Tag Archives: al-Qaeda

The End of ISIS?

So ISIS – or Daesh (‘one who crushes something underfoot’) as the Arabs call it – is finally defeated. Like trapped rats, the last jihadi fanatics hide in their final boltholes to await their inevitable doom at the hands of the Kurds, Turk, and Syrian armies – helped by the US, Russian and UK’s Royal Air Force – all closing in for the kill. Thousands of men, women and children have fled ISIS’s surrounded final stronghold in the village of Baghuz, on the Iraqi border, surrendering to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and the Kurdish-led militias backed by the West. The women and children seen streaming into squalid desert refugee camps to be told what the future holds for the families of the broken terrorist army are the tangible evidence of defeat.

The war is over and everyone can come home … er, well, no … it isn’t, actually.

If you tread on a poisonous mushroom it explodes to scatter its thousands of spores throughout the woods. So it is with ISIS, because group was never just a ragtime army of Islamic hotheads living on captured land. ISIS is much more: it is an ideology that cannot be crushed and exterminated with bullets rockets and bombs. Ideas are spread like spores. Defeat on the battlefield has had the effect of scattering the survivors of the army of the faithful throughout the Middle East – and far beyond. The battle is won, but the war will go on.

This time it will be a war based on two separate but linked campaigns. First is the need to keep the flame of Islamic purity and the search for God’s kingdom of the Ummat al-Islām ( أمة الإسلام ), the collective community of Islam, alive to carry the Holy Gospel of the sacred Koran far afield. Second, the ISIS survivors now on the run are planning a bitter revenge on the West and all those infidels who have destroyed their dream of an ideologically pure Muslim Caliphate.

No one sees this more clearly than General Joseph Votel, who is in charge of US operations in the Middle East. In evidence to the US Congress’s House Armed Services Committee hearing on 7 March 2019, he shared evidence that although Daesh militants are losing the last of their territory in Syria, the militants who remain represent a ‘serious generational problem’. He told the hearing: ‘We will need to maintain a vigilant offensive against this now widely dispersed and disaggregated organization. Reduction of the physical caliphate is a monumental military accomplishment – but the fight against ISIS and violent extremism is far from over and our mission remains the same.’ The general also warned of more trouble ahead: ‘The Isis population being evacuated from the remaining vestiges of the caliphate largely remains unrepentant, unbroken and radicalised.’

General Votel is right. Those who have held out until now are still defiant. What we are seeing now is not the surrender of ISIS as an organisation, but a calculated decision to preserve the safety of their families and going to ground in remote areas to wait for the right time to re-emerge to carry on the fight elsewhere.

Many of the women have told reporters they are unrepentant in their support for ISIS and have pledged to continue the struggle. Women in camps for the displaced have even reported attempts to maintain ISIS discipline there, with unveiled women being attacked by other ‘ISIS brides’.

One 60-year-old woman, who did not want to be named, said that ISIS will continue because the ‘Caliphate’s Cubs’ under the terror group’s rule have been trained to fight from a young age.   She said: ‘The caliphate will not end, because it has been ingrained in the hearts and brains of the newborns and the little ones.’ Some of the civilians threw rocks at the cameras of those trying to film them, whilst one screamed at a photographer and called him a pig.

The captured fighters on the other hand have kept their heads down. Most have been taken to Kurdish and Syrian detention camps. Their fate remains unclear, especially the many hundreds of foreign fighters whose home countries are reluctant to take them back. They are an international hot potato for whom – understandably – no one wants to take responsibility.

The real danger now is that ISIS supporters are being urged to launch lone-wolf terror attacks on Western targets, according to their message traffic. The organisation still has the wherewithal to fight. A UN report published last month claimed ISIS has a secret war chest of up to $300 million (£230 million) that could be used to sustain its operations and fund new attacks on the West. Although the terror group is assessed to have ‘bulk stored’ some of the money in its stronghold area (leading to one spectacular USAF strike on a warehouse that literally blew millions of dollars up into the sky), much of the rest has been smuggled abroad or invested in legitimate businesses. So, not only does ISIS still have an army of sympathisers on which to call, it also has plenty of cash to fund any future operations.

