Are we going to defeat ISIS and bring the end of this phenomenon?
ISIS, the dynamics of its rise and decline
The elimination of al-Qaeda’s leaders such as Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi did not end the organization which they created and led. Despite causing serious damages, the theatrical elimination of the leaders actually helped the rise of a new generation of international Jihadi organizations that are more violent and brutal. During the last three decades, the trend that we can observe is the transformation of radical organizations that started as small groups in the mountains of Afghanistan and Yemen into large multinational organizations; from a non-state structure into a state structure; and from secretive and simple mode of operation into an open and complex one.
If we want to face the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) and defeat it, we need first to understand the social and political dynamics that led to its rise and allowed it to continue and thrive. This article organizes these dynamics in three main points: history and development, formation dynamics, and decline dynamics. The article ends with recommendations for tackling the issue of defeating ISIS.
I. History and development
ISIS is a part of the third generation of the trans-regional and international Jihadi organizations. Each generation is distinguished from the others by its recruits, leaders, strategies, and tactics.
- The first generation is that of Bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam. It is a generation that depended on its mountain refuge in Afghanistan for and on its ideology for recruiting new soldiers. This generation’s tactics consisted of hit-and-run operations.
- The second generation is that of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who established al-Qaeda’s franchise in Iraq (named al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia). The establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006 came as the result of a successful cooperation between al-Zarqawi’s organization and the Iraqi Sunni insurgency. These two organizations were characterized by a leadership that was well trained in the tactics of guerilla warfare and state-sponsored terrorism given that the Iraqi Sunni insurgency recruited heavily among the military and intelligence agencies of Saddam’s defunct regime.
- The third generation is that of ISIS (more recently IS, the Islamic State). ISIS is the first group within International Jihadism to operate in the open. It is also the first to move from the MO (mode of operation, or modus operandi) of a secretive organization to a declared state with borders, governmental institutions, an army, and a claim of territorial sovereignty and political legitimacy. As far as the tactics are concerned, ISIS combines those of a secretive terrorist organization, an insurgency, and a state military.
To conclude the first point, ISIS is the result of the development of International Jihadism, its ideology, its organizational knowledge, and its tactics over the period of three generations. One can also say that the war On al-Qaeda and International Jihadism did neither put an end to this phenomenon nor stop its morphing into new forms that are more ideologically extreme, operationally sophisticated, and theatrically vicious. Decapitation (the strategy of eliminating the leaders) as a counter-insurgency strategy seems less and less correlated with a final victory.
II. Formation dynamics
Is ISIS the product of an Arab culture? Or is it the product of an extremist Islamic ideology? Such questions are the focus of many observers who try to explain the rise of a number of terrorist organization within what can be called the Arab world and the Islamic world. In fact, every society can produce extremism when the “appropriate” environment creates or activates the “appropriate” social dynamics (non-cultural factors). Local cultures and ideologies can facilitate or hinder the rise of extremism, but they mainly provide the form and details of the that extremism (cultural factors). In the case of ISIS the main non-cultural factor is state failure; as for main the cultural factor, it is a specific reinterpretation of the role of Islam in politics and state formation.
State failure: The American invasion of Iraq was followed by a project of state- and nation-building. The process of state-building started with a massive DeBaathification of the Iraqi state which left overnight half a million members of the Iraqi military and intelligence services unemployed. The nation-building process was based on a system of sectarian quotas which favored the Shia sect and left the Sunnis feeling excluded and disadvantaged. We can say that given the Baathification and Sunnification of the Iraqi state under Saddam, which started after the Gulf War, the American forces in Iraq followed an opposite, but equally polarizing, course of action based on favoring the non-Baathist and Shii sectors of the population.
This process, intentionally or not, replaced the old Shii victimology with a Sunni one, and thus played right into the hands of al-Qaeda. These unemployed, Sunni ex-officers joined forces with al-Zarqawi to form the Islamic State in Mesopotamia, a parallel state for Sunnis that mainly operated in the so-called Sunni triangle east of Baghdad. The Islamic State in Mesopotamia, as a consequence, was a new type of terrorist organizations, a type that recruited members with professional bureaucratic and military skills, that aspired to become an independent state, and that had the appropriate ideology for it, namely Sunni nationalism revolving around a victimology based on a theory of international conspiracy.
The situation in Syria, whether we put its starting point in 2011 or before, produced an environment that mimicked the situation in Iraq, namely the failure of the state and a war that targeted the Sunni communities. It was quite logical for al-Qaeda and ISIS to relaunch their operations in Syria.
