It was bound to happen. Since the Salafist-Jihadist ideology emerged during the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980s, its adherents have typically maintained a radical disconnect between their strategic aims and practical tactics.
Whether the wild frenzy of the Algerian civil war, the megalomaniacal global terrorism of Osama bin Laden or the savage butchery of Abu Musab Al Zarqawi, the takfiris could always be relied upon to sabotage themselves. Dysfunctional levels of extremism and overreach defined behaviour that consistently backfired.
Yet, since the emergence of the “Arab Afghans” following the Soviet defeat, close observers of the Middle East have been asking when a less irrational – and therefore infinitely more dangerous – Salafist-Jihadist entity would arise to menace the region.
The newly designated Islamic State, formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), may be just such a phenomenon.
Rash, self-defeating behaviour is hardly absent from the Islamic State’s conduct, to be sure. But in both Syria and Iraq its firestorm of seizing territory – including strategic and symbolic locations – evinces some rational calculation. Rather than being merely a terrorist group focused on destruction, the Islamic State seeks – and is acquiring – territory to rule.
In Syria, both the Islamic State and the Bashar Al Assad dictatorship have cynically and intelligently gone to considerable lengths to avoid directly confronting each other. Instead, the Islamic State has focused on seizing territory already outside of the government’s control and asserting its power over other opposition groups and, of course, the hapless population. Meanwhile they happily sell oil from the reserves they have seized back to Damascus.
Undoubtedly, good luck and timing have strengthened the Islamic State’s hand. In addition to its unspoken partnership with the Syrian regime, it is serving as a vanguard for a much broader set of Iraqi Sunni militias and constituencies. Alone, they could not have achieved their recent territorial gains.
Herein lies the deepest challenge the Islamic State poses to Sunni-majority states in the Arab world: it claims to represent all of the Muslims of the world. It doesn’t matter how ridiculous such pretensions patently are; identifiable constituencies will be tempted to admire, and possibly eventually support, such grandiose bombast precisely because it is so extravagant.
If what has to this point been merely a wild-eyed and bloodthirsty ideology at last has an organisation capable of seizing and maintaining power in specific strategically and politically significant areas in the heart of the Arab world, then the threat defines itself.
The Islamic State is at least as disastrous for the regional strategic landscape as for individual states. Its rise has been the key to Mr Al Assad’s survival in office. For Iran, the Islamic State is creating a situation that seems almost certain to produce major and sustained strategic gains.
Mainstream Arab societies and states would be well advised to move urgently and forcefully to defang this monstrosity. The Islamic State has created a reality – and, even more dramatically perhaps, also an illusion – of sudden and unexpected success. The reality on the ground must be changed and the illusion (that the Islamic State leads and represents most Sunnis in Iraq, northern Syria and beyond) must be broken.
That means backing their most reasonable Sunni rivals. In Iraq, especially, an eventual power struggle with other Sunni groups that are presently allies of convenience, and mutual outrage over the political marginalisation of the community, is probably inevitable. Although a repetition of the Sahwa (“Awakening”) against Al Qaeda in Iraq a few years ago is unlikely, especially if Nouri Al Maliki remains prime minister, a struggle in which the Islamic State finds itself targeted and seriously degraded is plausible.
Overreach and miscalculation are evident in the Islamic State’s recent moves, including its statehood declaration and preposterous designation of its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, as “Caliph Ibrahim ibn Awwad”, complete with the demand of obedience from all Muslims.
The October 2006 announcement of an “Islamic State of Iraq” was probably the last straw that made the Sahwa possible. Therefore, it ought to be possible to encourage Iraqi Sunnis to view these latest announcements in a similar light.
The new Caliph’s scandalous proclamation that “Syria does not belong to the Syrians and Iraq does not belong to the Iraqis” certainly ought to provide a basis for pitting national and local identities against this virulent jihadist internationalism. Rage against Mr Al Maliki and other Shiite leaders shouldn’t, and indeed mustn’t, be enough to reconcile most Iraqi Sunnis to outrageous pronouncements that harm their interests.
The childish extremism and childlike ambition of the Islamic State will undoubtedly hold a certain romantic appeal for some Muslim constituencies. However, in both Syria and Iraq, ample opportunities are already evident to undermine the Islamic State, expose its hollow fanaticism, demonstrate that it is an endless boon to Mr Al Assad and Iran, and roll back its recent successes. More opportunities will emerge shortly.
These existing and unfolding vulnerabilities for the Islamic State must be immediately targeted, and new ones created, by the judicious application of incentives and disincentives. The Islamic State organisation may be around for many years, but Arabs can and should work together to ensure it returns to the fringes.