ISIS, the Frankenstein monster which no-one intended to create, is now running rampant in three countries, and has affiliates across the world. It emerged from an Al-Qaeda umbrella group, into a global force which is the cutting edge of Islamic Jihad. It has relegated Al-Qaeda to a second-rate organisation which is increasingly irrelevant, and is even fighting for its survival. It has a strong position in Iraq, and in the four-way civil war in Syria, It also has a growing group in Libya. The challenges which face those who oppose this ideology are numerous and fraught with ever-growing difficulty.
The lessons in how ISIS emerged are not new, much of it can be learned from a brief historical knowledge of the area. The book Taliban:The story of the Afghan Warlords by Ahmed Rashid, illuminates eloquently the bitter struggles inside the country which led to the Taliban uprising in 1994. The Taliban was for a while welcomed by the Afghan people, because they brought stability and assurances to a country dominated by war and poverty. After the Russian invasion, Afghanistan was engulfed in civil war between tribal warlords and different sections of the mujahideen. People wanted peace and security, almost at any cost. Of course, the price of relative peace was a regime which was as oppressive, and brutal as anywhere in the world. However the Taliban never exerted full control over the country, the Northern Alliance kept on fighting and eventually with American intervention dislodged them in 2001.
ISIS has grown out of a similar vacuum in a lack of state control in Syria, where they gained international recognition for the gains they made, and sectarian conflict, in particular in Iraq, which has allowed them to break down the border between Iraq and Syria. The sectarianism has divided not just a nation, but an entire region which is now drowning in extremist religion. The book Islamic State: The digital caliphate, has outlined how this sectarianism along with a lack of security has allowed ISIS to gain the territory it has, and the sympathy which currently exists in the Middle East for this ideology. The book cites an online poll in Saudi Arabia which stated that 92% of participants sympathised with ISIS. These numbers are extremely worrying especially for the Shi’a minority which is currently situated in Saudi Arabia. It’s even more disconcerting for the U.S. as the monarchy of Saudi Arabia may not be as secure as they hope. Indeed as Abdel Bari Atwan reported in ISIS: the digital caliphate, his source argued ‘we’re only waiting for the time to be right’.
At the moment ISIS hold a territory around the size of Great Britain, and operate as a state. They produce an annual budget, have created a judicial system, a police force, and social services. They now operate many functions that a state does. This has been documented by Journalists, and the book ISIS: the digital caliphate (a book which i cannot recommend highly enough for its erudite nature). Indeed Abdel Bari Atwan the author of the book, has argued that ISIS is essentially a state now, and that means Western governments, and Middle Eastern governments have to adapt to that truth. Some people, like Stephen Walt believe that if ISIS was officially a state, in the international community over time they would be reined in. However, this analysis misinterprets what ISIS fundamentally believe. They aren’t a ‘normal state’. They’re a state which is pro empire, their Islamism means they are working towards a caliphate. They don’t recognise borders which distinguish different states such as Iraq, and Syria, under the Sykes Picot agreement. Indeed when Ayman Al-Zawahiri told the group then known as ISI, to stay out of Syria they used that very retort. In essence the international arena which has in the past made states behave, is not equipped to stop this fanaticism, because ISIS don’t want to survive as a state, they want an Islamic empire which stretches across the Middle East.
The British state seem no closer to defeating ISIS than we do to eliminating child poverty. The government recently proposed plans to extend airstrikes into Syria. It sounds like a credible idea, to bomb a group into submission, except there are numerous difficulties with this strategy. Extensively bombing terrorist groups has no track record of working. The two countries which have had the most extreme bombing campaigns against them are in turmoil. One is reeling from a civil war, and the other is fighting a substantial terrorist threat from within its own borders. The BIJ have gathered statistics on the amount of bombing in several countries including and within those numbers the reality sinks in. It can be seen from on the ground that bombing alone will not work. Yemen where over 100 drone strikes have took place, is the country where Al-Qaeda are pretty much strongest, with the group AQAP. Pakistan where the bombing campaign has been especially busy, still has severe problems with terrorist networks inside their own country.
This potential bombing campaign linked in with the futile, recondite, and wretched discussion on what to call this terrorist state, has us precisely nowhere in defeating ISIS. To stop IS we need to stop the poisonous well which is being used to attract young muslims from across the world to join their ever swelling ranks. As is discussed in the ITV documentary jihad a British story, there are a great many reasons why people are radicalized. Some blame foreign policy alone for this movement. However, this is a gross simplification, and no-one who is serious, alone blames foreign policy. Even if that was the clear answer, it doesn’t solve the uncomfortable truth that Hizb Ut Tahrir radicalized people, using the Balkans conflict as a lightning rod for that radicalization before we entered that battle, and the isolationist stance taken on the Syrian conflict has blown back in our faces.
Leading figures such as Maajid Nawaz recognise the problem with Islamism, not with Islam itself. Islamism is a political project and an all too toxic one. It leads to regimes which are theocratic in ideology and deed. It leads to blasphemy laws, it restricts the right to question, and of course it can lead to murder. If we want to stop people from joining theocratic fascist groups such as ISIS, we have to not be afraid to stand up to Islamism as an ideology. Another part of the battle, is the fight for identity. As was seen in the ITV documentary (as linked above) many young people feel a lack of identity. This all too often happens because of the rhetoric of the war on terror, and genuine islamophobia in countries around the world. We all need to work with communities, Imams, and schools to create an atmosphere where questioning ideas is not just tolerated, but openly celebrated. Only then will people feel comfortable, and knowledgeable enough not to be drawn in by online propaganda.
The answer to defeating ISIS isn’t clear at all. Al-Qaeda is now a shadow of its former self. One may gather from this that we’ve learned how to defeat terrorism. However this hope is misplaced, Al-Qaeda is a dwindling organisation because of the ability of ISIS to take the initiative in 21st century radical Islamism. It is not on its knees because of our relentless campaign against them. The answer to the problem is that we need to be brave. For too long despite the rhetoric we have cowered, now is the time to stand up and fight.