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ISIS down, not out: Ways to kill it

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  • July 09, 2016

    It’s necessary to fight the ideology of terror that ISIS has spawned by evolving a counter-ideological narrative which would rescue both Islam and Muslims from the abyss that ISIS is seeking to push them into

    Close on the heels of the Holey Artisan Bakery attack in Dhaka’s posh Gulshan area on July 1, came the brutal attack on a multi-storeyed shopping mall in one of busiest corners of Baghdad on July 3. The former attack, orchestrated by a team of seven young men of decent pedigree, claimed 22 lives, most of them foreigners. The latter, caused by a suicide truck bomber, has so far claimed 250 lives, most of them Shias. Days before the Dhaka incident, three fidayeen armed with automatic weapons and explosive vests staged a simultaneous attack at the international airport in Istanbul on June 28, killing 42 people.

    Bloody Ramzan

    What connects these three attacks? These attacks came on the eve of Eid-ul-Fitr, and were claimed by Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or Levant) — call it in its acronymic form, ISIS or ISIL. A day later than the Baghdad attack, there were three separate suicide attacks in Saudi Arabia — in Jeddah, by a Pakistani origin driver who blew himself close to the US consulate; in Medina, by a suicide bomber who wanted to enter the Prophet’s mosque where he is buried; and third, in Qatif, by again suicide bombers, who attacked a Shia mosque. All these three attacks, however, went unclaimed. Only a day before the Eid-ul-Fitr, the harrowing tale of 18-year-old Yazidi girl

    Lamiya Aji Bashar was splashed in the international media. She luckily escaped the ISIS torture cell in northern Iraq, where about 3,000 Yazidi women and girls are being held captive as sex slaves ever since ISIS swept the cities of Zumar, Sinjar, and Wana in northern Iraq, which had the significant presence of Yazidis — a Kurdish-speaking minority with a religious outlook that was a curious amalgam of Zorasrianism, Islam and Christianity. Institute for Study of War, a non-partisan, non-profit, public policy research organisation, based in the US, had predicted quite correctly in its publication in May this year that this year’s Ramzan, starting on June 6 and ending on July 6, 2016, would witness a surge of attacks which ISIS would launch to make up for serious losses it had suffered in the preceding months. The attacks would aim at boosting the morale of its followers on the one hand and catalyse its recruitment process in the Western Asian theatre. It had also isolated slow penetration of ISIS into Saudi Arabia.

    Predictable trajectory of ISIS

    Was it not so predictable? Aren’t we seeing all this for quite some time? Turkish President, right-wing and known for his sympathies for Islamic rule, called “Daesh” — as ISIS is called by its Arab detractors — “a dagger plunged into the chest of Muslims”. The ISIS cadre hate their outfit to be referred to as Daesh, as it has pejorative meaning in Arabic language. Call it ISIS or Daesh, the outfit, known for its brutal tactic and regressive ideological moorings based on ultra-orthodox reinterpretation of Islamic history and theology, has spread like wildfire across the world both in countries where Muslims are in majority as well as in those where they are in a minority. Ever since, the reclusive leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced the arrival of the new Caliphate on June 29, 2014, the appeal of ISIS has overtaken the appeal of all other radical Sunni Muslim groups in recent history. ISIS has expanded its network during the last two years from Africa to the Philippines with ease, as splinter groups from local Islamist radical groups, many of them formerly pledging notional loyalty to al-Qaeda, switched their allegiance to ISIS — starting from Boko Haram to Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) in Chechnya, from Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) to Jabhat al-Nushra (a known al-Qaeda affiliate, initially created by Islamic State of Iraq, the predecessor of ISIS). Egyptian militant Islamist group, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, and Libyan radical Islamists also announced their loyalty to ISIS in 2014. Similarly, there is a steady desertion of cadres from other sister Salafi-Wahabi outfits, who joined ISIS over the last two years, as it operated like a defect State with a well-operated revenue system, howsoever illegitimate and based on fear, and also with a well-oiled propaganda machinery which made good use of modern communication technology — catering to the new twitteratti and Facebook generation. Its glossy internet publication as well as circulation of videos and audios exhorting the faithful to join the Caliphate did result in gradual expansion of its ranks worldwide.

