ISIS: The war with the self and the war of the other

Tackling ISIS requires an extraordinary breakthrough possible only through extraordinary measures

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The mentality and nature of ISIS militants, and its brutal brand of terror and radical Islamist ideology, pose a challenge to moderate, tolerant, progressive Islam. Tackling ISIS requires an extraordinary breakthrough possible only through extraordinary measures, starting with primary education and not ending with the policies of both major and smaller powers in the region and the world.

No one is innocent of this devastating scourge, and everyone is responsible for stopping it and stopping all kinds of extremist ideologies, be it Christian, Jewish, Shiites, or even secular. However, according to me, Sunnis bear one of the primary responsibilities. Indeed, ISIS, al-Qaeda, and similar groups are the offspring of a rigid interpretation of Sunni Islam and authoritarian regimes and forces in many Islamic countries.

The responsibility also has an Arab dimension as a large number of these groups are Arabs even though “others” are responsible too. This kind of fundamentalist interpretation of Islam was one of the outcome of the action against Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, which resulted in US-Pakistani-Arab partnership. It was these circumstances that spawned al-Qaeda and led to the Soviet Union’s collapse, marking the point at which the US avenged its defeat in Vietnam.

For its part, Shiite fundamentalism seized power in Tehran with European-American support. Decades earlier, the same Euro-American partnership helped create Jewish fundamentalism with Israel, which today boasts of its relentless construction of illegal settlement, rejecting an end to its occupation and effectively rejecting the two-state solution.

With the release of the report of Sir John Chilcot, chairman of the British Commission of Inquiry into the Iraq War that was led by former US President Bush and UK Prime Minister Tony Blair, it became clear that the invasion had been prepared immediately following 9/11, and that the “mistake” of disbanding the Iraqi army and subsequent de-Baathification were a direct precursor to the creation of ISIS.

Then came the war in Syria and Russia found an opportunity to avenge itself for its defeat in Afghanistan. Russia thus reportedly turned Syria into a magnet for terrorists, as Bush had done in Iraq, thinking this would keep terrorism far from its own cities. However, Russia is now implicated in the Syrian war as a party to the ongoing conflict. At the same time, it is part of a partnership with Washington that includes engineering factions and militias to decide who is qualified to fight ISIS, but the deal between the two powers is fragile.

Their policies have contributed to the rise of groups like ISIS, but no one is innocent of this. The biggest dilemma is that ISIS appears aware of the fragility of the stakeholders, and of the foolhardiness and arrogance of those who are enabling its adventures as we are seeing in the US presidential campaigns.

Indeed, ISIS may even swing voters in America if it manages to carry out a major terror attack before election day in November. This would be a vote in favor of the presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump, who is appealing to the instincts of the American people, pledging to banish Muslims and promising fantastical schemes.

There is a need to acknowledge that the time has come for actual measures in the realm of education and school traditions, to promote a moderate, tolerant, and progressive Islam

Raghida Dergham

ISIS would want Trump to be president because it is eager to become an unequivocal enemy of the United States, something it believes would be a boon. Furthermore, Trump’s arbitrariness and ostracizing of Muslims helps ISIS mobilize and recruit support, not just in the US but all around the world.

This does not mean that ISIS will not try to lure the presumptive Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton to a duel, as it is keen to become an official enemy of the United States whatever happens in November. But one key difference is that Clinton would be a foreign policy hawk, building new partnerships and reviving old ones for a new approach against ISIS and similar groups. This would be to the disadvantage of the militant group, which prefers to face off with impulsive foes.

Now that the FBI has decided not to prosecute Clinton backed by the Department of Justice in the case of her leaked private e-mails, she will go to the Democratic National Convention this month free of this burden, meaning her nomination by her party is all but guaranteed.

The decision of the FBI has eliminated all of Bernie Sanders’ chances, the other Democratic candidate who remained in the race up until now, hoping an indictment against Hillary would make him the front-runner.

But there is another dimension to the report released by FBI director James Comey, who offered damning evidence exposing Clinton’s claims and her negligence, when she sent 110 classified e-mails through her personal account instead of her official one, including from “unfriendly” sites which could expose national security to breaches by foreign agencies.

This is powerful ammunition in the hands of the Republican Party. The traditional leaders of the party are furious with Trump’s antics, and some had decided not to back his nomination under any circumstances. However, with the approaching Democratic and Republican conventions this month, five months away from Election Day, the Republicans may find James Comey’s revelations to be invaluable to prevent another Clinton from becoming president.

