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Islamic State: The Worst Case Contingency

It’s often a good idea, when faced with a really frightening situation, to model the “worst case” outcome and see how bad it could get. That can be quite bad, but it’s rarely as bad as the half-formed fears that build up if you don’t actually analyse the problem. Like Islamic State, for example.

It began with the conquest of parts of eastern Syria by an Islamist group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2011-13. Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country. They were allegedly in Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but they actually spent their time conquering territory held by other rebel groups.

Once ISIS had a territorial base in eastern Syria, its fighters surged back across the border into Iraq in June, 2014 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. First the hopeless Iraqi army and then the supposedly competent Kurdish army crumbled in front of them. In July ISIS declared the border abolished and proclaimed the foundation of the “Islamic State” in the conquered parts of both Syria and Iraq.

A few days later the leader of ISIS, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, declared in a sermon in Mosul’s great mosque of al-Nuri that he is the caliph to whom all Muslims owe obedience. It was a bold step – there has been no caliph since 1924 – but it had great resonance among those many Muslims who blamed the collapse of the Islamic world’s power and prosperity on the neglect of its traditional religious institutions and values.

Since then, Islamic State has conquered no more territory. Its one big offensive, against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane along the Turkish border, was defeated after thousands of ISIS fighters died in the attempt to take it. Aircraft from the US, other Western countries, and various conservative Arab countries patrol the skies over Islamic State, bombing anything that looks even vaguely military. Yet it still scares people to death.

One reason is its sheer ferocity and endlessly inventive cruelty. It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive and posts videos boasting about it all. It attracts large numbers of recruits from the Sunni Muslims living in the Arab lands now included in Islamic State, but also thousands of eager volunteers from other Muslim countries and from the Muslim diaspora in the West.

Islamic State is now collecting pledges of allegiance from like-minded Islamist fighting groups in other Muslim countries, each of which lends a little more credibility to its claim to be the new caliphate. In November Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen and Saudi Arabia all declared that they acknowledged al-Baghdadi, now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, as their leader and guide.

Little more has been heard from the Yemeni, Saudi and Algerian groups, but the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, controls parts of the Sinai peninsula, regularly attacks the Egyptian army, and was officially designated a “province” (wilayat) of the Islamic State in November. Libya, where Islamist groups have been gaining ground in the civil war, was carved into three further “provinces” at the same time.

In late January a former commander of the Pakistani Taleban and ten other jihadi leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan also acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority , and declared that they constituted the new IS “province” of Khorasan, taking in those two countries and “other nearby lands”.

Then last Saturday Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group Boko Haram, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria, also pledged allegiance to Islamic State: “We announce our allegiance to the caliph… and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity. We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” It’s certainly making progress, but how far can it go?

Probably not much further. All the new “provinces” of Islamic State, like most of the original ones, are in mainly rural areas, often sparsely populated, and with few natural resources (except some oil, in Libya’s case). They are areas that corrupt and autocratic governments, many of them distracted by civil war, can simply abandon for the short term as not vital for their survival.

For Islamic State to seize big metropolitan areas and their resources would require a level of popular support in those areas that is unlikely to emerge. Big cities are full of relatively sophisticated people who have something to lose, and are unlikely to see Islamic State as an attractive solution for their problems.

Without the big cities and their communications facilities – especially airports and harbours – there can be little effective cooperation between the widely dispersed “provinces” of Islamic State. They will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help, and some they will lose.

The broader struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade, and impose heavy costs on the people of the Middle East. But ultra-radical organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram are likely to break up in bitter theological disputes a lot quicker than that.

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“One…West”; and “In late…lands”)

The Strategy of the Paris Attacks

After Ahmed Merabet, a French policeman, was killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris last week, his brother Malek said: “My brother was Muslim and he was killed by two terrorists, by two false Muslims. Islam is a religion of peace and love.”

It was moving, but to say that all Muslims who commit cruel and violent acts in God’s name are “false Muslims” is like saying that the Crusaders who devastated the Middle East nine hundred years ago were “false Christians”.

