Islamic State

Agents of death

Print edition : December 11, 2015

An undated image posted on a militant website on January 14, 2014, shows fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant marching in Raqqa, Syria. Photo: AP

After a bomb attack at Burj al-Barajneh, Beirut, on November 13. Photo: AFP

After an explosion at Hotel al-Qasr in Aden, Yemen, where Ministers and government officials were staying, on October 6. Photo: AP

From A video published on the Internet by the I.S. on November 16, 2014, showing militants taking Syrian soldiers for beheading. Photo: AP

In this file photo released on May 4, 2015, on a militant website, I.S. militants are seen passing by a convoy in Tel Abyad, northeast Syria. The I.S. makes around $2,000,000 a day from the sale of oil. Photo: AP

Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda chief, a file picture. He wanted the I.S. to focus only on Iraq and let the al-Nusra Front lead the fight in Syria. Photo: AFP

Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the “caliph” of Islamic State, addressing worshippers at a mosque in Mosul, Iraq, a file picture. The I.S. has ignored Zawahiri’s position. Photo: AFP

Highly motivated squads of suicide bombers are in the forefront of both conventional warfare and urban terror attacks by the Islamic State, like the one in Paris which they describe “as the first of the storm”.

Finally, it is the latest terror attack on Paris that may galvanise the international community into taking concerted and coordinated action against the threat posed by the Islamic State (I.S.). French President Francois Hollande has called for the formation of a “large alliance” to take on the I.S “decisively”. Hollande has not invoked Article 5 of the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) treaty which would have obligated all alliance members to help France militarily. This would have meant the involvement of countries like Turkey which are playing a dubious role in the conflict in Syria. Article 5 has been invoked only once so far, and that was after the attack on the American mainland on September 9, 2001. France instead has chosen to invoke an article in the Lisbon Treaty, which governs the working of the European Union (E.U.). The article states that if a member-state is subjected to “armed aggression” on its territory, then other member-states have an obligation to come to its aid.

Hollande wants to broaden the international support for France. In this context, he wants Russia to play a prominent role in the fight against the I.S. Russia would have found it difficult to fight alongside NATO as it has been demanding the rollback and disbanding of NATO since the end of the Cold War. Now, after many years, France and Russia have started sharing intelligence on the I.S. Relations between Paris and Moscow had become strained after the events in Ukraine. France had even cancelled a multibillion contract for the supply of a naval ship to Russia earlier in the year. Hollande will visit Moscow and Washington in November in his bid to cobble a credible military alliance against the I.S. All the three major powers now have powerful motives to act together against the I.S.

The massacre in Paris and the downing of the Russian passenger plane have suddenly brought Paris and Moscow closer. Now only the United States (U.S.) has to come fully on board for coordinated military action against the I.S. and sundry jehadi forces operating in Syria and Iraq. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking after the events in Paris, complained that the U.S. was not seriously combating the threat posed by the I.S. He said the U.S. military strikes in Syria “were selective and in the majority of cases spared those Islamic State groups that were capable of pressing the Syrian army”. Russia has said that the defence of Syria is no longer just that of helping the Syrian government but is now a matter of Russia’s national security.

The Russian parliament issued a statement blaming Washington for the dangerous spike in terrorism. “The recent tragic developments confirm the topicality of Russia’s continuous warnings that permanent destabilisation of the Middle East [West Asia] by those who claim global dominance, primarily the United States, would lead to the expansion of bloody chaos and entail numerous human tragedies,” the document stated. “France and other European states are, as a matter of fact, reaping the consequences of Washington’s near-sighted and selfish policy.”

President Vladimir Putin, after making the announcement that an I.S. bomb was responsible for the downing of the Russian plane, ordered Russian navy ships in the Mediterranean to recognise the French forces operating in the region as allies. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu revealed that the number of military strikes against the I.S. had been doubled. Putin has vowed retribution for those responsible for the downing of the civilian plane. “We will search for them everywhere, no matter where they are hiding,” Putin said in a live television broadcast. “We will find them in any place in the planet and punish them.”

Washington still wants to fight on two fronts in Syria. Though the Obama administration officials have indicated that President Bashar al-Assad need not leave immediately, regime change in Damascus and not the fight against the I.S. is still the priority for Washington. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit to Paris, said that the defeat of the I.S. was only possible if there was regime change in Syria. He blamed the Syrian government for the rise of the I.S. Most of the I.S. support base is in Iraq, and it is widely acknowledged that the rise of the I.S. coincided with the military occupation of Iraq by the U.S. in 2003 and the consequent destabilisation of the entire region.

Russia is once again going to put forward a draft resolution in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) calling for a joint fight against terrorism in Syria. Russia wants the international community to support the Syrian army in the war it has been waging for more than four years against foreign-backed jehadi forces. More than 200,000 Syrians have perished in the war, a large percentage of them Syrian army soldiers. The French are also proposing to table a resolution in the UNSC for the authorisation of “a short but sustained war” against the I.S. Obama and John Kerry, despite their reservations, have indicated that the U.S. could eventually team up with Russia and France to take on the I.S. exclusively.

