ISIS, exporting terror

A report from Foreign Policy argues that ISIS has exported terror beyond its “state” in the Middle East, “the Islamic State has emerged over the past two weeks as one of the world’s most aggressive state sponsors of terrorism. If its claims are to be believed, its members carried out sophisticated mass casualty attacks against two of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — France and Russia. The carnage in Paris on Friday was the worst attack in France since the end of World War II; the downing of a Russian plane after its takeoff from the Egyptian city of Sharm el-Sheikh on Oct. 31, one of the worst terrorist attacks on Russian civilians since the fall of the Soviet Union. For good measure, the Islamic State also carried out synchronised suicide bombings in Beirut on Nov. 12, killing dozens of civilians in a Hezbollah-controlled neighbourhood”.

The author makes the dangerous point that “We have only recently grown accustomed to thinking of the Islamic State as an actual state, much less a state sponsor of terrorism. For most its history, the Islamic State was a terrorist group or an insurgency. But as it grew in strength, it looked more like a government”.

Indeed its very raison d’etre seems to be to spread both its territory and at the same time terror as far as it can. To think otherwise would be naïve.

The author notes that “Despite the Islamic State’s adherence to the global jihadi ideology of al Qaeda, which urges attacks on the West, it has spent most of its money on state-building in the Middle East and North Africa, with occasional pauses to terrorize neighbours like Turkey and Saudi Arabia. The international community could take some small comfort from the Islamic State’s domestic focus — better it spend its money on infrastructure than on financing terrorist plots abroad. But if the Islamic State has now added foreign operations to its government spending, as the recent attacks suggest, the prospects are frightening. It has the wealth of a state, the ambition of an imperial power, and an enemies list that reads like the roll call of the United Nations. It’s al Qaeda with even less of a conscience, more manpower, and way more money”.

He goes on to make the arguement that “State sponsors of terrorism usually support proxy groups because they don’t want their sponsorship known, for fear that their intended victims will strike back hard. Think of the Lockerbie plane bombing over Scotland, reportedly orchestrated by late Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi. But that’s not what’s going on here. The Islamic State has brazenly claimed the attacks, even if intelligence services cannot yet be sure it actually directed them. Nevertheless, there’s no doubting that the Islamic State wants its powerful foreign enemies to know that it can inflict heavy losses on their civilian populations”.

Interestingly he writes “In the early years, from 2006 to 2010, the Islamic State was not a state by any definition of the word. At most, it was an insurgent group, until the American and Iraqi armies worked with Sunni tribes in Iraq to force it underground. Thereafter, it was a terrorist organization carrying out attacks on civilians primarily in Iraq. But the Syrian civil war and the Americans’ withdrawal from Iraq provided an opportunity for the Islamic State to make good on its name. While other Sunni rebel groups fought central governments, without offering much of an alternative form of authority of their own, the Islamic State went about setting up its own government in the disgruntled Sunni tribal hinterland in Syria and Iraq”.

He makes the kind point that “the United States and its allies have opted for something between containment and swift destruction: strangulation. Working with a mix of local militias in Syria and Iraq, the allies are slowly tightening the noose around the Islamic State’s neck, taking territory on the periphery and moving toward its stronghold in western Iraq and eastern Syria. It has been a slow, agonising process, but it has produced results: The Islamic State has lost a quarter of its territory over the past year. The glacial pace has been harshly criticised, but it has the virtue of giving enemies of the Islamic State time to absorb newly liberated cities without having to take charge of the entire territory all at once”.

He concludes “One positive consequence of the Islamic State’s attacks might be a change in Russia’s attitude toward the Islamic State. Until now, it has not prioritized airstrikes on the Islamic State, preferring instead to destroy the rebels that pose an immediate threat to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. If Russia gets more serious about destroying the Islamic State and finding a way to hasten the departure of Assad, the Islamic State will have done the world a favor. The odds are low that Russian President Vladimir Putin will change course at this point — but repeated strikes by the Islamic State might persuade him to change his mind”.

He ends “Still, the Islamic State’s attacks may have finally galvanised the international community into action, in order to prevent further atrocities like those in Paris. As a result of more concerted international action, the Islamic State will likely see the slow-motion collapse of its government and an increasing denial of its ability to conquer new territory. This isn’t just what happens when a terrorist group overreaches — it’s the risk any state assumes when it uses terrorism as a tool of foreign policy”.

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