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A Geopolitical Pawn Named ‘ISIS’

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) launches RGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. On 23 September 2014, 47 Tomahawk missiles were fired by Philippine Sea and USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), which were operating from international waters in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria in the vicinity of Ar-Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, Al-Hasakah and Al-Bukamal.

The U.S. Navy guided-missile cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) launches RGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. On 23 September 2014, 47 Tomahawk missiles were fired by Philippine Sea and USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51), which were operating from international waters in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, against Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) targets in Syria in the vicinity of Ar-Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, Al-Hasakah and Al-Bukamal.

The mere mention of the name ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham) frightens Muslims and no-Muslims senseless, and there are plenty of reasons for that. But, who are they, and where does their campaign of terror lead to?

Before we could objectively decipher the mysteries surrounding this group, we must rely less on sound bites, packaged definitions, and media sensationalism, and more on historical facts. Granted, it is easier said than done.

Its True Nature

Contrary to its declaration of being the first movement to successfully found an Islamic caliphate since the demise of the Ottoman Empire, the group known as ISIS simply part of a misguided fraternity of extremists whose violent ideology has been proliferating in the world for a number of domestic and foreign factors.

Like al Qaida, al Shabaab and Boko Haram, ISIS justifies its existence by way of ill-interpreted or perverted Islam, and advances its cause through the use of gruesome violence.

Though each group proclaims Prophet Muhammad as their guiding light, ironically, none of them apply his spiritual curriculum — the well-documented model of gradual and peaceful transformation — nor his hallmark mercy and compassion that he used to win over the hearts and minds of even his staunchest enemies.

Muslims around the world, especially the younger more impressionable generation, must remember two things. First, nothing affirms the authenticity of a claim more than the actions and outcomes associated with it. Second, as underscored by the Quran, no movement or system that is devoid of mercy and compassion could ever be essentially Islamic. Prophet Muhammad’s entire mission was based on mercy and compassion. However, to ISIS and others, mercy and compassion are nothing more than the two sides of meekness, hence weakness. To them, neither Muslims nor non-Muslims deserve mercy and compassion and they have established a horrific record to amplify that ideological stance.

So the lingering question is, can such groups be defeated in battlefields with narrowly defined and increasingly militarized strategies?

Rampant Cynicism

For a few months now I have been casually monitoring opinions and editorials of mostly independent analysts and intellectuals on ISIS. Other than those helpless victims who suffered as a result of their Genghis Khan-like invasion and at their criminal hands, most of the Sunni Muslims question this latest intriguingly fantastical terrorist phenomenon. Mainly because the region has paid hefty price — both in lives and material resources — since it has been the epicenter of the global war on terror (GWOT) for a decade and a half.

ISIS is generally seen as nothing more than a Frankenstein’s monster made of deal-making criminal elements released from terrorist detention centers such as its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

Other than the fact that he was released from prison in 2009 and founded ISIS a year later, no one knows anything about a man broadly considered as the world’s most dangerous terrorist. Other elements are revenge-seeking Ba’athists, misguided Iraqi and other Sunnis lured into partaking a quixotic movement determined to establish an Islamic caliphate by the edge of a hunter knife.

Here are some of the most common arguments used by independent commentators and intellectuals in the Middle East to dismiss ISIS as a convenient card used by elements within the West to manipulate balance of power and for their geopolitical interests:

  • In a patently Western style that is virtually alien in the Arab culture, ISIS uses name abbreviation in Arabic (DA’ISH).
  • They are oddly brand-conscious. Their name had to be changed to “IS” once people started to ridicule it’s striking similarity to the Ancient Egyptian goddess of health, marriage, and love, and, when read backwards, to the strongman of Egypt, Abdel Fatah Sisi, who has been eagerly connecting ISIS to the Muslim Brotherhood.
  • Why would a terrorist organization that considers the concept of nation-state as an un-Islamic Western construct that must be abolished call itself Dawlah (State in Arabic)?
  • They are reported to have unusually large number of foreign fighters and seem to be at ease and readily trusting of this growing population.
  • Their military, intelligence and propaganda sophistication is in a stark contrast with their eagerness to spread themselves too thin, encircle themselves with enemies, and perpetual desire to pick unnecessary fights
  • Their tactics and strategic moves seem to be in synchrony with the geopolitical interests of countries such as U.S., Egypt, and Israel and against countries such as Turkey and Iran. (The latter two are the x factors of what Newsweek magazine calls the Coalition of Unwilling and Unsavory.)

Cake-walking Throughout Iraq and Syria

ISIS’ sadistic reality TV has been striking profound psychological terror in the hearts of many Muslims and non-Muslims.

According to an expert estimate, ISIS has some 30,000 fighters. Ironically, this supposedly ragtag group has somehow managed to easily overrun a “highly trained” Iraqi army that is ten times its size (270,000 soldiers) that has 300 tanks and whose 2013 budget was $17 billion. Meanwhile, their considerable military advances and strategic recklessness remain paradoxical, to say the least.

Take its strategic move in Syria as a case in point. Instead of consolidating all its manpower, arsenal and financial resources to score a decisive defeat to the current brutal regime or to oust the tyrant that they have been fighting, Bashar al-Assad, the group opted to send a large number of its fighters to Iraq. Moreover, in what seems as a suicidal move, they decided to go on a slaughtering rampage northward in Ayn Al-Arab bordering Turkey which is the geographical polar opposite of the capital city Damascus thus forcing over 130,000 civilians to cross into Turkey within three days. Making the matter even more dangerous, ISIS continued its seemingly haphazard strategy of spreading itself too thin and advancing to take over the Syria side of the Golan Heights- a stone throw away from the Israeli border.

