March 13, 2016

The IS threat to Global Security

Yohannan Chemarapally

FINALLY, it was the latest terror attack on Paris that may galvanise the international community into taking concerted and coordinated action against the threat being posed by the Islamic State (IS). The French President Francois Hollande has called for the formation of a “large alliance” to “decisively” take on the IS. President Hollande has not invoked Article 5 of the NATO alliance treaty which would have obligated all alliance members to militarily help France. This would have meant involvement of countries like Turkey which are playing a dubious role in the conflict in Syria. Article 5 was invoked only once so far after the attack on the American mainland on September 9, 2001. France instead has chosen to invoke an article in the Lisbon Treaty which governs the working of the European Union (EU). The article states that if a member state is subjected to “armed aggression” on its territory, then other member states have an obligation to come to its aid. The massacre in Paris and the downing of the Russian passenger plane have suddenly brought Paris and Moscow closer. Only the US has to come fully on board for coordinated military action against the IS and sundry jihadi forces operating in Syria and Iraq. The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, speaking after the events in Paris has complained that the US is not seriously combating the threat posed by the IS. He said the American military strikes in Syria “were selective and in the majority of cases spared those Islamic State groups that were capable of pressing the Syrian army”. Russia has said that the defense of Syria is no longer just that of helping the Syrian government but is now a matter of Russia's national security. FIGHT ON TWO FRONTS Washington however wants to fight on two fronts in Syria. Though the Obama administration officials have indicated that President Bashar al Assad need not leave immediately, regime change in Damascus not the fight against IS is still the priority for Washington. John Kerry, the US secretary of state, on a visit to Paris, said that the defeat of the IS is only possible if there is regime change in Syria. He blamed the Syrian government for the rise of the IS. Most of the IS support base is in Iraq and it is widely acknowledged that the rise of the IS coincided with the military occupation of Iraq by the US since 2003 and the consequent destabilisation of the entire region. President Obama said in Manila where he had gone to attend the APEC summit that Russia “was a constructive partner in Vienna” during talks about a proposed cease fire in Syria. But the American president had a caveat. He said Russia should stop attacking non-IS jihadists in Syria and focus all their firepower on the IS. Moscow has been consistently stating that there are no “moderate forces” fighting in Syria anymore. Moscow says that it does not distinguish between the al Qaeda affiliated al Nusra Front, the Saudi and Turkey supported Ahrar al Sham or the IS. All of them are jihadi groups of varying shades. Turkey has an “open door” policy which allowed the IS fighters, especially foreigners from Europe and Central Asia to come and go from Syria with ease. Syria has charged the Turkish government with providing “logistical and firing” support to all the rebel groups. Qatar has been accused by its own neighbours of funding all the radical groupings in the region, including the IS and the al Nusra Front. Some American officials have directly accused it of funding the IS. Shafi al Hajmi, who has been identified by the US as a fund raiser for the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria told a Saudi television channel that all the intelligence agencies of Gulf countries are helping groups like the IS and the al Nusra Front. Turkish officials have said that they don't view the al Nusra Front and the Army of Conquest as security threats and therefore don't impede their activities. The Army of Conquest is a coalition of the al Nusra Front and the Ahrar al Sham, another extremist group having ties with al Qaeda. The German journalist, Jurgen Todenhofer, who reported from IS controlled territory, has written that the IS is being “indirectly” armed by the West. “They buy weapons that we give to the Free Syrian Army. So they get western weapons. I saw French, German and American weapons”, he wrote. The US allowed the IS to march into the ancient heritage city of Palmyra because they did not want to be seen as lending a helping hand to the Syrian army. Gen. Martin Dempsey, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff in his testimony to the US Senate Armed Services Committee in 2014 said that “many major allies of the US” fund the IS. The Pentagon was fully aware that its allies were funding the enemy it was supposedly fighting. Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have staked their prestige in the overthrow of the secular government in Damascus. The governments there know that once the IS and other Takfiri groups are defeated in Syria and Iraq, they will head towards their countries. CORE IDEOLOGY The IS's core ideology is the restoration of the Islamic caliphate, an Islamic empire led by a supreme leader. Saudi Arabia is the epicentre of Islam and the custodian of the two holy mosques in Mecca and Medina and logically is the ultimate target of the IS. The IS adheres to Wahhabi school of Islam that is widely practiced in Saudi Arabia and encouraged by the monarchy. The IS since its inception has declared war not only on other religions but also on other sects and schools of Islam, thus implementing one of the key tenets of Wahhabism. Abd al Wahab, the founder of Wahhabism, had also decreed that all Muslims must individually pledge their allegiance to a single Muslim leader (the Caliph). In the 18th century, he had helped the ibn Saud clan to subdue other tribes and then eventually establish the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The IS had evolved from the al Qaeda affiliate in Iraq led by the Jordanian, Abu Musa al Zarqawi, who was killed in an American drone attack in 2006. There was no al Qaeda in Iraq before the 2003 American invasion. It was only after the fall of the secular regime, that al Qaeda and its successor, the Islamic State flourished. The IS was proclaimed in the same year by the followers of Zarqawi but it was at the time one of the many Sunni extremist groups fighting the American occupation of Iraq. He had led an effective fighting force that had made serious inroads in central Iraq. A joint military force, consisting of American and Iraqi Sunni tribal fighters paid handsomely by Washington, had managed to subdue the Iraqi branch of the al Qaeda. The Americans declared victory and retired to their military bases in 2011. The Sunni tribal fighters were taken off the payroll. Many of them today are with the IS. The IS also broke off from the al Qaeda high command. Al Zawahiri wanted the IS to focus only on Iraq and let the al Nusra Front lead the fight in neighbouring Syria. When Baghdadi refused, the IS was excommunicated by the al Qaeda leadership. In the last four years, the IS has surged and in the process eradicated, at least for the time being, the colonial legacy of the borders drawn under the Sykes-Picot agreement. The French-British agreement had led to the arbitrary redrawing of the West Asia's map a hundred years ago. Today the self proclaimed IS emirate controls large swathes of territory overlapping Syria and Iraq. The proclamation of the emirate caught the international community by surprise. But the Americans should not have been caught napping. A 2012 report by the US Defense Intelligence Agency said that the IS could “declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organisations in Iraq and Syria”; The Obama administration chose to ignore the report. The IS has emerged as the most potent terrorist threat in the world today. It is the first terrorist group to gain physical control of a large swathe of territory. It has been running schools and hospitals in the cities under its control while ruling with an iron hand. The medieval practices of beheading, sexual enslavement of women and other practices have come under criticism even from the al Qaeda leadership. Ayman al Zawahiri, the current al Qaeda leader had said in 2006 that ordinary Muslims will never find beheadings “palatable”. Till recently, the IS had focused operations in and around the regions it controls. In fact, the IS leadership had once criticised the al Qaeda leadership for the 9/11 attacks on the United States, stating that attack led to the fall of the Taliban government in Afghanistan. The fall of Afghanistan, they said, deprived the jihadi groups of a safe haven and protection from a state. CREATING CHAOS According to many observers of the region, the game plan of the IS is to create chaos internationally and then exploit it. In a manifesto published by the al Qaeda in Iraq, the IS's predecessor, titled the “Management of Savagery/Chaos”, soft targets were identified. “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible”, the tract advises. Another goal is “to expose the weakness of America's centralised power by pushing it to abandon the media psychological war and the war by proxy until it fights directly”. As the recent spate of IS terror attacks show, varying locations have been chosen ranging Beirut to Paris. In the Arab world, the obvious intent is to deepen the sectarian divide. Bombs have exploded mainly in Shia populated areas and mosques. The Saudis are also doing their bit to accelerate this divide by their bombing campaign in Yemen. An attack on a Yemeni wedding party by Saudi jets killed more than 130 people, most of them women and children. In Europe, the attacks are aimed at forcing the governments there to commit militarily to fight in Syria and Iraq and at the same time widen the gulf between Europeans and the large number of immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world living there. Such a development, the IS calculates, will finally help obliterate the so-called “gray zone” and bring the Muslim populace eventually to the side of Islamic Emirate that the IS dreams of establishing, extending from the Maghreb to the Indian subcontinent. Many experts are of the view that it will be difficult to counter the dual IS strategy of urban terrorism and conventional warfare in the short term. Highly motivated squads of suicide bombers are in the forefront of both conventional warfare and urban terror attacks by the IS, like the one in Paris. When the IS lost control of Tal Abyad on the Turkish border to the Kurdish YPG guerillas, they retaliated by sending people in disguise to slaughter civilians in the town of Kobani. More than 220 men, women and children in the Kurdish dominated town were killed. In Afghanistan, the IS which is emerging as a serious threat to the dominance of the Taliban, kidnapped and beheaded seven people belonging to the marginalised minority Hazara community who also happen to be Shia. If the IS gains a strong foothold in Afghanistan, it will pose a serious threat to the Indian subcontinent.