ISIS in Iraq: Who can halt the jihadis now?
The West is partly to blame for the militant Islamist group sweeping through Iraq
By Con Coughlin
7:10AM BST 13 Jun 2014
Militant Islam has come a long way since it first raised its intimidating black flag around the turn of this century, thereby announcing the arrival of Osama bin Laden’s unique brand of terrorism. Back then, al-Qaeda’s supporters were seen as a rag-tag bunch of cave-dwelling Islamist fanatics who used their bases in some of the world’s more inhospitable regions to plot their campaign of violence against the West.
Whether operating in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or Somalia, al-Qaeda’s dedicated band of ideologically driven extremists was always regarded as occupying the lunatic fringe of the Muslim world, and was avoided by more traditional followers of the Islamic faith.
The creation of an independent Islamic state based on the rule of Sharia law was a cardinal tenet of the al-Qaeda agenda, even though few in the Arab world ever believed bin Laden’s group could achieve that dream, particularly after it became the prime focus of America’s military might. Within months of the September 11 attacks in 2001, al-Qaeda’s infrastructure had been destroyed by the West’s initial military intervention in Afghanistan, with bin Laden and his followers forced to flee into exile.
It was a rout from which the organisation never really recovered. While the original al-Qaeda diehards continued with attempts to conduct terror attacks against Western targets, by the end of the last decade the group had become largely irrelevant to the wider Islamist cause, a predicament that deepened with bin Laden’s dramatic demise at his Abbottabad lair in 2011.
These days al-Qaeda’s isolation is so pronounced that Ayman Zawahiri, bin Laden’s Egyptian-born heir and al-Qaeda’s current leader, cuts a remote and impotent figure, reduced to issuing hand-written missives that are, for the most part, roundly ignored by the new generation of jihadis who have undertaken their own radical rebranding of bin Laden’s malign ideology.
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Indeed, the sudden emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), the group now spreading terror throughout large tracts of Iraq, can be traced back to a bitter falling out earlier this year between its leaders and Zawahiri after he wrote to them complaining that the brutality of the tactics they regularly employed in the Syrian conflict – public beheadings, crucifixions, floggings and stoning – was threatening to damage the al-Qaeda brand.
This might sound a bit rich coming from someone who has no qualms about authorising suicide bombers to kill innocent civilians. But the rift culminated with Zawahiri denouncing the ISIS as a renegade band that waged war against fellow Muslims through its campaign of car bombings, mass killing and the widespread torture of its own citizens.
Al-Qaeda map: Isis, Boko Haram and other affiliates' strongholds across Africa and Asia
The quarrel certainly helps to illustrate the more radical agenda being pursued by this new generation of jihadis who, in their determination to achieve the elusive Islamist goal of establishing their own independent state, have adopted tactics so brutal that even bin Laden die-hards regard them as being beyond the pale.
Their uncompromising outlook is clearly evident in the Islamic code ISIS issued yesterday to the remaining inhabitants of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, which has now fallen under their control following their dramatic sweep through the north of the country earlier this week.
The instructions bear a striking resemblance to the rulebook that was implemented in Afghanistan following its takeover by the Taliban in the Nineties. Under the edict “repent or die”, local tribal chiefs and the security forces have been ordered to renounce all contact with the democratically elected government in Baghdad on pain of death. Many captured Iraqis have already been subjected to mass beheadings and crucifixions to encourage others to lay down their arms.
Other residents have been instructed to attend the mosque five times a day for prayers while all alcohol, drugs and cigarettes have been banned. Women are being encouraged not to venture outside, and to dress in modest clothing that covers their flesh when they do. Punishments, such as flogging and the amputation of limbs, will be implemented for any transgressions in the “special places” ISIS plans to set up for acts of repentance.
While to Western eyes such practices threaten to return Iraq to the dark ages, the architects of this creed believe they are on a divine mission to return the Arab world to the glorious era of the Islamic caliphate.
Nor is it just the fanaticism of this new breed of Islamic warriors that distinguishes them from the previous bin Laden generation. At its height, al-Qaeda was little more than a motley collection of terror cells, which often operated independently of each other. It could, on occasion, mount spectacular terrorist attacks, such as blowing up the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and orchestrating the July 7 bombings in London in 2005, but it never possessed the manpower, firepower and discipline to establish its own independent fiefdom.
But new Islamist groups like the ISIS are battle-hardened and have gained vital experience as a result of their participation in the brutal civil war taking place across the border in Syria, where its fighters have joined other Islamist groups battling to overthrow the Assad regime. Until recently they had hoped their efforts would result in the creation of an Islamic state in liberated areas of northern Syria, where an estimated 500 British jihadists are believed to have volunteered to fight with the rebels.
But recent gains by pro-Assad forces, which have received backing from Russia and Iran, have made that prospect less likely, and encouraged ISIS to redirect its efforts across the border in Iraq, where the deep resentment many Sunnis feel towards the Shia-dominated government of Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi prime minister, has made the Sunni tribes more inclined to support their radical co-religionists.
Mr al-Maliki certainly deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the perilous state in which his country now finds itself. When the Shia leader came to power in 2006, one of his first tasks was to encourage disaffected Sunnis and Kurds to reconcile their differences with Baghdad and help to rebuild the country after the tyranny of the Saddam Hussein era. A degree of progress was made in that direction while British and American forces remained in the country to maintain pressure on Mr al-Maliki to act.
But when Barack Obama, frustrated by Mr al-Maliki’s refusal to give American troops immunity from prosecution in Iraqi courts, ordered the withdrawal of all remaining American troops by 2011, the pressure was off, and rather than attempting to reconcile his differences with the Sunnis, the Iraqi leader forged closer ties with Iran, the region’s Shia superpower (which may have already sent troops into the country).
Not surprisingly, this only intensified feelings of alienation among the Sunni tribes, with the result that tribal leaders who only seven years ago supported efforts by the US-led coalition to destroy al-Qaeda in Iraq are now encouraging their attempts to establish an independent state, even if it is one that is based on an extreme interpretation of Sunni doctrine.
The events of the past week, together with the very real threat ISIS fighters now pose to Baghdad, is certainly at odds with Mr Obama’s assertion, made in a speech at the Fort Bragg military base in North Carolina when the last US combat forces returned home, that the US was leaving behind a “sovereign, stable and self-reliant” Iraq.
Less than three years later, Iraq is on the point of collapse, with the al-Maliki government unable to mount effective resistance against the Islamist fanatics making their way towards Baghdad, once the capital of the mighty Abbasid Caliphate. Their stated ambition is to storm the capital and restore it to its former Islamic glory. As an imam for the ISIS fighters remarked yesterday, Iraq has experimented with secular governments during the Ba’athist era, as well as during the monarchy that was overthrown in the Fifties. “Now the time has come for us to return the country to a truly Islamic state,” he said.
Whether the Islamist fighters succeed in their quest depends to a large degree on how Mr Obama responds to a crisis many of his critics believe is of his own making.
If the President agrees to Mr al-Maliki’s request for military assistance, he will stand accused of having made a gross error of judgment in ordering the withdrawal of American forces in the first place. If he does nothing, then he risks allowing the establishment of a radical Islamist state in the heart of the Arab world, one that poses an existential threat to some of Washington’s closest regional allies, such as Jordan and the Gulf states.
Whatever the outcome, no one now will be left in any doubt as to the potency of this new brand of radical Islamist ideology.