Obama said in Manila, where he had gone to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, that Russia “was a constructive partner in Vienna” during the talks about a proposed ceasefire in Syria. But the U.S. President had a caveat. He said Russia should stop attacking non-I.S. jehadis in Syria and focus all its firepower on the I.S. Moscow has been consistently stating that there are no “moderate forces” fighting in Syria anymore. Moscow says that it does not distinguish between the Al Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front, the Saudi- and Turkey-supported Ahral al Sham, or the I.S. All of them are jehadi groups of varying shades.

Funding the terrorists

Hollande is also scheduled to visit Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The role of these countries in the funnelling of arms, money and recruits to jehadi groups in Syria and Iraq has been well chronicled. At the G-20 summit, Putin announced that he had shared intelligence with the world leaders on the sources of funding for the I.S. The Russian President said that it was funding from 40 countries that helped finance the terror activities of the I.S. though he did not publicly reveal the names of the countries involved. The I.S. makes around $2,000,000 a day from the sale of oil. The Guardian has reported that there is evidence linking Turkish officials to the I.S. in matters relating to oil purchases. It was only after Putin raised the issue that Obama ordered the U.S. Air Force to target convoys of trucks carrying oil from I.S.-controlled areas in Iraq and Syria.

Turkey’s “open door” policy allowed I.S. fighters, especially foreigners from Europe and Central Asia, to come and go from Syria with ease. Syria has charged the Turkish government with providing “logistical and firing” support to all the rebel groups. Qatar has been accused by its own neighbours of funding all the radical groupings in the region, including the I.S. and the al-Nusra Front. Some American officials have directly accused it of funding the I.S. Shafi al Hajmi, who has been identified by the U.S. as a fundraiser for the Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria, told a Saudi television channel that the intelligence agencies of Gulf countries were helping groups such as the I.S. and the al-Nusra Front. Turkish officials have said that they do not view the al-Nusra Front and the Army of Conquest as security threats and therefore do not impede their activities. The Army of Conquest is a coalition of the al-Nusra Front and the Ahrar al Sham, another extremist group having ties with Al Qaeda.

Jurgen Todenhofer, a German journalist who reported from I.S.-controlled territory, has written that the I.S. is being “indirectly” armed by the West. “They buy weapons that we give to the Free Syrian Army. So they get Western weapons. I saw French, German and American weapons,” he wrote. The U.S. allowed the I.S. to march into the ancient heritage city of Palmyra because it did not want to be seen as lending a helping hand to the Syrian army. Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his testimony to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014, said that “many major allies of the U.S.” funded the I.S. The Pentagon was fully aware that its allies were funding the enemy it was supposedly fighting.

Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have staked their prestige on the overthrow of the secular government in Damascus. The governments there know that once the I.S. and other takfiri groups are defeated in Syria and Iraq, they will head towards their countries. The core ideology of the I.S. is the restoration of the Islamic Caliphate, an Islamic empire led by a supreme leader. Saudi Arabia is the epicentre of Islam and the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, and it logically is the ultimate target of the I.S. The I.S. adheres to the Wahhabi school of Islam that is widely practised in Saudi Arabia and encouraged by the monarchy. Since its inception, the I.S. has declared war not only on other religions but also on other sects and schools of Islam, thus implementing one of the key tenets of Wahhabism. Abd al Wahab, the founder of Wahhabism, had also decreed that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (the caliph). In the 18th century, he helped the ibn Saud clan to subdue other tribes and then eventually establish the kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The I.S. evolved from the Al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq led by a Jordanian, Abu Musa al Zarqawi, who was killed in a U.S. drone attack in 2006. There was no Al Qaeda in Iraq before the 2003 U.S. invasion. It was only after the fall of the secular regime that Al Qaeda and its successor, the I.S., flourished. The I.S. was proclaimed in the same year by the followers of Zarqawi, but it was at the time one of the many Sunni extremist groups fighting against the U.S. occupation of Iraq. He had led an effective fighting force that made serious inroads into central Iraq. A joint military force, consisting of American and Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters and paid handsomely by Washington, had managed to subdue the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda. The Americans declared victory and retired to their military bases in 2011. The Sunni tribal fighters were taken off the payroll. Many of them today are with the I.S.

Zarqawi was eventually succeeded by a little-known cleric who now goes by the name of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. His family claims direct descent from the Prophet Muhammad’s family. He made a dramatic entry onto the world stage a few days after the fall of Mosul in 2014. Wearing a black turban, signifying his descent from the Prophet, he announced the rebirth of the Islamic Caliphate. In 2004, Baghdadi was incarcerated for 10 months in a notorious U.S. military prison in southern Iraq known as “Camp Bucca”. It came to be known as the “academy” which created “jehadis”.

