THE birth of the self-styled Islamic State (IS), also known as ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria), has altered the map of the Middle East. The terror group extended its control beyond Syria, capturing the Iraqi cities of Mosul and Tikrit last summer. Within days, it was reported that IS fighters had moved south towards the capital Baghdad, fighting the decrepit Iraqi army as residents of the capital feared an assault on their city. Instead of overrunning Baghdad, IS strengthened its hold over Anbar province, one of Iraq’s largest Sunni-majority provinces, spreading its control westwards. West of Baghdad, Anbar — that has witnessed the worst fighting between 2004 and 2005 when US-led forces flushed out Sunni insurgent groups — was well placed as a launch pad for IS to make inroads towards the capital city.
By June of last year, IS had declared the establishment of a caliphate stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Baquba in Iraq. And since August 2014, their rapid advance across Syria and Iraq, besieging major towns, has given way to regional chaos, prompting American and British airstrikes against key IS positions. The question is whether these airstrikes and ground offensives to dismantle the group are going to work in the short term. The most recent key battleground was around the city of Tikrit, Iraq — the hometown of former president Saddam Hussein — where US airstrikes were supporting Iraqi forces and Iranian-backed militia efforts to retake the city from IS. On April 1, 2015, the Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi announced that the city had been successfully retaken.
Despite multiple fronts opened in the fight against IS, the areas controlled by the terror group in Syria and Iraq have not altered since last summer. According to the London-based International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence, and the New York-based Soufan Group, an estimated 20,000 fighters from almost 80 countries have travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with extremist groups since last year. The rapid rise of IS with the help of groups once loyal to Hussein and access to foreign fighters travelling to join the terror conglomerate has led to the erasure of the border between Syria and Iraq and drawn affiliates. Along with the acquisition of territory, it is this ability to attract foreigners that is unprecedented.
While few have so far pinned down the inner workings and progress of IS, The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution by Patrick Cockburn is one of the first accounts to analyse why the West’s mistakes — in its fight against Al Qaeda — led to the rise of the terror group. He provides an on-the-ground view of how events unfolded in Syria and Iraq, explaining that overlooking pro-democracy protests aimed at ousting Syrian president Bashar Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 2011, and the civil war that followed, was a mistake by Western powers.
Cockburn writes that the West later learnt it was unwise to underestimate the influence of regional militant groups and failure to rein in jihadi sponsors such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Pakistan created Frankenstein’s monster. An award-winning Iraq correspondent for The Independent, he focuses on the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts in this new jihadi battle for dominance. There is something “fantastical” about the US and its Western allies, he writes, who created conditions for the rise of IS assisted by their regional partners — Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. Having spent years reporting on the rise of militant groups, Cockburn is well-versed with the ideology enforced by IS as it imposes its rule with brutal force in northern Iraq and eastern Syria. One wonders why, if he could see what was happening after the civil war broke out in Syria, did Western security officials and terror analysts miss the rise of IS? One reason could be the lack of interest and inconsistency in dealing with the Syrian conflict and the lack of attention given to political instability in Iraq for several years.
Cockburn says that both the rebels and their foreign backers thought President Assad would be defeated in 2011, despite him holding onto power in most of the country’s 14 provinces at the time — except Raqqa, that was lost to the IS in January 2014 after it drove out pro-government forces and continues to withstand coalition air strikes.
In a series of articles for The Independent, in March this year, Cockburn writes that IS took advantage of the Syrian uprising to expand its forces and take over territory through gruesome guerilla tactics. It forces communities to adhere to its brutal vision of religious and social utopia — women are forbidden from leaving the house without a male relative; girls as young as nine are married to IS fighters; homosexuals are allegedly thrown off high buildings, beheaded and shot, and Yazidi women are bought and sold as slaves.
In a congressional testimony in November 2014, the director of the National Counterterrorism Centre Nicholas Rasmussen stated that the threat posed by IS goes “beyond the Middle East [and] is real, although thus far limited in sophistication. However, if left unchecked, over time we can expect ISIL’s capabilities to mature.” More recently, he has estimated that more than 20,000 foreign fighters from as many as 90 countries, including more than 3,400 Westerners, may have travelled to Syria since 2011 in a development that US officials have described as unprecedented.
