ISIS: The End of an Idea

Anchal Vohra writes on the Middle East and Europe
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The defeat of ISIS in Iraq and Syria should not be an occasion for global complacency. Anchal Vohra reports from Najaf and Baghdad

THERE IS NO ISIS in Najaf,” Idrees Burhani, wearing the signature white-and-gold skullcap of the Bohra community, tells me a few days after Iraqi forces and Shia militia have reclaimed the last urban stronghold of ISIS in Hawija, northern Iraq. “We have 750 guests a day, 4,000 a month,” adds the public relations manager at a guest house in Najaf, central Iraq, that offers Bohra pilgrims lodging options and serves Indian food.

Bohras belong to a sect of Ismailis within Shia Islam and live in various parts of the world, with an estimated 500,000 of them in India. Every year, members of this community visit the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala for Muharram, a period when Shia Muslims mourn the killing of the revered Imam Hussain, son of Imam Ali, who was Prophet Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law.

In Najaf, the market around the shrine of Imam Ali bustles with restaurants catering to the faithful and shops selling memorabilia. Men and women dressed in black—to mark Muharram—move about with ease under the blazing sun. As Burhani says, “The fear of ISIS was felt most in 2014,” when the terror group claimed victory in Fallujah, which was too close to Baghdad for comfort. In the midst of the crisis of the group’s rise that year, especially after it abducted 40 Indian workers in Mosul, thousands of Indians working in Iraq left for home with assistance from the Indian embassy. With things calming down in the country, Burhani says pilgrims have begun to return, albeit labourers and semi-skilled workers seem scarred by the episode of missing Indians and are perhaps too afraid of ever coming back.

The ISIS is widely regarded as the world’s most brutal terrorist organisation, a reputation it has earned by its genocide of an ethnic minority of Yazidis in northern Iraq, videographed beheadings of Western aid workers and journalists, and terror attacks conducted across Europe by its warriors, apart from such acts as the abduction of Indians.

More than three years later, the group appears to be on the brink of collapse. Iraqi forces have ejected it from all urban territories under its hold and are planning an operation to wipe it out in Anbar province, the last region under its full control. In Syria, the US-led coalition recently reclaimed ISIS’s capital city of Raqqa, killing thousands of its members. Its rout has been cheered the world over.

Yet, to consider the threat of ISIS eliminated in the Middle East or elsewhere, analysts say, would be a mistake. Without land under its control and a clear command structure, now that a global coalition of sorts has dislodged ISIS in key locations and either killed its commanders or sent them in hiding, it cannot provide the same kind of large-scale training or support to its operatives. Lone wolf attacks, though, remain a possibility.

In May 2016, a month-and-a-half before the fall of Mosul, a message was released by Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesperson of the so-called Islamic State who is also in charge of the group’s external operations wing, that called upon ‘fighters of the caliphate’ to stay back in their home countries and unleash terror in their homeland: ‘The smallest action you do in [the West’s] heartland is better and more enduring to us than what you would if you were with us. If one of you hoped to reach the Islamic State, we wish we were in your place to punish the Crusaders day and night.’ This was a signal that ISIS was ready for its eventual defeat on the battlegrounds of West Asia and wanted recruits and supporters in other places to regroup and sustain the fight.

“Adnani’s call still finds resonance,” says Georg Heil, a German analyst and journalist who has doubts about the finality of the triumph over ISIS. Many of the youth who left to join it and were trained by it, or have come under its sway online, Heil thinks, have been so thoroughly brainwashed that a new generation of jihadis could emerge in Europe. “There are many kids indoctrinated by ISIS,” he says, “They now return to Europe radicalised. In Germany, we have seen several attacks and attempts by radicalised minors, one was just 12 years old.”

The threat from sleeper cells of ISIS in Europe and its operatives continues to be a challenge for the security establishments in countries like Germany, France, the UK and Belgium. Harry Sarfo, a German citizen from the city of Bremen, joined ISIS in Syria but ran away from its training centre there in July 2015. He was arrested and confessed his association with the group. He also gave a detailed account of how ISIS was planning attacks across Europe. In an interview to New York Times, he spoke about how Europeans trained by ISIS were returning with the idea of spreading mayhem in the continent. “Many of them have returned,” Sarfo told the newspaper, “Hundreds, definitely.”

Since Sarfo’s testimony, ISIS has undertaken several attacks, including the series of bombings on November 13th, 2015, in Paris which killed a 130 people, and the March 2016 attack in Belgium. Investigating agencies have uncovered some links in the group’s network but hundreds of others probably remain unknown. There is no saying how and when these warriors will strike.

It is possible that ISIS regroups with the help of online tools, allies with Al Qaeda, and comes back with a different name, even as its radicalised supporters conduct lone-wolf attacks

“The last attacks have shown that there was a shift from complex, major operations to simple attacks with cars or knives,” says Heil. Moreover, for anyone looking for organisational support or motivation for an anti-West jihad, Al Qaeda is still alive.

