Demise of the Caliphate

The future of global jihadism

Originally published in the November | December 2017 issue

Iraqi government forces and their allies have inflicted near-terminal blows to the military capacity and territorial ambitions of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh) in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Kurdishled Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are set to oust jihadist units from Raqqa, and elsewhere in Syria, Daesh is in retreat, suffering humiliating reverses, losing forces, materiel and territory. However, military campaigns in the central Middle East will have a far more limited effect on the threat that Daesh’s strain of radical political Islam poses more widely across the region. Just as Daesh’s capacity is crushed in the Euphrates Valley, its offshoots and those of its ideological fellow travelers, particularly in the form of its parent organization Al Qaeda and its franchises, continue to attract followers, stoking risks across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). While the jihadist message appeals only to a minority of the region’s population, it will continue to fester as symptom of the government incompetence, corruption and violence across the region.

In economic terms, these government failures have had a repellent effect on inward investment, at least outside the hydrocarbons sector. Obstacles to direct investors stemming from skill deficits in, for example, GCC populations, regulatory hurdles and protectionism exacerbate economic weakness and foster a cycle of economic underperformance. Against this background, the additional risk of terrorist violence exacerbates macro-economic risks and deters FDI.

Islamism, Salafism, Jihadism
Organizations like the Palestinian Hamas movement, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, or the Filipino Moro Front cover a political range, from the more moderate to the more radical. However, it is critical to recognize that not only does the jihadist strain exemplified by organizations like Daesh and Al Qaeda pose a significantly greater threat than other Islamist tendencies, but the nature of that threat stems from the distinct ideological space that they occupy. Over the years, movements like the Muslim Brotherhood have been able to garner sympathy and support internationally within the Muslim community and in the main the efforts made to generate that support have focused on the social or medical work that they do. In contrast, the jihadists occupy only the extreme end of the Islamist spectrum but no modern Islamist movement has had comparable success to Daesh in recruiting followers from far beyond their immediate theatre of action.

What is it about this particularly extreme, somewhat abstruse ideological strain that has allowed the global jihadi movement to survive disasters like the death of Osama Bin Laden and the in-fighting over the accession of the unpopular Ayman al-Zawahiri and will almost undoubtedly allow it to survive and thrive after the destruction of the so-called “caliphate?”

The ideological space that Al Qaeda and Daesh inhabit is perhaps best described as a jihadi take on Salafism, the ultra-conservative reformist movement that emerged in the Arabian Peninsula in the 18th century. However, despite their obvious debt to Salafist thinkers, the theorists of Salafi-Jihadism are keen to stress the distinctions between their ideology and those followed by movements like, for example, the Egyptian Salafist Nour Party, let alone the Muslim Brotherhood or an organization like Hamas, which elides its Islamism with a specifically-nationalist agenda. Jihadists paint those organizations as being vulnerable to kufr and shirk, unbelief and idolatry, two of the most doctrinally-heinous offences.

Having established their ruthless doctrinal fidelity to Islamic precepts, the Salafi-jihadi ideologues then move on to what contrasts them with many other Islamist groups by making the case for immediate and violent action to achieve their goals. More established Islamist organizations have tended to propose acting through existing political systems, even submitting to democratic process, which the jihadists regard as an example of shirk. For those inclined to investigate further, Salafi-jihadist thinkersprovide, in texts that circulate freely, templates to follow and prescribe action to take. Crucially, it is this urgency that characterizes these groups’ ability not only to expand geographically, but to inspire attacks by individuals and groups that have either no or only very tenuous connections to Daesh command structures in the Middle East and North Africa, or Khorasan, as the central command apparatus of Al Qaeda is known.

Crucially, despite the claims to rigid adherence to “pure Islam”, Salafi-jihadist ideology is malleable; in fact, it has already mutated substantially. Texts like Idarat al-Tawahhush (The Administration of Savagery) and the 1,500-page Daawat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah al-Alamiyah (The Call of the Global Islamic Resistance) laid out the program proposed by Al Qaeda under Osama bin Laden. These texts called for direct action against the “far enemy”, the US, but prescribed delaying the formation of a “true” Islamic State. More recently, however, Fouad Hussein’s “Al-Zarqawi” has supplanted that approach. Thinly disguised as a biography of the late jihadist, the work lays out a schedule for the global triumph of jihadism and has become a key text for Daesh’s more urgent program, advocating more extreme treatment of populations that would come under the control of this new government. As it turned out, that extremism proved the undoing of Daesh’s first iteration, the Islamic State in Iraq (ISI), when, having declared its independence of Al Qaeda’s leadership, the group proceeded to alienate much of its natural constituency, the Sunni Arab population of Anbar, with its needless brutality. With considerable US support, the Sahwa “awakening” tribal militias inflicted a series of near-terminal defeats on the organization.

