Jordanian Air Force Chief General Mansour al-Jbour has claimed that air strikes carried out in retaliation for the sadistic execution-by-immolation of Pilot Lieutenant Moaz Youssef al-Kasasbeh have degraded nearly 20% of the ‘Islamic State’s’ [IS] military capabilities. This led a cynical Omar Ashour to muse that, if such claims are accurate, IS “will be 100% destroyed in 12 more days – an achievement that the US and all of its powerful and highly-competent Western allies could not do in 10 years.” Now for sure, such a bold claim is politically expedient, giving vital legitimacy to King Abdullah II’s resolution to “wipe [IS] from the face of the Earth”. However, as Ashour appears to recognise, this ‘killing by numbers’ approach assumes that the strength and resilience of IS can be measured in tanks and guns, bricks and mortar. As any historical case-study of non-conventional warfare will attest, this could not be further from the truth. But then, populist agendas always live in the ‘now’ – uninterested in the inconvenient lessons and legacies of the past.
The populist agenda for tackling IS appears to comprise one vital ingredient – maximum noise. It seems that, for Western and Arab policy makers, the imperative has been placed on finding the most visible and loud ways of combatting the group, rather than the most effective. So they focus on creating grand coalitions that unite strange bedfellows to isolate the group and emphasise its repugnance to all, while their jets pummel it ferociously from the air. Just what targets are being pummelled is often left to the imagination – it doesn’t tend to matter. What is important for the politicians is that they are seen by their constituents and subjects to be taking concrete, determined and fearless steps to punish the group. “Punish” is probably the right word to use here, for bombs have rarely held much value in winning hearts and minds.
The need to win hearts and minds remains of central importance to the war on IS; but building a few schools and sinking a few wells is not going to suffice, and flattening such infrastructure certainly won’t. The most important thing to understand when formulating a policy for containing and countering the ‘Islamic State’ is that the organisation’s centre-of-gravity lies not in its weapons and logistical capabilities. It lies instead in its ability to continue to recruit new adherents and cultivate popular legitimacy – and this is a more fragile process than many realise. This is because for the majority of IS’ indigenous Iraqi and Levantine adherents, their loyalty to the group is a product of an extremely fluid and malleable ‘grand bargain’. This bargain is the recognition by most indigenous Sunnis that they stand between a rock and a hard place – and it is far from clear to them if they are better off under the draconian but Sunni-chauvinist rule of IS, or the apparently Shia-chauvinist rule of their existing Shia and Allawite overlords. This same bargain exists in a similar form among the citizens of Sunni-ruled countries such as Jordan, the Gulf States and Egypt – whereby the ideal of an Islamic Caliphate (with all of its Qur’anic notions of Social Justice and ‘Circle of Equity’) holds great appeal to people living in poverty, under the iron fist of leaders often viewed as morally-bankrupt servants of the West. Small gestures such as the execution of embezzlers by IS sends a strong message to those who believe their current rulers are allowing corruption to reign with impunity. For those in Sunni countries it is a question of dignity and moral peace of mind. For those in Shia-ruled Iraq, Allawite-ruled Syria and a Lebanon viewed by many to be overrun by a rogue Hezbollah, it is about self-preservation. An appreciation of this ‘bargain’ should be central to any policy directed against the group. But how does this bargain impact on counter-IS policy? The remainder of this article will explain first the narratives IS employs in order to turn the actions of their enemies into IS-legitimising propaganda. It will then explain the root-cause dynamics that make such narratives believable to certain segments of the Sunni community, and outline the steps that must be taken to break their appeal.
Strange Bedfellows and Cursed Coalitions:
Without exception, every force being committed to wage war against IS can be portrayed by the group in a way that enforces the legitimacy of its narratives, and helps to convince those Sunnis living under its shadow that the Islamic State remains their most dignified, legitimate, attractive, protective and/or righteous option in the grand bargain:
Salafi-Jihadist groups such as IS have always thrived on reviving, embellishing and re-imagining antiquated historical narratives and legends. When attempting to de-legitimise and demonise the West – such groups have long found a successful narrative in equating modern-day Western transgressions and involvement in the Middle East to modern day crusades. From Osama bin Laden’s infamous “War against Jews and Crusaders” speech – to al-Shabaab’s Crusader rhetoric against the 2007 US-backed Ethiopian invasion of Somalia – to the current rhetoric of IS, the theme of the crusades has been recurrent. Salafi-Jihadist propagandist have revelled in portraying the West as power hungry, domineering and implacably hostile to Islam – cultivating a convenient “Clash of Civilisations” narrative that instantly discredits any Western dealings in the region – violent, diplomatic or even commercial – alongside those who would deal with them. The “War on Terror” decade has done much to lend credence to such narratives – for those who would choose to believe them.
