After ISIS, bracing for the War on Terror 2.0
Beirut - With the Islamic State (ISIS) crushed on the battlefield and its caliphate broken up, security chiefs across the Middle East and much of the rest of the world are bracing for revenge terror attacks and the expected emergence of new jihadist groups as George W. Bush’s global war against terror grinds on and on.
Despite the military defeat of ISIS by a US-led coalition, the war that Bush grandiosely declared in a speech before the US Congress on September 20, 2001, is far from over and new horrors and much bloodshed likely lie ahead.
“Al-Qaeda declared war on the United States in 1996, more than 20 years ago, but our jihadist foes see the struggle as one that began centuries ago and that will continue until Judgment Day,” said US analyst Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior adviser with the RAND Corporation.
“Some in the United States warn of an unending war.”
But, asserts Tom Engelhardt, publisher of TomDispatch.com, a security-oriented website that has been highly critical of US military policy, the war on terror was the brainchild of the man who started it, Osama bin Laden, provoking the United States into massive retaliation in Muslim lands.
And Bush, influenced by former Vice-President Dick Cheney and Israel-centric neocon strategists in the military and intelligence systems, began a bloody war against al-Qaeda that waterboarded the United States into what looks like a never-ending battle that has ravaged the greater Middle East.
Ali Soufan, a Lebanese-American former FBI agent who tracked down and interrogated many jihadist operatives, observed that al-Qaeda remains a potent threat despite bin Laden’s assassination in Pakistan by US Navy SEALs on May 2, 2011.
“Whereas on 9/11 al-Qaeda had a few hundred members, almost all of them based in a single country (Afghanistan), today it enjoys multiple safe havens across the world,” he observed recently.
“Year after year, US special operators find themselves fighting new waves of militants across multiple continents, including entire terror groups that did not exist on 9/11.”
There is no central command organising these disparate groups, which operate autonomously, with several riven by internal divisions. Jenkins cautions that, although the level of violence in Europe and the United States has been “relatively low” despite some severe bombings, that could increase.
“With larger volumes of home-grown terrorists and returning foreign fighters, Europe faces a greater threat than does the United States,” he said.
Al-Qaeda is showing signs of resurgence, particularly in Syria, and should not be written off. US Intelligence said a supercell of al-Qaeda veterans tagged the Khorasan Group has been infiltrated into Syria by the group’s central command in Pakistan with plans to mount attacks in the United States.
With the Middle East wracked by conflict, Syria and Iraq have been seriously weakened as nation-states, with militias controlling large tracts of territory and infrastructure, leaving those countries highly unstable.
The war on terror has been spreading from the Middle East into the Indian subcontinent and South-east Asia, particularly the Philippines, where Muslim rebels have been battling to achieve autonomy for decades, and Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
In May, jihadist forces seized Marawi City, a major urban centre on Mindanao, a long-time battleground, and held off US-backed Filipino troops for weeks — testimony to the strength of the jihadists bolstered by battle-hardened ISIS veterans from Syria and Iraq.
The way Engelhardt and others see things, the war is heading into an even more savage phase — just as bin Laden planned it.
With 9/11 hitting the United States homeland, Engelhardt, addressing bin Laden, said: “You goaded us into doing what you had neither the resources nor the ability to do.
“So let’s give credit where it’s due… I have no idea how but you clearly understood us so much better than we understand you or, for that matter, ourselves. You knew just which buttons of ours to push so that we would essentially carry out the rest of your plan for you.”
Engelhardt added that “no one in Washington has taken the slightest responsibility for blowing a hole through the Middle East, loosing mayhem across significant swaths of the planet, or helping release the forces that would create the first true terrorist state of modern history” — ISIS’s short-lived caliphate.
True, al-Qaeda and its many offshoots have not pulled off another 9/11, a meticulously planned and executed operation using hijacked US airliners as flying bombs to strike the symbols of American power — military, political and economic.
However, unleashing such spectacular attacks, with withering casualty tolls and demoralising ferocity, remains a strategic objective for militants throughout the jihadist constellation.
“Our worst fears have not been realised,” Jenkins observed. “The 9/11 attacks appear to be a statistical outlier, not a forerunner of further escalation. Terrorists have not used weapons of mass destruction, as many expected they would so — at least they have not used them yet.”
He and other analysts in the West and the Middle East said the carnage inflicted on the Islamic world in general through immense military and political power unleashed by the counterterrorism coalition — mainly the United States — generates anti- Western anger that prolongs this complex conflict.
The US-led military campaign is certain to intensify under US President Donald Trump, although the full extent has not been disclosed.
Escalating the counterterrorism action will depend to a large extent on a network of military bases the Americans are building in an arc from southern Europe across the Middle East and North Africa, south into the African hinterland and South-West Asia.
“The record of these bases is disastrous,” David Vine of Washington’s American University, who has written several books on US military and foreign policies, noted in a 2016 assessment on this expanding global empire of military might.
“They have enabled a series of US wars and military interventions” — including the calamitous 2003 invasion of Iraq that gave rise to ISIS — “which have helped make the Greater Middle East a cauldron of sectarian-tinged power struggles, failed states and humanitarian catastrophe.
“And the bases have fuelled radicalism, anti-Americanism and the growth of the very terrorist organisations now targeted by the supposedly new strategy.”
Indeed, parts of the network plan date as far back as US President Jimmy Carter’s strategic doctrine unveiled in 1980, asserting that the United States would secure Middle East oil by “any means necessary, including military force.”
“The system would include four ‘hubs’ — existing bases in Afghanistan, Iraq, Djibouti and Spain — and smaller ‘spokes’ in locations like Niger and Cameroon” as the many-tentacled jihadist scourge spreads, Vine explained.
However, he cautioned: “Investing in ‘enduring bases’ rather than diplomatic, political and humanitarian efforts to reduce conflict across the region is likely to do little more than ensure enduring war.”
The US-led coalition has had successes in Syria and Iraq, the main battleground of the last few years, and claims to have killed approximately 70,000 terrorists, largely through the US Air Force’s formidable firepower.
Counterterrorism is the Americans’ main purpose in the Syrian war, which enters its seventh year next March.
ISIS may be on the run, as al-Qaeda was a few years earlier in the face of round-the-clock air strikes and attacks by missile-firing drones that decimated its senior and mid-level command structures.
However, as Jenkins notes: “These organisations have proven resilient and adaptive. They have morphed to meet new circumstances and exploit new opportunities and they will continue to do so. The threat remains.
“Their determination is undiminished… They view strategy as process-oriented rather than progress-oriented, meaning that they derive benefits from commitment, regardless of immediate outcomes, which remains in God’s hands.
“They believe that they are on the side of God and we are not and, therefore in the long run, they will prevail."