Already there are ISIS propaganda posters encouraging new attacks, including one depicting a man walking through an airport dragging a suitcase depicting the terror group’s logo. We have seen similar Islamist terror posters in the past, often using images of major Western cities such as New York and London as part of their scare tactics. To further strengthen the case that ISIS is going to ground but still remaining active, monitoring agencies report that known ISIS sympathisers are sharing encrypted messaging apps such as Telegram to ‘inspire’ extremists to carry out terror attacks. This follows reports that desperate ISIS-linked media groups are calling for a new ‘online jihad’ now that the terrorists have been neutralised in Syria and Iraq.

The problem is that, like Communism, jihadism is a global phenomenon. History has shown us the dangers of underestimating the power of ideologies. In places like Iraq, Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen, fundamental Islam is still prepared to fight and die for the cause, as al-Qaeda still demonstrates. One of the jihadi’s key mantras is ‘stay and expand’. This philosophy and a willingness to accept heavy casualties whilst planning for a long struggle are rooted in a firm belief that God favours their cause and sometimes tests the faithful so that only the purest at heart will survive to fight and win the ultimate battle. Such a mindset makes for a dangerous adversary, whatever its losses.

There is also growing evidence that the group’s surviving leadership have moved to disperse some of their fighters, arms and riches, preparing ISIS to resume terrorist and insurgent operations after the caliphate’s collapse. This campaign has already started in Iraq, where Islamic State is again conducting assassinations, bombings and other operations despite having lost control of vast territories. Given the way Syria is currently partitioned, the various political vacuums in the region are already giving fleeing ISIS State militants time and space to regroup and set up new operations.

The bitter truth is that Islamic State is just one branch of a global insurgency, a problem the world cannot solve by just killing and bombing one single nest of vipers. Combatting a global insurgency will require a coordinated global counterinsurgency effort. This means that efforts to defeat jihadist groups must persist well after the ‘clear’ phase to the ‘hold’ and ‘build’ phases of counterinsurgency. In addition, this must happen in every part of the world where the jihadist insurgency is manifesting itself, from Bali to Birmingham.

Of one thing we can be sure. The erasure of the Islamic State’s caliphate in Syria won’t ensure its final defeat. The war goes on ….

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The New War

Well, that’s it. The war is over, ISIS is beaten and on the run. We can all relax and bring the boys home. Mission accomplished.

Wrong.

In May, President Trump stood before the assembled leaders of the Sunni Muslim world and called on them to ‘drive out the terrorists and extremists … from this earth.’ Well, they have succeeded. An extraordinary coalition of Syrian, Russian, American, British, Turkish, Kurdish and Iraqi military forces have crushed ISIS’s ‘caliphate’, killed most of its leadership and made the heroic ‘Fighters for God’ flee as fast as their strictly non-suicidal legs will carry them.

Unfortunately it’s not over. Islamic State survivors have dispersed into the global undergrowth to set up a network of IS franchises known as ‘wilaya’ (Arabic for ‘provinces’) stretching from the southern Philippines to Nigeria. ISIS is far from finished. Instead it has rebranded itself by merging with existing religious fanatics who hate the West and all it stands for, and who have pledged allegiance to IS’s aims. More ominously it has also absorbed – or taken over – the legacy of Osama bin Laden’s global network, al-Qaeda. Its new leader is thought to be none other than Osama’s son, Hamza bin Laden, who resurfaced in 2015 when al-Qaeda’s Zawahiri introduced him as the torchbearer of his father’s legacy. Hamza has sworn revenge on the United States in retaliation for Osama’s murder. He is considered by intelligence agencies to be the next charismatic leader of global jihadism.

That’s the bad news. The worse news is that after ISIS’s defeat there is now a vacuum in the Middle East. However, ‘as any fule kno’, nature abhors a vacuum and nowadays Iran is only too happy to fill that vacant space. The truth is that Iran played a larger role in the battles for Mosul and Raqqa than the Coalition admits, and Tehran is determined to cash in on its victory. The war between Sunni and Shi’a Muslims, between Arabs and Persians, continues with an undeclared new war stretching from Iraq to Lebanon on the Mediterranean coast.

The problem is that Washington, firmly focused on the Korean nuclear crisis, has been forced to take its eye off the ball and concentrate on the problems of the Far East rather than the Middle East and the consequences of Obama’s feeble nuclear deal with Iran. The US is well aware of Tehran’s regional power grab; but Washington can only deal with one major foreign policy crisis at a time. Iran is shaping up to become a major problem, not just for US diplomats but for the whole region.

