How can we defeat ISIS if we don’t understand it?
By: Jamal Khashoggi
The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has been digging its own grave, just as it has irrationally led many to their graves. It did not disappoint all those who followed its rise and predicted the inevitability of its end, as it carried the seeds of its own destruction within itself.
Last year, I published an article entitled “What history teaches us about Syria’s extremists.” At the time, ISIS was emerging in Syria and rebelling against those involved in the revolution. It was like an uninvited guest. I wrote about a story that took place in the Indian continent in the 18th century; the story of a young fighter who became the Emir of Peshawar after the success of the Islamist corrective movement to liberate the city from the rule of the “Maharajah” in just two months.
The world needs a shock to act and put an end to ISIS’ victories
After the imposition of hardline provisions by the new emir on the tribal population of the region, they rebelled against him and brought back the Sikhs and their army to rule again. They did not rebel against the emir alone but against the whole movement, and its spiritual leader.
It is a classic story that is now repeating itself and proves the Hadith of the Prophet “no one burdens himself in religion but that it overcomes him.” However, the damage will not be limited to that, as it will extend to reach the whole Syrian Revolution, which dreamed of a free, democratic and pluralistic state. It will also reach the aspirations of the Iraqi Sunnis to justice, equality and a better life.
The movement of takfirist jihadist salafism will lose again everything after it emerged and overcame all those who fell under its control, including the Sunnis. We will witness the joy of Mosul, similar to when Kandahar celebrated the defeat of the Taliban in 2001. No one likes extremism.
We cannot be optimistic about it yet. In the end, ISIS will fail, whether after long or short battles. Nevertheless, it will remain a dangerous terrorist movement that is secretly active on the same land where it was governing, just as its predecessor, the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. However, its defeat will increase its violence and hatred. Its destructive idea won’t vanish as well because what has been established and prepared through decades and even spread beyond the limits to reach mosques in Europe and the whole world, cannot disappear in one year.
The world will militarily triumph over ISIS and its affiliates, but it needs to work hard in order to prevent the emergence of another generation of the organization.
Today’s militants are the third generation of takfirist jihadist salafism. Its first generation emerged in the 1990s in Egypt and then in Algeria, where it intensified its activities. The second generation emerged after the 9-11 attacks, represented by al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Yemen. As for now, we are witnessing the third generation with the rise of “caliphate” and ISIS.
However, one must admit that despite the impact of the war on terror and the media and intellectual campaigns against it, the takfirist jihadist salafism hatching machine is still productive and active. Even more, ISIS’ recent victories in Mosul and beyond stimulated it, attracting rebels and garnering a new generation of fighters.
The world needs a shock to act and put an end to ISIS’ victories at least, which has attracted more extremists. During the past month, ISIS witnessed a record rate of enrollment, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory estimated that more than 6,000 new fighters in Syria joined ISIS last month.
The real shock began when ISIS began to target religious minorities, and very shortly after that, beheaded American journalist James Foley. These acts have pushed the United States to act against them through limited bombing operations that helped the Kurdish fighters in their battle against ISIS over Iraq’s largest dam near Mosul last week.
This setback will certainly lead to a “cooling” recess for people sympathizing with the organization, and this will surely constitute an advantage in the long battle to eradicate the organization.
Why did the world fail to stop the expansion of ISIS? Saudi King Abdullah is angered by many; the scholars who failed to act and the world that was not enthusiastic about the idea of establishing an international center to combat terrorism under the auspices of the United Nations.
As a result, he gave the ambassador to Washington and the Saudi representative in the United Nations $100 million as a donation to the center, so that the world would act and get involved in the fight against terrorism.
U.S. President Barack Obama said recently that ISIS is a cancer that must be eradicated. French President Francois Hollande said that the world is passing through the most dangerous phase and called for an international conference to find ways to confront ISIS.
It is clear that a military confrontation has begun to prevent ISIS from gaining new territory, especially in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Iraqi army has not regained confidence because of sectarian and political strife within itself, so they would not want to help a sectarian army obtain air forces. This may change if Prime Minister-designate Haider al-Abadi forms his government and succeeds in including eminent Sunnis in it. This means that we are facing a long war fueled through the people of the region, while Americans and Europeans select afterwards who to protect and support and who to leave behind. It is a priority for both groups now that ISIS loses the war.
If the military war on the ground is difficult and complex, the mental war is more difficult. Let us imagine a meeting room with all those who are affected by the war on terrorism, such as the Saudis, Egyptians, Iranians, Emiratis, Qataris, Jordanians, Turks, Americans and Europeans, and even Israelis, being required to develop a plan to eradicate ISIS.
How would they agree when each one of them has his priorities, visions, and his own analysis of the causes of this phenomenon? Added to that, some are secretly dealing with the organization. To make things worse, there is mistrust and accusations being traded between them.
How can we eradicate the disease when we have not yet agreed on its causes? We all describe the disease as bloody, rebellious, terrorist, murderer, savage and external. We all believe that it should not exist in this 21st century but we did not agree yet on its roots. We do not know its genetic DNA and we did not even agree on a name or definition. It attacked us under many names; sometimes as al-Qaeda, the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat in Algeria, and today under the name of ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia, Boko Haram, al-Shaabab and the Taliban. Do all of the above constitute one group or are they different movements that resort to the use of violence, murder and atonement?
Each one of them has qualities, history and causes that distinguish them from each other. Where is the truth and who knows it? How can we defeat something if we do not know what it is?
This article was first published in al-Hayat on August 24, 2014.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.