The phenomenon of global jihadism has been around in its current, recognizable form since the ‘90s. It achieved definition in the decade of conflict in Afghanistan during its disastrous series of civil wars that lasted in some form or another from the 70s to the early 90s.
The Islamist mujahedeen ultimately won that war. And in the process, they humiliated the Soviet Union, who had supported the previous socialist government. It is no overstatement that this conflict contributed significantly to the collapse of the Soviet Empire.
What nobody expected, however, was that the ideology of the mujahedeen would rise in the decade following the withdrawal of the Soviets to become the main ideological contender and geopolitical enemy of the liberal West in the wake of the collapse of communism.
The Afghan War may have been a key Cold War battleground in the clash between the Soviets and the Western allies who supported, financially and militarily, the Islamists, but outside of that conflict there is no reason why Afghanistan should have been so important for the subsequent geopolitical developments.
But that conflict was, for an important group of people, much more than a fight over the Soviets’ sphere of influence. Young, Muslim fighters from a hugely diverse backgrounds, and with different ideological motivations, converged into Afghanistan from all over the Muslim world, and indeed beyond. The place became a melting pot of Islamism and war theology.
The end result was the ideology of permanent global jihad that, after Afghanistan, would spread all over the world, to Arabia, Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa, Chechnya in Russia, the former Yugoslav territories in Europe, and ultimately culminated in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in the United States.
Ideology of terror
That ideology is now a permanent feature of the world order – and possibly the greatest threat, not just to the West, but to the Western-dominated global system of nation-states. What has made it so is a remarkable combination of ideological and strategic consistency, the aim being the destabilisation and ultimate destruction of non-Muslim powers, with incredible tactical flexibility.
ISIS almost succeeded in dragging the West into yet another war in the Middle East – though instead they have caught Russia in the spider’s web.Azeem Ibrahim
Al-Qaeda was the first organization to become a sort of spiritual leader to the movement, and its tactic has been to draw the West into unwinnable wars in the Middle East. These wars, Afghanistan and Iraq, may not have led to the collapse of the West in the same way that the original Afghan conflict for the Soviets, but it most certainly made it overextend. The West now sits much weakened as a result.
In the past 10 years or so, the West would no longer be dragged into such conflicts. Libya, Syria, post-insurgency Iraq, and even post-withdrawal Afghanistan: the West would not allow itself to be dragged into land wars it understood it could not win, and stood nothing to gain from. Nor would the West be goaded by waves upon waves of terror attacks and attempted attacks on their soil.
Yet from the ashes of so many failing states, a new organization came to the fore, with a new tactical approach: the so-called Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). While the guerrilla tactics of Al-Qaeda were beginning to fail, the group contended, instead, that they should simply establish a new, Islamic, state to make concrete their alternative vision of the ideal society as a challenge to the Western global order. And sure enough, that got everyone’s attention.
ISIS has dominated much of the international political discourse for the past four-five years. It almost succeeded in dragging the West into yet another war in the Middle East – though instead they have caught Russia in the spider’s web. And while the focus shifted towards Syria and Iraq, and to a lesser extent Libya, the Levant region became a sort of global focus for the energies of the global jihadism.
Thousands upon thousands of recruits from all over the world clamoured to join the new ‘Caliphate’, and the propaganda machine of the group looked invincible, as many groups in other areas of instability in the Islamic world would pledge allegiance, as well as self-starter terrorist cells in the West. ISIS tried its best to coordinate all these people and all their energy towards planting firm roots for their ‘state’ in the Levant.
That worked extremely well for the jihadis. For a while. But for the past few months, things are becoming palpably different. For one, the most important propaganda asset ISIS has had was military momentum: the way in which it seemingly came out of nowhere to control large swathes of Syria and Iraq, and took important cities and oil fields. That momentum has long since lost. Initially, they could take territory outside of the Sunni-dominated areas of the Levant, but they could not hold it for long. Now, they cannot even do that.
The Kurds in the north have become safely entrenched, with the help of Western air-strikes to support them, Iraq in the east and south east has rebuffed any further advancement with the help of Iran, and Syria in the west, though it looked like it might collapse any moment for most of last year. The Russian intervention in support of Assad has completely turned the tables in that conflict.
None of these now look vulnerable. What now seems likely is that ISIS will simply be eroded with a long war of attrition, until the group can no longer gain enough recruits to be able to sustain its gains. At which point, it is likely it will collapse. It will not be easy, and it will not be pretty. But it seems like the most likely outcome.
This seems to have motivated a tactical change, yet again, from the jihadists: a large part of ISIS propaganda has now shifted away from trying to recruit people for the paradise of the Caliphate, back towards the original Al-Qaeda approach to inspire self-starter terrorist actions abroad, to destabilise hostile countries.
If and when the Caliphate collapses, expect a wave of these people to spread all across the region and beyond. But in the meantime, local self-starter cells are preparing the way with attacks such as those in Indonesia, Paris, and the U.S. They seem to be aware of the fact that this will be the most effective way to continue their influence on the global state.
So ISIS seems to be smelling its own impending doom: we need to brace ourselves for what comes next.
Azeem Ibrahim is an RAI Fellow at Mansfield College, University of Oxford and Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim