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Jason Burke is the South Asia correspondent of The Guardian and the author of The 9/11 Wars. His latest book is The New Threat from Islamic Militancy (Bodley Head, Rs 599, 288 pages)
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The success of rampaging Islamist warriors in Iraq poses a new global threat
In April of 2004, a group of senior militants met in the western Iraqi city of Fallujahh ‘to review the situation’ of their campaign and to discuss ‘recent accomplishments’. Their conclusions were far from edifying, recorded Abu Anas Al-Shami, a Jordanian Palestinian cleric who was the group’s religious advisor and who was present at the meeting.

‘We realized that after a year of jihad we still had achieved nothing on the ground,’ Abu Anas wrote in a diary published on the internet a few months later. ‘None of us had even a palm- sized lot of earth on which to reside, no place to find a refuge at home in peace amongst his own.’ The jihadi leaders assembled felt they had ‘failed resoundingly’ and that a new strategy was needed. Instead of relying on calls to arms relayed through propaganda to mobilise and radicalise the faithful, they needed territory, fortifications, bunkers; in short, a base that would be a home, a haven and of course a springboard for further expansion once the immediate defensive phase of fighting, which they compared to the early trials faced by Prophet Muhammad himself with his small band of followers, was over.

‘So we decided to make Fallujahh a safe and impregnable refuge for Muslims and an inviolable and dangerous territory for the Americans, which they would enter in fear and leave in shock, burdened by their dead and wounded,’ wrote Abu Anas, who died shortly afterwards.

A decade later, the direct inheritors of Abu Anas and his associates, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), now has that territory, and, as from this week, it includes not just Fallujahh, which the group has held for several months, but the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, only a few hours further north, the border town of Tal Afar, and Tikrit itself, the birthplace and power base of Iraq’s deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Abu Anas would be pleased.

The irony, of course, is that before 2003 or 2004, there was no al’Qaeda or al’Qaeda-style activism in Iraq, despite the claims of the US administration of George Bush prior to the invasion of the country. Though Saddam Hussein had attempted to give his secular Ba’athist regime a veneer of religion in the 1990s in a cynical bid to exploit the broad trend towards conservatism across the Middle East, the Iraqi strongman dictator saw extremists like Osama bin Laden as threats, not potential allies, and had turned his brutal security services against them. And though both Sunni and Shia communities in Iraq had become more broadly sympathetic to more rigorous and politicised versions of Islam during that period too—with Gulf- sponsored preachers moving through the Sunni- dominated west of Iraq and in the semi-urban hinterland of the capital Baghdad, for example, and increased religiosity among Shias—there was little support for the violent fringe. A small group of jihadi militants were holed up in the far north-east of Iraq, a region nominally under Kurdish control, in an enclave which was then eliminated by local troops during the invasion.

Subsequently, of course, much changed. The US invasion turned the country’s balance of power—a minority of Sunnis dominating a majority of Shias—upside down. With Shias in the ascendant and the US in power, the now marginalised Sunnis needed all the help they could get. Extremists were welcomed and men like Abu Musab al’Zarqawi, a brutal Jordanian street thug turned militant leader of al’Qaeda in Iraq (AQAI), set out to deliberately foment sectarian violence. Given the fertile ground, his success was a foregone conclusion. By 2006, accelerated but not created by the militants, a vicious civil war was killing tens of thousands while Iraqis of all confessions simultaneously fought the US.

ISIS has its roots in this conflict. Abu Bakr al’Baghdadi, its head, was a minor commander of Sunni resistance groups who was imprisoned by US authorities in 2004. Some say the 42-year-old graduate in Islamic Studies was radicalised in jail. Others maintain he was a firebrand preacher before being incarcerated. Little is known about his activities between 2004 and 2009, and it is possible al’Baghdadi remained behind bars. The situation evolved dramatically during this period. The increasing brutality of al’Qaeda in Iraq had led to Sunni tribes turning against the group. Many Sunnis also joined forces with reinforced US troops to gain protection against the now dominant Shias. It was a context that was perfect for an effective strategist to exploit.

By 2010, al’Baghdadi—a nom de guerre—had been announced as the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq, which had emerged from the wreckage of the late al’Zarqawi’s AQAI some years earlier.

