As always after a major terrorist attack on the West, the right question to ask after the slaughter in Paris is: what were the strategic aims behind the attack? This requires getting your head around the concept that terrorists have rational strategies, but once you have done that the motives behind the attacks are easy to figure out. It also becomes clear that the motives have changed.
The 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001 followed the classical terrorist strategy of trying to trick the target government into over-reacting in ways that ultimately serve the terrorists’ interests. Al-Qaeda’s goal was to sucker the United States into invading Muslim countries.
Al Qaeda was a revolutionary organisation whose purpose was to overthrow existing Arab governments and take power in the Arab countries, which it would then reshape in accord with its extreme Islamist ideology. The trouble was that Islamist movements were not doing very well in building mass support in the Arab world, and you need mass support if you want to make a revolution.
Osama bin Laden’s innovation was to switch the terrorist attacks from Arab governments to Western ones, in the hope of luring them into invasions that would radicalise large number of Arabs and drive them into the arms of the Islamists. His hopes were fulfilled by the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Once the Western troops went in, there was a steep decline in terrorist attacks on Western countries. Al-Qaeda wanted Western troops to stay in the Middle East and radicalise the local populations, so it made no sense to wage a terrorist campaign that might make Western countries pull their troops out again.
The resistance in Iraq grew quickly and and attracted Islamist fighters from many other Arab countries. The organisation originally known as “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” underwent several name changes, to “Islamic State in Iraq” in 2006; then to “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” – ISIS for short – in 2013, and finally to simply “Islamic State” in 2014. But the key personnel
and the long-term goals remained the same throughout.
The man who now calls himself the “Caliph” of Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Bahdadi, first joined “Al-Qaeda in Iraq” and started fighting the US occupation forces in Iraq in 2004. But along the way the strategy changed, for ISIS eventually grew so strong that it conquered the extensive territories in Syria and Iraq that now make up Islamic State. Popular revolutions were no longer needed. The core strategy now is simply conquest.
In that case, why are Islamic State and Al-Qaeda still attacking Western targets? One reason is because the jihadi world is now split between two rival jihadi franchises that are competing for supporters.
The split happened in 2013, when ISIS, having launched a very successful branch operation in Syria known as the Nusra Front, tried to bring it back under the control of the parent organisation.
The Syrian branch resisted, and appealed to Al-Qaeda, the franchise manager of both jihadi groups, for support. Al-Qaeda backed the Syrians, whereupon ISIS broke its links with Al-Qaeda and set up as a direct competitor.
ISIS and the Nusra Front then fought a three-month war in early 2014 that killed several thousand militants and left the former in control of most of eastern Syria. Soon afterwards ISIS overran most of western Iraq and renamed itself Islamic State.
Islamic State and Al-Qaeda’s local franchise, the Nusra Front, are currently observing a ceasefire in Syria, but the two brands are still in a bitter struggle for the loyalty of jihadi groups elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Spectacular terrorist operations against Western targets appeal to both franchises because they are a powerful recruiting tool in jihadi circles. But Islamic State has a further motive: it actually wants Western attacks on it to cease.
It’s a real state now, with borders and an army and a more or less functional economy. It doesn’t want Western forces interfering with its efforts to consolidate and expand that state, and it hopes that terrorist attacks on the West may force them to pull out.
France is a prime target because French aircraft are part of the Western-led coalition bombing Islamic State, and because it’s relatively easy to recruit terrorists from France’s large, impoverished and alienated Muslim minority. Russia has also become a priority target since its aircraft started bombing jihadi troops in Syria, and the recent crash of a Russian airliner in Sinai may be due to a bomb planted by Islamic State.
So the outlook is for more terrorist attacks wherever Islamic State (and, to a lesser extent, Al-Qaeda) can find willing volunteers. Western countries with smaller and better integrated Muslim communities are less vulnerable than France, but they are targets too.
Putting foreign ground troops into Syria would only make matters worse, so the least bad option for all the countries concerned is to ride the terrorist campaign out. Horrendous though the attacks are, they pose a very small risk to the average citizen of these countries. Statistically speaking, it’s still more dangerous to cross the street, let alone climb a ladder.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 9, 10, 11 and 12. (“The split…world”)
P.S. Who takes their passport along on a sucide mission? There is a strong possibility that the Syrian refugee’s passport found at the scene of the Paris attacks was taken there to cause a huge backlash against Syrian refugees entering Europe, and thus further alienate European Muslims from their own governments.