Nevertheless, regional events quickly served to provide another opportunity as the aftermath of the Arab Spring created in Yemen, Libya, Syria and parts of Iraq, the type of chaotic environments that foster the tawahhush (savagery) – that Bin Laden and his colleagues had identified as a necessary precursor to the establishment of a “true” Islamic State. This regional environment allowed for the recovery and reassertion of the Daesh organization and moved up the more gradualist Al Qaeda timeframe. The failure of the Euphrates Valley caliphate now, in turn, opens the way for Al Qaeda to return to prominence, boosted by its franchises’ territorial gains in northern Syria and Yemen as Daesh has been subjected to defeat after defeat over the past year and more.

Jihadism in 2018 and beyond
This latest iteration of Al Qaeda has inevitably borrowed from Daesh. In addition to now seeking to assert control over and to administer territory, it has also absorbed to varying degrees what may well prove to be Daesh’s most dangerous legacy, its sectarianism. Under Bin Laden, whose mother was Alawi, sectarianism had not been a driving force for the group, but that is changing as certain franchises’ leaderships seek to tap into local sectarian issues in order to appeal to potential recruits.

Alongside Al Qaeda’s revivification, despite losing territory and resources in Syria and Iraq, some of Daesh’s affiliate wilayat (provinces) are making inconsistent progress in certain areas. At one point, Daesh claimed the allegiance of 37 wilayat across eight countries, but with 16 of those being in Iraq and Syria, that number has fallen precipitously. Nevertheless, the region still offers considerable opportunity to the jihadists in the form of territory where no central government can project its authority. Libya and Yemen, which between them account for 11 of the 37 wilayat, are taking on greater importance for Daesh after the loss of the “caliphate”. These affiliates will also probably benefit to some extent from the return of native fighters from Syria and Iraq,although casualty rates among Daesh’s foreign fighter units have been extremely high. Given that former fighters have proved most effective in new fighter recruitment, the return of even small proportions of these veterans poses an additional challenge.

Furthermore, despite its inability to hold onto its “caliphate”, Daesh’s success in the seizure of Mosul and the triumph over the (Western-trained and backed) Iraqi army remains a powerful corrective for often young, disenfranchised, Muslims globally. The narrative runs that while, for example, Hamas remained mired in its corrupt, fumbling and impotent opposition to Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood was swept from power in Cairo and Al Qaeda’s leadership argued amongst itself, Daesh’s forces took on and defeated Western powers and the governments seen as their proxies in the Muslim world.

Not only is that narrative a powerful incentive for Al Qaeda to take on the clothes of the offspring that it once saw as errant, after suffering serious predations over the past decade, Al Qaeda has itself recovered considerable organizational and operational capacity. Its two affiliates operating in the region, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb between them control considerable capacity, while the Tahrir al-Sham coalition in Syria retains close ties to the group. These factions, alongside Al-Shabaab in Somalia, which retains its allegiance allied to the wider organization, pose a grave security threat in a number of states in the region and beyond. Moreover, the Al Qaeda brand is poised to capitalize on Daesh’s military defeat in Syria and Iraq to seize at least part of its rival’s mantle in terms of international recruitment.

The ability of both organizations to continue to find adherents across the region owes much to the corrupt, violently-coercive and authoritarian regimes that continue to dominate across the Middle East and North Africa. While ideological, historical and sometimes personal and national differences have ensured that Al Qaeda and Daesh are often mutually antagonistic within the region, their message of violent resistance to an inimical, Western-dominated, secular world order continues to resonate.

Iraq, Syria and beyond
The next iteration of the jihadist struggle is therefore not likely to be more moderate than those we have already seen or experienced. Over the coming few years some of the theaters in which this will play out will be familiar. In Iraq, although the jihadists’ capacity has been severely damaged, the complexity and risks that attend the political environment, particularly the dominant role of Shia politicians, associated proliferating militias, and the influence of Iran, will all play to the advantage of Daesh and other Sunni extremist groups. Iraq’s central government will need to demonstrate a level of precision and sensitivity when addressing these problems that it has yet to give any indication that it possesses.

