Here’s an article by a Turkish writer about the efforts of Hezb u-Tarir to re-establish the Caliphate. As the article points out early on, establishing the Caliphate—which is the goal of Islamic State, for instance—isn’t a goal limited to violent Islamist groups. Rather, it is the goal of all the groups on what this blog labels the Sunni Islamist Continuum. Hezb u-Tarir is a little further along the Continuum than the Muslim Brotherhood, but not as far along as Hamas, which isn’t as violent as al-Qaeda or Islamic State.
I wrote back in November 2014 that success for the Islamic State requires continued success—that, jihadi doctrine aside, the loyalty of its fighters will be decided by success on the battlefield (not the other way around) and the ability of IS to pay them.
Now, as IS is reeling from successive battleground defeats, fighters are claiming sick leave!
While there’s nothing groundbreaking in this article from late last year, it does remind us that the concept of fighting a war of ideas is not just rhetorical flourish—it’s the way things are. We can’t bomb Islamic State into submission. As the article points out,
The concept of territorial gains is a twentieth century, somewhat anachronistic notion. In World War II … the world was an infrastructure-centric place. To stop the Nazis, it was primarily a question of destroying their ability to continue fighting. Bombs and bullets were the preferred means to that end.
But what of ISIS? The militant group’s weapon of choice is a perverse and apocalyptic vision of the world and its place within it. To propagate its corrupting influence, it needs only the internet and disaffected populations receptive to its worldview. While we have made significant gains on the battlefield — killing many of its leaders, destroying weapons caches and disrupting supply lines — we have done little to disable ISIS’ ability to recruit followers, or ultimately, target western societies.
It comes back to something that I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and one that I think will be a recurring theme this year—the need for strategy. The Cold War, and the Second World War, for that matter, allowed us to crystallise a strategy because we had a clearly defined enemy. We knew who we had to defeat, so we were force to come up with a way to defeat it. These days, those saying that violent Islamists have replaced these two defeated foes as the West’s principle enemy are routinely denounced as being alarmist, or even ‘Islamophobic’. And it’s true that violent Islamism does not pose a threat to Western interests in the same manner as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It’s also true that some of Islamism’s critics come across as particularly nasty. But it’s also true that violent Islamists do pose a threat to Western interests—mostly to individual Westerners through acts of terrorism, as opposed to the state itself, but a country’s duty and purpose is to protect its citizens, right?
Nazi Germany was defeated through force of arms—its army was rolled back and Germany was destroyed. The Soviet Union was defeated by bankrupting it—the people under its control were unhappy, and Moscow no longer had the money to enforce its will on its people, so it imploded.
But violent Islamism is individual-driven, not state-driven. You cannot bankrupt it. And while groups like Islamic State and al-Qaeda must be defeated on the battlefield (or through other kinetic options like assassination), that’s not going to defeat the idea. Indeed, it will actually help perpetuate the idea because, to a large extent, Islamism is a victim mentality. It thrives on being defeated, and its adherents entrap others by saying the reason for Islam’s low status in the world today is because Muslims aren’t devout enough. That is, violent Islamists will continue being defeated on the battlefield until Muslims are devout enough to warrant victory.
Ultimately, though, impressionable Muslims turn to ideologies like that of Islamic State because it presents an explanation for the world that fits in to the selfish reasoning of society—and I’m not talking about Muslim society, I’m talking about modern society. The explanation goes like this: You, Muslim, are not well off because the infidel West oppresses you. You can never become well-off because the infidel West won’t let you. There’s no point integrating yourself into the infidel West, because that way you’ll lose your Muslim identity and effectively become an infidel. The only way to succeed is to reject the infidel West and support those who want it bring it down.
The laziness aspect here is that the targeted individual sees an explanation that blames others for his or her (or his or her family’s or community’s) socio-economic situation. It’s easier to blame others for your situation—and much easier to resign yourself to that fate—than it is to take fate by the reins and get yourself out of it. Explanations are never black and white. The reason for the socio-economic depression of the Muslim community and family and individual in Western society is not only the community’s or family’s or individual’s fault. The state and the majority society shares some blame, too. But neither is it solely the fault of the state or the majority society. Ultimately, it is the individual and the community that will have to use the tools available to it to lift themselves into the middle class, just as previous rounds of immigrant communities have the world over.