Jihad ideology: The development of political Islamic groups in Syria and Egypt in the sixties and seventies made possible the adaptation of the old Jihad ideology to an international enterprise. State oppression in these countries and others pushed many political Islamic groups to transform Jihad from a defensive, state-based ideology into an offensive, society-based ideology.
As for the tactics used by groups who espoused this new version of Jihad, they are known from anti-colonial and anti-capitalist struggles around the world, namely guerilla warfare. It is noteworthy here that the nature and scale of the guerilla war in Afghanistan, which used Jihad as its ideology, made possible the internationalization of both the ideology and the tactics
The rise of ISIS (and its predecessor in Iraq) is the result of a political failure (nation/state-building). The extremist interpretation of a religious ideology functioned as the tool and not the cause of ISIS. In any political system, The feeling of despair and abandonment, and the lack of opportunity to participate and change the system from within pushes some people to extremism and violence. In the Middle East, several thousand individuals die under torture every year, the economy is controlled by less than 5% of the population, the political systems is based on a zero-sum game, and the young generations, who constitute a majority, can not see any future for a better life. Such an environment keeps the dynamics that produces radicalism going.
III. Decline and dismantlement dynamics
The Islamic State in Mesopotamia, as a stage in the development of International Jihadism, went through many setbacks and almost disappeared completely. This was the work of other Sunni Arabs (the so called Sahawat). The organization was given a new lease of life because of the glaringly sectarian policies of al-Maliki regime in Iraq. It made its final transformation into a state in Syria thanks to the weakening of the state there and to the even weaker military opposition that took over the control of what is today ISIS territory.
In Syria, ISIS deployed its full bureaucratic and military expertise to build a state. However, the original push for territory was made possible by the “liberated territory” strategy employed by the Syrian opposition factions, especially the so-called Free Syrian Army, during the first three years of the Syrian crisis. Whatever the FSA “liberated”, ISIS occupied without a fight and without any loss of personnel or resources. ISIS also used scare and extortionist tactics common to the Saddam era in order to control the population within its territory. The only setback suffered by ISIS in Syria prior to 2017 was in Aleppo in 2014 on the hands of Syrian Sunni factions, a reminder of the Sahawat in Iraq.
As for the current offensive against ISIS mounted by the US-supported, mainly Kurdish, Syria Democratic Forces in northeastern Syria, and by the sectarian Popular Mobilization in northern Iraq, it was successful only with a preliminary bombardment of the targeted cities that left them levelled to the ground. Moreover, there are numerous reports of abuse and violence against the local populations perpetrated by the attacking forces.
Conducting a war on ISIS (and international Jihadism) using non-Sunni (Shii) and non-Arab (Kurdish) elements reinforces the Sunni victimology championed by these organizations. Experience has shown that organized, Sunni forces are better suited to defeat ISIS, and the likes of ISIS, and neutralize its effects.
Finally, it is time to tackle the question of defeating and eliminating ISIS. Differently put, will defeating ISIS in Mosul and Raqqa bring the end of this phenomenon? The answer is certainly not. We must remember that the killing of Bin Laden and al-Zarqawi did not end the organizations they created but helped the rise of a new generation of International Jihadi organizations. We can confidently state that defeating and eliminating the almost fifty thousand fighters concentrated in Mosul and Raqqa will only disperse them and cause the rise of many terrorist cells in the West and around the world.
Tackling extremism must start with the political context that produced it, namely the context of marginalization and exclusion. The Sunnis of Iraq must be given access to the state and its resources. The ten million Sunni refugees and internally displaced in Syria must also be given justice against oppression and political marginalization. Speaking in less sectarian terms, the peoples of the Middle East must be given a chance to rid themselves of the brutal and entrenched dictatorships that have been governing them for more than half a century.
The Arab uprisings started with peaceful demands for transitions toward democracy. This course of events was then reversed by regional and international players who supported the old regimes within each country. The success of the revolutions in Egypt and Syria would have been an efficient antidote to the ideology of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The peaceful transition toward democracy by means of these peaceful movements would have undermined the basic premise of International Jihadism, namely that any change in the Middle East is impossible without violence.
Six years after the Arab Spring, it is clear that the rise of Jihadists and non-state actors is not the only trend. The other trend is supporting dictatorial regimes in the name of international stability. These regimes are the ones responsible for creating the dynamics that led to rise and thriving of ISIS. The sectarian regime in Iraq led to the rise of Zarqawi and the Islamic State in Mesopotamia. Moreover, keeping the Assad regime in Syria helped transform these organizations into ISIS. Whether his victor would generate the next generation of ISIS and whether Egypt is also following the same route or not; only the future can tell.