that this move reflected the administration’s desire to re-think their strategy vis-à-vis the jihadists. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in September showed that the American people now seem ready to embrace their government playing a greater role in the global fight against terrorism, whereas earlier they showed signs of fatigue over their country’s excessively proactive foreign policy in recent years.

“Relatively high percentages [of Americans] thought the US was too involved in the world, but ISIL has changed that,” said Alec Tyson, a senior researcher at Pew.

All of it means that in the near future, America and the anti-ISIL coalition it leads may take more proactive and systemic actions. However, even if the IS is defeated militarily in Iraq and Syria, it would not be enough for a victory over Islamism.

“In trying to deal a fatal blow to the Islamic State, the West underestimates the deep-seated nature of this phenomenon and the root causes behind it,” said Alexey Malashenko.

The United States’ policy in the Middle East has an Alice in Wonderland absurdity about it, everything being the opposite of what it appears to be. The so-called ‘coalition of the willing’ is, in practice, very unwilling to fight IS, while those hitherto excluded – such as Iran, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, and the PKK – are the ones actually fighting against the Islamists

To substantiate his views, Malashenko pointed to the dual nature of Islamism. On the one hand, it is the extremists’ attempt to implement an Islamic alternative to the ‘Western’ statehood models imposed from outside, which proved unviable during the ‘Arab Spring.’ It is also the Muslim world’s response to the challenge presented by the West: you are trying to impose your own form of society and statehood, but it will not take root here. “That is why the Islamic State is not a bunch of criminals or gangsters, as many like to categorize them; rather, they represent a certain objective form of an extremely brutal Islam and the Islamist response to what is going on in the region. From this perspective, the Islamic State could be bombed back to the Stone Age – suppressed and destroyed within those territories that they are trying to lay claim to – but they would still disperse and continue their activities. Their idea will live on,” Malashenko said in an interview with BRICS Business Magazine. “Islamism is not a national, and not even a regional, but a global phenomenon. The concept of the Islamic State can be defeated in Iraq and Syria, but not across the entire Muslim world. In my opinion, we are seeing growing recognition of the fact that we are dealing with a special religious and political movement, but nobody seems to know how to fight it or interact with it.”

The only thing that people seem to agree on is that the upcoming struggle against the jihadists will be long and protracted. It will also require deep involvement, incredible flexibility, a readiness to compromise, and patience from every international stakeholder if the international community is to emerge victorious over the rising Islamic State.

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