Last Friday (June 26), in France, an Islamist named Yassin Salhi killed his employer, Herve Cornara. He attached the victim’s severed head to the fence around a chemical plant, together with a cloth saying “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet” —and then rammed his vehicle into a warehouse full of chemicals hoping (but failing) to cause a massive explosion.
In Kuwait two hours later, Fahd Suleiman Abdulmohsen al-Qaba’a, a Saudi citizen, entered a Shia mosque and detonated a bomb that killed at least 25 people. He was presumably a Sunni fanatic sent by “Islamic State” to kill Shias, who they believe are heretics who should be killed.
In Tunisia one hour later, 38 European tourists, most of them British, were massacred by a 23-year-old man with a Kalashnikov on a beach in Sousse. The perpetrator, Seifeddine Rezgui, was studying engineering at a university in Kairouan, an hour’s drive west of Sousse.
Islamic State, which has carved out a territory in Iraq and Syria that has more people and a bigger army than half the members of the United Nations, immediately claimed responsibility for all three attacks. Yassin Salhi may have been a lone-wolf head case, but in the other two cases the claim was almost certainly true.
But there was another attack that you probably didn’t hear about. Kobani, the Kurdish town in northern Syria that withstood a four-month siege by Islamic State troops last year, came under attack again last Thursday. About a hundred young Islamists in Humvees and pickup trucks drove into town and shot 220 people dead in the streets and in their houses.
So 64 murders that you heard a lot about, and 220 others you heard little or nothing about. There are hundreds of innocent people being murdered by Islamist fanatics in Syria every week, so it’s no longer news. Besides, the motive there is obvious: it’s just Islamic State trying to expand its territory in Syria. But as for the others…
Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, responded to the deaths of 30 British citizens in Tunisia by trotting out the same shopworn drivel that Western leaders have been peddling for the past 14 years. The fight against Islamic State is “the struggle of our generation,” Cameron declared. Indeed, IS poses “an existential threat” to the West.
Maybe Cameron doesn’t know what the word “existential” means. Could somebody please explain to him that he is saying that Islamic State poses a threat to the continued existence of the West? Does he really think that is the case?
Forgive me for making a cold-blooded calculation, but sometimes it is necessary. The population of the West (not counting the countries of Latin America, which don’t play in this league) is about 900 million. Thirty-nine “Westerners” have been killed in attacks by Islamist terrorists this month. At this rate, the West will have ceased to exist in 1.9 million years. If this is an existential threat, it’s not a very urgent one.
In fact, it’s not really about the West at all. The European victims on the beach in Sousse were killed in order to destroy the tourism that provides almost 15 percent of Tunisia’s national income, and thereby destabilize the only fully democratic country in the Arab world. The extremists’ real goal is to seize power in Tunisia; the Western victims were just a means to that end.
The bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait was intended to increase tensions between the Sunni majority and the large Shia minority in that country, with the ultimate goal of unleashing a Sunni-Shia civil war in which Islamist extremists could take over the Sunni side as they have already done in Syria and Iraq.
Only the lone-wolf attack in France could be conceivably be seen as directed at the “West”—although that might also have been just a personal grievance wrapped up in an Islamist justification.
The rest of the killing was about who controls the Muslim countries, particularly in the Middle East, as it has been from the start. Even 9/11 was about that, designed not to “bring America to its knees” but to lure it into an invasion of Afghanistan that Osama bin Laden believed would stimulate Islamist revolutions in Muslim countries. The Islamists do “hate Western values”, but they have bigger fish to fry at home.
Islamic State and the various incarnations of Al Qaeda (the Nusra Front in Syria, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, et cetera) pose an existential threat to the non-Sunni Muslim minorities of the Middle East, and even to Sunni Muslims whose beliefs diverge significantly from those of the Islamists. The West should help governments in the region that protect their minorities, and of course it should try to protect its own people.
But this is not the “struggle of our generation” for the West. It should be nowhere near the top of its own list of priorities.
