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The Meteoric Rise of ISIS

The last page of this brief but powerful book displays a portrait of its author, Patrick Cockburn. His world-weary demeanor speaks volumes about the gravity of the subject—the unexpectedly sudden, meteoric rise in Syria and Iraq of sundry Islamist terror groups, of which the most brutal went until recently by the acronym of ISIS. The so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria even more recently contracted its name to Islamic State so as to indicate that it has now become a global caliphate to which all Muslims should give their fealty.

Cockburn, the Baghdad-based Middle East correspondent of the British newspaper The Independent, offers readers of The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising little comfort. He begins by observing that “Iraq has disintegrated.” The country that U.S. forces just exited faces a civil war that could go on for years and be “as bloody as anything that we have seen in Syria.”

As to that latter troubled country, it puts him in mind of Lebanon during the 15-year civil war of 1975 through 1990—except it is even more complicated. Cockburn distinguishes no fewer than five separate conflicts in Syria.

The popular revolt against Bashar al-Assad was genuine, but it “soon became intertwined with the struggle of Sunni against the Alawites,” the Shiite-related minority of which the dictator’s family is a member. This “fed into the Shia-Sunni conflict” taking place in the entire region, “with a stand-off between the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni states on the one side and Iran, Iraq and the Lebanese Shia on the other.”

Alongside that, he writes, is “a revived cold war between Moscow and the West.” All of this now looks to him “like a Middle East version of the Thirty Years’ War.”

How did such chaos come about? And what, if anything, might be done to prevent it becoming worse? More to the point, what can the West do to prevent the chaos from eventually engulfing it? For make no mistake, there is a real risk it could. Not only has ISIS recruited thousands of disaffected young Muslims from around the world, including from America and Europe. It also aspires to extend itself globally. However unrealistic these aspirations might be, that does not make them any less potentially dangerous for the West.

Just as back in 1996, Osama bin Laden obligingly gave America notice he was declaring war on it (he called on his “Muslim brothers across the world” to join in the jihad against Americans),  so too last July did the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi issue his call. In an audio message to all Muslims, he bid them to stand against “the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America . . . If you hold to it, you will conquer Rome and own the world, if Allah wills.”

With thousands of jihadi recruits from around the globe, including North America and Europe, it would be folly for any in the West to think themselves exempt from the threat. Cockburn describes an ominous video from early 2014, made most likely in Syria. The jihadists are burning their passports in a show of commitment to holy war:

As each man rips up his passport and throws it in the flames, he makes… a promise to fight the ruler of the country from which he comes… What makes their threats particularly alarming is that their base area… is larger by far than anything an al-Qa’ida type of group has held before… and the area in which they can mount operations is much bigger.

To put the point more bluntly, ever since the West declared war on terror after 9/11, it has been losing it. Cockburn offers two primary reasons for this abject failure. First, there has been its exaggerated focus on al Qaida when in fact it has been only one among many groups.

The epitome of this thinking: the U.S. operation of May 2011 that ran Osama bin Laden to ground in Pakistan, which “enabled President Obama to grandstand . . .  as the man who had presided over the hunting down of al-Qaida’s leader.” Cockburn adds that in practical terms, “his death had little impact on al-Qaida-type jihadi groups, whose greatest expansion has occurred subsequently.”

ISIS, although once an al Qaeda affiliate is now a rival to it, and arguably a much more potentially dangerous regional force in view of having formed an incipient state.

An important detrimental practical consequence of focusing too much on al Qaeda has been for some anti-Assad rebels to have been armed by the United States and its allies because deemed not al Qaida—despite their actually being no less  extreme in outlook, and their being willing to pass weapons on to ISIS. Cockburn relates what he was told by an intelligence officer from a Middle Eastern country that neighbors Syria. ISIS members “are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them.” As Cockburn dryly observes: “Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad, but it was successfully destabilising Iraq.”

