Riding the Ferris wheel, enjoying the special holiday pastries and holding family gatherings has traditionally marked the celebrations at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month concluding on Tuesday. This year, however, Ramadan brings a bittersweet moment for many in the Muslim world, overshadowed by a wave of barbaric terrorism targeting majority-Muslim countries and bearing the signature of ISIS.
From Islam's second holiest site in Madinah, to a shopping mall in Baghdad, Ataturk airport in Istanbul, a cafe in Dhaka to a club in Florida and thwarted attempts on mosques in Kuwait, ISIS has unleashed its suicide bombings venom outside its Middle East war zones (Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen).
The various attacks, in their ferocity and boundless reach, show that the Americans, the Saudis, the Turks showcases that the Middle East, South Asia, Europe and US are confronting a global terror phenomenon.
What is also worth noting that if it is proven that yesterday's attack in Saudi Arabia did bear the ISIS signature, then this would mark a global transition for this terrorist group from the territorial confines of its so-called Caliphate, to a brand that morphs al-Qaeda on a large scale and with more brutality. It also exposes the group’s weakness, lashing out against Muslims in a way that is likely to backfire and hurt its narrative.
ISIS morphs into al-Qaeda
While the rebirth of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 brought striking differences with al-Qaeda, in terms of territorial control and scope of targets, these differences have diminished today with both groups competing for global terrorism and becoming less dependent on land grabs.
As ISIS loses 47 percent of its territory in Iraq and 20 percent in Syria, according to US envoy Brett McGurk, it is rebranding into global jihadism as an alternative to its once celebrates Caliphate. Almost like al-Qaeda which never proclaimed a Caliphate and tried to make allies within rogue states, ISIS is now trying to operate in countries it has recruits or sleeping cells to carry out attacks against security forces, foreigners and Western interest (such as the US consulate in Jeddah).
The losses of Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Palmyra and Kobani are making ISIS rethink its allure and strategy. Running a global terrorist enterprise and showing muscle outside Iraq and Syria is an opportune way for ISIS to cover up the fragmentation of its Caliphate while still having the ability to parade its killing machine abroad.
The terror that hit Madinah, Istanbul, Baghdad and Dhaka is the same terror that hit Brussels, Orlando and Paris, only this time it targeted mostly Muslims who are killed by ISIS more than any other religion. The aim is to distract and retaliate (Baghdad) to battlefront losses in Iraq and Syria anywhere it can.
ISIS will spare no sleeping cell or foreign fighter from returning and targeting outside interests. While killing Muslims tarnishes the group’s image, the immediate gain of showing its strong hand is prevailing in its terror attacks in Istanbul and Baghdad.
A regional response
With Turkey, Saudi, Kuwait, Jordan, and Lebanon coming under ISIS fire during Ramadan, there is more urgency than any time before to go on the offensive against the group to help end the territorial control it still enjoys in Iraq and Syria.
Robbing ISIS of its territory means taking away its ability to create safe havens, plan and train for attacks, while also ending the blank checks it receives from oil trade, ransoms and taxes. Waiting for Geneva talks to reach a breakthrough, or for an inclusive government in Baghdad to emerge, will only play into the hands of ISIS.
Two years of territorial control in Iraq and Syria have made the group a terror giant with legions that can strike in Bangladesh, Brussels and Tunisia.
Countries in the region have a primary interest in investing in a multi-pronged security strategy that prioritizes counterterrorism, and would train and equip local forces to take over ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria. The Anbar province is to Saudi’s national security as critical as Northern Syria is to Turkey.
While pushing for a political solution in Damascus and Baghdad would greatly help in promoting regional cooperation and undermining ISIS, the entrenched proxy conflicts in both countries dim such prospect.
By killing Muslims this week blocks away from the Prophet’s burial place, ISIS is only showing its true colors: a beastly group that cares little about Muslims and is all about power and chaos.
The brutality will continue wherever its fighters land and can reach but only a unified regional strategy that counters its narrative and ends its territorial hold can defeat this affliction.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Bureau Chief for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_KaramSHOW MORE