When the world was teeming with obituaries proclaiming the end of ISIS, many criticized the rush to make such a claim. States and organizations raced to boast their crucial role in the defeat of ISIS’ “caliphate state” in many parts of Iraq and Syria: the US-led coalition, the government of Haidar al-Abadi, the Popular Mobilization Forces, Iran, the Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), Russia, the Syrian regime, Hezbollah, Lebanon, and the European Union are but a few examples.
But ISIS is moving, and not as a zombie. The group is carrying out terrorist operations in the Syrian Desert, Iraq, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, European and African cities, and the Philippines. It is recruiting youth in Lebanon and elsewhere. The large-scale terrorist operation it conducted on the SDF’s Ghwayran prison in Hasakeh to free thousands of terrorists and its previous operations in Diyala and even Mosul indicate that the movement has shifted from limited attacks to large-scale operations. When the so-called Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, successor of the group’s previous leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, announced “the beginning of a new era of fighting Jews and all the sects that fight Islam and its people, including Christians, the rafidah (Shia), apostates, and polytheists who falsely belong to Ahl al-Sunna,” it was not just hot air.
ISIS is a concept, not just an organization that exploits the temptation of restoring the “caliphate” after its fall in Istanbul with the end of the Ottoman Empire following WWI. In the war on terrorism, security and military confrontation is prevalent, but the fight against takfiri ideology (which holds opponents to be infidels) is more hesitant. In an interview with the New Yorker magazine, Kenneth McKenzie, the commander of the United States Central Command, said that “even eliminating ISIS might not end the threat because the tensions that produced extremism have not been addressed”, noting that “Iran’s influence in both Iraq and Syria is an impediment to the enduring defeat of ISIS.” But Elliott Ackerman believes the same thing applies to US military presence. Ackerman tells Foreign Policy: “If the great strategic blunder of the Bush administration was to put troops into Iraq, then the great strategic blunder of the Obama administration was to pull all of them out. The first saw the flourishing of al Qaeda in Iraq; the second gave birth to that group’s successor, ISIS.”
And it does not stop there. Even in Europe’s democratic countries, terrorists have emerged from educated middle classes. The policy of “mowing the grass” in the fight against terrorism requires ongoing operations, because the grass grows back and needs to be mowed constantly.
In his new book, Global Jihad: A Brief History, Glenn Robinson outlines four phases or waves of jihad since the 1980’s: the international call to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, the anti-American focus of al-Qaeda, the rejection of the international system by ISIS and similar movements, and the proliferation of “lone wolf” operations fueled by radicalization on the Internet.
ISIS not only embraced and combined all these waves, but it also added a new one: the proclamation of the caliphate. The war on ISIS may have ended the “caliphate state,” but it has not ended the concept of ISIS nor the idea of the caliphate. Nonetheless, Thomas Hegghammer believes the war on terrorism reinforced the power of states. He describes terrorism as “a strategic game between states and non-state actors,” and believes the war on terror has “allowed regimes to repress dissident peaceful political movements under the guise of combating terrorism.” This was evident lately in Kazakhstan, where President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev described protesting dissidents as terrorists and repressed them, with the help of forces from the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization.
Just like experts believe the world must live with COVID-19 because, like the flu and influenza, it is not likely to go away, several calls to “live with terrorism” have emerged, because its end does not seem to be in sight. But to live with terrorism is no less challenging than to fight it. Whatever helped produce ISIS after al-Qaeda is capable of producing other, more dangerous organizations, especially if they are backed by states that practice state terrorism, which is more dangerous than the terrorism of extremist organizations and lone wolves. It would be delusional to disregard the history of terrorism and its reasons, which were never limited to a certain type of terrorists or a specific region of the world.
This article was originally published in, and translated from, Independent Arabia.