He just misheard the question. A basically friendly interviewer on Fox News asked Jeb Bush, now seeking the Republican nomination for the US presidency: “Knowing what we know now, would you have authorised the invasion (of Iraq)?” And he replied: “I would have.” When the storm of protest, even from Republicans, swept over him, he explained that he thought the interviewer had said: “Knowing what we KNEW THEN.”
An easy mistake to make. “Know now” sounds an awful lot like “knew then”. Besides, Jeb Bush is on record as claiming that he is Hispanic (on a 2009 voter-registration application), so the poor man was struggling with his second language. If only she had asked the question in Spanish, he would have understood it perfectly.
Enough. When you listen to the entire interview, it’s clear that Bush didn’t want to say a flat “No” to her question, because that would be a condemnation of his brother’s decision to invade Iraq in 2003. But as soon as he could, he switched to talking about the “intelligence failures” that misled his brother into invading the wrong country. Anybody can make a mistake. So nobody’s to blame.
Hillary Clinton, currently the favourite for the Democratic presidential nomination, uses exactly the same defence. In fact, every American politician who voted in favour of the invasion of Iraq at the time claims that the problem was faulty intelligence, and maybe some of them outside of the White House genuinely were misled.
But the intelligence wasn’t “faulty”; it was cooked to order. There was no plausible intelligence that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, so the US intelligence services were told to “find” some. There were no Islamist terrorists in Iraq either: Saddam Hussein hunted down and killed anybody suspected of being an Islamist activist, because the Islamists wanted to kill him.
The US Central Intelligence Agency agency tried very hard to create a link between al Qaeda, the organisation responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and Iraq. The only thing they came up with, however, was a rumour that a little-known Islamist from Jordan called Abu Musab al Zarqawi who knew Osama bin Laden had been in Baghdad receiving treatment for wounds received in Afghanistan in May-November 2002. (He was actually in Iran at that time.)
If you were on the White House staff in early 2003, you HAD to know that the “intelligence” you were using to justify the invasion of Iraq was false, because you were one of the people demanding that the spooks manufacture “evidence” for it. The decision itself had been taken even before Bush’s election in 2000 and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, for reasons that had nothing to do with terrorism.
The incoming Bush administration was full of people called “neo-conservatives”. They believed that the Clinton administration had failed to exploit the sole superpower status that the United States inherited after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 to put the world to
What was needed, therefore, was a display of US power that would make all the “bad guys” behave. So invade somewhere and take the local bad guy down. Iraq was the obvious choice, because it was very weak after a decade of arms embargo, and Saddam Hussein was a very bad guy.
We don’t yet know just how disastrous the invasion of Iraq was, because the damage is still accumulating. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the man who now rules “Islamic State”, the terrorist-ruled new country that occupies the easten half of Syria and the western third of Iraq, started fighting Americans as part of the Iraqi resistance in 2003.
By 2006 at the latest, he had joined the group then called Al Qaeda in Iraq, which was largely made up of jihadis from other Arab countries who had flocked to Iraq to fight the infidel invaders. And the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq was none other than Abu Musab al Zarqawi – who parlayed the reputation as a major jihadi leader that the US intelligence services gave him into a real leadership position in the resistance.
Through the years that followed, that organisation gained experience in guerilla war and terrorism, and through several changes of name and leadership (Zarqawi was killed in 2006) it ultimately morphed into Islamic State. Baghdadi was with it all the way, and now styles himself “Caliph Ibrahim”, demanding the loyalty and obedience of all Muslims everywhere.
So we owe a lot to the “neo-cons” in George Bush’s administration who pushed for the invasion of Iraq: people like Dick Cheney (Vice-president), Donald Rumsfeld (Secretary of Defense), and Paul Wolfowitz (Undersecretary of Defense). They just used the 9/11 attacks as a vehicle for their pre-existing Iraq invasion plans.
