Rule by fear
Few doubt that there’s more to come. The attacks on Paris will be followed by others in different European cities. The Islamic State has made no secret of its desire to kill westerners – civilians and military personal alike – whenever and wherever possible.
In recent years many plots were foiled but IS operatives are learning not to use the electronic communications and mobile phones that have so often left them exposed. For some time to come, it seems, Europeans are going to have to get used to living with the same levels of insecurity that Pakistanis have known for years.
The rapidity of the Islamic State’s rise to power has been remarkable. Within a few years it has come to govern significant parts of Syria and Iraq and now has millions of people under its control. It is important, then, to understand the nature of the IS and why it has been so successful.
The first question is the extent to which it is a religiously driven outfit. Of course, all of the Islamic State’s statements are couched in religious terms. But it relies too on non-religious sources of support including opposition to western foreign policy, discontent with incompetent, authoritarian Middle Eastern governments and the socio-economic depravation of its core support base.
Furthermore, not all of its senior operatives have a religious background. On-the-ground reporting from Syria and Iraq consistently states that much of the organisation’s success is a result of the involvement, at senior levels, of former members of Saddam Hussain’s security apparatus who were displaced from their jobs by the 2003 US invasion and the subsequent policy of debaathification.
These highly educated and experienced security personnel wanted both their revenge against the western forces that dislodged them and to protect themselves in Shia-dominated Iraq. The caliphate enabled them to achieve both these objectives. It was these former Saddam officials who had the organisational skills that allowed them to infiltrate IS supporters in Syrian towns and villages where they were tasked with identifying and providing intelligence on the local opinion formers, powerbrokers and potential obstacles to IS control. When those individuals were later murdered, the way was clear for the IS to take over.
When they worked for Saddam Hussain, these men were used to serving a secular regime whose relationship with radical Islam never got past the flirtation stage. It is difficult to know what they make of jihadi theology. The Islamic State’s talk of the ‘end of days’ may appeal to religiously illiterate potential recruits in the west but what do former Baathists make of it? Can they really feel comfortable with religious messaging that places so much emphasis on an apocalyptic vision of a final battle between the forces of Islam and the west?
The degree to which the former Baathists have become genuine believers in this kind of populist theology is contested. But western experts who have interviewed IS members reckon that many of the former Iraqi society personnel have in fact internalised the jihadi ideology that they first sought to manipulate.
As well as relying on the skills of Saddam Hussain’s apparatchiks, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has had the benefits of good timing. He rose to prominence at a time when the regional political situation enabled him to establish the caliphate with fewer battles than he might have expected. Although he has no allies, his enemies were – and many still are – preoccupied with other problems.
The Turks are more worried about the Kurds. The Saudis are principally concerned with Iran. The Kurds will fight the IS on Kurdish lands – but no further. President Assad is more bothered by the ‘moderate’ opposition which he has attacked with much greater consistency and force than he has the IS. And the government in Baghdad has no urgent desire to win back hostile Sunni lands. As for the US, it is too nervous to get drawn into a war in the Middle East which would inevitably be portrayed as yet another case of crusaderist imperialism driven by a hatred of Muslims.
It is possible that the Islamic State has now found its natural boundaries and, unable to expand any further, will become a territory in which Sunnis restrict themselves to protecting themselves from outside interference. Baghdadi’s problem is that he needs momentum, and to increase the size of the caliphate he must win victories against forces such as the Kurds or the governments in Baghdad or Damascus – all of which have significant western or Russian backing. The key issue, then, is whether the caliphate’s satellite operations in Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria (where Boko Haram has pledged allegiance) turn into anything more substantial.
There is good reason to believe they will not. Although the Islamic State has tried to introduce some measures of good governance in the areas it controls, it still relies on fear and violence to remain in power. When, for example, some wealthy people from Mosul wanted to go on Haj this year, they had to hand their property deeds to IS administrators as a surety to make sure they came back.
The IS did not want its tax base deciding to live in exile. It knows full well that all those many millions of Syrians who have been forced out of their homes could seek sanctuary in Islamic State controlled land. But they don’t. They vote with their feet and risk their lives heading for Europe.
Even if terror can keep a regime going for many years, eventually governments that use force against their own populations fail. You cannot rule by fear alone.
The writer is a freelance British journalist, one of the hosts of BBC’s Newshour and the author of the new political thriller, Target Britain.
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