Despite much commentary to the contrary, the Islamic State is steadily losing ground. It has already lost three quarters of the border between northern Syria and Turkey, pressure on the city of Raqqa is mounting, and its command and control capabilities have been steadily downgraded along with its loss in territory. Perhaps most important, pressure on its main source of income, from oil, is now intense.
To stave off its current attrition, the Islamic State needs to reignite the passions that have fuelled successive waves of terror and violence. The most effective way to achieve this is to provoke further Western intervention in the Middle East; and achieving that response is the intention of the wave of recent attacks.
The United States invasion of Iraq in 2003 largely created the Islamic State. At a time when al-Qaeda was on the back foot in Afghanistan, George W Bush snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in a stunning display of short-termism. Saddam Hussein did not have weapons of mass destruction, nor did he support and fund al-Qaeda – the two justifications used to justify the invasion. Operation Iraqi Freedom was based on poor intelligence or deliberate deceit, with long-term destructive consequences for the region.
After a short military campaign, the US first deposed and then disbanded Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist and largely Sunni-populated security structures, elevating the majority Shia in Iraq to power. The country had been under a brutal minority Sunni-dominated dictatorship for half a century. Many were now left unemployed, angry and often still armed.
The Arab Spring allowed ISIL to spread its influence
Al-Qaeda operatives from Afghanistan helped mobilise these disgruntled men (no women) to create al-Qaeda in Iraq. As the movement grew in influence and stature, so did its ambitions and self-image. Eventually, after an internal power struggle with al-Qaeda central (the core movement in Afghanistan and Pakistan), al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, or Daesh), having been disavowed by al-Qaeda.
The US invasion of Iraq not only rescued al-Qaeda, but also revitalised its affiliate in North Africa – the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat; GSPC) – which was under significant pressure in Algeria at the time.
Until the Islamic State arrived on the scene in Libya, GSPC was the largest and most capable extremist group in the North Africa. It trained terrorists in Chad, Sudan, Libya, Mali and Mauritania – and even the forerunners of Boko Haram in Nigeria, but was unable to maintain itself against the government forces in Algeria.
In 2007, GSPC changed its name to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), reflecting its open support for al-Qaeda. One of the AQIM offshoots was responsible for the recent terrorist attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali.
The Arab Spring, which started in Tunisia in December 2010, further fed into the chaos created by the US in Iraq. The wave of popular uprisings spread to Egypt, and a host of other countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Instead of greater economic and political freedom for the oppressed populations, however, its effect was to weaken government control in countries such as Libya and Syria.
If the US fathered ISIL through its failed Iraqi intervention, Saudi Arabia must be the mother
Eventually, the Arab Spring allowed ISIL to spread its influence much further than would otherwise have been possible. It was these developments, together with the spillover from Iraq, that facilitated the collapse of Syrian control over large portions of its territory.
But if the USA through its failed intervention in Iraq is the father of ISIL, Saudi Arabia must be the mother. ISIL is not about some type of medieval barbarism. It is deeply Islamic and closely identified with Wahhabism, the brand of Sunnism that Saudi Arabia promotes and enables throughout the Muslim world using its fabulous oil wealth.
For its survival, the House of Saud relies on its alliance with a domestic and rich clergy that, in the words of Kamel Daoud, recently writing in The New York Times, ‘produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism’. By exporting fundamentalism, it purchases domestic serfdom, and through its importance as oil producer and its strategic importance for the West, Saudi Arabia has managed to avoid culpability for its role in the rise of ISIL.
This has been changing as the US ramps up domestic oil production (it already imports more oil from Canada than from Saudi Arabia), and the rapprochement with Shia-dominated Iran (a function of the nuclear deal). Soon, Sunni Saudi Arabia will have to confront Sunni ISIL. Beyond personal friendships built up over many years around shared foreign policy endeavours, Saudi Arabia’s remaining leverage in the US will be its indirect role in securing Israel in a hostile neighbourhood.
The downing of a Russian airliner over the Sinai and the deaths of Chinese citizens in Bamako mean that literally all countries in the world, including the permanent five members states of the United Nations Security Council, are now united against ISIL and al-Qaeda.
Instead of dividing their opponents, terrorism is providing a powerful uniting force
These terrible twins may currently be at violent odds with one another, but they share a common gene pool. They are now recognised as a global scourge. Instead of dividing their opponents (such as through the recent proxy war between the US and Russia in Syria), terrorism is providing a powerful uniting force. It is not possible to speak of the grand coalition as advanced by French President François Hollande, but it is now only a question of time before the combined weight of the international community denudes ISIL of its territories in Syria, and eventually in Iraq.
When that happens, the core challenges will remain; the lack of inclusion and the elevation of state religion as a self-serving path to political power and wealth for an extended family in Saudi Arabia, where all of this started. Family feuds are the bitterest, and this one will be no different.
The Middle East is on a likely path to long-term instability given the extent of its exclusion in many of its constituent states, and the confluence of state and religion that stifles political, social and economic development.
The purpose of terrorism is to goad one’s opponent into overreaction – leading to events that fuel resentment and expand the recruitment pool. This is already the case in ISIL-controlled Syria and Iraq, where the intensified use of drones and remote munitions – a hallmark of the Obama administration – is fuelling hatred and radicalisation. As the air campaign runs out of targets, the clamour for deeper Western engagement, particularly boots on the ground, will inevitably intensify.
Despite the very natural urge to strike out at the perceived origins of terror, France and its disparate allies should learn from the disasters that have followed the war on terror. A careful and considered approach is needed.
This must include control over the export of Muslim fundamentalism from Saudi Arabia, support for political reform in the monarchies and dictatorships in the Middle East, practical measures to shut down Turkey’s border to ISIL territory, support towards intra-Islamic peace and work to break down the divisive Sunni-Shia dynamics.
Cool heads are needed. Now is not the time to repeat the mistakes of George W Bush and Tony Blair.