Against the backdrop of never ending rocket attacks and siren calls about Israel and Gaza, the media has seemingly diverted too much focus away from the place where the true root of terrorism is now being sowed. The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), a break-way from Al-Qaeda in February 2014, is a new force to be reckoned. As the execution of journalist James Foley has shown, such a terrorism threat is political, yet nicely packaged in the pretext of ideology. Unlike its predecessors, it works like a hydra (if threats of sleeper cells of Western Europe and the USA is to be believed), and the only outright way to combat it goes far more than direct military intervention or airstrikes, something which the Obama Adminstration is well aware of.
After news of independent journalist James Wright Foley being executed by a British sounding ISIS militant turned viral, renewed questions arose in American media on the threat of terrorism, with mass outpouring of grief over the brutal death of the journalist who was last seen in Syria in 2012, after he attempted to cover the events of the Syrian Civil War. Such questions revolve around the bigger political issues that surround Islamic Fundamentalism in the region, as well as the appropriate uses of various policy measures to deal with this unique threat.
ISIS gained traction first after stealing American military weapons and Kurdish bank reserves. As the group of fundamentalist Sunni Muslims started taking over parts of Iraq and Syria, as well as vital oil fields in the region, they became a much more potent threat to Iraq and Syrian authorities. With the captures of several key oil fields in the countries show, they are incredibly ambitious, they think ahead, and are steadfast about their expansionist Islamist ideology.
Due to the fact that their conquered territories now span across parts of Iraq and Syria, they are able to create safe “rear zones” that can afford them with the retreat route off Iraq to Syria when the Iraqi troops intervene, and vice versa. This flexibility has helped allow insurgents to make tactical overtures more quickly and decisively, and they are much harder to track down.
The ISIS militants have since pushed into the once-secure Kurdish territory and have surrounded thousands of civilians, who are members of an ethno-religious minority known as Yazidis, on a mountain where they lack food and water.
On the side of the Kurds, while they had been on the brink of insolvency due to a dispute with the central Iraqi government over oil exports, they have now de facto annexed Kirkuk, a major oil city. This is a cash windfall for them as they can now export oil freely to Turkey, making them the only winners of the situation.
What is unique about the situation:
In the first place, it is to note that to say that ISIS is extremist alone is an understatement. As far as their aims and missions go, a dream of creating a hardline Sunni Muslim state is not extreme. However, what is extreme is their views and their means of gaining power and attention. The ISIS views majority of religious believers in the occupied territories as infidels. Shiites and Yazidis are given a choice; either convert to the invader’s version of Sunni fundamentalism or be killed. They are virulently opposed to the West, to the US, to modernity and to anyone who sees the world differently from their own narrow perspectives.
Secondly, from the examples of their kidnapping of Foley and Sotloff, as well as the Yazidis issue, ISIS didn’t just remind us how cruel humans can be; it has taken the use of brutality as a weapon of intimidation, extermination, genocide and recruitment propaganda to new levels. As British analysts have stated in interviews with the CNN following Foley’s execution of a supposed British, the power of ISIS lies in their ability to “deconstruct the killer’s identity”, and “to brainwash them to that level is immensely powerful.” Instances of British citizens going Islamic extremist groups as such is not new, as the Aleppo bombings reflect. This has since forced British Prime Minister David Cameron to cancel his holiday and return for emergency investigations on the killer’s identity. I fear that may only be the beginning of more atrocities of such nature.
The big question after Foley’s killing, then, the response made by the Obama adminstration. It’s not clear whether ISIS killed Foley and is threatening to kill Sotloff in order to is 1) get what it says it wants, and end the American air campaign or 2) bait the US into an unwise escalation. This is by no means a simple problem, and as highlighted by the ISIS fighter who beheaded Foley, they can do what the Americans can, and become one of them.
Image: ISIS territories before US fought back forces at the Mosul Dam.
What sort of policy responses then?
Yet, there is still cause for some optimism. Just as how the heads of a hydra can be permanent removed by burning its severed stumps, the US seems to have found a way to stem the tide – at least on the millitary front. According to an AFP release on Aug 21, US chairmanof the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey has said the United States cannot defeat the Islamic State without engaging it in Syria, The United States has already begun conducting airstrikes in Iraq to help Iraqi military and Kurdish peshmerga forces in their fight against the group.
(Update: The most recent military victory over ISIS was after American fighter jets, bombers and drones assisted Kurdish and Iraqi forces in driving the Islamic State (Isis) back from Iraq’s most important dam, the Mosul dam. This gave the president some much needed reprieve, who then announced the military victory as a “major step forward”. )
On the idealogical front, fortunately, Indonesia, home to the largest muslim population in the world, has taken decisive steps to prevent such terrorism from taking root.As a Muslim-majority country where Islam is seen as a positive marker of identity, the Indonesian government has been conscious to distance themselves away from the extremist group. Mr Lukman Hakim Saifuddin, the Minister for Religious Affairs, had the biggest credit in the formation of a unified stance against the issue. Minister Saifuddin was the first leader of national standing who has denied the credibility of ISIS outright, branding them a group of violent radicals whose claims to piety are superfluous. He had called upon all Muslim leaders across Indonesia – from academics to religious scholars, from preachers to missionaries, from mass movements to political parties – to join him in an open campaign to ensure that the influence of ISIS does not spread to Indonesia in whatever form. Coming at a time when Indonesia is forced to confront the reality that some of its people as joined the ISIS movement, this was a bold move on the minister’s part. The government had since taken yet another bold step by banning ISIS altogether on the basis that it is an anti-state movement that is a threat to Indonesia’s integrity and Pancasila ideology.
With the benefit of hindsight, the concerns of insurgency study experts have become ever more alarming. According to a Vox article, (http://www.vox.com/2014/5/1/5668650/state-department-terrorism-report), Will McCants, director of Brookings’ Project on U.S. relations with the Islamic World, has urged the US government to think about addressing the instability that gives rise to the new jihadi groups in places like Syria.
According to McCants, “there isn’t a one-size-fits-all policy prescription that would address the political crises behind the terrorism spike,” he says. “The United States will have to weigh short-term solutions to terrorism (e.g. providing security force assistance) against long-term drivers of terrorism (e.g. state repression of political dissent in Egypt, security vacuums in Yemen and Libya).” In this case, it is arguable that the failure of finding appropriate responses to the long term drivers of terrorism has allowed for new jihadi groups like the ISIS to strengthen.
On the political front, the US has made concrete steps to correct their earlier stances after trying to end the war on terror. During the years the Obama adminstration had spent trying to reduce military intervention in Iraq as part of his campaign promises, ISIS found itself in a nice greenhouse for nearly uninterrupted growth and expansion. Now, the Obama adminstration needs to craft out a balance, and while airstrikes and promises of continued “vigilance” as how Obama has put it may be helpful in the short haul, more decisive measures are to be taken to resolve the issue. Until then, Islamic Fundamentalism remains a core religious conflict that will continue to pose problems for policymakers.