Iranian and Iraqi forces and the Shia militias they sponsor:
Salafi-Jihadists have found such historical analogies and legacies equally useful in demonising their Shia enemies. Since the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq that toppled the Sunni minority rule of Saddam Hussein and replaced it with a Shia-empowering democracy, Salafi-Jihadists have perpetuated the belief that the West is involved in a conspiracy with the Shia to divide and subdue the Sunni Arab world – preventing it from recovering its former Ottoman and Abbasid glory. They harken back once again to the crusades, where the Shia Fatimids of Egypt sought on several occasions to form alliances with the Crusaders against their joint Sunni enemy. This narrative of course ignores the multiple battles fought between the Fatimids and Crusaders following the fall of Jerusalem in 1099 – but details are never important in the realm of polemic. In case this narrative is not enough to convince its target audience, Salafi-Jihadists have revived other medieval histories and myths to foment anti-Shia hysteria – presenting them as a malicious fifth column intent on destabilising Sunni Islam. Following the fall of Baghdad in 2003 to US forces, supposedly at the acquiescence of Iraq’s Shia population, Saddam Hussein (many of whose former loyalists now serve in IS) compared it to the 1258 sacking of Baghdad by the Mongols. Sunni polemics of the time had blamed the sacking on the alleged treachery of the Caliph’s Shia Vizier Ibn al-Alqami. Saddam proclaimed: “Just as [the Mongol Chieftain] Holagu entered Bagdad, so did the criminal Bush enter Bagdad, with the help of the Alqami”. Added to this is frequent referencing to the Shia Persian Safavid Empire which fought the Sunni Ottomans for supremacy over Iraq. The revival of such myths and histories became compelling in the post-2003 invasion period, when Iraqi Sunnis saw US soldiers cooperating with Shia-dominated Iraqi security forces – many of whom were heavily infiltrated by death-squads responsible for the brutal kidnapping torture and murder of hundreds if not thousands of Iraqi Sunnis, while in Lebanon Hezbollah, with the support of its Iranian patrons, grew more and more influential. Scarred by such events, alienated Sunnis frequently refer to Shias as “Safavids”.
Sunni Arab regime forces:
To Salafi-Jihadists like IS, the old Sunni Arab regimes in Jordan, Egypt and the Gulf (particularly Saudi Arabia) represent all that has gone wrong with Islam. Where Salafists emphasise emulating the society and lifestyle of the Prophet and his immediate successors in the most literal sense possible, modern Sunni rulers are viewed to prize modernity (and by extension non-Islamic Western decadence) and secularism. The careful diplomatic games played by such rulers – attempting to burnish their Islamic credentials while cosying up to the West over the allures of commercial and diplomatic incentives – leaves them open to accusations of hypocrisy and corruption by self-righteous Takfiri Salafists. When Arab regime forces launch themselves against IS – such as in the current Jordanian airstrike campaign – the jihadists can easily portray it as an attempt by those regimes to silence the righteous voices exposing their decadence.
Kurdish Peshmerga and ‘Moderate’ Sunni rebels:
These two forces perhaps held the best potential for presenting a viable alternative to IS in the grand bargain, holding both Sunni-nationalist and revolutionary/resistance credentials. However as soon as they are taken under the wing and patronage of the West or Sunni regimes they open themselves to accusations of moral-bankruptcy, selling-out and worst of all, apostasy. Groups like the Free Syrian Army or the Iraqi Awakening Forces have Sunni-Nationalist credentials to make IS redundant, while the Syrian Islamic Front’s Islamic credentials will far outlive those of IS under scrutiny. However without outside support they struggle for resources and ammunition. By accepting outside support they struggle for legitimacy.
