"Islamic State" (ISIS) has been defeated in Iraq and Syria, regardless of the presence of a few tactical remaining pockets. Moreover, following the decision of the international community and the other countries in the region to end the war in Syria, al-Qaeda is facing infighting and at the same time acknowledging their defeat and accepting the impossibility of changing the regime in Syria and of splitting Iraq. Does this mean the bloody extremism that hit the Middle East is over and won’t ever return? Is it possible for terrorist organisations to rebrand themselves or regain control to hit back again?
Al-Qaeda found a fertile ground in Afghanistan following the end of the Russian occupation in the 80s. It enjoyed a “resplendent golden era” until the 2000s, attacking various US objectives and bases in the Middle East. The 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the presence of tens of thousands of American soldiers on the ground in Mesopotamia offered a perfect setting, after Afghanistan, for the proliferation of jihadist extremists in the Middle East.
A widely circulated image of an al-Nusra (AQ) fighter in Northern Syria in 2013. A highly sophisticated chemical grenade can be seen, indicating outside state-sponsorship. Image source: Jeffry Ruigendijk via Ruig Photography.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq metamorphosed into that more lethal and blood-thirsty organisation (ISIS) following the war imposed on Syria, occupying half of the country and a third of Iraq. It became known as ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, one of many who graduated (arrested and later released) from the US “Jihadist University” at Buca detention camp.
Baghdadi became the master of Ijtihad, legalising looting, slaughtering of other Muslims and non-Muslims, raping, and reintroducing the slavery market. Through its highly sophisticated communication system and the use of social media, his group managed to attract recruits from Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrein, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Mauritania, Yemen, Africa, plus many Europeans and others from all corners of the globe. These were joining for money, adventure, looking for a home, for an easy marriage, following a relative or a friend; others were convinced by the cause, and eager to live in a “prosperous Islamic Caliphate”.
Baghdadi blended with his call, and with advanced communication tools, intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike. They responded to him positively, creating the largest gathering of those willing to embark on the Jihad ever seen in modern days. Borders were open to ISIS via Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon for all those willing to join the “Jihad” and for his group to exchange commerce, oil, and weapons. All taboos were lifted in favour of one cause: changing the Syrian regime.
What was the plan? To replace the Syrian President’s secular governance with an Islamic Emirates or State? Was it to install some de-facto “Islamic State” with little governance experience and no serious allies and easy to defeat, to expel Russia from Tartus naval base (under a 1971 deal with Syria, Russia has leased the Tartus facility as part of a multi-billion-dollar debt write-off) and protect Israel from the “Axis of the Resistance”? That may be the only plausible possibility since we are observing today the US decision to occupy a quarter of the Syrian territory and unilaterally consider Jerusalem as the “Capital of Israel”, threatening all those who stand in the way. It also explains why Saudi Arabia was eagerly willing to see Iran and Assad lose the war to the benefit of those extremists sent by its Kingdom and financed with billions of dollars to win and to stay camped on Israel’s borders.
The US-EU-Saudi-Qatar-Turkish-Israeli plan has failed and Syria, Iran, Russia and Hezbollah won. But are Takfiri jihadists going to disappear? The answer is simply and sadly “no!”. Baghdadi didn’t invent a new Islam, his source of inspiration derives from books available in most Islamic libraries worldwide, inviting readers to kill other Muslims and non-Muslims according to a specific interpretation of the holy book, the Quran, and the Hadith.
In fact, how can these Takfiri vanish when books calling for hate speech and the killing and intolerance of other continue to be widely available. To name but a few: ‘Millat Ibrahim’ by Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi; the ‘Management of savagery’ by Abu Bakr Naji; Ma’alim fi al-tariq by Sayyid Qutb; Kitab al-tawhid by Muhammad bin Abdel-Wahab; Fusul fil-Imama wal-Bay’a by Abu Munser al-Sharqiqi; Masael fi Fikh al-Jihad by Abu Abdallah al-Muhajer; Maalem al-taifa al-Mansura by Maysara al-Ghareeb; Rafa’ al-Iltibas by Mohamad Al-Atibi; Fatawi Ibyn Taymiyah, Kitab al-Tawhid and Kitab al-kabaer by Mohamad bin Abdel Wahhab; and many more…
It is true that Jihadists are surely losing the Levant and Mesopotamia. Nevertheless, they operate in Sinai (Egypt), Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and Asia. Killing jihadists is not difficult. However, the ideology remains alive and can damage any and every city: the tools and ideas are widely available which convert a peaceful human being into a beast hunting other men to kill. Moreover, the US’s foreign policy is one of the most provocative incentives for this ideology to continue existing. The US apparently cannot learn from its mistakes; occupying other territories means that, sooner or later, guns are focussed on its interests and against other associated states, worldwide.
US foreign policy has been a total failure in recent years:
- the failure of the partition of Iraq through the Kurdistan referendum weakened the US and Israel.
- The struggle between Saudi Arabia and Qatar gave more strength to Iran and weakened Saudi Arabia, one of US blind allies.
- The growth of ISIS in Iraq created al-Hashd al-Sha’bi (Popular Mobilisation Units), and gave more power to Iran and to Hezbollah in Syria.
- Hezbollah became a regional force threatening Israel and also the US interests and partners in the Middle East.
- The US Foreign Policy in Ukraine that was aiming to enlarge NATO and its negligence in eliminating ISIS in Syria and Iraq allowed Russia to move in and bite off a chunk of the US area of control and influence in the Middle East.
- President Assad has become stronger than ever before the war, willing to face losses and to confront Israel if necessary.
- The failed Turkish coup d’état pushed Turkey away from the US and closer to Russia and Iran: Erdogan is even willing to meet Assad again and put their differences behind them.
- The Saudi kidnapping of the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri damaged the Kingdom relationship with many of the Sunni in Lebanon and moved the pro-Saudi Hariri closer to Hezbollah.
- In Yemen, Ali Abdallah Saleh will be remembered as the one who betrayed the Houthis, and was killed at the hands of Iran’s allies while escaping.
- And finally, the US has become an unwelcome partner in the Palestinian peace process following Trump’s decision to recognise the Palestinian Capital as the Capital of Israel. Trump fell as manna to Iran and Hezbollah when he pushed the Palestinian cause back into the limelight after the damage it had received from ISIS in recent years. Even if Israel was occupying Jerusalem and was digging under the city and its holy places, the US overt decision turned the compass of all jihadists towards Israel and united most of the Arabs behind one cause, even if not all totally believe in it.
Since President Trump is in power his awkward alliance with Saudi Arabia, the “Israeli enemy” has been replaced with the “Iranian enemy”. Nevertheless, this failed attempt has created a counter effect, where Saudi prestige is hitting rock bottom, whilst Iran’s influence in the Middle East is growing at the speed of light, a country that has been guided for 29 years by a 78-year-old, Sayyed Ali Khamenei.
Khamenei triggers fear in the hearts of his enemies and enjoys the support of his own people every time he speaks. He – with a simple gesture or by taking a political position – is obeyed by the Iranians and is sitting on top of a solid ruling structure regardless of the endless western wishful thinking imagining the overthrow of his Islamic Republic. Khamenei has moved his country towards new horizons with solid ramifications in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Afghanistan: much of the credit for this must go to the US’s bumbling foreign policy.
It seems the US has become expert in grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory.