When It Comes To ‘Islamic State,’ The West Just
Doesn’t Get It
By Abdel Bari Atwan
July 09, 2015 "Information
- 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
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
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,
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
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
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
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 believe 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
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.
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
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
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
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
Abdel Bari Atwan is editor-in-chief of news and
opinion site Rai al-Youm and the author of several books on Islamic
extremism, the latest, ‘Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate’, is
published by Saqi books and is available at all good book shops and