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ISIS and Operation Decisive Storm… Back to moderation

When Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm began in Yemen a few months ago, ISIS followers lead a smear campaign against it

Jamal Khashoggi

Published: Updated:

When Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm began in Yemen a few months ago, ISIS followers lead a smear campaign against it. Their traditional enemies, the Houthis, supporters of ousted President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and whoever shared their opinion among Iranians and Lebanese partisans did the same.

When the campaign was launched to liberate Daraa, the spark that lit the Syrian revolution, ISIS supporters took the lead once again to compete with the regime partisans in yet another smear campaign. It’s understandable that such campaigns would affect the Houthis and the Syrian regime but how do they affect ISIS and its cyber army?

It is unfair that an Irish or a French man joining the ranks of the Kurdish security forces, who achieved noticeable victories in northern Syria, is internationally accepted even though this group is accused of displacing Arabs and Turkmens

Jamal Khashoggi

Hassan Hassan, an independent researcher at the UK-based Chatham House think tank answered this question. He travelled to Syria on multiple occasions and met with rebels and ISIS supporters, culminating in a book entitled “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror.” In an article published last April in UAE newspaper The National, Hassan said: “Two recent developments in the region appear to have caused more damage to ISIS’s popularity and relevance than nine months of air strikes and battles in Iraq and Syria.”

Stealing ISIS’ thunder

The first development is illustrated by the successive victories of Syrian rebels in northern Syria and their takeover of Idlib and then Jisr al-Shugour. According to Hassan Hassan, these accomplishments, along with the triumphs that followed in central and southern Syria, “have stolen ISIS’ thunder” costing the terrorist organization some of the accomplishments it uses to attract new blood. Furthermore, he added: “Several people inside Syria have told me that ISIS started to lose some of its sympathizers after the rebels swept through significant regime bases in recent months.”

Hassan’s explanation is correct as not all ISIS followers - especially the local ones - are fervent believers, at least that was not the case before they joined the organization which trained them and transformed them into narrow-minded, brainwashed individuals. Victory generates followers and power attracts vulnerable individuals hostile to the regime. These have found in ISIS, especially during the Syrian downfall period, a way to seek revenge against an unjust system which oppressed their people and loved ones. Therefore, the emergence of an alternative, combining strength, power and moderation is enough to pull the rug out from under ISIS. If it doesn’t succeed in attracting most of them, it will at least save those who are still on the margins as well as prevent the terrorist organization from recruiting new “victims.”

Robbing ISIS of appeal

According to Hassan Hassan, the second development that robbed ISIS of some of its appeal is the reaction of the public in the region regarding the Saudi-led Operation Decisive Storm launched in March against the Houthi militia. “There is a decided drop in positive mentions of the group. These who once subtly cheered for ISIS have shifted to enthusiastic support for the campaign against what they perceive as Iranian proxies in Yemen. This view of the situation comes amid the widespread belief that Saudi Arabia no longer perceives the Muslim Brotherhood as quite so much of a threat. This has created a sense of optimism and it is manifesting itself in public attitudes towards the campaign against the Houthis, ” he noted. In other words, those sympathizing with ISIS found in Decisive Storm a campaign that could counter their need to side with a terrorist organization.

Hassan’s theory may seem logical as not all of ISIS’ followers are takfirists nor were they when they first approached this terrorist organization. Defeat, frustration and the lack of an alternative that stands against injustice, tyranny and oppression boosted ISIS’ appeal among a youth demographic full of anger, seeking victory against Islam’s enemies. They are found in Riyadh and Tunisia and even in faraway cities such as Copenhagen and Brussels. They believe, and so do I, that the Sunni people in Iraq and Syria are under attack, tortured and slaughtered while the world sits idle. Hence, they leave their peaceful life of comfort and head to what they assume to be “the land of jihad, pride and dignity.” Once they arrive in ISIS occupied territories, the initial motive of their travel is transformed into blind violence, hatred, atonement and terrorism.

Hassan’s theory is backed up by the opinion of Saudi cleric Salman al-Ouda debated a few days ago in the renowned talk show “Fi Al Samim.” Al-Ouda believes that in order to face this violence, an alternative revival Arab-Islamic project must be provided, one that will absorb the tremendous energy of the Muslim youth. “One cannot shut down this energy. It must be rechanneled productively by achieving some of their dreams,” he said.

Rebuilding the region

Unfortunately, this “energy” is currently under scrutiny despite the fact that it was initially moderate. In the absence of a righteous project, a negative one picked up speed. The Decisive Storm experience and the victories of the Syrian rebels represent the true mediums through which this energy must be channeled and employed to achieve its robbed ISIS of some of its appeal of rebuilding the region and liberating it from both sectarianism and tyranny.

It is unfair that an Irish or a French man joining the ranks of the Kurdish security forces, who achieved noticeable victories in northern Syria, is internationally accepted even though this group is accused of displacing Arabs and Turkmens out of territories under their control. This is a war crime. Nonetheless, our friend had his photograph taken among Kurdish fighters while exhibiting his gun and posted it on Facebook. Then he came back home as a hero to conduct interviews. If a young Arab man had done the same, accusing fingers would have automatically been pointed at him!

This is a tremendous moral dilemma. Resolving it requires an tried and tested formula that can put an end to the likes of ISIS.

This article was first published in al-Hayat on June 29, 2015.

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Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels. Twitter: @JKhashoggi

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