IS has attracted affiliates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Algeria, Egypt and Libya, who are gravitating towards the terror group through promises of allegiance to its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. When there is a steady supply of financial resources and a show of power, rogue terror groups and disillusioned individuals tend to become attracted to the idea of jihad and puritanical Islam.
Social media — Twitter and Facebook — has worked to the advantage of terror groups using unmonitored platforms for recruiting, garnering financial support and disseminating militant propaganda. In the case of IS, potential recruits, including women from Europe, have found online sympathisers providing support and instructions on how to travel to Syria. Grooming schoolgirls as volunteer brides for prized fighters is another feather in the cap for IS. In retaliation, the hacking group Anonymous shut down at least 800 Twitter accounts linked to Islamic State sympathisers.
While IS uses the Al Qaeda franchise approach to recruit fighters and attract groups loyal at one point to the latter, these men are prepared to switch their allegiance because IS holds a grandiose vision, along with heavy weapons, oil revenue and territory. It has proven it will kill anyone who shows non-compliance with its rigid, puritanical and violent interpretation of Islam.
Having made its name on marketing brutality and selling carnage and beheadings to a global audience, it has not only spread a state of fear and upped its recruitment drive, but has even risked being criticised and disowned by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri for its violence and sectarianism. All this and more has been learnt through media reports since the story developed last year. There has not been much documentation of the group’s operational mechanisms and ideology as yet and journalists have stopped travelling to the region for fear of kidnapping: this makes Cock-burn’s account all the more informative and welcome. Another significant contribution to understanding how IS can be defeated is the new work by Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger who argue in ISIS: The State of Terror, that this group is Al Qaeda’s rival for the allegiance of global jihadists and in doing so are “rewriting the playbook for extremism.”
The rapid transformation of the geopolitics of the region by an army of fighters numbering between 20,000 to 31,000 — according to CIA estimates in September of last year — in Syria and Iraq has left most world leaders and counterterrorism experts in a quandary questioning whether military action similar to what was undertaken in Iraq in 2003 and Afghanistan after 2001 is necessary to get rid of IS. However, many military analysts explain that action on the ground won’t work in isolation given the foster parenting by Saudi Arabia and some other states, and the rapid increase in strength and reach of jihadist organisations in this region.
Cockburn’s insight presents a hard-hitting, sober critique of Western and Arab failure in reining in Sunni terror groups, especially when supporting the Sunni revolt against Assad in Syria. The Obama administration, incorrectly calculating the fall of Assad, permitted the flow of Gulf money and arms to radical Salafist fighters. And when this was widely reported by the Western media, the US administration claimed this was support for the moderate, secular opposition to Assad’s pro-government forces.
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) comprising defectors from Syria’s armed forces, essentially opponents of the Assad government, became Washington’s favourite proxy to take out Assad in Syria but instead the FSA were overrun by Al Qaeda affiliates funded by the Saudis and Qataris. Assad stuck to the course with Russian and Iranian backing, and military support from Iranian Hezbollah militias; this geostrategic catastrophe resulted in the collapse of vast swathes of Syria and later Iraq, and the rise of a lethally-armed terrorist group.
Cockburn notes, “The theory that arming the opposition will bring Assad to discuss peace and his own departure presupposes a complete transformation of the situation on the battlefield. This would only happen, if at all, after years of fighting.” He also tells that this would happen if Russia, Iran and Hezbollah are willing to see their Syrian ally defeated. “Given that the insurgency is dominated by IS, Jabhat- al-Nusra (JAN) and other Al Qaeda-type groups, it is unlikely that even Washington, London, and Riyadh now want to see Assad fall. But allowing Assad to win would be seen as a defeat for the West and their Arab and Turkish allies.”