Meanwhile the situation in Syria is arguably more complex. The very forces that have ousted the jihadists are not those of a central government attempting to restore control and administrative stability over the city, but a multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian coalition backed by, among others, NATO states. Resentment at implied Kurdish, or non Sunni Arab dominance over the area is likely in time to fuel support for resurgent jihadist groups. In the meantime, even a weakened Daesh will probably retain sufficient capacity in eastern Syria to pose a continuous threat in the form of bombings targeting religious minorities, Shia communities and security force units attached to any one of the wide range of the group’s enemies.

The Arab Spring uprisings produced palpitations in capitals from Rabat to Muscat, but regime change only in Tunis, Tripoli and Cairo, with the latter now re-occupied by sort of Mubarak 2.0. However, the wars in Syria and Libya and the seemingly endless violence within Iraq’s borders mean that partial political vacuums now abound in a part of the world that is over-supplied with weapons and ripe for exploitation by this extremist ideology. More widely, into the Sahel and down the East African littoral, jihadists remain a potent threat both to local security and to state structures, most obviously in Somalia and the Chad basin. In some cases, the return of Daesh or Al Qaeda alumni to their homelands will provide catalysts for more ambitious operations; often the transfer of their skills will lead to an increase in the sophistication of attacks.

This is a depressing outlook: a prospect of national, tribal, religious and sectarian anger fueling persistent conflicts that are further exacerbated by decades of corrupt economic mismanagement. Much as commentators like to take the key from Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” and see conflicts in the MENA region as being evidence of a war between the “West” and the Muslim World, in fact these conflicts largely occur within the region and are predominantly rise out of local ethnic, sectarian, political and economic drivers. Seductive though it is to blame the region’s ills on external factors, and while it is true that external intervention, as in the case of Iraq, can exacerbate, and even very occasionally facilitate a reduction in violence, they are not the primary causes.

These regimes, which are far more threatened by the jihadists than Western governments, will need to take greater responsibility for confounding the narratives that underpin the appeal of extremism. However, all too frequently they are repeating the mistakes of the past, while their Western allies are often still trapped in a cycle whereby fear of a worse alternative justifies support for the venal, violent status quo.

Combating the lure of jihadism
In the broader international environment, the situation is often very different. It should go without saying, but nevertheless bears repeating, that recruitment to join Daesh or Al Qaeda, or other jihadi forces is not a simple matter. Even in fractured countries like Iraq or Libya, only a tiny minority succumbs to the dubious attractions of the jihadist message. Further from direct conflict environments, recruitment depends far more on the recruiters’ ability to identify vulnerable individuals and groups within their target constituencies, often congregations. Jihadi preachers do not parrot Idarat al-Tawahhush at Friday prayers in a major mosque in a European or North American city and expect willing recruits to line up at the door to sign up; they would almost inevitably get a visit from local enforcement instead. Just like their counterparts that espouse other extremist ideologies, such as neo-Nazism and racial supremacy theories, or even predators grooming potential victims of sexual abuse, they work their targets, leading them, often gently and gradually, towards their goal. Eventually, for a small number of those targeted, a world-view develops wherein what would have seemed inconceivable only months before becomes not only possible, but laudable.

Unfortunately, that process is made somewhat easier by the role that the re-emergent radical right is carving out for Muslim communities, that of the fall guy. Scapegoating minority communities has long been a dependable political fallback. The role played in the past, in different countries, by Jews, Catholics, Huguenots and Roma is now being filled by Muslims, among others. Moreover, the isolation and resentments felt by minorities placed in this position help fuel the very anger and frustration that drives jihadi recruitment, creating a ghastly cycle of reconfirmation.

Addressing the risks posed by jihadism requires addressing the narratives that lead recruits to be vulnerable to its supposed attractions. Economic deprivation, discrimination, lackof education, immaturity, mental health problems, gullibility and genuine religious belief all play their part. However, the wider crisis of faith in governing “elites,” or the “establishments,” in the media and in political systems themselves, which has long been present in the Middle East is now being felt across the Western world. Conspiracy theories are fueled by this lack of trust and make for compelling explanations for series of events that otherwise can seem inexplicable. Western states arrived at “fake news” only relatively recently, but the consequences of that lack of faith in governments and the received perceptions of “elites” have been crucial contributory factors in the steady downward drift to the point that the Middle East and North Africa has now reached. Daesh, Al Qaeda and their like will continue to exploit that lack of trust and unless regional governments can begin to convince their populations that they can be trusted, that they can offer some other than more of the same, the depths reached in Mosul, Aleppo and Raqqa over the past 12 months will not be the bottom.