Baghdadi was named the head of the Islamic State in 2010. Under his leadership, the I.S. emulated the American military tactics of co-opting the Iraqi tribes. It was the Arab Spring coupled with the West’s military intervention in Libya and interference in Syria that gave the I.S. momentum in the past five years, allowing it to expand beyond its base in Iraq. Foreign fighters from Europe, Central Asia and other parts of the world, including the Indian subcontinent, started streaming in to join the I.S., aided, abetted and financed by friendly governments in the neighbourhood.

I.S.’ strategy

The I.S. also broke off from the Al Qaeda high command. Al Zawahiri , the current leader of the Al Qaeda, wanted the I.S. to focus only on Iraq and let the al-Nusra Front lead the fight in neighbouring Syria. When Baghdadi refused, the I.S. was excommunicated by the Al Qaeda leadership. In the past four years, the I.S. has surged and in the process eradicated, at least for the time being, the colonial legacy of the borders drawn under the Sykes-Picot agreement. The French-British agreement had led to the arbitrary redrawing of West Asia’s map a hundred years ago. Today the I.S. controls large swathes of territory overlapping Syria and Iraq. The proclamation of the I.S. emirate caught the international community by surprise. But the Americans should not have been caught napping. A 2012 report by the U.S. Defence Intelligence Agency said that the I.S. could “declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”. The Obama administration chose to ignore the report.

The I.S. has since broken away from Al Qaeda and has emerged as the most potent terrorist threat in the world today. It is the first terrorist group to gain physical control of a large swathe of territory. It has been running schools and hospitals in cities under its control while ruling with an iron hand.

The medieval practices of beheading, sexual enslavement of women and other practices have come under criticism even from the Al Qaeda leadership. Zawahiri had said in 2006 that ordinary Muslims would never find beheadings “palatable”. Until recently, the I.S. had focused on operations in and around the regions it controls. In fact, the I.S. leadership had once criticised the Al Qaeda leadership for the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., stating that the attack led to the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The fall of Afghanistan, it said, deprived the jehadi groups of a safe haven and protection from a state.

With Russia’s entry into the fray, the military tide seems to be turning against the I.S. The Americans are siding with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq and retaking smaller cities from I.S. control. Recent military setbacks could have prompted the I.S. to change tactics. Earlier, I.S. suicide attacks were mainly concentrated in Syria and Iraq. These attacks claimed thousands of lives. But as the recent attacks in Beirut, Sharm el Sheikh and Paris illustrate, the I.S. is reaching out to the rest of the world with a vengeance. The attack in Paris was described by the I.S. “as the first of the storm”.

According to many observers of the region, the game plan of the I.S. is to create chaos internationally and then exploit it. A manifesto published by Al Qaeda in Iraq, which the I.S.’ predecessor titled the “Management of Savagery/Chaos”, identifies soft targets. “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible,” the tract advises. Another goal is “to expose the weakness of America’s centralised power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly”.

But the most important aim of the current spate of attacks is to further polarise populations on the basis of religion. The I.S.’ recruitment handbook, “the Gray Zone”, claims that there is a twilight area they call the “gray zone” that exists between good and evil, which the events of September 11 brought into the open.

The handbook quotes George W. Bush’s “either you are with us or against us” speech approvingly but with the rider that the actual “terrorists” are the “crusaders” from the West. The time has come, the I.S. publication says, for another event similar to that of 9/11 that “will bring division to the world and destroy the gray zone”. The terror attack in Paris could be viewed in this context.

As the recent spate of I.S. terror attacks show, varying locations have been chosen ranging from Beirut to Paris. In the Arab world, the obvious intent is to deepen the sectarian divide. Bombs have exploded mainly in Shia-populated areas and Shia mosques. The Saudis are also doing their bit to accelerate this divide by their bombing campaign in Yemen.

An attack on a Yemeni wedding party by Saudi jets killed more than 130 people, most of them women and children. In Europe, the attacks are aimed at forcing the governments there to commit militarily to fight in Syria and Iraq and at widening the gulf between Europeans and the large number of immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world living there. Such a development, the I.S. calculates, will finally help obliterate the so-called “gray zone” and bring the Muslim populace eventually to the side of the Caliphate that the I.S. dreams of establishing, extending from the Maghreb to the Indian subcontinent.

Many experts are of the view that it will be difficult to counter the dual I.S. strategy of urban terrorism and conventional warfare in the short term. Highly motivated squads of suicide bombers are in the forefront of both conventional warfare and urban terror attacks by the I.S., like the one in Paris. When the I.S. lost control of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border to the Kurdish YPG guerillas, they retaliated by sending people in disguise to slaughter civilians in the town of Kobani. More than 220 men, women and children in the Kurdish-dominated town were killed. In Afghanistan, the I.S., which is emerging as a serious threat to the dominance of the Taliban, kidnapped and beheaded seven people belonging to the marginalised minority Hazara community who also happen to be Shia. If the I.S. gains a strong foothold in Afghanistan, it will pose a serious threat to the Indian subcontinent too.

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