History has a dark sense of humor. Nearly 13 years to the day after al-Qaeda launched its attacks on New York City, President Obama announced a new offensive against ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria. American warplanes and drones had already pounded the 10,000 fighting men with ore than 150 air strikes. A US air strike on Sept 1 in a coastal area of Somalia killed Ahmed Abdi Godane, the leader of an Islamic militant group that killed dozens in a terrorist attack on a Kenyan shopping mall last year. The same day, a US air strike killed Taliban militants in eastern Afghanistan. In August, American drones took out suspected al-Qaeda fighters in Yemen and radicals in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Plans were disclosed for a new drone base in the desert of Niger in order to target Islamic militants marauding in the region – while dozens of US special-operations troops help Nigeria’s military hunt the Islamist maniacs of Boko Haram.
This multi-front conflict was hardly the vision Obama offered in his second Inaugural speech. But the terrorists didn’t care about what history advised or what democracy demanded. From Mali to Benghazi to Mosul to Karachi, they have grown in numbers and ferocity. The number of radical Islamic groups has increased nearly 60% in the past four years, while attacks by al=Qaeda and its affiliates – a category that doesn’t even include ISIS – have tripled. Al-Qaeda now seeks to radicalize India’s Muslims, even as militants multiply in post-Gaddafi Libya.
The new burst of radicalism – unleashed by the Arab Spring, fueled by social media and financed by wealthy donors, kidnapping and extortion – may not be Obama’s fault. But it is consuming his second term and shaping his legacy in unwanted ways. The threat is much more global, more metastasized and which requires the full panoply of US tools and authorities in a way that nobody could have imagined. The term war on terror is ironically more relevant today than it was on 9/11.
With whole sections of Iraq under the control of ISIS, Iraq’s new government is hoped to reconcile with the disaffected Sunni tribes of the north. The plan to defeat ISIS is a complex mixture of continued US bombing, American special forces and an alliance of regional forces providing an army on the ground. It will require shutting off foreign support for ISIS fighters and reconfiguring old alliances and animosities. Iran is now a part-time ally. The regime of Bashar Assad is now a secondary concern. Jordan will supply intelligence about the group’s movements near its borders. Wealthy Sunni Arab states like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates will use their influence and treasuries to persuade Iraq’s Sunnis to join the fight against ISIS. Turkey’s porous southern border with Syria has been the crossing point for thousands of ISIS fighters from Europe and the Middle East. Turkey hates Syrian dictator Assad and were happy to support the growth of groups fighting him – but now need to choke off that foreign-fighter pipeline. The Kurdish peshmerga will supply an army. Qatar and Kuwait need to limit donations from wealthy royals meant to fuel opposition to Assad that might be finding their way to ISIS. The US will step up support for moderate rebels within Syria in the hope that they will challenge ISIS on the ground.
A huge amount will depend on changing the role of the Iraq government. Eight years of Nouri al-Maliki acting as a repressive Shi’ite version of Saddam Hussein, will hopefully change the views of the Sunni tribes supporting ISIS. A new local security force needs to avoid Shi’ite dominated units fighting against Sunni ISIS fighters.
An even bigger challenge will be defeating the underlying ideology that unites all the targets of America’s global war: the radical dictates of a strain of Sunni Islam that sees battle as holy, secularism as evil and civilians as justifiable targets both regionally and abroad.
This single strand of radical ideology has bred all manner of offshoots and imitators of al-Qaeda that in some cases have grown stronger than Osama bin Laden’s diminished organization. Their ideology has proved impossible to contain at a time of Middle East revolutions and civil wars, which are to religious fanatics what stagnant ponds are to mosquitoes.
Another approach involves competing with ISIS on the battlefield of social media, where the group has displayed a sinister mastery. In July, the US State Department posted a video online that depicts ISIS atrocities like executions, crucifixions and the bombing of mosques – all to commentary mocking the idea that these were the practices of real Muslims.
ISIS is killing more Muslims than any other group, yet Western news reports as headlines, only the West. This tends to feed a “Musims are against us” mentality. Until we understand that it’s “ISIS against the world” including Muslims, we will not be able to defeat a common enemy.
March 20 2015 – Yemen 132 killed, No headline
April 18 2015 – Afghanistan 33 killed, No headline
June 26 2015 – Tunisia 38 killed, No headline
June 20 Yemen – 35 killed, No headline
October 10 2015 – Ankara turkey 97 killed, No headline
October 31 2015 – Russian Plane 224 killed, Headline News
November 12 2015 – Beirut 43 killed, No headline
November 13, 2015 – Paris 130 killed, Headline News
December 2 2015 – San Diego 14 killed, Headline News
January 8 2016 – Libya 50 killed, No headline
March 6 2016 – Baghdad 47 killed, No headline
March 15 2016 – Ankara Turkey, No headline
March 22 2015 – Brussels 34 killed, Headline News