The second reason for the West’s failure to end jihadi terror since 9/11, according to Cockburn, has been America’s unwillingness to confront its two principal state supporters. He writes:

The US response to the attacks on 9/11 in 2001 targeted the wrong countries when Afghanistan and Iraq were identified as the hostile states whose governments needed to be overthrown . . . Meanwhile, the two countries most involved in supporting al-Qa’ida and favoring the ideology behind the attacks, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, were largely ignored and given a free pass.

Saudi Arabia is accused by Cockburn of having abetted jihadi terror in two principal ways. First, it propagated 18th century fundamentalist Islam in the form of Wahhabism, which entails the subjugation of women, the imposition of sharia law, and the stamping out of Shia and Sufi Islam as heretical. Both al Qaida and ISIS, he notes, lean heavily on Wahhabism for their ideology.

The second principal way is financially. He notes that eight years after New York and Washington were attacked, the American Secretary of State (Clinton, as revealed in one of the WikiLeaks documents) “complained that donors in Saudi Arabia constituted the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups world-wide.”

Cockburn argues that America has similarly failed to confront Pakistan about its (or rather its Inter-Services Intelligence agency’s) covert aid and support of al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other jihadi terror groups:

Despite the clearest evidence of [Pakistani intelligence] sponsorship of the Taliban and jihadis in general, Washington refused to confront Pakistan, and thereby opened the way for the resurgence of the Taliban after 2003, which neither the US nor NATO has been able to reverse.

Until Iraq’s second city Mosul fell to ISIS in June, the West almost willfully failed to notice, so Cockburn argues, that its war on terror had “demonstrably failed.” The legacy of its failure has been the present turmoil in Iraq and Syria, with both well on their way to becoming failed states that could eventually break up.

Despite the current dire condition of each, neither might have reached its present sorry pass had the West not made two further strategic errors that Cockburn identifies. First, until very late in the day, it backed the woefully sectarian Shia government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq which alienated Iraq’s substantial Kurdish and Sunni minorities, driving the latter into the hands of ISIS, as the lesser of two evils.  

Second, when the Arab Spring finally reached Syria belatedly in the summer of 2011, the West mistakenly supposed that Assad, as Cockburn puts it, “was going to go down in defeat like Muammar Gaddafi in Libya . . . forg[etting] that Gaddafi was largely overthrown by the NATO air campaign . . . When that failed to materialise, they had no plan B.”

With the fall of Mosul to ISIS in June, “everybody blamed Maliki, who certainly had a lot to answer for, but the real cause of the debacle in Iraq was the war across Iraq’s border” for, says Cockburn, the “Iraqi Sunni would not have risen again without the example and encouragement of their Syrian counterparts.”

How to combat this resurgence? The author suggests that the necessary condition for doing so is to hold Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to account for the financial and other forms of support each had long been known to be giving al Qaeda and the Taliban.

The other policy change Cockburn hints at is that, in the case of countries as ethnically and religiously divided as Iraq and Syria, there is equal need for the West to recognize the value of nationalism “to compete as a focus of loyalty with religious sects or ethnic groups.” There are ways of nation-building that might have been pursued more vigorously by the United States in Iraq when it had the opportunity that weren’t. The same held true of Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven out of the country in 1988, which Washington helped engineer by backing the mujahideen.      

Sadly, in the view of Cockburn, it might be too late to re-create genuinely unitary states in Syria or Iraq. The Kurds, now in possession of Kirkuk in the north, and its oil, “will never surrender it.” Meanwhile, “government rule over the Sunni Arab heartlands of north and central Iraq has evaporated with the disintegration of the Iraqi army.”

Equally dismal is the outlook for Syria, with Assad still in power and too many factions involved “for any peace terms to be acceptable to all.” The perpetrators of beheadings “will continue to hold the upper hand over moderates who might be more open to negotiations.”

In this maelstrom, he concludes, “counterrevolution may prove as difficult to consolidate as revolution itself.”

Most troubling of all, very little has transpired in Syria or Iraq since Cockburn completed his book in mid-2014 to give much cause for hope in the region. Recent events in Paris suggest that ISIS’ chickens, and those of other jihadi groups, are now coming home to roost.

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