    Outflanking al-Qaeda

    Although a split-away group from al-Qaeda, ISIS has managed to establish itself as non-al-Qaeda group fighting for the rights of Muslims the world over. Unlike al-Qaeda, which sought to use territory held by — like-minded groups — like Mullah Omar’s Taliban in Afghanistan, the ISIS first occupied significant stretches of territory in Iraq and Syria before it announced its presence as a force to reckon with. Unlike many other groups, it tried to consolidate its financial position well before it announced its arrival. It has raised its finances quite skilfully by gradually overrunning oil fields, engaging in oil and drugs trade, looting of banks, extortion, levying of taxes, in territories held by it. Unfortunately, ISIS has benefited from the turmoil set into motion, first in 2003 with the fall of the Saddam regime in Iraq, and also in the wake of the call for regime change in Syria since 2011. (In my earlier piece in The Pioneer on July 7, 2014, I had traced the origin of ISIS). Five years later, today, all the anti-Asad forces, trained and supported by the Western countries, are losing their cadre to ISIS as it is showing its resilience in the face of concerted attack by powerful countries to weaken and decimate it. As the age-old dictum has it — nothing succeeds like success. The consolidation of ISIS in a large geographical area straddling Iraq and Syria has led to Islamic terror groups affiliating themselves voluntarily to ISIS. Most of them have expressed their willingness to operate as ISIS franchisees. The net result has been obvious. It has come up as a new but powerful group, slowly poaching on most groups cutting across States and regions. In the bargain, al-Qaeda has lost its shine vis-à-vis ISIS, and there is a competition for influence between these two radical outfits. Sometimes it has resulted in clashes between the affiliates of these two outfits. Ideologically speaking, there is not much difference between al-Qaeda and ISIS. However, ever since ISIS decided to operate as a State, especially since 2011, and that too much before declaring Caliphate, al-Qaeda leadership had cautioned against ISIS efforts to territorialise Islamic struggle and look for global Islamic revolution. ISIS under the leadership of al-Baghdadi turned over a new leaf and decided to first strengthen their hold over the territory they controlled and look for global jehad at later date. Al-Qaeda snapped all its relationship with ISIS in February 2014, and in 2015, top al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri criticised al-Baghdadi for engaging himself in sedition within the fold of Islam. He has questioned the way al-Baghdadi was chosen as the Caliph of the entire Muslim umma and also taken objection to al-Baghdadi’s emphasis on the apocalypse and the day of final judgement. In fact, ISIS followers are made to believe that as per the prophecy cited in the hadees (compilation of prophet’s sayings and deeds), the final battle between the forces of Islam led by it and those of the West will be fought in a place called Dabiq, in Syria. Al-Qaeda leadership is not that certain about such apocalyptic vision of ISIS. Moreover, al-Qaeda, known for its intensely conservative Sunni outlook, has raised its concerns about the anti-sectarian, anti-Shia activities of ISIS. Such differences at the top leadership level does not foreclose the possibility of al-Qaeda supporters gradually shifting their loyalty towards a group which is showing better promise of realising its Islamic goals it has set for itself. In that sense, ISIS has managed to attract the attention of the Muslim youth through its unapologetic endorsement of violence as a tool for radical change in society, and also its aggressive zeal to defend Islam against its enemies. Moreover, lower rung al-Qaeda sympathisers have pooled their resources with ISIS in certain theatres of war against a common enemy.

    Southern Asian theatre

    In the Pakistan-Afghanistan region, ISIS is slowly but surely making its presence felt. The leadership of Taliban and al-Qaeda have been particularly chary of their affiliates and cadres veering towards ISIS. There are several reports of ISIS sympathisers being neutralised in Afghanistan, especially in Faryab and Nangarhar. Some factions of the Pakistani Taliban group have also joined ISIS and registered their deep aversion for both al-Qaeda and Taliban. In fact, the central philosophy of Pakistan Taliban is similar to the worldview of ISIS. Most analysts in South Asia believe that the penetration of ISIS into the region has been rather exaggerated by the regional media. However, as the recent attack in Bangladesh suggests, ISIS sympathisers have shown exceptional zeal and enthusiasm to adopt its brutal methods to propagate their extremist world view. Moreover, South Asian countries have a large labour force in the oil-rich Arab countries, who run the risk of getting exposed to the ISIS world view. That is how, one has witnessed even Maldivian and Indian Muslims coming under the sway of ISIS and recruiting gullible Muslims for the “final battle” to be fought in Syria. Interestingly, the lure of ISIS continues despite many returnees from the Syrian theatre sharing their horrible experiences with the ISIS in the media. Recently, reports of security agencies busting ISIS cells in India have hogged the headlines. Therefore, there is no room for complacency when it comes to dealing with a threat as real as that of the ISIS today.

    Fighting ISIS

    After the ISIS-claimed attack on Russian aircraft and frequent suicide bombings in Turkey, there is a consensus now emerging among the wider international community that there is a need to arrest the growth of ISIS and its ideology of terror. After Russian pounding of ISIS facilities in Syria and recent recapture of the town of Fallujah from ISIS, it is being hoped that, if this tempo could be maintained, ISIS can be neutralised soon. However, the sectarian animus haunting the region is likely to interfere with the consensus that was slowly emerging among the world powers that decimating ISIS ought to be the prime goal of international intervention in the region. As it has been noticed, regional heavy-weights like Saudi Arabia and Iran are busy working at cross purposes creating the context for ISIS and its affiliates to regroup and reassert. An asymmetric threat like ISIS can only be countered through united action, which is now impossible to find. Ever since the invasion of Iraq in 2003, there has been no leader of vision and calibre in Iraq to hold the country together. The resultant uncertainty in the country is likely to indirectly strengthen ISIS further. True ISIS has suffered some reverses and has also retaliated very fast in the shape of a string of attacks in different parts of the world. But the war is not yet over. ISIS is down but not out. It is also necessary to fight the ideology of terror that ISIS has spawned by evolving a counter-ideological narrative which would rescue both Islam and Muslims from the abyss that ISIS is seeking to push them into. As the Islamic world is passing a serious churning process, in different countries across the world voices of sanity are slowly coming to the fore. These voices stress on plurality within Islam; they are ready to reinterpret Islamic precepts in light of the requirement of the times. Such voices need to be encouraged to share their perspectives and devise a counter-ideology that can fight out the ISIS effectively. One must remember that today the appeal of ISIS is primarily ideological. While every possible measure needs to be taken to militarily weaken ISIS, it is the fight at the ideological plane that can alone neutralise ISIS. Until then, ISIS will continue to surprise us with its terror tactics and lure away people to fill its ranks.

    The article was originally published in The Pioneer.