It was Wolfowitz, above all, who worked tirelessly to link Irak to terrorism. And guess who is the most prominent name on Jeb Bush’s current team of foreign policy advisers (apart from George W Bush himself). Why, it’s the very same Paul Wolfowitz. The problem with Jeb Bush is not the foolish answers he gives. It’s the company he keeps.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 4, 8 and 9. (“Hillary…misled”; and “The incoming…guy”)
You can’t tell the players without a programme, and it’s no wonder that people feel confused by the plethora of names the terrorist groups use. To make matters worse they keep splitting, and sometimes they change their names just for the hell of it. So here’s a guide you can stick on your wall.
In the beginning there was Al Qaeda, starting in about 1989. There were lots of other terrorist start-ups in the Arab world around the same time, but eventually almost all of them either died out or joined one of the big franchises. Al Qaeda is the one to watch, since the success of its 2001 attacks on the United States on 9/11 put it head and shoulders above all its rivals.
When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 and foreign jihadis flocked into the Sunni Arab parts of the country to help the resistance, their leader, a Jordanian called Abu Musaib al Zarqawi, sought to affiliate his organisation with Al Qaeda to boost its appeal. In 2004 Osama bin Laden agreed to allow them to use the name Al Qaeda in Iraq, although there was little coordination between the two organisations.
It was Al Qaeda in Iraq that got the Sunni-Shia civil war going by persistently bombing Shia mosques and neighbourhoods, even though it knew that the more numerous Shia would win that war. It was profoundly cynical but strategically sound, since terrified Sunnis would then turn to Zarqawi’s organisation for protection.
Al Qaeda in Iraq formally changed its name to Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) in 2006, but it didn’t really begin to flourish until a new leader, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, took over in 2010. Soon afterwards the Syrian civil war broke out, and Baghdadi sent a Syrian member of ISI, Abu Muhammad al Golani, into Syria to organise a branch there. It was called the Nusra Front.
The Nusra Front grew very fast – so fast that by 2013 Baghdadi decided to reunite the two branches of the organisation under the the new name Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). But this meant that Golani was being demoted to manager of the Syrian branch, so he declared his independence and asked to join al Qaeda, whch leaves its affiliates largely free to make their own decisions.
Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al Zawahiri (by now bin Laden was dead), backed the Nusra Front because he felt that creating an Islamic state, as Baghdadi intended, was premature. Baghdadi thereupon broke relations with Al Qaeda, and in early 2014 the Nusra Front and ISIS went to war.
Thousands of Islamist fighters were killed, and after four months it was clear that ISIS could hold eastern Syria but could not conquer the Nusra Front in the west of the country. The two rival organisations agreed a ceasefire – and two months later, in June 2014, ISIS used its battle-hardened forces to invade Iraq.
The Iraqi army collapsed, and by July ISIS controlled the western third of Iraq. Counting its Syrian territories as well, ISIS now ruled over 10-12 million people, so Baghdadi dropped the “Iraq and Syria” part of the name and declared that henceforward it would just be known as Islamic State. The point of not naming it after a specific territory is that it can be expanded indefinitely with no further name changes.
Soon afterwards Baghdadi declared himself caliph, and therefore commander of all the world’s Muslims. Ths was an extremely bold step, since those Muslims who hear the call of “Caliph Ibrahim” and do not submit to his authority – even fighters in other jihadi organisations like the Nusra Front and Al Qaeda – are technically “apostates” and liable to death in the eyes of those who do accept his claim.
That includes all of IS’s fighters, who now have the legal right, at least in their own eyes, to kill most Sunni Muslims in addition to the Shias, Christians, Jews, and assorted other unbelievers they already had the right to kill. There is a potential genocide in the making if Islamic State expands further in Syria, where easily 75 percent of the population fits into one or another of those categories.
Some jihadis in other countries, most notably Boko Haram in Nigeria, declared their allegiance to “Caliph Ibrahim” and Islamic State at once. Other stayed loyal to Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front, Al Shabaab in Somalia, and the al Qaeda branches in Yemen, Egypt, and the Maghreb – and rejected his claim. But Al Qaeda may declare a rival caliphate once Nusra has finished conquering Idlib province and established a firmer territorial base in Syria.
So there you have it: two rival franchises competing for the loyalty of all the other jihadi organisations. There’s not really much difference between them ideologically or practically, but the franchise wars will continue. I hope that helps.
To shorten to 725 words, omits paragraphs 4 and 11. (“It was…protection”; and “That includes…categories”)