The Crusaders were real Christians. They believed that they were doing God’s will in trying to reconquer the formerly Christian lands that had been lost to Islam centuries before, and they had the support of most people back home in Europe.

Similarly, Said and Cherif Kouachi and Amedy Coulibaly believed they were true Muslims doing God’s will, and some people in Muslim-majority countries agree with them. But there is an important difference from the Crusades: the supporters of the young French terrorists are a minority everywhere, and among Muslims living in Western countries they are only a tiny minority.

This is not a “war of civilisations”. Seventeen innocent people killed in Paris is not the equivalent of the Crusades. For that matter, neither was 9/11. These are wicked and tragic events, but they are not a war.

There is a war going on, but it is a civil war within the “House of Islam” that occasionally spills over into non-Muslim countries. As foot-soldiers in that war, the three killers in Paris probably did not fully understand the role they were playing, but they were serving a quite sophisticated strategy.

Two of these Muslim civil wars, in Afghanistan and Iraq, were ignited by US-led invasions in 2001 and 2003. Four others, in Syria, Libya, Yemen and the northern, mostly Muslim half of Nigeria, have begun since 2011. Others go back even further, like the war in Somalia, or have flared up and then become dormant again, like Mali and Algeria.

In every one of these wars the victims are overwhelmingly Muslims killed by other Muslims. From time to time non-Muslims in other countries are killed too, as in New York in 2001, in London in 2007, in Bombay in 2008 and last week in Paris, and these killings do have a strategic purpose, but it’s not to “terrify non-Muslims into submission.” Quite the contrary.

The great Muslim civil war is about the political, social and cultural modernisation of the Muslim world. Should it continue down much the same track that other major global cultures have followed, or should those changes be stopped and indeed reversed? The Islamists take the latter position.

Some aspects of modernisation are very attractive to many Muslims, so stopping the changes would require a lot of violence, including the overthrow of most existing governments in Muslim countries. But that is the task that the Islamists in general, and the jihadi activists in particular, have undertaken.

As they are minorities even in their own countries, the Islamists’ hardest job is to mobilise popular support for their struggle. The best way to do this is to convince Muslims that modernisation – democracy, equality, the whole cultural package – is part of a Western plot to undermine Islam.

This will be a more credible claim if Western countries are actually attacking Muslim countries, so one of the main jihadi strategies is to carry out terrorist atrocities that will trigger Western military attacks on Muslim countries. That was the real goal of 9/11, and it was spectacularly successful: it tricked the United States into invading not one but TWO Muslim countries.

But smaller terrorist attacks that lead to the mistreatment of the Muslim minorities in non-Muslim countries also serve the cause. They can create a backlash that victimises the local Muslim minorities, thus generating yet more “proof” that there is a war against Islam.

This strategy actually has a name. Appropriately it is in French: “la politique du pire”. It’s the strategy of making things worse in order to achieve one’s ultimate goal – in this case, revolutions that will sweep away the existing governments in almost every Muslim country and put the Islamists in power instead.

There is a sub-theme in some of the Middle Eastern wars that muddies the waters a bit: in Syria, Iraq and Yemen the general radicalisation has also revived and militarised the age-old conflict between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But even in these countries most of the killings are of Sunni Muslims by other Sunni Muslims.

There will be more attacks like the ones in Paris, because lost young men seeking a cause abound in every community, including the Muslim communities of the West. We can’t arrest them all, so we will go on having to live with a certain amount of terrorism from both Muslim and non-Muslim extremist groups and trying not to over-react — just as we have been doing for many decades already.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 14 and 15. (“This strategy…Muslims”)

“Global” Terrorism

“We will not be cowed by these sick terrorists,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron after ISIS produced a grisly video of the mass beheading of Syrian captives by foreign jihadis who allegedly included British fighters. “We will not be intimidated,” said Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper after the recent attacks in Montreal and Ottawa. As if the purpose of terrorist attacks in Western countries was to cow and intimidate them.

