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The rise and … rise of ISIL
January 7, 2015, 6:18 pm

Is France now facing the type of extremist terrorism that has gripped major Iraqi cities in recent years? [Xinhua]

Is France now facing the type of extremist terrorism that has gripped major Iraqi cities in recent years? [Xinhua]

Last month, Time Magazine chose the medics and volunteers fighting the Ebola outbreak as 2014 Persons of the Year.

It’s a worthy choice, but in terms of a more global and longer lasting impact threatening peoples, cultures and civilization, another far more sinister group should be considered as newsmakers of the year.

Through the explosive fires of destroyed mosques and churches and amid the hundreds of images of decapitated heads and crucified torsos, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) emerged in 2014 as the most ruthless, dangerous and malignant extremist group to ever threaten the modern Middle East and beyond.

Their ideologies and tactics have forced other extremist groups to resort to more drastic and more violent acts.

While the terrorist attack against the Charlie Hebdo news magazine in Paris today may not be directly linked to ISIL’s emergence, it is nonetheless fully in line with their mantra.

(On December 15, French security was able to dismantle an ISIL recruiting ring. France is also a member of the anti-ISIL aerial bombardment coalition.)

ISIL, and its precursor, has in recent years murdered and assassinated those (including Muslim clerics) who have criticized it or simply not agreed with its perverted application of Islam.

There is no singular method to describe ISIL and its tactics, but if one were to draw on history, the extremist Islamist group that claims to be establishing a caliphate is as evil and calculating as the Nazi war machine, SS and Gestapo mixed with the Mongol Horde, the Huns, Hutu and Serb militia guided by a cadre of Pinochet-like figures.

Its ideals and practices have been condemned by mainstream Islamic scholars around the world and yet their powerful allure remains a mystery.

The Middle East vacuum

How can such a rabid pack of murderous cutthroats hiding behind the banner of Islam continue to defy expectation and lure many young people to their ranks?

The answer lies in the modern history of the Middle East and its often confusing relations with the West. To put it mildly, the rise and rise of ISIL came at the right time and in the right place – the group knew exactly where to emerge and who to target for recruitment.

When American defense analysts predicted that the war to defeat ISIL would last several years, they were right but for all the wrong reasons.

ISIL are no military geniuses – they excel at guerrilla warfare and fear mongering to bring local populations in line.

They have never really proven themselves in battlefield combat; their war has been waged in cities and town, fighting and hiding among the locals they often murder.

They don’t really have a military strategy per se. Military conquest is not a priority but a means to an end.

Some may theorize that ISIL wage psychological warfare for hearts and minds.

To an extent, that is true because it forms the core of their recruitment mantra – ISIL have perfected a vicious and penetrating propaganda campaign.

While their broadcast executions are gruesome, they serve to not only instill fear in their enemies and conquered people, but also to appeal to a group of young men and women who are mesmerized by this defiance and perverted bravado.

And this is where ISIL strategists are masters of their domain – they excel at tapping into and using the social and economic malaise that prevails in the Middle East and North Africa.

Arab, and largely Muslim youth, have been disenfranchised from the economic, social, and political processes since the region discarded English and French colonialism.

In almost very country in the region, except the oil-rich Gulf nations, the destinies of now three generation have been determined by revolutions followed by coups followed by (military) dictatorships, and finally foreign invasion and/or civil war.

Generation after generation, the youth grow angrier, impulsive, resentful and desperate.

They no longer tolerate a moderate Islamic clergy that largely enabled dictatorships and stood silent as young men and women were detained, violated, tortured and killed.

They no longer care to follow the advice of their parents who advocate the status quo.

The Arab Uprisings, with the notable exclusion of Tunisia, provided brief glimpses of what could – should – be only to have these aspirations trampled under boot.

The recent acquittal of ousted Egyptian President Mubarak, for example, after nearly four years has left many in his country resigned to the belief that they may never see a fair and equitable justice system.

The failures of Arab and foreign forces to either remove Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad or end the civil war that had killed more than 200,000 people there also adds to the disenchantment and helplessness many youth in the region feel.

Can ISIL be defeated?

ISIL cannot be defeated through military means. Coalition forces have for months flown hundreds of sorties against ISIL positions in Syria, chiefly the embattled city of Kobani in the northeast and still been unable to eject the extremist groups from the town.

As Iraq observed Army Day on January 6, ISIL suicide bombers killed at least 30 soldiers – this despite the presence of more than 2,000 US advisors and special forces assisting the military in its fight against the Islamic State.

There needs to be concentrated pan-Arab, pan-Muslim effort, possibly “encouraged” by Saudi Arabia’s Western allies, to identify how extremist groups have gained so much ground in such a short time.

And that begins with Muslim nations acknowledging that it is not a “problem with Islam” – or that the solution lies in how to “fix Islam” or that ISIL is an Israeli black operations outfit – but that it is Muslim societies that have not only allowed such extremism to foment in their midst, but have also contributed to its rise.

