In the past two articles in the series, we’ve looked at Saudi funding for the Wahhabist / Salafist agenda and how that has expanded the global jihadist movement. Next, we looked at a bit at the cultural aspects of poverty, poor governance, and other cultural issues impacting extremism that tends to be associated with violent movements. In the third article in the series I planned to provide a broad brush overview of several terrorist groups, however with the death of Mullah Omar being announced in the last two weeks, things have dramatically shifted on that front. As such this article will focus almost exclusively on ISIS as it is quite likely that Al-Qaeda as we know it has ceased to function and that ISIS is going to become the dominant player in extremist Islam.
Origins of the Terrorist Group ISIS
ISIS originated in the Sunni dominated regions of Iraq and Syria during the Syrian civil war which continues to this day. One of the most brutal factions of Al-Qaeda was Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) originally led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi. He was killed in a airstrike by U. S. forces in 2006 but not before Bin Laden and AQ had told him multiple times to stop with the gratuitous violence (beheadings on video, etc..) which were starting to become a problem for the movement. Some would say that the targeting data that allowed us to kill Zarqawi may have even been provided by AQ. Those remaining behind coalesced under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI) and were the new face of AQI under a different name.
The death of Zarqawi really was the springboard for the Arab spring or Sunni awakening in the Al Anbar province. We saw a significant increase in cooperation between coalition forces and local tribes to reduce violence. While not everyone was on board with the program (ISI specifically), it was largely successful. By the time we turned control of the armed forces and the economy over to the government in Baghdad, and precipitously withdrew from the region, that cooperation had largely dissipated. The Shia dominated government of Iraq was anything but fair in its power sharing, and U. S. forces were largely seen as an extension of Shia oppression of Sunni Muslims in the Anbar province with in a few years. ISI had become the dominant player in the province and Abu-Bakr-Al-Baghdadi was named as the Emir. They worked to establish a shadow government to manage affairs locally and generally maintained a destabilized region that was largely independent of the central government in Iraq.
Jabhat al-Nusra or the al-Nusra Front as it is also called, was formed in Syria to support ISI operations with supplies from Syria starting 2006, but was operationalized to fight the Assad Regime in late 2011 or early 2012. Baghdadi was heavily involved with establishing the organization. As Syria starts to destabilize in 2012 and 2013, ISI choose to extend its control and absorb the organization. Despite some internal strife at the decision, Jabhat al-Nusra was dissolved at the order of Baghdadi, and absorbed into ISI which was now to be called the Islamic State in Iraq and Al- Sham or Syria which is why we refer to them as ISIS. This was a key break with Al-Qaeda as AQ proper under Zawahiri forbid the dissolution. Further there are still a few remaining members of al-Nusra fighting in Syria under the AQ banner under the name of the Al-Nusra Front.
ISIS began to recruit smaller anti Syrian government forces and provided resources and funding to actually take and control of territory in Syria. Ultimately, AQ formally rejected ISIS in January 2014, however, in practice they had been functioning as a separate entity for more then a year. In response, ISIS denounced AQ and Zawahiri as not following the guidance and leadership of Bin Laden. ISIS subsequently seized territory in Iraq highlighted in June of 2014 with the seizure of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. Shortly there after, ISIS declared itself the Islamic State and claims to have reestablished the Caliphate with Baghdadi as its Caliph.
The Future of the Terrorist Group ISIS
The impact of Mullah Omar’s death effectively reset the chain of command in the global Jihadi movement. While oaths of allegiance and loyalties are seen as shifting and unstable by western eyes, these linkages have significant impacts on how and what Jihadi organizations will do. Bin Laden had pledged his allegiance to Mullah Omar. Upon his death, the entire chain of allegiance from Omar to the lowest foot soldier is now reset. Typically this would result in renewed pledges to head of the organization and for them to continue on with business as usual. That is not what we are seeing.
Many in the Jihadi movement viewed AQ as overreaching when they attacked the west or the far enemy. ISIS has been judicious in encouraging it, but not really sponsoring it. That stemmed from first their internal capability. ISIS is largely composed of disenfranchised youth with little experience supervised by former Saddam regime military commanders. AQ on the other hand consists of fairly experienced operatives with the capability to plan and execute larger scale attacks against distant targets. With the allegiance chain up for grabs, we are seeing many of the experienced former AQ franchises pledge their allegiance to ISIS.
That provides them not only with a capability they previously did not posses, it gives them access to people who are motivated and prepared to carry it out. What makes matters more difficult is that ISIS is really the first self-funded transnational terrorist organization. People, experience and resources make this a very dangerous combination. AQ has largely fractured and the universally disliked Zawahiri is unlikely to be able to retain much if any of the organization. ISIS is capitalizing on that general dislike by claiming that Zawahiri had abandoned the path set out by Mullah Omar and Osama Bin Laden, and they are following the correct path.
Further complicating matters is the manner in which we learned that Omar was deceased. It appears he has been dead for nearly two years. That makes AQ leadership either dishonest if they have been hiding the fact, or incompetent if they did not know. Either of these perceptions reinforce the view that Zawahiri is not suited to lead the organization in much of the global Jihaddi camps. Neither is likely to strengthen AQ proper. ISIS is the inevitable beneficiary of the confluence of events.
Lastly, ISIS has been selling oil to Turkey on the black market which has provided it with substantial revenue. If we could shut down the rat lines, it might become possible to contain ISIS and let it implode. Starvation, massive human suffering of those under ISIS rule is the result of that path. Alternatively, we can continue to bomb in hopes that they capitulate. That is also a costly endeavor in human casualties.
What to Do About the Terrorist Group ISIS
The final piece of the equation of ISIS is what to do with its estimated 30,000 fighters if we were to go in? Many are little more then children, but those children have committed atrocities and witnessed violence sufficient to ensure they are incompatible with civilized humanity for as long as they are alive. There is no good answer to these circumstances.
I was asked to comment on the current strategy being employed by America and its effectiveness. It is now as it has always been – insufficient to stop ISIS expansion. Air campaigns are as counter productive as they are effective due to the recruiting advantage indiscriminate bombing gives your enemies. The half hearted commitment of ground forces as liberators is equally ridiculous. We do not want to liberate ISIS ideology as it is incompatible with humanity. Unfortunately, ISIS is leaving us little choice but to destroy them all.
The longer we allow ISIS to control territory and claim leadership of the global jihadi movement, the more dangerous they become. Unfortunately, that means the commitment of competent ground forces (meaning western ground forces as the Arab nations in the region simply lack the ability to field anything resembling a competent Army). Further it means identifying the fact that ISIS ideology is incompatible with humanity and not something to be liberated or freed. The short version is another protracted war in the region with a defined re-education component for the survivors. I do not see the political will to effectively deal with this threat resident in this administration.