ABU MUSAB AL-ZARQAWI, known as the founder of ISIS, once ran a terror training camp in Afghanistan, from where he moved to Iraq in 2004 to set up Al Qaeda’s unit there. His brand of jihad was even more gruesome than that of the original group led by 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. It is Zarqawi’s vision that led his disciples to start Islamic State in Iraq or ISI, which under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was renamed Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant or ISIS or ISIL. Leaders of Al Qaeda and ISI reportedly disagreed over the latter’s policy to fight what it called ‘the near enemy’: non-believers within the Middle East of its rigid interpretation of Islam. Fissures deepened as the two rival outfits fought for the global leadership of their jihad. The split between them was formalised in 2014 when Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s successor at Al Qaeda, publicly disowned ISIS.

Which of the two would survive as the world’s top jihadist group has been a question of much speculation since. The extreme measures of ISIS and its social media skills won it adherents overnight. Several years later, while ISIS is down if not entirely out, Al Qaeda remains well placed to use the new ranks of jihadis and their media skills to its own advantage.

A faction of ISI which stuck with Zawahiri, had formed a group called Jabhat al-Nusra that operated in Syria. Since the Syrian bombing of areas held by this group, its members have moved to Idlib on the country’s border with Turkey. On the ground in Syria a month ago, war-weary residents of east Aleppo, once a Nusra stronghold, told me that the loyalties of ISIS foot soldiers were flexible and that they often switched to Nusra, which is an Al Qaeda affiliate. Unless a new Zarqawi emerges from ISIS’s second or third rung leadership and rejuvenates the group, its fighters might shift to Al Qaeda.

The possibility of an insurgency in the region cannot be overlooked either. After the celebrated victories in Mosul and Raqqa, 6,000 to 10,000 ISIS fighters are still present in Iraq and Syria. The group still controls tracts of territory in the crevices along the Euphrates river. In late August, about 30 km from Homs, I had interviewed two soldiers of Syria’s intelligence agency, Mukhabarat, whose post was barely a few kilometres from the active ISIS frontline. “ISIS is there on the other side,” one of them said, “but we will kill them soon.” The fight here, in the oil-rich Dier Ezzor sector, still rages on.

Such facts speak of ISIS’s continued presence in the countryside. Its fighters have had time to scatter themselves across the area and could be waiting to rise again if given an opportunity by another spell of volatility, all too easily caused in this part of the Middle East by its sharp Shia-Sunni sectarian schism. The regime of Iraq is Shia-led, while Syria is led by Alawi, an offshoot of Shia; ISIS is largely considered a Sunni group.

Tucked away in a backlane around Imam Ali’s mosque in Najaf is the guarded house of the top Shia cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. In July 2014, Sistani issued a fatwa calling for Iraqis to arm themselves and fight ISIS. This drew several groups of Shia fighters into the fray, some of which, like the Mehdi Army, had earlier been engaged in a sectarian war against Sunni remnants of Saddam Hussein’s forces after the overthrow of his largely- Sunni regime. Most if not all of these Shia groups have got funding from Iran and training from either the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or Tehran’s proxy in Lebanon, the Hizbullah. These forces now maintain a muscular profile in Iraq as well as Syria, and are given to staging flag marches in Sunni civilian areas with banners of Imam Hussain and chants of ‘Ya Ali’. Sunni citizens seem scared of being blamed by Shias for ISIS excesses.

With the political arena dominated by Shia leaders and clerics, few Sunnis expect their voice to count for much; and if pushed into irrelevance beyond a point, their grievances could aid a resurgence of terror groups like Al Qaeda, ISIS and others. While ISIS has suffered severe reverse, local groups are still around in parts of Africa and Asia that have pledged allegiance to Baghdadi.

In 2015, I visited Jalalabad in Afghanistan, which had suffered an ‘ISIS attack’ in April that left 35 people dead and over 100 injured. General Mohammad Ayub Salangi, who was leading Kabul’s war against the Taliban, said the government was sure that Raqqa-based ISIS had no formal links with those claiming to operate in its name in his country. “[The Taliban] have just changed their flag from white to black,” he said.

In the world of Islamist terror, banners carry much weight. Mid-rung leaders often change allegiance to those promising higher positions and power. Not all of them are in agreement on the specifics of their ideology, but their common cause is Islamic jihad against the ‘enemy’.

It is possible that ISIS regroups with the help of online tools, allies with Al Qaeda, and comes back with a different name, even as its radicalised supporters conduct lone-wolf attacks. Still, what should not be overlooked, says Richard Spencer, Middle East correspondent of The Times, is that “the military defeat of ISIS is a turning point”. In his analysis, ISIS may have caused more damage to the cause of Islamic jihad than is believed. “The combination of crushing defeat and the disillusionment with the grotesquerie of their rule might mean that the jihadi movement has had its heyday,” he says, speaking to Open.

A celebration is perhaps in order, but knowing the Middle East, it is advisable to keep it quiet. For the moment, the group that promised a dream of divine rule on earth through the formation of an ‘Islamic State’ stands defeated, and the failure of its delusional ideology should serve as a warning for all jihadist aspirants.