But I digress. It feels as if we in the West do not have a strategy to defeat Islamic State, or all the other manifestations of Islamist violence. Everything we have been doing thus far is tactics. We are in no danger of losing this war. But we need to develop a strategy if we want any chance of winning it.
As always, Jonathan Spyer has captured the essence of what is going on in the Levant, and applied it to the regional context.
He notes that the recent international terrorist attacks by Islamic State are directly attributable to the group losing land. He writes that even when the caliphate is defeated, it won’t go away.
More importantly, Spyer notes that salafi-jihadi groups like jubhat a-nusra are religiously/politically identical to Islamic State – they want the same end result. But some of these groups are massively funded by Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and control large amounts of Syria. In short, we shouldn’t expect peace to reign once the Raqqa falls.
The one difference I have with Spyer is that I tend to include all Sunni Islamist groups in the same category – a continuum from nominally peaceful Islamist groups likes the Muslim Brotherhood and hezb u-tahrir, right through to Islsmic State. I look at these groups’ ultimate objective, not whether or not they are currently holding weapons. Spyer makes a more technical distinction between salafi groups and political Islamic groups.
An interesting article about the short-term interests of Iran, Russia and Hezbollah vis-a-vis Syria. I agree with the Russian aspect of the article, though think Iran is happy to be there for the long-term (after all, Syria effectively occupied Lebanon for 30 years).
The more interesting question I ask the ether, having read this article, is how a country recovers from devastating civil wars. It would be interesting to see a comparison of countries that have undergone civil wars in recent decades – Lebanon, the former Yugoslavia, even Vietnam. What factors in their post-conflict era helped peaceful reconstruction? What factors hindered this? Are there lessons on offer for al-Assad? For us in the West?
It looks like the US under Obama is actually making a smart move on the Middle East. Recent advances against Islamic State by the ‘Syrian Democratic Forces’ are heavily backed by US firepower.
The SDF is essentially a Kurdish front group, and Turkey has been warning anyone who’ll listen against helping Syrian Kurds. This has prevented the US and others from meaningfully backing the Kurds, despite their consistently proving they can tick Western boxes by being capable fighters and not extremists – about the only group in Syria to fill both those categories.
But the Turks are a toothless tiger, and, with their earlier help to Islamic State, have arguably done more to worsen the situation in Syria than any other country (with the notable exception of Iran). (Though I note they have absorbed hundreds of thousands of refugees.) Their bluff should have been have been called years ago. It appears it has been now.
Here’s a good article from the Washington Post.
When I was in high school, my class visited a fire station, where we watched a video about the different types of fire (i.e. electrical, wood) and the different ways to extinguish them.
The video kept repeating that a fire requires oxygen, fuel and heat; removing one of these will kill the fire.
While the analogy isn’t exactly parallel, I often recollect that video when thinking about how to extinguish the threat of terrorism.
If you like, a terrorist attack needs motivation and means. If we remove one of these factors, there will be no terrorist attack. And if we reduce some of these factors, we will likely reduce the severity of an attack.
It is rarely possible to distil a would-be jihadi’s motivation to a single issue. A potential Islamist terrorist will be motivated by Islam’s glorious past and prophesied future, the present global weakness of Islam vis-à-vis the West, the secularism and corruption of Muslim leaders, the success of Islamic State in defeating its corrupt Muslim and non-Muslim enemies, the decadence of the West, the festering sore of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict (and American support for Israel) and so on.
But these are just sources of discontent. A would-be Islamist terrorist is also motivated by the radical theological prism through which he or she perceives the world. This worldview does not spontaneously appear, but is cultivated over time in small groups, in mosques or online. And this cultivation is not merely a matter of people pulling the wool over particularly impressionable eyes. Islam has a continuous history of very clever people that have applied the theology of jihad to their times, from Muhammad to ibn Taymiyya and Qutb, through to bin Laden and al-Baghdadi today.
