NOTE: Originally published by our friends at Left Foot Forward. Original article can be found here.
Agora’s very own Executive Director Robbie Travers has an amazing talk with Edisa Korugic, a political and security risk analyst. Read on as they discuss how the Islamic State is a threat to the West, and how they offer insight into what we can do about it.
Robbie’s perspicacious insight into ISIS and their origins.
Islamic State are clearly a threat to the West, argues Edisa Korugic and Robbie Travers, but the question is what do we do about it?
The problem we face today in Iraq in the form of the hydra-like monstrosity of ISIS is not a direct product of the invasion of 2003. In fact, ISIS‘ predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, was an extremely weakened and marginal force in Iraq by the end of the last decade due to the Surge by Western coalition forces and the Sunni Awakening. There was no space for al-Qaeda to gain a foothold in Iraq, thus some within al-Qaeda were desperately waiting for an opportunity to regain strength.
It was the Syrian civil war, which offered al-Qaeda a safe retreat and training ground to re-group their forces and gain battleground experience as well as weapons, money and fighters. Assad targeted alliances and groups of moderate, secular and more democratic Syrian rebels while sparing ISIS groups, which led to ISIS growing into the formidable terror army they are today.
From 2011 onwards, al-Qaeda in Iraq morphed into the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), culminating in a split between the leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri and ISIS leaders in Syria. Al-Zawahiri, very sceptical about the ambitions of ISIS in Syria, urged the ISIS fighters to return from Syria and fight the battle in Iraq. For their part al-Qaeda disowned ISIS for their extremism and disloyalty.
What makes ISIS so dangerous is that they are a prototype for a new form of terror state, which uses a mix of sophisticated methods to subjugate the domestic population. On the one hand they try to win hearts and minds by providing humanitarian aid and security within their tightly defined rules, and on the other they talk freely of ethnic cleansing and genocide to punish those who aren’t willing to bow to their demands.
The Kurds were among the first to feel the heat, but ISIS are persecuting all of Iraq’s minorities from Yazidi, Assyrians, Turkmen, Shabaks and Kaka’i. ISIS’ goal is to destroy the ancient multi-ethnic fabric of Iraq and replace it with a homogenous, devout Sunni Muslim population. Some Sunni tribes in Iraq have aligned with ISIS, not because they subscribe to their agenda but because they have felt marginalised in former Prime Minister Maliki’s Iraq. Some blame the West for the Maliki government, but if democracy is to mean anything then the West could hardly do more than try to steer the elected government of the Iraqi people in the right direction.
Now that the peaceful retreat of Maliki and the transition to the new Prime Minister al-Abadi has been agreed, there is a great potential to win the Sunni tribes back and thus break the speedy advance of ISIS. Indeed, the Iraqi interior and defence ministry reported to have just successfully recruited 15,000 fighters from the Anbar tribes.
While ISIS are not only a serious threat to those in the Middle East, they do pose a threat to global security to the extent that it would be irresponsible not to take action. It’s important to remember that part of ISIS’ highly successful offensive in Iraq has been its high level of international recruitment: with approximately 500-700 UK citizens alone fighting with ISIS forces and ready to commit heinous atrocities as the recent murder of American photo journalist James Foley has shown.
Of course, ISIS recruits aren’t simply coming from the UK, there are multiple reports of French, German and Australian citizens fighting with them, too. The problem remains that when these citizens return, there have been clear indications that they wish to continue promoting ISIS agenda with some even openly declaring they wish to bring their jihad of intolerance and sectarianism to the streets of western civilisation.
Whether you view the intervention by UK and US coalition forces in Iraq in 2003 or the inaction in Syria 2011 as the cause of ISIS existence, it is clear that ISIS have set their sights on the west, They are as committed to the destruction of Western civilisation as they are the cultural heritage and diverse ethnic tapestry in Iraq. ISIS will continue to perpetrate genocides, inflict mass human rights abuses, and incite racial hatred across Syria and Iraq.
ISIS differ from many other terrorist and even Islamist movements that preceded them. The resources of the so called Islamic State are large, with unprecedented social media coverage and presence, include funds of nearly 2 billion dollars according to some worryingly high estimates, and a troop count of nearly 30-50,000 in Syria and Iraq alone, the majority of whom are experienced and battle-hardened. This organisation now rivals the beast that spawned it: al-Qaeda.
More than ever, Iraq needs our help. Military action in the form of air strikes by Western forces can limit, if not outright destroy ISIS. But inaction would let ISIS continue to grow like tumorous cancer in the heart of the Middle East. And like a cancer, untreated it will spread to other areas, eventually resulting in fatal consequences for the whole.
It’s crucial to consider how ISIS were born and how they were given new life: this helps us view the dangers of our inaction clearly. Our failure to intervene in Syria has led to a political and security vacuum, in which terror groups like ISIS could fester. It’s time to reverse our policy of inaction and appeasement when confronted with pure savagery and evil. How we deal with this threat goes to the core character of our generation.
The question is: are we in our hearts Chamberlain or Churchill?
Edisa Korugic is a political and security risk analyst specialising in military interventions. Robbie Travers is the director of the Agora think tank which seeks to engage young people in politics.