Incomplete victory

16 Jul 2017

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THE Iraqi government’s formal announcement of the recapture of Mosul, the last remaining stronghold of the militant Islamic State group in Iraq, is certainly a huge achievement. Iraqi special forces engaged in a battle against IS in Mosul since October 2016. According to Iraqi authorities, some 900,000 people have been displaced in the operation. But while Prime Minster Haider al-Abadi has claimed “total victory” in relegating IS to the “dustbin of history”, there are several reasons why we should still be concerned.

Having recently returned from Iraq, my conversations with young people who fled Mosul less than a month ago indicated strong concerns regarding the rebuilding of Iraq, IS infiltration in IDP camps as well as militant sleeper cells spread across a barely functioning state. The concerns extend to other countries that have seen ‘fighters’ respond to the call for global jihad; these fighters have travelled to the epicentre of Baghdadi’s ‘caliphate’.

Pakistan has reason to worry. The US-based Soufan Group, that focuses on security intelligence services, estimates that between 2011-2015, close to 30,000 “foreign fighters” from more than 80 countries travelled to Iraq and Syria (not all joined IS). At least 650 young men are believed to have travelled from Pakistan to Syria and Iraq. Whether motivated by ideology or seeking the thrill of adventure, Pakistani recruits were expected to serve on the front lines of a brutal battle that has now raged for close to six years.

Even after the Mosul victory, there is fear in Iraq.

However, young men in Mosul recount seeing Afghan and Pakistani fighters manning check posts at heavily guarded exit points leading out of Mosul, often looking frustrated or simply bored.

This is not surprising. While IS recruitment of foot soldiers and lower rank fighters has often been conducted through ideological indoctrination, it does not conclusively explain why young men actually join militant groups.

In addition, jihadi loyalties formed on the basis of more material motivations are fluid, pointing to quick turnovers according to the positioning and global influence of the group. While most young men are drawn to international conflicts and enamoured of militant groups that promise glory bolstered by slick videos as those produced by IS, the reality is far less exciting.

Media analysis of IS propaganda and its preferred news agencies reveal that by mid-2016 calls to fight in Libya had decreased and as IS scrambled to maintain its stronghold and evade international border control and aviation monitors put largely in place by Interpol, self-motivated attacks and home-grown terrorism increased.

Western European states (which also face a refugee crisis) have experienced multiple high-impact IS-led or motivated attacks since 2015. Risk analysis conducted by the US Treasury Department revealed that since 2016, IS was earning less than 40 per cent of its revenue from oil (mainly due to loss of territory) and was relying heavily on extortion (accounting for more than a third of its revenue) and taxes.

Most recently, Mosul residents told me that with dwindling territory, deflecting recruits and crunching finances, IS became more brutal in its means, desperately seeking new territory. With its eyes set on new frontiers, Pakistan is likely to emerge as an attractive destination, especially with a large cohort of returning fighters. An enabling environment will be one that IS, the Nusra Front, and others will be looking to cash in on.

Those who have fled to IDP camps recount stories of neighbours and families being used as human shields. Young people were massacred for using cell phones; their severed heads were used as footballs.

Fear continues to permeate a country where sleeper cells remain active and IS sympathisers are difficult to identify: a singular reliance on security.

While security is of paramount concern in order to defeat militant groups and regain control of key cities, in the coming years should the Iraqi army and government lose the level of trust they currently enjoy in Iraq and pursue solely a military battle, the deeper causes of violent extremism will continue to prevail.

Abadi is correct to stress on “national unity” and while the Iraqi army remains widely popular at the moment, the people of Mosul have not forgotten the army’s sectarian approach during the Maliki period (2006-2014). Young people, marginalised, frustrated and disenchanted with a government that fails to provide may become susceptible to the pull of extremism, generating a vicious cycle that is difficult to break. Sectarianism will further deepen these fault lines.

The Iraqi army may have declared victory in Mosul but bomb attacks continue and even now many hear the exchange of gunfire. As pockets of resistance exist, the road towards rebuilding Iraq is long and the deep-rooted causes of violent extremism have yet to be addressed. The fight against IS is far from over and a victory is premature at best. And not only for Iraq.

The writer is a policy researcher.

Published in Dawn, July 16th, 2017