The Al Qaeda and ISIS will in time come together under the spiritual umbrella of the caliphate, while their local units in far-flung areas will wreak violence and vengeance for several years to come.
Attacks launched by the Islamic State for Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and its affiliates have now increased in lethality and expanded in geographical reach. Over the last two months, there has been a train attack in Ankara, the downing of a Russian passenger jet, a suicide bombing in Beirut, several coordinated attacks in Paris and the attack on an office party in San Bernardino in California by a young couple acting in the name of ISIS.
These tales of wanton violence have led to military action: Russia has been carrying out major air attacks on ISIS leaders and facilities since September and is backing ground action by Syrian government forces and their allies. These are in addition to the US-led air attacks going on over the last year.
Policymakers and commentators have been struggling to understand the wellsprings of this group that has in just one year set up a proto-state the size of Britain, with a population of over three million, an armed force of several thousand fighters, federal, provincial and municipal administrations having judges, bureaucrats and security officials, and access to funds estimated at over $500 million, obtained mainly from oil sales. Surprisingly, with all its barbarity, the ISIS continues to attract new recruits in the hundreds every month from several countries of West Asia, Europe and other Western nations.
The ISIS’ progenitor is the ferocious jihadi in Iraq, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who began attacks in 2003 on the US occupation forces and the newly-empowered Shia community, with beheadings, ambushes, raids, roadside explosives and above all suicide bombings. Zarqawi was imbued with a deep animosity for the Shia whom he described as “the lurking snake, the crafty and malicious scorpion, the penetrating venom”.
The ISIS continues in the Zarqawi tradition in its attacks, described by an observer as being marked by “ferocity, frequency and lethality”. It also maintains absolute rigidity on doctrinal matters, particularly in very narrowly defining “true” Muslims, thus declaring the bulk of the community apostate, while condemning all Shia as infidel. It advocates “offensive jihad” against apostate unbelievers and idolaters, with Shia as the principal targets.
However, in several areas the ISIS has gone well beyond Zarqawi: it has set up the caliphate under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which neither Al Qaeda nor Zarqawi had done; it has also provided doctrinal justification for beheadings and burnings, and more recently for slavery and crucifixion. Unlike its ideological predecessors, it gives central importance to messianism, with frequent references in its pronouncements to the imminent apocalyptic battle in northern Syria and the final victory of Islam.
The enduring allure of the ISIS for youth in West Asian countries and beyond continues to astound most observers. Recently, a Western official confessed that he was “horrified but baffled” by the dramatic triumphs of the ISIS and its ability to attract foreign fighters “from every conceivable political or economic system”.
The distinguished French scholar, Olivier Roy, sees ISIS’ young adherents as representing a “generational nihilistic radicalized youth revolt”. He plays down the “Islamic” and jihadi aspects of their conduct and insists that the issue is a “big generation gap” which is stronger in Muslim societies because of the dramatic changes — cultural, sociological and political — they have been experiencing over the last 30 years. Thus, their “revolt” is not very different from that of the 19th century French anarchists or the 20th century Baader-Meinhof revolutionaries.
The American scholar Scott Atran notes that most young ISIS recruits are usually “misfits” in their societies, and sees in the allure of ISIS for Muslim youth their longing “for something in their history, in their traditions”; the ISIS fulfils this yearning “for adventure, glory, ideals and significance”. His research has shown that most of the ISIS’ young followers come from non-religious backgrounds. They are brought together not by religious zeal but by “commitment to cause and comrades”, the one powerful force that has in the past motivated numerous armies to victory in the most adverse of circumstances.
Besides its ongoing ideological and operational competition with Al Qaeda, the ISIS is now facing repeated military attacks from the world’s major powers. The latest coalition set up against it is the one announced by Saudi Arabia in mid-December, which brings together 34 countries in an “Islamic military alliance” to combat the ISIS and other terrorist groups through military action, by choking off of funds and combating the spread of its ideology.
However, there is uncertainty about every aspect of the proposal, including its membership, likely role, organization and deployment, funding and even the likely targets. Given the absence of Iran and Iraq from the coalition, most observers have described it as a “Sunni coalition” which will only exacerbate the sectarian divide in West Asia. Arab commentators have even pointed out that some members of the coalition have themselves contributed to the spread of jihadi forces with their educational curricula, recruits and funding.
As attempts to debilitate it continue, the ISIS also continues to expand its influence so that it now has a presence in over 20 countries outside Iraq and Syria, including Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, with frequent announcements from major jihadi groups expressing allegiance to it and lone jihadis launching attacks in its name.
With their military action, regional and Western powers are hoping to deny the ISIS the territory that constitutes its caliphate so as to deprive it of its support base and its allure. Given the ability of jihadi groups to sustain themselves in very hostile circumstances, mainly by decentralising their presence and operations, it is unlikely that military action alone will destroy the ISIS. Continued political, social and cultural marginalization in West Asia and the West will ensure fresh recruits.
The more likely scenario is that the estranged family members, Al Qaeda and ISIS, will in time come together under the spiritual umbrella of the caliphate, while their local units in far-flung areas in their domain will wreak violence and vengeance for several years to come.
The writer is former Indian ambassador to Saudi Arabia