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ISIS Feeds Off the Chaos of War

Photograph Source: Voice of America News – Public Domain

Western governments have been swift to pledge action to strike at Isis, as it becomes clear that the organisation was behind the suicide bombings that killed 253 people in Sri Lanka.

A video released by Isis after the attacks shows Zahran Hashim, an Islamic preacher and alleged leader of the bombers, pledging allegiance together with six other men – also thought to be bombers – to the self-declared caliph and leader of Isis, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Western leaders, as is usual, are proposing easy or unattainable action that will do little to damage Isis capabilities – such as trying to limit its access to social media – while steering clear of potentially more effective but difficult to implement policies to eradicate Isis that might be contrary to their national interests.

The best way to weaken Isis to the point where it can no longer orchestrate or carry out mass slaughter, like that in Sri Lanka last Sunday, is to bring an end to the wars in the Middle East and North Africa which over the last forty years have produced al-Qaeda and its clones, of which Isis is the most famous and most dangerous.

Governments deny that they are in any way responsible for Isis staying in business and point to the western-backed offensives against it which led to the last piece of the Islamic State being over-run on 23 March.

As a territorial entity Isis has been eliminated, but that does not mean that it cannot carry out guerrilla and terrorist attacks, as has happened in the last few months in Iraq and Syria. These are little reported because they take place in the vast deserts on the Iraq-Syrian border or they target regimes we do not like, such as the Syrian government in Damascus.

Isis was born out of war. In 2001, at the time of 9/11, al-Qaeda – out of which Isis was to emerge – consisted of a network of fanatics and a few hundred fighters in camps in Afghanistan. They were so few that they had to hire local Afghan tribesmen to fill out their numbers in propaganda videos.

It was the invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 that turned the al-Qaeda franchise in Iraq under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi into a powerful military movement. When forced out of its strongholds by a reinforced US presence and weakened by opposition from within the Sunni Arab community in 2007, al-Qaeda in Iraq retreated to its hideouts, waiting for better times.

These were not long in coming with the advent of the Syrian civil war in 2011 which the movement had the resources in men and weapons, to turn to their advantage. I remember Iraqi leaders in Baghdad telling me in 2012/13 that unless the war in Syria was quickly brought to an end, it would reignite the insurgency in Iraq.

They were soon proved right. Isis, as it was now called, astonished the world by emerging from its fastnesses to capture Mosul in 2014 and sweep through western Iraq and eastern Syria.

Western powers certainly wanted to defeat Isis but also did not want to do anything that would enable rivals and opponents – Russia, Iran and Bashar al-Assad – to win a clear victory in the Syrian war. They demanded that Assad go long after it was obvious that he was going to win after receiving Russian military support in 2015.

Stirring the pot in Syria in order to thwart Russia, Iran and Assad was much in the interests of Isis which could exploit the fact that opposition to it was fragmented.

Opportunities exist for Isis wherever government authority is weak or non-existent and it can put down roots. When defeat looms in eastern Syria this year, Isis moved thousands of surviving fighters next door into western Iraq. In Mosul and Raqqa, once the de facto Isis capitals in Iraq and Syria, assassinations and suicide bombings have started again. Kurdish-led forces are regularly ambushed. In Syrian government held territory near Palmyra, a series of Isis attacks in April killed 36 and captured ten pro-Assad soldiers.

In Iraq, Isis cells are reactivating in Sunni areas that surround Baghdad which, in the not-so-distant past, were the staging posts for the prolonged and devastating suicide bombing campaign that killed thousands.

It is probably only a matter of time until Isis succeeds in staging a Sri Lanka type multiple bombing once again in the Iraqi capital. The last big bomb in Baghdad was on 3 July 2016, when a refrigerator truck packed with explosives blew up killing 340 civilians and injuring hundreds more. This should be a moment when the US could do all it can to resist the coming onslaught. Instead Washington is giving priority to pressuring the Iraqi government to impose US sanctions on Iran – something that is bound to divide Iraqis and aid Isis.

There is a similar pattern across the wider Middle East and North Africa where no less than seven wars, large and small, are being fought in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, Somalia and north east Nigeria. These flare up or die down on occasion but they never come to an end.

The reason for these wars – the true breeding ground for Isis and its kin – is that foreign powers have plugged into local civil wars and want to see their proxy either to come out on top or, at worst, avoid defeat. Libya is a good example of this: would be leader of Libya General Khalifa Haftar, backed by Saudi Arabia, UAE, Egypt, France and Russia are fighting a government in Tripoli supported by Qatar, Turkey, Italy, Tunisia and Algeria.

Such divisions and rivalries are repeated in conflict after conflict and mean that Isis will always be able to lodge itself somewhere in the chaos.

At the same time, one needs to keep a sense of proportion about Isis’s capabilities: the atrocities it carries out in Colombo, Baghdad, Paris, Manchester, Westminster and elsewhere are geared to dominate the news agenda, provoke fear and project strength. But none of these things win wars and the defeat of the caliphate earlier this year was real and irreversible.

This does not mean that Isis will not try to resurrect itself as a guerrilla movement relying heavily on terrorist attacks on soft targets. It is, at bottom, a military machine led by experienced military men who adapt their strategy and tactics according to circumstances. Talk in the west about cutting Isis off from the social media as if that would be a mortal blow misses the point.

Social media may be a powerful tool for Isis but it would survive without it. Savage cult-like movements similar to Isis such as the Nazis in Germany and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia existed long before the internet and were able to spread their toxic message without use of it..

The only effective way to bring an end to Isis is to end the wars that produced it. A large part of the Middle East and North Africa have become a zone of conflict where international and regional rivalries are fought out through local proxies. So long as that goes on Isis will continue to exist.

More articles by:

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

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