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ISIS is Stepping Up Its Atrocities to Compensate For Its Defeat

Photo by Erich Ferdinand | CC BY 2.0

Isis is the most likely inspiration for the bomb explosion on the tube train at Parsons Green station. The attempted mass killing is similar to the attacks in Barcelona, Manchester and London earlier this year in that it aimed to murder the maximum number of civilians in the most public way possible.

Isis is stepping up its attention-grabbing atrocities to counterbalance its defeats on the battlefields in Iraq and Syria. It aims to show strength, instil fear and dominate the news agenda at a time when it has lost the savage nine-month-long struggle for Mosul in Iraq and is being defeated in the battle for its last big urban centres in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa in Syria. The caliphate that Isis declared after its capture of Mosul in 2014, once the size of Great Britain, is today reduced to a few embattled enclaves in the deserts of eastern Syria and western Iraq.

Unfortunately, these defeats make escalating terrorist attacks on civilians more rather than less likely in Iraq, Syria and the West. I am listing the locations being targeted in that order because the great majority of Isis’s victims are Iraqis and Syrians, though this receives scant coverage in the western media which carries 24/7 reportage of Isis-related incidents in Western Europe and the US.

A telling example of this lopsided coverage came this week only a day before the Parsons Green explosion, when Isis gunmen and three suicide bombers attacked a police checkpoint and two restaurants in southern Iraq, killing at least 80 people and injuring hundreds more. Wearing police uniforms and driving captured Iraqi army vehicles, the Isis fighters made their attack on the main road between Baghdad and Basra near the city of Nassiriya. The carefully organised assault was carried out deep inside part of Iraq that is Shia and far from the remaining Isis strongholds in Sunni Arab districts further north. The aim was to prove that, despite its shattering losses in the siege of Mosul, Isis can still operate far from its base areas.

The British Government and public have never quite taken on board that Isis terrorist attacks in Britain and elsewhere are part and parcel of what is happening in the wars in Iraq and Syria. Isis sees the world as a single battlefield. That is why Government initiatives like the “Prevent” campaign are an irrelevance where they are not counterproductive. They purport to identify and expose signs of domestic Islamic radicalism (though nobody knows what these are), but in practice they are a form of collective punishment of the three million British Muslims, serving only to alienate many and push a tiny minority towards sympathy for Isis and al-Qaeda-linked movements.

Such an approach is attractive to governments because it shows them doing something active to quell terrorism, however ineffectual this may be. It also has the useful implication of suggesting that terrorism is domestically generated and that the British foreign ventures in Libya in 2003 and Libya in 2011 were in no way responsible for providing the breeding grounds in which Isis was nurtured. Yet when Jeremy Corbyn suggested after the Manchester bomb that a government policy that had helped produce anarchy in Iraq, Libya and Syria, enabling al-Qaeda-type terrorists to flourish, had much to answer for, he was howled down and execrated as somehow lessening the guilt of the Manchester and London attackers.

The only long-term way of preventing these terrorist attacks is not only to eliminate Isis in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere but to end these wars which have allowed al-Qaeda to become a mass movement. Prior to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Qaeda and its clones had little strength and had been largely broken up. They were resurrected during the Iraq war, were suppressed with immense difficulty only to rise again in 2011, when the civil war in Syria enabled them to spread and become the dominant force in the armed opposition. This was neither inevitable nor unforeseeable: Iraqi leaders warned that a continuing war in Syria, in which sectarian confrontation was a major factor, would destabilise their own fragile peace. They were ignored and the meteoric emergence of Isis between 2011 and 2014 showed that they knew what they were talking about. I remember in 2012 vainly trying to persuade a senior diplomat that if the war in Syria continued, it could not be contained and would destabilise Iraq. He poo-pooed my fears as exaggerated.

Western powers only truly took on board that the defeat of Isis had to be given total priority in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and the outpouring of Syrian refugees heading from Turkey to Western Europe in the same year. Previously, the governments had been laggard in seeking to carry out such obvious measures as putting pressure on Turkey to close its open border with Syria, across which al-Qaeda and Isis recruits passed unhindered for years. In the event, it was only gradually closed by the advance of the Syrian Kurds along the south side of the Syrian-Kurdish border.

But it is not just the defeat of Isis and al-Qaeda (thinly disguised by frequent changes of name) that is necessary. It is the wars in Iraq and Syria that provided the fertile soil for movements to grow again. Anything that delays the end of these conflicts contributes to the survival of Isis and groups for which the massacre of civilians is an integral part of their day-to-day tactics.

British and other western governments protest that they do indeed want to end the war, but they have pursued policies that have fuelled it and made its continuation inevitable. They declared that the removal of President Bashar al-Assad was a precondition for peace when the political and military balance of power in Syria made this extremely unlikely. Critics of government policy who pointed this out were denounced as pro-Assad sympathisers. Western policy was a self-defeating mix of fantasy and wishful thinking and fantasy. Remember David Cameron’s non-existent 70,000 moderate fighters, brave fellows who were going to take on Assad and Isis at the same time?

Not all the news is bad: Isis is being defeated in both Syria and Iraq. Its ability to organise and inspire terrorist attacks is going down. Assuming Isis was behind the bomb on the train in Parsons Green, there is some comfort in the fact that it failed to explode fully – an Isis bomb in Catalonia blew up those that were making it. Money, weapons and expertise will be more difficult to supply.

But the weaker Isis becomes the more it will want to show that it is still in business. Attacks in two places as different as Nassiriya and Parsons Green within 24 hours of each other shows that it is a long way from being eradicated. At the end of the day peace in the UK and Europe is indivisible from peace in Iraq and Syria.

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Patrick Cockburn is the author of  The Rise of Islamic State: ISIS and the New Sunni Revolution.

January 22, 2019
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