June 11, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: Dictatorship or Takfirism: The New Choice for the Middle East

• The advances made by ISIS in Iraq (and Syria) in the last few days are extraordinary

• ISIS is now far and away the most effective and threatening terrorist group in the world today

• Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, its leader, is now on the verge of establishing an embryonic caliphate

• Regional powers face difficult choices, but their people face a worse one—to live under dictatorship or takfirism

• The best hope is for the natural divisiveness of extremist groups to bring about the collapse of ISIS.

The two Pakistan Taliban attacks on Karachi airport over the last few days, together with Boko Haram’s brazen kidnapping of another 20 women and several bloody attacks on rural communities in Northeastern Nigeria, are a reminder—if any is needed—of the threat posed by today’s terrorist groups. But neither the Pakistan Taliban nor Boko Haram can compete with the challenges posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Since the start of June, ISIS has captured Mosul, which vies with Basra as Iraq’s second city; it has mounted a major show of strength in Ramadi; it has continued to consolidate its hold over Fallujah; it has launched seven simultaneous bomb attacks in Baghdad, and it has come close to capturing Samarra, home of the al-‘Askari mosque, one of the most revered sites for Shi’a Muslims, and a key target for sectarian Sunni extremists.

Even without these major operations, other ISIS attacks in Iraq and Syria would have kept it in the headlines. It is fair to say, therefore, that since Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took over its leadership in 2010, ISIS has become indisputably the most effective and ruthless terrorist organization in the world. It now challenges the authority of two of the largest states in the Middle East, and has attracted significant numbers of fighters, not just from Iraq and Syria, but also from Saudi Arabia and other Arab states including Jordan, and, thus, poses a potential threat to their authority as well. Furthermore, its several thousand Russian and Western European fighters give ISIS a reach that al-Qaeda has striven for but fallen far short of achieving since its ouster from Afghanistan in 2001.

The question that this raises is what next for ISIS?

It appears ISIS is following a very deliberate strategy of expansion. It is carving out a state that takes no notice of the 1916 boundaries set by Sykes-Picot, but instead bases itself on the tribal structures and resource characteristics of one of the oldest settled regions of the world between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers, an area that not only has water, but oil. The methodical accretion of key towns and villages, including border-crossing points, suggests a well worked out strategy, carefully executed. At present, the Iraqi and Syrian armies are unable to dislodge ISIS, and they will find it hard to do so for so long as regional interests remain divided.

The challenge posed by ISIS may bring these differences to a head, or they may be an expression of how deep they run. Essentially, the people of Iraq and Syria, or at least those parts of the two countries under attack from ISIS, are faced with a choice between living under an existing dictatorship or suffering the extremist takfirism of a new set of rulers, which will be just another form of dictatorship, though one that claims religious justification.

But the choice is far more complex than that. The dictatorships of Syria and Iraq favor the Shi’a community, while the takfiris—those who accuse other Muslims of unbelief—ostensibly favor their Sunni counterparts, thus making sectarianism a factor in deciding which is the lesser of the two evils. The option of living in a tolerant society where both communities could experience equal opportunity—or an equal lack of opportunity—appears to have passed for the time being.

The significance of ISIS controlling such a large area of territory, regardless of how long it can hold on to it, is that al-Baghdadi is now able to claim that he has laid the foundation of a true caliphate, rather than just an Islamic State. This is of great significance—and a careful calculation—in that many more disaffected young people will be attracted to his side from all over the Muslim world, especially the Middle East, lured by nostalgia for al-Khulafa al-Islamiya (the Islamic Caliphate), which remains a potent motivator for Sunni extremists.

It would also present a substantial challenge not just to the Shi’a regimes in Syria and Iraq, but also to their Sunni dominated neighbors, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and, to a lesser extent, Egypt and the other North African Arab states. It is unlikely that any country with an interest in Middle Eastern regional stability could allow this situation to continue for long. A far greater period of turbulence might therefore follow.

Given the divisiveness of the extremist takfiris, it is likely that al-Baghdadi will find himself attacked from within before he is attacked from outside, and his dreams of an ever-expanding caliphate will then come to an abrupt and ignoble end. But his extraordinary success in turning a terrorist group reviled for its ruthlessness and self-interest into an insurgent force that can take over such an expansive and significant area of land, without in any way compromising on its ruthlessness and self-interest, shows the weakness and lack of appeal of the current governments in the Middle East and the consequences of short-term and muddled policies. Poor governance, sclerotic bureaucracies, and deep-seated religious, social, and political divides have allowed a bunch of outcasts to shape the agenda of the Middle East. It is no longer possible to return things to how they were, but it should not be the takfiris who decide the shape of the future.



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