When the Taliban regime fell after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and al-Qaeda was forced to flee towards the mountains of Pakistan, Osama bin Laden’s second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, wrote a book called Knights Under the Prophet’s Banner: The al-Qaeda Manifesto. In the book, which was serialized in Arab newspapers, al-Zawahiri argued that al-Qaeda’s strategic objective over the coming period — the time we are living in today — was to establish a new base for the holy war (al-Qaeda al-Jihad means “the base for the holy war” in Arabic) somewhere in the Middle East. IS has done just that now in Iraq and Syria, which is nothing less than an historic achievement. In doing so, IS has begun to unravel the old colonial borders which were set up a hundred years ago, beginning with the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916. IS referred to the Sykes-Picot agreement in its last propaganda video “Flames of War: Fighting Has Just Begun” as the “black pages of history,” because it introduced the secular state in the Middle East.
IS now controls significant territories in Iraq and Syria, equaling a small European state. At the same time, despite having a nearly identical view of Islam, IS and al-Qaeda are deadly enemies at present, which may confuse people in the West. IS and al-Qaeda have four major issues of contention:
1) Whether the oath of loyalty (bayat) the IS leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi swore to bin Laden is valid even for his successor, al-Zawahiri;
2) Whether the Jihadis should fight against what they call “the faraway enemy”, meaning the U.S., or the “near enemy,” meaning the local rulers in the Middle East;
3) Whether IS’ declaration of an Islamic state is valid; and
4) Whether IS’ massive violence against everyone who disagrees with them, minorities and others, is a wise strategy.
Al-Zawahiri, who has been active in jihadi circles for 50 years, since he was 14, has many bitter experiences from how Islamic movements, which initially had significant popular support, degenerated into blind and murderous terrorism. This happened in al-Zawahiri’s homeland Egypt in the 1990s and even worse in Algeria during the same time. The leading jihadi group in Algeria during the ’90s, GIA (Groupe Islamique Armé), lost almost all of its popular support when it started to slice the throats of young girls in the name of Islam. In his final communiqué, GIA’s most well-known leader, a chicken farmer whose name was Antar Zouabri, declared the whole population of Algeria to be takfiris — meaning people allowed to be killed by the Jihadis.
When Obama took office in 2009, he was fully determined to take the U.S. out of Bush’s “global war on terrorism,” a phrase Obama has been careful not to use. At first, it looked like he was succeeding. Obama pulled the troops out of Iraq, successfully escalated the drone campaign in Pakistan and, most significantly, he had bin Laden killed in May 2011 — in perfect timing to spoil al-Qaeda’s upcoming celebrations of the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. On top of all this, the outbreak of the Arab Spring earlier in 2011 had taken the world by storm and many observers truly believed that the Middle East was heading towards freedom and democracy. NATO’s operation in Libya was, for example, initially hauled as one of the organization’s most important successes ever. Then things started to deteriorate in most of the states that had been affected by the Arab Spring with chaos and violence following.
The rise of IS is a nightmare with possible consequences far beyond anything we have seen so far during the past 13 years of the war on terrorism. A realistic alternative to IS would be an Iranian empire stretching from Western Afghanistan to the Golan Heights at Israel’s border, but that would be, if possible, an even greater nightmare than IS for Western policymakers. In other words, the Middle East is not a smorgasbord of good policy alternatives for Western policymakers at the moment.
A decisive question for the future is whether IS will attack Europe and the U.S. Nothing IS has done so far, the horrific violence included, suggests that its leaders act irrationally. Al-Baghdadi knows very well that the Talibans lost their regime in Afghanistan because they had let al-Qaeda attack the U.S. from its territory. If IS launches a wave of attacks against the West, the U.S. and her European allies will have to go in with full force in Iraq and Syria, this time to win — not the peace, but the war. Such a war would likely have enormous consequences for the hundreds of thousands Syrians and Iraqis now living in the West, overwhelmingly in Europe, if the U.S. and her European allies start killing their relatives in large numbers.
The global jihadis wrongly believe that the liberal Western democracies are weak and unwilling to fight. Previously in history, Nazis, Japanese fascists and Communists believed the same. It took Dresden, Hiroshima and a dissolved Soviet Union to prove to these people that liberal democracies can be as brutal as they have to. Let us all hope that we do not have to teach IS that lesson.