The rise and expansion of ISIS
Beirut - The Islamic State (ISIS) has eclipsed al-Qaeda and hijacked the cause of radical Islam. Islamist radicals in Libya, Egypt, Tunisia and other Maghreb countries and even Boko Haram in Nigeria have pledged allegiance to ISIS, underlining the extent of the threat it poses.
While Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda successor, the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri, hides from US drones in hideouts in the badlands of northern Pakistan, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “Caliph Ibrahim”, rules an Islamic state the size of Britain sprawled across Syria and Iraq.
ISIS has outposts that stretch from the Maghreb, including in war-ravaged Libya where it is a growing power, to West Africa and South Asia, where it is establishing itself in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan while recruiting as far afield as the Philippines and Malaysia.
In January, ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani announced the establishment of the caliphate’s Wilayat Khurasan, or the Khurasan province, in a region that covers Afghanistan and Pakistan, under former Taliban commander Hafiz Saeed Khan.
One of Baghdadi’s most important moves has been to place the Salafist struggle back in the heart of the historic Arab world, away from the Pakistan epicentre established by bin Laden in the late 1990s — and close to Europe and Israel, jihadist targets.
ISIS has managed to survive against the Sunni powers across the Middle East, not to mention ten months of constant US-led air strikes, because it clearly has a well-defined strategy and set of objectives.
Many observers believe ISIS is the product of the intrusion of Western, mostly European, secularism and modernity in the Middle East over the last 150 years that led to the backlash of radical Islam.
Alistair Crooke, a former British intelligence agent who has spent years consulting Arab leaders and groups, observed in an October 2014 article for the World Post that the unprecedented violence and turmoil in the region “need never have come to this…
“There was … a concerted Islamic effort (at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th) to mesh Islam into the contemporary modern world. But this Arab renaissance failed and it was events that took the nascent Islamic movements in a very different direction and not some inherent quality to Islam…
“Just to be plain: The intrusion of secularism into the region was never somehow benign or neutral… Islam was hanging in there but only by its fingernails. And then came the hammer blows of Ataturk’s dismantling of the Islamic ‘nation’ (the Umma) and the caliphate. The aftermath to this secular act of Turkish iconoclasm was the introduction of Islamism into the region.”
Amid the decline in Islam, the final humiliation for Arab Muslims, of course, was the establishment of the state of Israel in May 1948, in territory that for centuries had been ruled by Islam.
This accelerated a revivalist movement seeking to restore Islam’s greatness by returning to first principles and gave rise to the stern Wahhabi movement and the founding of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928.
This eventually spawned al- Qaeda, which launched a war on the West and those Arab tyrants who represented its influence, and which on September 11, 2001, took terrorism to a new and frightening level of barbarity. ISIS has taken that even further, disdaining bin Laden’s concerns about alienating fellow Muslims.
Baghdadi, aided by some of Saddam Hussein’s military and intelligence commanders, has established a militant Islamic state. The mere emergence of ISIS underlines how the United States and other Western powers were unable to grasp just how badly their “war on terrorism” had failed and had produced an even deadlier organisation with aspirations of a new Islamic empire.
British journalist Patrick Cockburn, one of the most astute Western observers who has witnessed the jihadist wars at close quarters, wrote in The Rise of Islamic State that ISIS “is the child of war. Its members seek to reshape the world around them by acts of violence.
“The movement’s toxic but potent mix of extreme religious beliefs and military skill is the outcome of the war in Iraq since the US invasion of 2003 and the war in Syria since 2011.
“Just as the violence in Iraq was ebbing, the war was revived by the Sunni Arabs in Syria. It is the government and media consensus in the West that the civil war in Iraq was re-ignited by the sectarian policies of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
“In reality it was the war in Syria that destabilised Iraq when jihadi groups like ISIS, then called al- Qaeda in Iraq, found a new battlefield where they could fight and flourish.”
Cockburn concludes that it was “the US, Europe and their regional allies in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates that created the conditions for the rise of ISIS. They kept the war going in Syria, though it was obvious from 2012 that Assad would not fall.”