Colonel Richard Kemp, former head of international terrorism on the UK’s Joint Intelligence Committee has warned that the Iranian Shi’a Ayatollahs’ destabilising actions are not just a threat to the Middle East but pose a grave threat to wider international security. In a recent interview, he said, ‘I see Iran as the greatest threat to world peace today. Not just to the Middle East, but elsewhere in the world.’

Kemp has a point. Iran is spoiling for a fight and has effectively declared war on Sunni Saudi Arabia. Intelligence reports are clear. Openly funding and arming the mainly Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen, Iran is now fighting a proxy war against the Saudi-backed Yemeni government. Earlier this month the rebels launched an Iranian-supplied Scud ballistic missile across the border at Riyadh International Airport. It was brought down by a Saudi surface-to-air missile. That looks like a war.

Saudi Arabia and Iran are now locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance. The ancient feud between Arab and Persian is made worse by deep religious differences. Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam and guardian of Islam’s holy places, sees itself as the leading Sunni state and leader of the Muslim world. However, the 1979 Iranian Islamic revolution, with its theocratic regime of rule by the Ayatollahs, is a permanent challenge to the Saudi monarchy. Shi’ite Iran openly declares itself to be a ‘Revolutionary Muslim’ state, anxious to export its revolution beyond its own borders.

Both nations seek to ally themselves with countries with Sunni or Shi’a majorities, and who instinctively look towards Saudi Arabia or Iran for support. The uprisings across the Arab world have also added to the political instability throughout the region. The 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab, removed an intransigent Iranian adversary. Since then Iran has moved into Iraq – politically, militarily, economically and religiously – intent on establishing itself or its proxies across the region and determined to build a land corridor west to the Mediterranean. Intelligence photographs show the Iranians constructing a network of roads, electricity and communication lines extending from Iran through Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

In its turn, Saudi Arabia is working hard to thwart Tehran’s growing influence and regional ambitions. When Shi’a Houthi rebels seized control of Yemen’s capital Sana’a in 2014 and began pushing south to take over the country, Saudi Arabia and a coalition of Sunni Arab states intervened to support their neighbour’s government. The result is that Yemen has now become a major battleground between Riyadh and Tehran.

This intervention by the Saudis’ Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman – now Saudi’s de facto ruler – has exposed wider regional tensions. However, in his efforts to stem Iranian influence, ‘MbS’ has found an unusual ally: Israel. Strange bedfellows indeed! For years Saudis have been taught that Israel is the ‘eternal enemy‘ and Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs.

The real reason for this curious alliance is that both are equally nervous about Tehran’s ambitions. Israel and Saudi Arabia were the two countries most adamantly opposed to Obama’s 2015 international agreement limiting Iran’s nuclear programme.

Both warned that the treaty did not go far enough to prevent Iran obtaining the bomb. The danger is that Israel’s alliance with Saudi inevitably brings any proxy conflict uncomfortably close to Lebanon and Cyprus.

Tel Aviv is well aware that Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese allies, lead a politically powerful bloc and, crucially, control a large, well-armed Shi’a militia. Hezbollah in Lebanon is spoiling to begin another civil war like Syria’s and poses a serious problem, because any conflict in Lebanon will almost certainly draw in Israel. This could lead to yet another devastating Israeli-Lebanese war. Israel is right to be worried by Iran’s growing threat. With Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Al-Quds brigades now parked on Israel’s borders, the risks to regional peace are obvious.

The other risk is a direct war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. That Iran is preparing for trouble across the Persian Gulf is not in doubt. Iran’s Revolutionary Guard has recently installed sophisticated radar, surveillance and communication equipment covering all the routes from Iran to Basra, Najaf and Karbala on Iraq’s southern coast. Intelligence sources warn, ‘The purpose of these devices, which can be used for eavesdropping and spying on mobile phones and wireless Internet services, is to cover the Iraqi-Saudi border and monitor all communications and aircraft movements.’

This build up risks a much broader conflict across the waters of the Gulf. For the US and other Western powers, freedom of navigation in the Gulf is essential. Any conflict that blocked that waterway – vital for international shipping and oil transportation – would swiftly draw in US naval and air forces.

There are other indications of serious trouble. The sudden resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister because ‘he feared an assassination attempt by Hezbollah’ simply doesn’t pass muster. The truth is that the Saudis were furious at him for holding secret talks with Iranian and Hezbollah officials. The Middle East is breaking up; and Lebanon is directly in the firing line.

With Saudi Arabia now united with Israel against Iran, plus troubled Lebanon on the brink, a new desert storm is brewing in the Middle East.

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