You hear this sort of rhetoric from Western leaders all the time, but Harper went further, and demonstrated exactly how they get it wrong. “(This) will lead us to…redouble our efforts to work with our allies around the world and fight against the terrorist organisations who brutalise those in other countries with the hope of bringing their savagery to our shores. They will have no safe haven.” Sound familiar?

Sure enough, there are now half a dozen Canadian planes bombing ISIS jihadis in Iraq (although it’s unlikely that either of the Canadian attackers, both converts to radical Islam, had any contact with foreign terrorist organisations). But Harper has got the logic completely backwards.

The purpose of major terrorist activities directed at the West, from the 9/11 attacks to ISIS videos, is not to “cow” or “intimidate” Western countries. It is to get those countries to bomb Muslim countries or, better yet, invade them. The terrorists want to come to power in Muslim countries, not in Canada or Britain or the US. And the best way to establish your revolutionary credentials and recruit local supporters is to get the West to attack you.

That’s what Osama bin Laden wanted in 2001. (He hoped for an American invasion of Afghanistan, but he got an unexpected bonus in the US invasion of Iraq.) The ISIS videos of Western hostages being beheaded are intended to get Western countries involved in the fight against them, because that’s how you build local support. So far, the strategy is working just fine.

The “Global Terrorism Index”, published annually by the Institute for Economics and Peace, reported last week that fatalities due to terrorism have risen fivefold in the 13 years since the 9/11 attacks, despite the US-led “war on terror” that has spent $4.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and anti-terrorist operations elsewhere. But it’s not really “despite” those wars. It’s largely because of them.

The invasions, the drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen and Africa, the whole lumbering apparatus of the “global war on terrorism” have not killed the terrorist beast. They have fed it, and the beast has grown very large. 3,361 people were killed by terrorism in 2000; 17,958 were killed by it last year.

At least 80 percent of these people were Muslims, and the vast majority of those who killed them were also Muslims: the terrorists of Islamic State (ISIS) in Iraq and Syria, Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and al-Qaeda and its offspring in other parts of the world (like al-Shebab in north-east Africa).

That is not to say that terrorism is a particularly Muslim technique. Its historical roots lie in European struggles against oppressive regimes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and it gained huge currency in liberation struggles against the European colonial empires after the Second World War. Even the Stern Gang in Israel and the Irish Republican Army can be seen as part of this wave.

Later waves of fashion in terrorism included the European, Latin American and Japanese “urban terrorist” movements of the 1970s and 80s – Baader-Meinhof Gang in Germany, Red Brigades in Italy, Montoneros in Argentina, Japanese Red Army and so on – none of which has any political success at all. Specifically “Islamic” terrorism really begins only in the 1990s, with the rise of radical, anachronistic forms of Sunni Islam.

Only about 5 percent of the victims of this latest wave of terrorism lived in developed countries, but it was their deaths, and their governments’ ignorant responses to them, that provided the fuel for the spectacular growth of jihadi extremism. So what can be done about it?

The Global Terrorism Index has some useful observations to offer about that, too. It points out that a great many terrorist organisations have actually gone out of business in the past 45 years. Only 10 percent of them actually won, took power, and disbanded their terrorist wings. And only 7 percent were eliminated by the direct application of military force.

EIGHTY percent of them were ended by a combination of better policing and the creation of a political process that addressed the grievances of those who supported the terrorism. You don’t fix the problem by fighting poverty or raising educational levels; that kind of thing has almost nothing to do with the rise of terrorism. You have to deal with the particular grievances that obsess specific ethnic, religious or political groups.

And above all, keep foreigners out of the process. Their interventions ALWAYS make matters worse. Which is why the terrorists love them so much.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9 and 10. (“That is…Islam”)

Terrorism 101

There was a time, as recently as 25 years ago, when military staff colleges around the world taught a reasonably effective doctrine for dealing with terrorism. Then it was forgotten, but we need it back. It would be especially useful in dealing with the terrorist state that has recently emerged in northern Iraq and eastern Syria.

