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IS: a global challenge

November 12, 2014


The writer is an author and journalist.
The writer is an author and journalist.

THE sensational rise of IS, also known as Islamic State has caused global panic. It has also dramatically altered geopolitics, producing strange bedfellows. Putting aside their hostilities, the US and Iran now stand on the same side of the divide joining efforts to beat back the IS juggernaut. Also on the same side are the Arab countries.

The anti-IS campaign has created a coalition of 62 nations that includes Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and all other Gulf countries. It is perhaps the biggest alliance since the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

Already actively involved in the conflict, the two traditional enemies — the US and Iran — are now also engaged in talks about what they can do together to confront the common threat. In a letter last month to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Obama is reported to have acknowledged that the two countries have common interests in fighting the forces of the Islamic State. Active cooperation between Washington and Tehran may completely change the power matrix in the region.

The IS has become a source of inspiration for radical Islamists across the world.

Last week, the US announced that it was sending 1,500 additional troops to Iraq to help the beleaguered regime stem the militant tide. Just a few years after leaving Iraq, the US is back there with boots on the ground. The United States has been carrying out air strikes against IS in Iraq and Syria since the end of August.

Officially, the Iranian government denies having any troops in Iraq. But according to some Western news reports, Iran has sent about 500 Revolutionary Guards to help Iraq fight IS. The Quds Force; the Guards’ elite special operations group, is one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East. Iranian state media has acknowledged the death of at least one Iranian soldier in Iraq.

But the presence of the Iranian elite force in Iraq is also a source of worry for Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-dominated Arab countries, which until now had been supporting Sunni radical groups fight the Iran-backed forces of President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The common threat from IS may have thrown these forces on the same side of the conflict, but the convergence of interests may not last long. It is more likely to end up in a more vicious round of power play pushing the Middle East into a greater mess with far-reaching consequences for the world.

What is most worrying is the involvement of a large number of foreign fighters in the conflict. Some 15,000 fighters from more than 80 countries, according to a UN Security Council report, have swamped Iraq and Syria to fight alongside militant groups turning the region into the biggest-ever theatre of global jihad.

With its occupation of a large swathe of territory with a population of six million, larger than the size of Finland or Belgium, the jihadi movement has become a source of inspiration for radical Islamists all over the world. It has attracted fighters even from those countries that have thus far remained clear of Islamic militancy and not contributed to global terrorism in any way.

Although the UN report has not listed the countries of origin of the fighters that have flown into Iraq and Syria, a large number of them are believed to have gone from Western European countries such as Britain, France, Germany and Russia. More than 500 British citizens alone have reportedly travelled to the region to join the fighting since 2011. There have also been reports of fighters coming from some Latin American countries.

Such a large number of foreign fighters from extremely diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds is surely a cause of serious concern, particularly as they have emerged despite the aggressive counterterrorism policies pursued by the West. The numbers are staggering and so is the scale of the threat.

According to the UN report, the numbers of foreign fighters since 2010 has increased to many times the size of the cumulative numbers of foreign terrorist fighters in the decade earlier. That has happened despite the weakening of Al Qaeda and the killing of Osama bin Laden.

Surely, the rise of a more aggressive IS has provided greater impetus to global jihad. Although a breakaway group of Al Qaeda, the new jihadi movement is far more resourceful both in terms of ideology and propaganda machinery. With revenue from the oilfields it controls in Iraq and Syria alone estimated to be at $1m daily, the Islamic State is better placed to fight a protracted war with the constant flow of ideologically committed foreign fighters.

Although Al Qaeda and IS share the same strategic goal, the two differ hugely in tactics and sequencing. The appeal for the revival of the caliphate is much greater than for the clandestine terrorist activities of Al Qaeda. Moreover, the extensive use of social media makes it much easier for the IS to recruit foreign fighters. The UN report warns that more nations than ever will face the challenge of the war-hardened holy warriors returning home. That presents an extremely dangerous scenario not only for the home nations, but also for global security.

Although the footprints of IS appeared in Pakistan some time ago, the recent report about the group having recruited thousands of followers from a particular tribal agency and districts in KP with a history of sectarian strife is extremely worrying.

Unsurprisingly, the radical sectarian groups find greater attraction in the self-proclaimed Sunni caliphate. Inspired by its ruthlessness towards other religious groups, some of the Pakistani Taliban factions have also jumped on the IS bandwagon.

Even though this country thought it had seen the worst, the emergence of IS may make Pakistan’s battle against violent extremism and terrorism more difficult. The situation is far more alarming with thousands of Pakistani militants fighting yet another ‘holy war’ in Iraq and Syria.

The writer is an author and journalist.

Twitter: @hidhussain

Published in Dawn, November 12th, 2014