It is, in short, all but impossible to remove motivation for would-be jihadists. Until the West is weaker than dar al-islam (the realm of Islam), the would-be jihadis will resent it and want to attack it, and if the West became weaker than dar al-islam, the would-be jihadi would seek to subjugate it.
There are ways to reduce motivation but many of these are akin to finger-in-the-dyke solutions. Providing Islamic State with defeats will, no doubt, reduce some motivation to potential jihadis—Islamic State’s victories have inspired violent Islamists around the world. But even after Islamic State is finished (and I’ve written previously it’s more fragile than the media makes out), to my mind, the genie is out of the bottle. Let us remember that Lee Rigby was executed well before Islamic State was created.
One could argue that the US acting strong might reduce motivation. And it is certainly true that Obama has acted weak. But Bush acted strong, and helped unbotttle that genie. Acting strong or weak is not, in and of itself, the cause of these issues. Acting wisely is what the West should be doing…
A would-be jihadi that hates the West for its perceived crimes against Muslims will usually overlook the impressive list of actions the West has taken in defence of Muslims, not least in Kosovo and elsewhere in the Balkans. The point being, the West can do all it can to remove or reduce reasons for violent Islamists to hate it, but violent Islamists will still find ways to hate it.
Strong action and leadership within the Muslim communities across the world, to prevent radicalisation will and is helping, and there have been some successes. But as worthy as these efforts are, there will always be an influential few who preach jihad (and it’s hard to stop them from proliferating on the Internet). The problem for these anti-radicalisation efforts is, the jihadi worldview is theologically sound, so it is incredibly hard to argue against.
Social media companies have a role to play—they need to act quickly to prevent radical content on their platform. Facebook has done good work in this field; Twitter today is the social network of choice for Islamists.
Since it’s hard to reduce motivation, means is the best way Western security agencies can prevent Paris-like attacks. The greater the complexity of a terrorist plan, the greater chance security agencies will have of detecting and preventing it. And the more people involved in the planning and preparation of an attack, the more chance these plans and preparations can be uncovered.
However, if a would-be jihadi wants to take a car or a knife and kill a random civilian, he or she doesn’t require any training or even a network of organisers. These ‘lone wolf’ attacks are incredibly hard to prevent. But, on the bright side, the number of people killed or injured in each such attack tend to be small.
A sophisticated terrorist plot usually requires know how—how to obtain weapons, what ingredients to use in explosives, how to put a bomb together, etc. Moreover, training is required to learn all of the above, plus how to handle weaponry, how to remain calm during the attack when the adrenaline is pumping, etc.
Training requires a physical space. If done in the West, it can often be detected. But it’s frequently done overseas. There used to be terrorist training camps in Lebanon. These days, would-be jihadis get their training done in real-life wars, such as in Afghanistan and Syria.
Preventing Westerners from travelling to these wars (or preventing them from returning) will help protect us from Paris-style attacks.
Strong and intrusive national security legislation (which must strike a balance between the right to life and the right to privacy) will enable security agencies to uncover many complex plots.
In conclusion, a mass-casualty terrorist attack requires motivation and means. Motivation is hard for the West to prevent or reduce. Means can be reduced but not entirely prevented, with intelligence, tight gun control laws, and restrictions regarding explosive precursors, etc. But even with all of this, some groups will plan and execute their attacks undetected. Terrorism is a phenomenon we will have to live with for years to come.
Supporters of Israel wonder – sometimes hope – that Islamist attacks in the West, such as what took place in Paris on Friday, will make Westerners more appreciative of the threat of terrorism that Israel faces.
The answer is, it won’t. Events like this tend to reinforce previously held ideas. Those that see Israel at most fault for the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute will point to Muslim grievance at this festering sore and will argue that more pressure needs to be put on Israel to bring about peace – thereby reducing a motivation for potential Islamist terrorists.