Under these seemingly synchronized provocations, Turkey — an essential partner if the aforementioned coalition were to defeat ISIS — which wanted to stay out of the coalition to fight ISIS due to its political composition would be pressured to join in for its own economic and political survival. Likewise, Israel which was deliberately kept at bay due to the same political dynamic would now be secured a backdoor entry to a coalition that it eagerly wanted to be part of.

Meanwhile, smuggling oil and gas out Iraq and Syria continue in their uninterrupted flow to the international black markets. Sellers are widely understood as ISIS but the buyers still remain a mystery.

Defeating ISIS and Defusing Violent Extremism

Defeating ISIS and groups like them requires honest talk and when necessary direct action. Though assassinations or “targeted killings” of top leadership are often celebrated as the ultimate solution; other than certain political dividends, it does not deliver a fatal blow to the terrorist organization.

More often than not, the triumphant euphoria and false sense of security following each successful operation are often transient, overshadowed by newer, more horrific, realities.

It happened in Somalia: The U.S. aerial assassination of al Shabaab leader Aden Ayro in 2008 produced a more radical leader in Ahmed Godane who wreaked bloody havoc till he was assassinated a few weeks ago . One can argue the same in assassination of al Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden in 2012 and how that paved the way for ISIS’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to fill the vacuum and declare a heartless caliphate.

The current U.S.-led model to fight terrorism is nothing more than stealth GWOT — a reinvention of that failed model that ultimately plays into the hands of the terrorists.

Al Qaida had a baiting strategy to exhaust and drain the human and financial resources of the U.S. In one of his old videotapes, Osama Bin Laden is quoted to have said, “Our strategy has to be we wave the flag of jihad and call it al Qaida anywhere in the world, and that will get the American generals to come running to fight us.”

There is no cookie-cutter approach to defeating violent extremists as their needs and motivations are not always the same. Their various motivations are found within a wide spectrum of factors such as festering grievances or political disenfranchisement, delusional sense of divine entitlement, lust for power and control, exploitation due to board-based ignorance and isolationism, and real or perceived external or hegemonic threats.

The defeat of violent extremists such as ISIS could be achieved with a multifaceted strategy that focuses on de-radicalization, comprehensive counterterrorism measures, addressing all legitimate grievances, reconciliation, etc.

Where there is good faith effort, defeating such groups should not be a problem. They are their own worst enemies by often repeat that all too familiar fatal mistake of taken for granted human-beings’ God-given innate desire to resist suppression, despotism, and tyranny in all their manifestations.

  • Sadia Ali Aden

    Thank you for an amazing and deeper analysis. What is your take on the fear that “ISIS” is established to destabilize Turkey and is such a fear far fetched?

    • Abukar Arman

      Thank you for the kind words. If there is an answer that qualifies as the path of least resistance, it is to say that “such a fear (is) far fetched”. That said, ISIS’ actions & provocations does threaten Turkey, and, in due course, could destabilize it- at least economically.

  • Tim Westcott

    I am interested in your views on Israel’s role in both the ongoing Syrian conflict and its relationship with the coalition of the unwilling (!). As the pre-eminent regional military power, I assume it prefers the status quo but if Hezbollah is involved in Iraq ( and Syria ) in opposition to ISIS, that suggests intrigue of the highest order. I also assume ISIS does not seek to include the liberation of Jerusalem in its campaign, nor does it attempt internet assassination of Israelis.

    • Abukar Arman

      If there is a country that really benefited from this whole bloody
      scenario still unfolding in Syria it’s got to be Israel (which is what kept
      US on the fence for so long). In the current situation, Israel has Syria
      profoundly weakened- its economy collapsed, its conventional
      military might over exhausted, its weapons spread too thin and are
      widely exposed, its chemical weapons practically eliminated, and its influence in the region evaporated. However, from the Israeli
      perspective, this might not be the most thrilling aspect of the Syrian
      conflict; that honor goes to Hezbollah per it’s involvement.

      Hezbollah has fallen into a lethal strategic trap by getting deeply into
      the Syrian conflict.

      In other words, it is a matter of time before Israel tries to settle an old
      score away from international law and global public opinion.

      Per its role in the “coalition of the unwilling”: Israel is that 999 pound
      gorilla that most are inculcated to not see. All in all, if ISIS did not exist, Israel—like some others—would’ve invented it.

      • Tim Westcott

        I agree with your analysis of US’ seeming inertia regarding Syria. I had heard that the Israelis were allowing limited Saudi and Qatar arms shipments to anti-Assad forces in the region, in order to unsettle Hezbollah and allow the US to maintain its hands-off stance.
        My issue is that – inevitably – any nuanced discussion about Israel’s role in the current regional alignment is muted by a strident ‘Israel Lobby’. The country resembles a Crusader castle, sitting above the swirling mayhem, well connected and occasionally flexing muscle with little risk. Its tactical and strategic objectives have become blurred after being in a state of perpetual war for 70 years and, if for any reason the walls are breached, its Plan B could involve mutually assured destruction. The complexity of shifting alliances and the lack of strategic flexibility hint at 1914 – who would have thought that a Serbian assassin would condemn Europe to a century of unprecedented destruction. To paraphrase Monty Python – “What have the Israelis ever done for us ? “.

        • Abukar Arman

          I didn’t know that the Pythons were Realists :)

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