A worrisome collapse in Ramadi
The abrupt collapse of Iraqi defences in front of advancing troops of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Ramadi, the provincial capital of Anbar, is a source of serious concern. The city, which fell under ISIS control, is only 115 kilometres from Baghdad. It is the first major Iraqi city to fall into the hands of the extremist group since 2014. During the fighting, ISIS forces perpetrated mass killings. Nearly 120,000 residents of Ramadi have fled their homes since April. The conspicuous eagerness of Shia militiamen to head to Ramadi now is a source of additional concern. According to rights groups, Shia militias had previously used anti-ISIS operations, as in Tikrit, to commit abuses against the Sunni population.
The successful ISIS blitz also shows the limits of the air war conducted by the US-led coalition. The recent incursion by US Special Forces into Syria and the killing of ISIS’ “oil emir” Abu Sayyaf is in itself an admission of the limits of operations conducted solely from the sky.
The targeting of Abu Sayyaf also highlighted the continuing threat emanating from the flow of foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq. US intelligence estimates about 1,000 fighters continue to find their way into Syria and Iraq every month. According to the United Nations, foreign jihadists have flocked to the Levant from about 80 countries. At least 15,000 have travelled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS and other terrorist organisations. The ISIS arsenal includes T-55 and T-72 tanks, short-range anti-aircraft artillery and US-made Humvees, the United Nations points out.
Beside a more efficient military campaign, stopping ISIS requires:
— Stemming the flow of oil revenues and ransom money replenishing the coffers of the jihadists. The Counter ISIS Finance Group (CIFG), which met in Jeddah on May 7th, noted “with concern the huge revenues raised by [ISIS] from kidnapping for ransom”. Unscrupulous traders who traffic in smuggled oil have as much blood on their hands as the direct perpetrators of terror.
— Waging a more efficient war for the hearts and minds of potential ISIS recruits. Most jihadist foot soldiers are the product of failed educational and socio-economic systems in the Middle East and North Africa. In Europe, misguided young Muslim immigrants and recent converts have been attracted to the jihadist narrative.
In a recent audio recording, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed that “Islam was always a religion of war”. His bellicose interpretation of Islam is not only ill-founded but dangerous. The Arab and Muslim world needs leaders with enough vision and courage to stand against the manipulation of Islamic texts.
— Establishing closer cooperation between the West and countries of the region to combat the jihadist use of the internet to provide an enticing narrative for would-be terrorists.
But before anything else, it is Iraq that needs to put its house in order. Its huge sectarian divide provides ideological ammunition for the ISIS narrative. Everyone, including those who would like to exploit that divide to promote their political agendas, runs the risk of being consumed by the fires of terror.