In May 2012, President Obama (on first death anniversary of Osama Bin Laden) said “The goal that I set to defeat Al-Qaeda and deny it a chance to rebuild again, is now within our reach.” Compare and contrast it with President Trump’s recent announcement of killing ISIS Chief Abu-Bakr-al-Baghdadi.
For the sake of comfort, let us assume that the central hub of Islamic State has been degraded (Note: ISIS has named the new leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Quraishi). It is a fact that the organisation is in a disarray with an eroded striking capacity. The central organisation of ISIS has not been able to take any major terrorist action independently (excluding attacks by lone-wolves and franchised groups) in the world since the last few months. The financing channels of ISIS are alleged to be blocked (not discussing the allegations of Turkish support here). The optimists would like to believe that we are much secure today than we were before the actions of the US forces last week. It is good to be an optimist but the facts may not completely support the optimist narrative. Let us examine a few of them here.
Since 2001, when President Bush announced the ‘global war on terrorism’, we are making the wrong assessment of the antidotes to Islamic radical terrorism. The infection of a viral flu is being tried to cure by an antidote of tuberculosis. Antidote of ISIS is not the degradation of its leadership or its people or choking off its funds or denying them the roots of their weapons. These are the antidotes of a modern state’s security apparatus that doesn’t necessarily work on ISIS/Al-Qaeda. We are superimposing our own antidotes on the enemy, assuming that if they can destroy a modern security force, they can also destroy the ISIS/Al-Qaeda axis. The antidote of ISIS is a parallel ideological counter. Nothing is being done to provide a counter-Islamic ideology by any of the forces having stakes in the region and beyond.
We have been fighting an asymmetric warfare through our strengths which are superior weaponry, intelligence apparatus and funds but we have not been able to concentrate on their strengths such as freedom to select the targets, their ability to surprise and most importantly, their invisibility.
In 2002, the Al-Qaeda felt that it is going to get degraded beyond repair because the West (led by the US) was adamant in uprooting the ‘axis of evil’. In December 2001, Al-Zawahiri (Knights under the Prophet, in Al-Sharq al-Awsat) explained how the small groups should be constituted; why the Al-Qaeda’s central leadership should be disintegrated; and how the conversion and utilisation of any discontent among the Ummah (Islamic community) anywhere in the world must be accommodated into the larger global strategy of Al-Qaeda. In January 2014, Ayman al-Zawahiri laid the ultimate objective by saying, “Ask them to close their ranks and set stage for the final takeover of Jerusalem”.
It should come as no surprise to us that ISIS is a Levantine extension of Al Qaeda. Their ultimate objective is to establish an Islamic Caliphate. To establish the same, they have a concept of a ‘near enemy’ and a ‘far enemy’. The ‘near enemy’ is an Islamic country (say Syria) who is not ‘Islamic’ enough (according to them) so as to contribute to the establishment of a Caliphate. The ‘far enemy’ are the democracies like the United States, Israel, European Union, India etc. This dual fight with the ‘near enemy’ and the ‘far enemy’ has not been abandoned by these misinterpreters of Ummah.
Also, we have a few lessons from the Arab Spring (of 2011). During the entire upheaval, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria (Al-Nusra in 2012) utilised the opportunity to fight against the ‘near enemy’ in Syria by fighting the Syrian leadership and gaining legitimacy and support from the locals. They became the real beneficiaries of such movements which were actually aimed to establish liberty, democracy and turfing out of autocracy. Compare the same examples with the current spate of pro-democracy protests in Lebanon and Iraq. It should be ensured that the brainchild of Al-Qaeda i.e. the ISIS and Abdullah Azzam Brigade (in Lebanon) does not get a new lease of life in the region. Similarly, the ‘Ansar Bait al-Maqdis’ has been mobilised in the Sinai Peninsula. Al Qaeda Al Maghreb in Morocco, Al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria are all the affiliated organisations of Al-Qaeda established after Al-Zwahiri’s call to set a common objective of taking over the holy city of ‘Jerusalem’. How far will they succeed in it is a matter of separate debate.
Now, see what the ISIS has learnt from President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy. Post-9/11, Taliban offered an olive branch to the United States saying that we are ready to change and we will not let Al-Qaeda use our territory for Jehad against the West. It is not that they were telling the truth but they were signalling a white flag of surrendering to the West under the immense heat of global war against terrorism. Today, the tables have turned and the United States is ready to make concessions to placate the Taliban which is dictating the terms. ISIS has learnt the lessons from history to absorb the heat by buying time to later dictate the terms and secure the ultimate interest of establishing the Caliphate.
Our actions have not been in consonance with our words. We may have failed on all three grounds i.e. defining our military objective; assessing the antidotes; and fighting the invisible enemy.
If we think that we are better off today than we were last week when ISIS’s central leadership was alive, then, probably we have to re-examine our facts. There is an invisible but a definite connectivity between different factions of Al-Qaeda which are operating in different parts of the world. Unlike Osama Bin Laden’s objective to centralise control over all radical Islamic organisations, they are not centrally controlled but they derive ideological and tactical support from each other. I do not wish to sound pessimistic, but as a preventive measure the world has to prepare itself to handle a menace which is much greater in its expanse and much deeper in its intensity.