Daesh on the rebound: Is anybody watching?
Did someone forget to tell Daesh that President Trump has already proclaimed the defeat of global terrorism? Central Iraq is experiencing a renewed epidemic of gruesome killings and abductions, with power lines and other infrastructure sabotaged. Last week around 250 were killed in coordinated attacks in the Syrian town of Sweida. Having shed the burden of governing a transnational caliphate, Daesh is back in its comfort zone, embarking on hit-and-run attacks from remote areas where regular forces fear to tread.
A fundamental law of geopolitics is that terrorism expands to fill the space available. From sub-Saharan Africa to South Asia, the vigor of terrorist groups corresponds perfectly with the proliferation of ungovernable spaces. Thus, Baghdad’s purging of the Kurdish Peshmerga from a vast belt of central Iraq in October 2017 seemed calculated to create the conditions for Daesh’s reemergence, just as the world was prematurely celebrating its unlamented demise. The Iran-backed paramilitaries which subsequently occupied these regions displayed little appetite for chasing Daesh out of these wilderness and mountain areas, being too busy suppressing the Sunni vote ahead of the May 2018 elections, blocking the return of displaced families and terrorising local tribes into voting for sectarian candidates.
Northern Salahuddin has consequently become the crucible for a remarkable amelioration in Daesh’s fortunes. Towns to the northwest, such as Sinjar and Hawijah, were among the last localities recaptured from Daesh. Its relatively high native Iraqi component in these areas meant that defeated extremists simply melted into the background. This also fueled the unfounded allegation touted by paramilitaries and officials, that all local Sunnis were Daesh supporters. Many families had loved-ones abducted and murdered by Daesh, yet later faced punitive measures for alleged sympathies.
Demonizing local communities establishes a self-fulfilling prophecy: Retaliatory attacks, arbitrary detentions, systematic destruction of homes, the refusal to issue ID papers and confining entire populations to displaced camps. These measures fuel the resentful narrative that Iraqi forces are behaving as punitively as Daesh. Meanwhile, 10-minute trials and summary death sentences for a conveyor belt of hundreds of women accused of Daesh connections looks like victors’ justice to families whose menfolk have been abducted by unaccountable militants. In June, Iraq’s prime minister ordered the immediate execution of all convicted jihadists after Daesh killed eight captives. Is resorting to its modus operandi a sensible method of discrediting the jihadists?
A new report from King’s College highlights the increasingly central role of female jihadists, warning of wives with murderous intentions discretely integrating themselves back into European society. A growing proportion of Daesh attacks around the world saw females playing a significant role. Jihadists have become ideologically pragmatic about roles for women, with armed female fighters featured in recent propaganda videos. Daesh’s first all-women terror cell in Britain was convicted this year.
The war against terrorism resembles a game of whack-a-mole: Defeated urban cells in Syria and Iraq are displaced to rural areas, or are relocating to Sinai, Yemen and Libya
In Syria, successive battlefield defeats of the mainstream opposition will empower the extremists. Assad and Russia consistently focused their firepower on moderate forces, while engagement, trading and even battlefield coordination between the regime and Daesh are well-documented. If the opposition is indeed liquidated, surviving Daesh cells may become the principal vehicle for confronting the status quo, meaning that uneducated youths who grew up holding a gun may see their best option as joining the jihadists.
The war against terrorism resembles a game of whack-a-mole: Defeated urban cells in Syria and Iraq are displaced to rural areas, or are relocating to Sinai, Yemen and Libya. Trump is addicted to touting easy wins on Twitter: Summit with Kim Jong-un = end of nuclear threat. Bellicose response to Rouhani’s sabre-rattling = Tehran contained. Daesh pushed out of Mosul = radical Islamic terrorism defeated. Most of us enjoy a sufficient grasp of reality to know the world doesn’t work like this.
Terrorism will be overcome when there are no safe spaces for terrorists and angry young people aren’t being radicalized. The post-2014 strategy against terrorism reduced much of Iraq and Syria to disarray and anarchy, where disenfranchised, brutalized and desperate populations have little to gain from the status quo. Meanwhile, Trump’s Islamophobic rants are a gift to propagandists claiming that the Western world is the enemy. Instead of long-term commitments to stability in Syria and Iraq, American and European leaders have repeatedly signaled a desire to pull out. Daesh believes it simply has to keep its head down for a few months until it gets the battlefield all to itself. It still has access to funds, and renewed military successes would attract thousands of new recruits from across the region.
I’m not the first to suggest that botched counterterrorism strategies are creating incubators for future terrorism and state collapse. Destabilatory policies by Iran and Israel likewise keep the region weak and fragmented so terrorism may flourish. Despite the glaring warning signs, when Daesh erupted in 2014, the world feigned astonishment. Iraq in 2018 looks a lot like Iraq in 2013, with large regions in ferment, rampaging sectarian militias, dysfunctional and corrupt politics, and grievances voiced by mass protest movements.
The question isn’t if, but when Daesh moves from its current phase of reconsolidation, back to aggressive expansion – including plotting “spectacular” terrorist atrocities in Western cities. Rather than impotently allowing this cycle to recommence, the world has a marvelous opportunity to exploit the jihadists’ weaknesses and pursue an aggressive strategy for erasing the movement militarily, while securing the regions Daesh would seek to control and integrating disaffected populations.
The phenomenon of drug-resistant superbugs results from improper usage of antibiotics, allowing diseases to mutate and rebound 100-times stronger. Likewise, tokenistic and counterproductive strategies to combat terrorism risk creating the conditions for a new generation of ultra-violent super-terrorism to emerge from the ashes of Daesh.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.