Others see Islamist terrorism in the West quite separate from terrorism against Israel. The former, they argue, is religious and the latter is nationalist.
Those that see the Palestinians as sharing most of the blame will identify shared Islamist motivations in attacks against Israel and the West. (That, for instance, is the position of the Israeli prime minister.)
The truth is somewhere in the middle. Palestinians are highly nationalist, compared with al-Qaeda and Islamic State types who want to do away with the notion of states and establish a global caliphate. But Palestinian nationalist discourse is saturated with Islamist doctrine – even when nominally secular groups like Fatah are involved.
Saudi Arabia and Iran are the principal actors in the Middle East’s spreading Sunni-Shi’ite battle. The two have for the past decade been the respective heads of the Status Quo and Resistance Blocs, but the competition between them was more Great Game than Game of Thrones. However, the related phenomena of the Syrian civil war spiralling out of control and the apparent US decision to pull back (note: not withdraw) from the Middle East has forced the Saudis to a realisation they need to be more hands-on.
Mostly, both parties act to empower proxies, much like the US and Soviets did during the Cold War. The problem for Western interests (because Western interests continue to lie with the Saudis) is that the Saudi product, with which it hopes to encourage proxies and the ‘Arab Street’, isn’t very good—Saudi Arabia is having trouble winning hearts and minds.
The message the Iranians are selling is:
- Iran is the defender of Shi’ites
- All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Shi’ites and will either kill them (e.g. Islamic State, al-Qaeda), oppress them (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
- No one else can or wants to protect the Shi’ites, but Iran can supply Shi’ites with weapons and aid
- The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Shi’ites putting their fate in its hands
- The government of the countries where Shi’ites live (unless you live in Iran!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
- Death to America! Death to Israel!
The message is easy to sell because most Shi’ites in the Middle East believe it. Indeed, cut out the Shi’ite-centric message, and it’s effectively the same message the various Sunni Islamist groups are selling:
- We [name of group—e.g. al-qaeda, Islamic State, Muslim Brotherhood] are the defender of the Sunnis
- All other parties in the Middle East cannot be trusted to defend the Sunnis and will either kill them (e.g. rival groups), oppress them (e.g. every Arab government, plus Iran) or overlook others oppressing them (e.g. the US)
- No one else can protect Sunnis (some groups are able to promise arms)
- The US cannot be trusted to keep its word so there’s no point Sunnis putting their fate in its hands
- The government of the countries where Sunnis live (unless they live in areas under our control!) are corrupt and must be overthrown
- Death to America! Death to Israel!
The problem for the Saudis (and, for that matter, every Status Quo Bloc member) is that they are corrupt and aligned with the US (which is, of course, aligned with—and widely seen as subservient to—Israel). The Saudis also back many of the other corrupt states in the region, including Egypt. Although they are the guardians of the two holy mosques (i.e. Mecca and Medina), they struggle to present themselves as representative of the true Islam. The various Salafi groups out there also present themselves as such but their message is easier to sell because it is much closer to the message of Muhammad. The Saudi message is entirely flawed because what Saudi Arabia is trying to sell is, essentially, hypocrisy.
To mollify their own Islamists, the Saudis have spent billions investing in Wahhabi religious education throughout the Middle East, as well as the rest of the world, for several decades. The Middle East has become more devout—and more extreme—because of this.
There is little wonder that, faced with corrupt, basically secular political leaders, extremist Sunni Islamists felt they needed to take things into their own hands. Al-qaeda and the various militias that were organised after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 really started the process. But the Arab Spring and, particularly, the Syrian civil war let the cat out of the bag. And there’s no stuffing it back in now.