Whatever happens, the next US president will have a difficult job, with ISIS mounting more attacks and its growing capabilities. Implications of US policies around the world could be radically affected by the future track of groups like ISIS, though not exclusively.

Chilcot probe

The Iraq War, as the Chilcot inquiry established, highlighted the then Britain government’s role in fabricating premises for the invasion, co-prepared by Tony Blair. Blair has harmed Iraq as much as George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and their cronies have done. As soon as the terror attacks of 9/11 struck, this motley crew started preparing for the war on Iraq, fabricating justifications based on WMDs that the UN had succeeded in dismantling. Fabricated evidence was presented.

Paul Wolfowitz, who is said to be the diplomatic godfather of the war, claimed it was for the sake of democracy in the Middle East. Thus the decision to destroy Iraq was taken on flimsy grounds, which then shifted to “not apologizing for getting rid of the dictator Saddam Hussein,” and then to the claim by Bush that the war was meant to keep the war on terror away from US cities.

It is said the disbanding of the Iraqi army was a mistake, rather than a deliberate strategic decision. This of course doesn’t make sense. In my view, the decision was made to serve Israel and Iran, both of which saw the army as a strategic enemy that needed to be destroyed. It was no mistake. It is an affront to intelligence when it is claimed those behind the decision did not foresee that it would unleash partisan and terrorist groups, which would turn Iraq into a fertile ground for terrorism. The emergence of ISIS in Iraq in the battle of Mosul, and its triumph following the army’s suspicious withdrawal under pro-Iranian PM Nouri al-Maliki also raises many questions.

Reports of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad releasing terrorists he had used in Iraq before imprisoning them in Syria also makes things suspicious. With support from Tehran and Moscow, Assad decided to turn the conflict in Syria from being a rebellion against his rule to a war on terror, and he needed the appropriate ammunition to achieve that.

Thus emerged the axis comprising Russia, Iran, Hezbollah, and various imported militias alongside the regime in Damascus against ISIS and al-Nusra Front. The US president’s reluctance to get more directly involved in Syria also contributed to the rise of these factions.

I believe, no one is innocent of what is happening in Syria, not to mention the donors who thought supporting terrorist groups is akin to fighting fire with fire. Everyone is to blame for the “Afghanization” of Syria, some believing it as the best way to confine the war to Syria and keep it away from their homeland. Everyone has miscalculated as ISIS is now a Frankenstein whose tentacles have spread all over the region and the world.

The terror attacks waged by the group have expanded into the US, Europe, Turkey, Bangladesh, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. The worst may be yet to come and, according to me, could also hit Russia, the neighboring Muslim republics, Arab countries, and Iran itself.

'Flawed policies'

Clearly, it is wrong policies that are feeding this man-made monster. The destruction of armies paved the way for its rise, and fighting it using imported or local militias in Syria and Iraq may win a battle here or there, but it will not win the war. If ISIS’s cadres left Iraq or Syria temporarily, they might relocate to Tunisia, Morocco, the Gulf, central Asia, and Chechnya.

It is no longer sufficient to hold a dialogue of faiths or create centers to fight terrorism, despite the importance of this approach, adopted by Saudi Arabia in particular. There is need for a different kind of thinking that goes beyond intelligence cooperation. Perhaps there is room for a bigger role for technology in the fight against terror, which has been using technology without limitations.
I believe, the Gulf countries are aware that ISIS and its ilk, and Shiite fundamentalist groups, can now infiltrate and cause harm in their territories. They realize that sleeper cells are an existential threat to their stability.

The governments are taking security measures. But what is also required is to tackle extremist groups and the proponents of the view of fighting fire with fire, to head off their ideas and their support for radical movements. There is a need to acknowledge that the time has come for actual measures in the realm of education and school traditions, to promote a moderate, tolerant, and progressive Islam.

A fateful battle is afoot between modern Islam and a brand of Islam that is being rigidly interpreted by zealous ideologues and instigators. What is needed is to stop turning a blind eye to government-enabled religious voices and forces, who have been given a free hand to radicalize the cadres that eventually join or fund groups like ISIS.

This is the essence of our self-war. Indeed, the scourge is not just the result of mistaken outside policies, but also the result of a very local fundamentalist mindset.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jul. 08, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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