Why the war on terrorism has failed

Success of ISIS is symptom of severe, organic crisis of Arab governance and, at another level, a manifestation of decades of development failure in MENA region.


2016/06/26 Issue: 62 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
Francis Ghilès



Barcelona - In less than 100 days in the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) launched its blitzkrieg in Iraq, Libya’s government collapsed, civil war engulfed Yemen, Israeli bombing of Gaza left more than 2,200 Palestinians dead, Russia reignited the Cold War and Iran became a de facto ally of the United States in Iraq as Tehran and Washington sought, each for different reasons, to bolster the Baghdad government.

Since January 2015, ISIS has sponsored massive terrorist at­tacks in Paris and Brussels, giving the lie to the argument that it is focused exclusively on fighting Shia Muslims in the Middle East.

“Thirteen years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars after 9/11, any progress in the War on Terrorism had seemingly been swept away in a matter of weeks,” David Kilcullen wrote in Blood Year: The Unraveling of Western Counterterrorism.

Kilcullen was an Australian army officer who served in Afghani­stan and Iraq and was seconded to become chief strategist in the US State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. He is steeped in counter-insurgency theory and kept notes as “this enormous slow-motion train wreck took place”.

He wears his erudition lightly and tells an utterly chilling story. His prose is spare given the deprav­ity of ISIS but, as a good soldier, he does do gore. In his view, George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq amounts to “the greatest strategic screw-up since Hitler’s invasion of Russia”.

Fifteen years after 9/11 we are nowhere close to the end of the War on Terror. Repeated attacks in the Middle East, Asia, Europe, Africa and Europe underline the “need for an honest conversa­tion about the risks of massive immigration (especially illegal immigration) from war zones, and the dangers posed by marginal­ised, non-integrated communities within Western democracies,” Kilcullen wrote.

The threat of “remote radi­calisation” — a process by which terrorists exploit electronic means to project violence into societies by mobilising vulnerable individuals — has wrong-footed many intel­ligence services; we underestimate the extent to which organised crime networks, street gangs and drugs traffickers in Europe and the United States are importing techniques and technologies, such as urban ambush techniques, from Iraq and Afghanistan, “creating an increasing convergence between crime and war, something special operations analysts call a grey zone”.

Kilcullen argues that we should never have gone into Iraq with the job unfinished in Afghanistan.

When he was seconded to US Army General David Petraeus during the 2007-08 “surge” in Iraq that succeeded in restoring security to a society broken by the US-led occupation after 2003, Kilcullen witnessed the defeat of al-Qaeda thanks to the co-opting of Sunni tribal fighters. Unfortu­nately, Nuri al-Maliki, the Shia prime minister of Iraq, a joint protégé of Iran and the United States, pursued a relentlessly sectarian anti-Sunni policy allow­ing the remnants of al-Qaeda and former Iraqi officers to be reborn as an even deadlier threat in the form of ISIS.

Although he was elected on a pledge to extract the United States from the Middle East, US President Barack Obama left Iraq irrespon­sibly early, Kilcullen wrote. The “reckless” Bush had been replaced by the “feckless” Obama and the latter’s failure to respect his own red line and punish Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad after Syrian troops attacked rebel enclaves with nerve gas in 2013 diminished America’s role in the region and al­lowed ISIS to storm back into Iraq, he argues in the book. It offered huge leverage to a reinvigorated Russia.

Fawaz Gerges, writing ISIS: A History, offers a more political canvas that explains how ISIS emerged from the chaos of Iraq and, greatly strengthened by the failure of the “Arab spring”, seized the leadership of the jihadist movement from al-Qaeda.

The success of ISIS is the symptom of a severe, organic crisis of Arab governance and, at another level, a manifestation of decades of development failure in the Middle East and North Africa that has resulted in the social and economic pauperisation of those societies. It is also the result of constant Western intervention in the internal affairs of the region for two centuries, Gerges said.

ISIS is a long-term threat to the region and the outside world — it controls a large area in Iraq and Syria with a population of 5 million people, boasts an army numbering more than 30,000 and has attracted thousands of recruits from 90 countries.

Its extreme totalitarianism, even with its allies, its extraordinary punishment of religious minorities and its modern sex trade including sales contracts notarised by its Is­lamic courts, all point to an attempt to rebuild a Sunni identity, which can only result in further violence, Gerges wrote. The movement’s ideology, struggle and strategy are well explained within the context of the complexities of militant jihadist policies.

Neither book makes for comfort­able reading.


Francis Ghilès is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.


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