An alternative approach: Pre-emptive counter-radicalisation through Social Justice Promotion:
Outrageous as these claims may be, they can be very compelling to those in a position to believe them, and for those Sunnis predisposed to believe such narratives, IS promises to protect them against all of these threats. Where Shias would subjugate them – IS promises dogged resistance; where the West would humiliate and prostrate them – IS promises dignity through defiance; and where Sunni Arab regimes would corrupt, curtail and silence them – IS promises a new homeland where they can proudly express themselves as Sunnis untainted by the Western materialism that has so tainted their traditional rulers. This is the nature of the grand bargain. Herein also lies the key to knocking IS clean out of the game.
IS’ convenient narratives are only compelling to those predisposed to believe them. The processes by which a community or individual becomes predisposed to believe such polemic – generally known as radicalisation – is highly complex, but Social Justice, or lack thereof, emerges as a perpetual theme.
Tactical bombing can serve its purpose – in the very shortest of terms. It is true that brute military force may be needed to contain the Islamic State. However a much more nuanced, expansive and long-term strategy is needed to defeat the movement at its source – its ability to attract new recruits. This requires understanding of the conditions that allowed IS to enter into the grand bargain in the first place.
In an October 2014 interview for the Independent, Ali, a 24-year old resident of Bab al-Tabbaneh, a marginalised Sunni district in the Lebanese city of Tripoli, told reporter Fernande Van Tets: “We are all the Islamic State”. A restauranteur by trade, he had recently been involved in four days of fierce fighting with Lebanese Army Commandos during October 2014. Shortly before the battle broke out, another resident told Vice News that “People in Tabanneh are living in almost the same conditions as in Iraq and Syria […] oppression of the Sunni Muslims […] There’s no one to speak up for the Sunnis of Lebanon.” What he went on to say however is perhaps far more indicative of the desperation pushing people to place their faiths in the protection of the Islamic State, and accept its cathartic narratives. “There are many unemployed men [in Bab al-Tabbaneh]. The government won’t secure jobs for them and doesn’t care. That’s the cause of all these problems […] if the oppression continues in Lebanon, then we will become the Islamic State.”
The ordeal of the Sunnis of Bab al-Tabanneh represents a microcosm of the greater problem of radicalisation – various dynamics of which can be found across the Middle East and the West. The communities feel ignored by the politicians supposed to represent them while their unemployed youths lack a sense of purpose, dignity and fulfilment in their lives. Most of all they feel stigmatised on account of their Sunni identity. They watch powerlessly as Lebanese Sunnis attempting to aid the anti-Assad resistance in neighbouring Syria are rounded up as suspected terrorists by the State security forces, while Shia Hezbollah fighters aid Assad forces unimpeded. For them, IS offers representation, access to services and, most importantly, a sense of purpose and mission and empowerment of their Sunni identities. IS’ demonising polemic against its enemies helps these disillusioned and desperate people to rationalise their misfortune in a way that is cathartic and alleviates them of any sense of responsibility. Before we assume such psychological reflexes to be primitive or excessively egotistical, they are not so different to the insistence of many Westerners rationalising terrorist attacks on grand narratives such as a “Clash of Civilians” or freedom of speech debate. All seek to avoid culpability for the states in which we find ourselves in. These same dynamics ring equally true for Muslim youths in the West who feel disillusioned by lack of purpose and rampant Islamophobic sentiment, as well as those suffering the indignity of perceivably hypocritical Sunni Arab rule and those facing the humiliation and at times active persecution of Shia sectarian rule in Iraq.
A second microcosm is also experienced by the residents of Bab al-Tabanneh. With the deficit of State-provided services and welfare support, Salafist civil-society organisations have moved in to fill the void – giving the residents a taste of what living under an Islamic State might feel like. It becomes easy for them to observe the benevolence of local Salafist civil-society organisations and assume the same will be true of a Salafist State – even one as violent as IS.
The antidote to IS does not ultimately lie with the fighter jet and the cruise missile. It lies with the provision of jobs and education, the reform of corrupt and non-transparent regimes and the restoration of dignity, purpose and self-esteem at all levels of society. It requires integrity and accountability, not denial, not populist and misleading hashtag campaigns that try to project causes and cleavages that simply are not there. It will not be a quick process, it will not dazzle and reassure voters, but it can, eventually, work.