The problem for the Saudis is that unrestrained and popular Sunni Islamist movements are a real threat for the Saudi regime. (To be clear, I’m not suggesting that Islamic State will continue expanding southward until it overruns Riyadh, but that continuing successes of Islamist movements throughout the Middle East could sufficiently embolden Saudis to rise against their political masters.) The Saudis think that the way to resolve this problem is to have all manifestations of successful Islamist groups fail. That’s why Riyadh has been arming and funding groups in Syria that are opposed to both the regime there and Islamic State (for now, these groups are still under Saudi control, but I would expect that to change after a while). The Saudis have directly interfered in Yemen, in a badly-thought through attempt at defeating the Iranian-backed Houthi movement. And they’ve been propping up the Egyptian military dictatorship in Egypt (which overthrew the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood in 2013). Doing so is expensive, as Egypt is hopelessly corrupt, provides endless subsidies to its people, does not garner much tax from them and has no possibility of turning things round any time soon. Pouring money into an endless hole that is Egypt shows how much the Saudis want the Muslim Brotherhood to remain out of power. The Saudis have also tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) backed Israel in every war it has fought against Islamist movements Hezbollah and Hamas since 2006.
The Obama Doctrine and the rising tide
But it increasingly feels as if the Saudis are fighting the rising tide. To a certain extent, the US has realised this (consider President Obama’s April interview with Thomas Friedman in the New York Times, where the former pointed out that the biggest threat to Saudi existence was lack of democracy within its borders). That said, I don’t believe the US effectively abandoning the field, as it has been progressively doing during the Obama Administration, is a reflection of this realisation (were it so, it could only be described as Machiavellian strategic daring rarely seen in the real world). Rather, I think this US pull-back is part of the two-pronged Obama Doctrine.
The first prong appears to involve a slight pulling back from allies (such as Israel and the Saudis) who have long benefitted from US largesse but frequently don’t do what the US asks of them. The rationale is to panic them into realising that US support is conditional, and thereby change in their behaviour into being more complying.
The second prong is to engage with enemies—to unclench the fist, as Obama said during his first inauguration address. The idea is to make the first move. Instead of waiting for enemies (such as Iran) to become conciliatory as a result of US sanctions or military might, the US will make some amends and invite the enemy to reciprocate (ironically, this is similar to the idea that lies at the heart of my honours thesis (published in 2004), though I would argue that my honours thesis had a chance of working…)
While the Obama Doctrine might work well on paper, to those it affects, it feels as if the US is being nasty to its friends and rewarding the bad behaviour of its enemies (especially since it is happening at the same time as the Middle East is aflame in violence). Iran has not been more conciliatory as a result of softening US policies. It continues to call for the destruction of the US and Israel; it continues to insist on its right to nuclear enrichment and to deny UN nuclear inspectors the right of entry to suspect sites; and it continues to aid proxies in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen. As a reward for this behaviour, it appears to be on the brink of the US and international community removing many of the crippling international sanctions against it. These sanctions, I would add, were applied because of illegal Iranian behaviour which hasn’t actually changed.
Saudi Arabia is, indeed, panicked by US distancing. But its reaction isn’t to run, pleading, into American arms, promising all the while to undertake the internal democratic reform that Obama wants it to. Rather, it has been rolling up its sleeves and getting involved—by funding its own anti Syria, anti-Shi’ite and anti-ISIS proxies in Syria, by heading a coalition against Iranian-backed proxies in Yemen, and by agreeing to buy nukes from Pakistan.
The Obama Doctrine feels as if it’s a decade too late; it might have worked when the Middle East was stable (even then, it probably wouldn’t have).
The tide is rising faster and faster
Were the Saudi product a good one, the implementation of the Obama Doctrine probably wouldn’t matter so much. The Saudis could have ridden out the two terms until Hilary Clinton arrives in the Oval Office (an early prediction!) without too much bother. But because the product the Saudis are selling is flawed, and because the Middle East is so unstable at the moment and, especially, because Iran is rising so quickly (with Western acquiescence), the tide will rise faster for the Saudis.
We will see more and more frenetic activity by the Saudis, and more and more money being thrown at unsolvable problems. But the Status Quo Bloc will become progressively weaker relative to Iran, and their respective governments progressively less legitimate in the eyes of their people, to the point where some of the stable countries that were not adversely affected by the Arab Spring might go under (quite possibly including Saudi Arabia itself).
