Jan 13 2015
While Al Zawahiri’s star has been eclipsed and Mullah Omar has yet to speak on the issue, the old guard can still create problems for Al Baghdadi
- Image Credit: REUTERS
- Members of the Iraqi Special Operations Forces take up positions during clashes with the al Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in the city of Ramadi.
Daesh (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant) has dominated global news throughout the second half of 2014, following its startling, seemingly unanticipated, seizure of a territory the size of Britain on both sides of the Iraq-Syria border and its declaration of a ‘Caliphate’.
Almost a year ago, as the West and its Arab allies fretted over how to topple Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, Daesh had already taken the northern city of Raqqa and made it its capital. It was not until June, however, when the group overran Mosul — Iraq’s second largest city and home to more than a million people — that the alarm was raised. But by then, it was too late. Mounting the pulpit in the city’s Grand Mosque, the shadowy figure of the former Islamic State of Iraq group leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, declared himself “Caliph Ebrahim” or the “leader of all the believers” on July 4, American Independence Day — an irony that would not have been lost on the terrorists.
Daesh is the latest, most deadly, incarnation of the global jihad movement established by Osama Bin Laden and Ayman Al Zawahiri in 1998. It has made no secret of its ambition to re-establish the (Abbasid) Islamic Caliphate throughout the Middle East, much of Asia and parts of southern Europe. Yet, even the mighty CIA’s intelligence apparatus failed to understand the reality, and extent, of the threat posed by Al Baghdadi’s group.
In January, US President Barack Obama dismissed Daesh as a “bunch of junior varsity players” who numbered “around 5000”. By June, the CIA had revised their estimate upwards, conceding the Daesh’s fighters might number “between 20,000-31,500”. At the same time, sources in Jordan were already assuring me that they were nearly 100,000 in number. In mid-November, the Iraqi Kurds’ Chief-of-Staff, Fouad Hussain, told veteran reporter Patrick Cockburn that Daesh had “at least” 200,000 men and were expanding rapidly.
The area under Daesh control has a population of 12 million, a huge pool of potential recruits. Like the Taliban in the chaos of post-civil war Afghanistan, the extremists bring a sense of law and order, security and stability, however draconian their methods. They are not — as we would like to believe — universally unpopular and have thrived, as such groups do, in the chaos and security vacuum created by a perfect storm of major historical events, including the dismantling of the Iraqi state and army in 2003 and, later, the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war.
Western commentators consistently refer to the “medieval” notion of the Caliphate but, broadly speaking, the last Caliphate — that of the Ottoman Empire — ended in 1922 and was preceded by an almost unbroken succession of Islamic Caliphates for the best part of 1,300 years. The notion of a strong, pan-Arab nation — in this case defined by Islam — is informed by historical reality and is compelling.
In addition, the democratic experiment in the Middle East has largely failed — with the exception of Tunisia — and far from admiring and coveting western values, many Muslims find them empty, hypocritical and amoral. The recent revelations about CIA brutality in the torture chambers of Guantanamo Bay and “black” facilities elsewhere will only compound these feelings.
Nor has Daesh emerged from nowhere. As I pointed out in two books about Al Qaida, a long-term strategy has been in place for at least 10 years. The current stage, brutal as it is, is described in a 2004 extremist text, entitled The Management of Savagery, which argues that extreme violence is necessary as psychological leverage to achieve power. the text is widely quoted by leaders of Daesh. Unlike any previous Salafist-extremist group, Daesh is actively state-building; it has taken territory and is well armed with captured and intercepted heavy weapons. Militarily, it acts on carefully planned strategy and in the manner of a conventional army with closely co-ordinated battalions operating simultaneously on several, wide apart fronts. Many in Daesh’s top brass are ex-officers from Saddam Hussain’s army who had joined the Iraqi insurgency more than 10 years ago and have collaborated with extremists ever since.
Daesh is also uniquely wealthy, having seized oil fields in both Iraq and Syria that bring in an estimated income of $5 million per day (Dh18.39 million) in addition to the taxes it levies, the millions it has stolen from banks and the ransoms it has extorted for those hostages it has not beheaded on camera. As a result, it can afford to pay its fighters (which aids recruitment) and provide a logistical and administrative infrastructure for its “citizens” in conquered territories.
None of this is to say that, in the long run, the Arab world would choose to embrace the puritanical way of life that Daesh seeks to impose. But these are simply the reasons this new phenomenon will be so difficult to dislodge.
So what can be done? As Bin Laden did before him, Al Baghdadi is actively, mockingly, inviting the West to intervene. Sixty nations have joined the US in a nominal Alliance against Daesh but none dare put their troops on the ground to fight it, leaving Kurdish militias to battle them alone in oil-rich northern Iraq. Ongoing air strikes have had limited impact and risk killing more civilians than extremists, potentially escalating recruitment to Daesh.
The sectarian fault lines that fuelled the current crisis also threaten to impede its resolution: The only real chance of the America-led coalition militarily defeating Daesh would be in collaboration with Iran — Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis — and Syria’s pariah Al Assad.
Several other extremist groups, including Nigeria’s Boko Haram, Libya’s Ansar Al Sharia and Al Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula have given their bayat (oath of allegiance) to “Caliph Ebrahim”. The nightmare scenario for the West is that diverse global extremist groups in the Middle East, Africa and Asia web up and act together under the banner of Daesh. Blowback and attacks from “sleeper cells” at home are another risk as foreigners flood, in unprecedented numbers, to join Daesh and produce its next generation.
The most likely threat to Daesh’s long-term future is not from the rest of the world, but from its fellow extremists. With the Taliban poised to retake control in Afghanistan, it is timely to remember that its leader, Mullah Omar, had declared himself the “Caliph” back in 1996, famously wrapping himself in Prophet Mohammad’s (PBUH) cloak in a Kandahar mosque. Bin Laden and other Al Qaida leaders gave Omar their bayat and in September this year, Ayman Al Zawahiri reaffirmed his allegiance. While Al Zawahiri’s star has been eclipsed by the Iraqi pretender and Omar has yet to speak on the subject, it is likely that the old guard can still create problems for the younger man and will not give up without a fight.
Abdel Bari Atwan is the editor of pan-Arab digital newspaper, Rai Al Youm. He is the author of After bin Laden: Al Qaida, the Next Generation, his memoirs are A Country of Words, and The Secret History of A-Qa’ida. His new book Islamic State is out in Arabic (Saqi) and will be published in English in 2015.