But it is unlikely even al’Baghdadi anticipated the opportunity that came in 2011. These years saw both the Arab Spring plunge Syria, where a brutal and autocratic minority Shia regime held power over a Sunni majority, into chaos, and the withdrawal of all US troops from Iraq after the failure to confirm their legal immunity under a strategic agreement between Baghdad and Washington. The US left a country that was suffering significantly less violence than at any time since 2004 and with growing oil revenues but also deep sectarian tensions. It was also a country run by a paranoiac Shia former Islamist, Nouri al’Maliki.

The immediate causes of the recent success of ISIS are simple. First, there is the violent ferment of the ongoing conflict in Syria. This has not just spilled over in ideological and inspirational terms into neighbouring Iraq, but has provided strategic depth to extremist groups there. Much as the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, drawn by a colonial era bureaucrat, means little, ISIS and others have reduced that between Syria and Iraq, also drawn by Western imperial administrators and politicians, to a mere line on the map that means nothing on the ground.

‘The Iraq-Syria border is.... increasingly immaterial,’ Charles Lister, a military analyst at the Brookings Doha Centre, wrote last week. ‘Conflict on both sides of the border has become inherently interconnected.’ ISIS, for example, seized lucrative oil fields and archaeological sites in Syria which helped fund its attack on Mosul. Cash and equipment seized in Mosul has now flowed back across the non-existent border.

Announcing successes in recent weeks, ISIS has used Twitter with a hashtag, #SykesPicotOver, that’s a reference to the secret 1916 agreement between Britain and France which divided much of the Middle East.

Another important cause of ISIS’s recent success is the stubborn ability of Maliki, Iraq’s prime minister, to alienate his nation’s Sunni minority. Maliki has gutted the senior ranks of the army, filled the intelligence services with loyalists and marginalised all opposition. Any attempt by the Sunni community to redress grievances through political channels has been blocked. This has led Sunnis to turn against the Iraqi authorities and government, even the idea of the nation, and has naturally provided a degree of acceptance if not active support for ISIS, which has been key in its well-planned campaign to establish an Islamic state of ill-defined borders across the entire ‘al’Sham’ region from western Iraq to central Syria.

This is not just about Iraq, however, but about the future of extremist Islamism globally. And it indicates the future of a phenomenon that we have learned to live with, but which still poses a significant threat.

That global threat has been underlined in recent weeks. There has been a ‘lone wolf’ attack on a Jewish museum in Belgium, an assault on the main airport in Karachi, continuing violence in Syria (of course), operations against consulates and presidential candidates in Afghanistan, scares in Egypt, fighting in Libya and the ongoing mayhem associated with the Boko Haram in Nigeria.

In its breadth and intensity, the violence recalls some of the darkest days of the last decade—around the time when Abu Anas was writing his diary in Fallujahh— when danger seemed clear and present across four continents or more.

There are three major differences with that previous time. These offer reason, however, for both optimism and alarm.

The first is that the al’Qaeda ‘hardcore’ has ceased to exist. Ayman al’Zawahiri, the veteran Egyptian-born jihadi who has led al’Qaeda since Osama bin Laden was killed, is still alive but has less and less traction on the global movement of Islamic extremism than ever before. Western intelligence officials boast, with some reason, that his organisation has been ‘hollowed out’ by repeated drone strikes. It has also lost much credibility, unable to claim credit for any major headline attack since 2005. Propaganda efforts, such as a recent video aimed at Kashmiris, are unlikely to get much traction. In its communication strategy, worldview and global message, which ignores local differences in favour of a single vision supposed to unite all Muslims against their millennia-old enemies, al’Qaeda’s hardcore is looking increasingly like an ageing rock group living on the increasingly dubious credentials of a handful of hit songs a decade or so ago. Al’Baghdadi definitively split with al’Qaeda last year, after al’Zawahiri ordered him to withdraw from Syria.

The second major change is that, unlike in 2003 or 2004, mass public opinion in the Islamic world has turned against radicalism. It is easy to forget the covert and overt sympathy from Morocco to Malaysia for Osama bin Laden and his followers in the years following the US invasion of Iraq. This was a period where up to 80 per cent of people in some countries expressed their approbation of Osama bin Laden’s project and methodology. This has not returned after declining sharply in the face of local violence in successive Muslim-majority countries in the period from 2005 to 2007. That period saw popular support for militancy collapse wherever violence made its sudden, bloody appearance. The exception was Pakistan, where levels of support for al’Qaeda remained high until later in the decade, though they dropped there too as violence began to rise locally and are now among the lowest in the Islamic world. It is significant that so many Pakistanis blame bombings and shootings in their own country on Indian security services. To blame Delhi’s agents is psychologically easier than blaming fellow Muslim Pakistanis for acts that are seen as unjustifiable.