The fact that the governments of Saudi Arabia and every other Arab country are endemically corrupt, with a near total lack of representation (and support the same throughout the Middle East), with the only people presenting a ‘solution’ being the Islamists (since secular democrats are both gaoled by the regime and discredited because secular democracy is seen as a trait of the hated/resented West) means there has always been an air of inevitability about the House of Saud’s house of sand crumbling from within.
I’m not blaming the Obama Doctrine for this approaching calamity, but it has certainly sped up the process.
Nuclear talks between Iran and the ‘P5+1’ are once again in the news, with the sides having initialled a framework agreement (with a final, more detailed agreement to be negotiated over the next three months). The complexity of these negotiations boils down to a Western desire to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons capability and an Iranian desire to have the crippling sanctions against it removed.
As I have written previously, the West appears to want an agreement more than the Iranians, so seems willing to offer larger concessions. This is unfortunate, because the Iranian march toward nuclear weapons capability is bad for the region.
But there is a bigger picture here, and it remains that keeping the sanctions regime in place is more important for Western interests than reaching a deal—whatever its terms—that removes those sanctions.
Iran wants to exert its influence over the region. It supports, arms and trains regional Shi’ite or heterodox Muslim militias and countries (such as the Shi’ite Hezbollah, the Zaidi Houthis and the Allawite Syrian government) in order to advance Iranian interests. What are these interests? Principally, to undermine the countries of the Status Quo Bloc (and the US, which supports them).
Due to its efforts, Iran now possesses significant control and/or influence over four regional capitals—Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a. But there are other countries with sizeable Shi’ite populations—not least Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which Iran could also use to destabilise its neighbours.
Israel’s position on the nuclear talks with Iran is well known. But Israel isn’t the story here. It remains that other Western friends in the Middle East see Iran as their principal enemy. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are the two leading Arab countries, and both see Iran—and, particularly, Iranian foreign policy—as a threat to their countries. Remember, the Middle East is divided into the Status Quo Bloc (led by Saudi Arabia and Egypt) and the Resistance Bloc (led by Iran). (There is also a nascent Sunni Islamist Bloc, which both the Status Quo Bloc and the Resistance Bloc fear, hence the crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, and the Iranian cooperation with the US in fighting Islamic State.)
While the Status Quo Bloc has long relied on American support, it sees current American policy as distancing itself from its Middle Eastern friends. It sees American willingness to agree to a nuclear deal well-short of original American goals not as a sign of the US pragmatically achieving what is possible, but proof that America wants to get out of the Middle East. This perception has the effect of undermining regional stability. Their thinking goes that if the West won’t protect the Status Quo countries, then those countries will have to protect themselves. On a very high level, it means they will look to start their own nuclear programs, to balance Iran. But it also means they will look to counter Iranian actions on the ground—hence the recent Arab coalition against Houthi rebels in Yemen. The Houthis’ recent takeover of Sana’a was seen in Arab capitals as a victory for Tehran.
The sanctions regime against Iran over the past few years has crippled the Islamic Republic economically (as has the current low price of oil), meaning Iran is increasingly having to choose between paying for services inside its borders or servicing its proxies in foreign wars.
Regardless of the terms of the nuclear deal with Iran, removing or lessening the sanctions against it will significantly improve the Iranian economy. Not only will Iran be able to export oil and other commodities, but foreign companies will be able to invest in Iran, and its banking sector will once again have access to international markets.
This will strengthen Iran and the Resistance Bloc, and further worry Iran’s enemies, adding to regional tension.
Sanctions are a tool used by the international community to force a country to change its behaviour. The Iranian attempts at nuclear weapons capability—which I believe will continue regardless of whatever deal is reached at the and of June—is not the problem, but only a symptom. The West should maintain a clear-eyed, strategic view of the region in the context of Western interests, to determine what it wants. I fear that, in its rush to sign a deal with Iran so as to notch up a foreign policy achievement, it is in the process of scoring a dangerous, strategic own goal of emboldening Iran and scaring the Status Quo Bloc, thereby further reducing regional stability.