The price of miscalculated political risks has resulted in a war that cannot end without considerable military airpower and ground support — but that could merely be a temporary halt in the ad-vancement of IS. At least for now one doesn’t believe that IS or JAN are willing to negotiate with either the Iraqi or Syrian governments.
Other similar assessments on mistakes made by the West in its fight against Al Qaeda would include work by C. Christine C. Fair, Carlotta Gall, Hassan Abbas and Ayesha Jalal. Here Cockburn writes that the US did not force its allies to deliver their Taliban proxies in Pakistan. Nor did it pressure Saudi Arabia to stop exporting extremist ideologies and weapons that fuel sectarian conflict. It is this struggle for hegemony between Sunni and Shia forces that have fueled a Syrian civil war threatening to transform the map of the Middle East, the violence fracturing Iraq and Syria.
What we see developing in Yemen is no different when it comes to making space for Sunni radicals. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies are fighting the Houthis in Yemen, that are allegedly backed by Iran giving Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula opportunity to further its goals just like in Iraq when Al Qaeda morphed into ISIL and Nusra Front subscribed to Al Qaeda in Syria. In both cases, Sunni radicals joined the fight as could be the case in Yemen (where Shia Houthis are seen as the aggressors). History has witnessed that growing sectarian clashes spark a revival of transnational jihadi networks that pose a threat beyond the region as terror groups emerge with loose affiliation to Al Qaeda.
Cockburn describes the Syrian civil war as “a Middle-East version of the Thirty Years’ War in Germany four hundred years ago.” With all sides overstating their own strength and imagining that temporary success on the battlefield will pave the way to victory, the outcome probably rests with the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Iran, he says — all of whom have different regional interests and objectives.
The fact that the armed opposition in Syria and Iraq has been taken over by Sunni Salafist jihadists means that they have a stronger and larger base in both countries which is far more dominant than anything they enjoyed in Afghanistan before 9/11. This will not only deepen the schism between Sunni and Shia, but also increase the financial and political control of Saudi Arabia. Cockburn tells the results of this will include “countries such as Iraq and Syria ... being emptied of Christians who have lived there for almost 2,000 years.”
He argues that regional terror groups will never go out of business or run short on recruits as long as their ideas, actions and aims are broadcast through satellite television, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook. The use of social media has been one of the most interesting aspects of the rise of IS: it uses propaganda videos, provides directions for new fighters, macabre jokes and boasts of attacks on Western targets on Twitter, and has hijacked other websites to spread its message. Young Western recruits act as spin doctors for the terror group’s social media platforms travelling through Turkey to Syria to join as foot soldiers or IS homemakers. This brings into question the role of Turkey in aiding IS and other jihadi groups by leaving open its 510-mile border with Syria giving IS, JAN and other opposition groups safe passage for bringing in men and weapons.
Pragmatic and cash-rich, IS forms relationships with regional Sunni terror affiliates, spreading its message of a Caliphate and building alternate sanctuaries (from Libya to Afghanistan) for fighters in case US-led airstrikes drive them from strongholds in Syria and Iraq, or their financial backers fall short and they are unable to infiltrate and terrorise civilian populations with maximum aggression. Analysing why IS has superseded veteran Al Qaeda as the most effective jihadi group in recent times, Cockburn notes IS is the “child of war”, capable of using acts of violence to reshape the world around them. He warns that the resurgence of Al Qaeda-styled groups propagating the dominant version of Sunni Wahhabi Islam is not only a threat to non-Sunni populations and secular governments in Syria, Iraq and neigbouring countries in the region but that it can have far-reaching political implications. He argues that recruits from Europe and America are capable of taking violent acts to their home countries once they survive the Syrian offensives.
For the present, the survival of IS is not under threat because some states will continue their support as they view Sunni groups important in the ongoing sectarian, proxy war in the Middle East. It will be another long war for political hegemony that will unite the world’s jihadists. Jihadists equipped sufficiently now to mobilise radicalised and disillusioned young people globally using social media, and who will continue to spread fear and shock, and hold onto territory through spectacular, violent acts.
The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution
By Patrick Cockburn
Verso Books, London