ISIL and other groups such as Boko Haram or Bait Al Maqdis would not have survived even as ideologies a century ago, or even 50 years ago because the disenfranchisement and disillusion with Arab/Muslim governance had not yet existed.

The socio-religious malaise that currently exists may have been born at the turn of the 20th Century when Islamism and Nationalism were in open conflict as they sought to overthrow the Ottoman influence in the Middle East.

But it is the post-colonial revolutions of the 1950s that promised regional populations so much and delivered so little.

Fast forward to post-2003 Iraq, and the socio-political damage caused by failed promises becomes even more acute.

There were some who argued during the build-up to the US invasion of Iraq that the occupying power would transform the country much as it did in 1945 Germany and Japan.

But Iraq slid further into turmoil and the situation was exacerbated by Prime Minister Maliki’s failed promises to unite the country.

Disenfranchised communities, former soldiers and generals, and militias saw their options dwindling. Enter the Islamic State, which already existed in Iraq since 2004 under different monikers.

The analogy to this is the period following the much vaunted Arab victory of 1967, which was in reality entirely an Israeli defeat of several of its enemies with one swift stroke.

Before the 1967 war, Arab nations were prompted to embrace an entire political model, an entire ideology based on socialism.

But after Israel’s astounding defeat of its Arab enemies, it wasn’t just Egypt as a country that lost the war, but the modern political ideas upon which the country – and region – was established.

Fawaz Gerges, an expert on Islamic jihadist organisations and author of The Far Enemy: Why Jihad Went Global, says the 1967 defeat and its aftershocks “can be considered the most pivotal event which helps us understand why Islamic militancy has become a potent force in the region”.

“Every single one of the Islamic Jihadists I interviewed said 1967 marked a watershed [moment] for them – a brutal awakening that Arab socialist leaders had deceived them,” Gerges told me in 2009.

Forty-some years later, contemporary Arab history is synonymous with defeat, disappointment and disdain cooked in the ashes of the failed (and oddly misnamed) ‘Arab Spring’).

Somalia, Syria, Libya, and Iraq are failed states. Yemen teeters on the edge. Bahrain barely survived a civil uprising. Lebanon is in a precarious situation bordering Syria.

There are fears that fighting in Iraq and Syria could spill over into Jordan where Islamist ideologies are popular.

Egypt faces domestic and foreign terrorism in the Sinai Peninsula and along its border with Libya.

In Afghanistan, where US President Barack Obama completed a “responsible” withdrawal of US troops, the Taliban are not only still a powerful threat, but have become battle-hardened and skilled.

The Taliban’s influence spread to Pakistan where the government has been for several years locked in a bloody war with homegrown extremist elements.

There are no quick fixes or easy military solutions to what is the greatest threat facing the Middle East today.

Defeating ISIL requires thinking out of the box, and far from the traditional knee-jerk Gung Ho approach that has so brilliantly contributed to past failures.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the publisher's editorial policy.

2 Responses to The rise and … rise of ISIL

  1. mahsi k Reply

    January 8, 2015 at 4:53 am

    Having of seen the resulting chaos arising as a resulGood of quote “Arab Springs” since 2011, being picked off one at a time by foreign fomented revolutions, it seemed to stand to reason that the fragments would eventually put heads together and create something larger and more forminable. It seemed inevitable. There are a lot of theories as to whom they get backed by, what do they have as an end goal, etc. It does not seem to be something that will be going away. If they have territortial ambitwhat we all hears, it certainly seems that the atrocities committed would forever undermine any possible desire the world would have to want to ever do any recognition or negotiation of any sort. They must know this, bad does not mean stupid. If we look at this from the perspective of who would stand to gain the most from those taking down Assad, perhaps garneering Iranian technology, we come to the same perpetraitors who gain by collapse of so many Muslim countries. I believe that there is much we cannot see, and what we all hear is SO bad that we do not want to entertain possibilities that some “Good” countries will benefit. Our world is rife with conspiracy theories, each more unbelievable than the last-but the truth is that there is at least some truth in them. 10 years from now, well, I donnot believe they are going away. It is anyone’s guess where they will be fitting in.

  2. Simon Hinds Reply

    January 28, 2015 at 9:12 am

    There is much evidence that ISIS receives finance from Saudi Arabia, is supported by Israel and Turkey, and is staffed by mercenaries. They clearly target oil wells. It is also clear that the UK and the US has used and colluded with ‘Islamic extremists’ since the days of empire.

    After looking at UK archives, Mark Curtis in Secret Affairs state:

    Crucially, British collusion with radical Islam has also helped promote two big geo-strategic foreign policy objectives. The first is influence and control over key energy resources, always recognised in the British planning documents as the number one priority in teh Middle East, for example, British operations to support or side with Islamist forces have generally aimed at maintaining in power or installing governments that will promote Western-friendly oil policies.
    The second objective has been maintaining Britain’s place within a pro-Western global financial order.

    In promoting its strategy, Britain has routinely collaborated with the US, which has a history of similar collusion with radical Islam.

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