The doctrine was painfully worked out back in the decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when terrorism was one of the world’s biggest problems. Most of the time, the strategy worked, whether the threat was the urban terrorists who plagued most Latin American countries and a number of big developed countries, or the rural guerillas who fought the government in many African and Asian countries.

The key insight was this: Terrorist movements always want you to over-react, SO DON’T DO IT. The terrorists usually lack the popular support to overpower their opponent by force, so they employ a kind of political jiu-jitsu: they try to use the adversary’s own strength against him. Most domestic terrorism, and almost all international terrorism, is aimed at provoking a big, stupid, self-defeating response from the target government.

The Red Army Faction terrorists, for example, hoped that their attacks would provoke West Germany’s democratic government into severe repression. This was known, in the works of philosopher Herbert Marcuse, as “unmasking the repressive tolerance of the liberal bourgeoisie” – and once the West German government had dropped its mask, the RAF terrorists believed, the outraged workers would rise up in their millions and overthrow it.

But we never found out if the workers would actually do that, because the West German government refused to panic. It just tracked down the terrorists and killed or arrested them. It used violence, but only in legal, limited and precisely targeted ways. The same approach ended the terrorist campaigns in Italy (the Red Brigades), Canada (the Quebec Liberation Front), Japan (the Japanese Red Army) and the United States (the Weathermen).

In Latin America, by contrast, the “urban terrorists” did succeed in the first stage of their strategy. Their attacks drove the military in Argentina, Brazil and a number of other countries to seize power and create brutally repressive regimes. But even this did not cause the population to revolt, as the terrorists had expected.

Instead, “the people” kept their heads down while the military regimes destroyed the revolutionaries (together with many innocent bystanders). Extreme repression can also eventually succeed as a counter-strategy to terrorism, but it imposes a terrible cost on the population.
International terrorism has a somewhat better record of success, mainly because these terrorists are not actually trying to overthrow the government they attack. They are merely trying to trick that foreign government into using massive violence against the countries where they really do want to take power. The attacks of the foreigners will outrage and radicalise the local population, who will then give their support to the local revolutionaries.

The most successful operation of this kind was 9/11, a low-cost attack that incited the United States to invade two entire countries in the region where the revolutionaries of al-Qaeda hoped to replace the local governments with Islamist regimes. The local population has been duly radicalised, especially in the Sunni-majority parts of Iraq, and thirteen years later an “Islamic Caliphate” has taken power in the northern and western parts of that country.

Osama bin Laden would have condemned the extreme cruelty that the new Islamist state has adopted as its modus operandi, but in essence it is the fulfilment of the grand strategy that he worked out after the Russians left Afghanistan a quarter-century ago. He could not have predicted that the strategy’s greatest success would be in Iraq, for he had no allies or followers there before the US invasion, but he would still take credit for it.

So now that Osama bin Laden’s vision has finally taken concrete shape, how should we deal with it? (“We” in this case is practically every regime in the Arab world, most of the other Muslim countries, and all of the NATO countries, with Russia and China in supporting roles). ISIS’s behaviour is abominable, but is there any better option than simply bombing it from a great height?

Rule one in the old anti-terrorism doctrine was DON’T OVERREACT, and it still applies. That means as little bombing as possible, and only of strictly military targets. Preferably, it would mean no bombing at all except in specific areas where ISIS troops are on the offensive.

It means not letting yourself be lured into more extreme action by the public beheading of innocent hostages and the other atrocities that ISIS stages to attract a certain kind of recruit. Indeed, it means not launching a major ground offensive against ISIS (for which the troops are not available anyway), and waiting for events to take their course within the ‘Islamic State’.

Regimes as radical and violent as this one rarely survive for long. The revolution will eat its children, as so many have before, and it will happen a lot more quickly if they don’t have a huge foreign military threat to hold them together.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6, 7 and 10.  (“In Latin…population”; and “Osama…it”)