Last September, a survey by the respected Pew Centre found that across 11 Muslim publics, a median of 67 per cent said they are somewhat or very concerned about Islamic extremism. In five countries—Pakistan, Jordan, Tunisia, Turkey and Indonesia—Muslim worries about extremism have increased in the past year. Al’Qaeda still appears widely reviled, with a median of 57 per cent saying they have an unfavourable opinion of the terror organisation.

The third change from the scenario ten years ago is that while insurgency was then seen as a problem that needed to be fought to destroy the supposed real menace of international terrorism, the main foe now is insurgents who practice terrorism as a tactic against local communities— such as ISIS—but whose interest in international acts of spectacular violence is secondary. This is the opposite of the approach of Osama bin Laden, who deployed spectacular terrorism internationally, while backing local insurgents. In fact, ISIS is fighting a classic non-conventional campaign that involves the seizure of cities and key resources, the undermining of the credibility of authorities, the co-opting of local allies such as nationalist ex-Ba’athists and the leveraging of international support, in this case networks of Islamic conservatives in the Gulf. No one was fighting like that a decade ago, except the rump of the Taliban, and even they were yet to launch their major comeback offensives.

There are also three major similarities with that earlier period of widespread violence in 2005 and 2006. First, though the core al’Qaeda group may have largely gone, an intricate web of networks still exists. These connections are chaotic, but are capable of ‘swarming’ together to concentrate resources. And though the ideology of al’Qaedaism has been discredited in much of the Islamic world, it remains sufficiently attractive to sufficient numbers to guarantee a significant level of activism for many years to come.

Second, a new generation of militants is emerging, as did a generation in the late 1990s. This is true for European nations as much as for Egypt, Libya, Iraq or Pakistan, though the fact that one of the three British young men in a video released by ISIS last week called himself ‘Abu Bara al-Hindi’ should cause some concern in Delhi.

The key causes of radicalisation are now well-known: the significance of family links, the attraction of adventure, the possibility of social advancement or access to financial resources, the need of perceived support from close or wider communities, the limited but important role of internet propaganda, and above all, the role of mistreatment by police or security forces, especially in prison.

Third, as in the earlier period, there is the continuing success of radical ideology in plugging into local conditions when these are propitious. This can be seen in the Sahel, and again in Europe too, where ‘lone wolves’ living on the cultural and social margins of mainstream society are likely to keep troubling security services. It can also be seen in India, where, despite recent successes in eliminating senior leaders, authorities have struggled to stem a small but steady stream of Muslims attracted to jihadi activities.

Perhaps most significant is the impact the success of ISIS will have on the global jihadi movement in the coming months and years. Extremist ideology has always seen an internal debate between proponents of a strategy of territorial acquisition—a ‘war of position’, in one sense—and those who favour a campaign of radicalisation aimed at bringing about a globalised ‘leaderless jihad’, something that could also be termed a ‘war of manoeuvre’. At the moment, it appears the former are winning the argument.

The ISIS campaign is thus likely to provide a template for other groups from the Sahel to the FATA—near the Afghan-Pakistan border—and beyond. It is not simple opportunism, as earlier thought, that has brought the group success, but a clear, phased strategy. First, its senior leadership was freed in a series of prison raids; then an intensifying campaign of suicide bombings was launched to destabilise target cities such as Baghdad, Fallujah and Mosul; next came a push to secure ‘strategic depth’ in Syria with added reserves of manpower, cash and arms, while back in Iraq local networks of Ba’athists and sympathetic tribal leaders were welded into a coalition. Only then was the offensive launched.

Al’Baghdadi and ISIS will undoubtedly now come up against the classic problem faced by extremist groups for decades: how to hold on to their gains without alienating locals. This is the very problem which led to the downfall of Abu Anas al’Shami, the diarist who wished for a ‘palm- sized lot of earth’ back in 2004, and other members of al’Qaeda in Iraq a decade ago. Historically, Islamist militants have swiftly clashed with populations who tire rapidly of the toxic mix of brutal violence, puritanical strictures and poor governance which they offer. There is certainly much evidence that these Islamists are now far more conscious of the danger of losing local support and will try not to repeat earlier errors. If they succeed in keeping the population on their side, or at least acquiescent, ISIS may yet consolidate the world’s newest non-state: the Islamic Emirate of al’Sham. The stakes are high.