ISIS is here for a generation

On the day that the UN security council agreed to launch an effort to prevent the flow of foreign jihadis in support of the Islamic State and US-led airstrikes continued in Syria, the Frontline Club panel underlined the seriousness of the ISIS threat and sought to explain its appeal to an estimated 15,000 foreign fighters.

Hosted by Sky News foreign affairs editor Sam Kiley, the debate brought together Peter Neumann, Professor of Security Studies at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, and founder and director of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR); Alia Brahimi, visiting research fellow at the Oxford University Changing Character of War Programme at Pembroke College, Oxford and author of Jihad and Just War in the War on Terror; Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a recent graduate from Brasenose College, Oxford University, and a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum; and Patrick Cockburn, a Middle East correspondent since 1979 and author of The Jihadis Return: Isis and the New Sunni Uprising.

The panel was unanimous in its belief that the airstrikes launched by a US-led alliance on Monday 22 September would not bring a speedy halt to the ISIS insurgency, something that UK prime minister David Cameron and a spokesperson for the US defence administration later admitted.

“I don’t believe the air campaign is going to be able to defeat ISIS, or that a more intensive military campaign would either,” said Neumann. “We’re going to be down there for years.”

Military strikes against ISIS ignore the root of the problem, the panel argued. “I’m pessimistic about the efficacy of airstrikes,” said al-Tamimi. “What is needed is a change of mindset on the ground. It’s local mindsets that matter here in Iraq now.”

“The US is trying to cut them off at the head, but we have to cut them off at the legs and deal with the causes,” said Brahimi.

The popularity of ISIS was attributed to a range of factors, including government failings and the organisation’s successes on the battlefield. “Maliki’s heavy handed responses to political issues in Iraq have definitely played a part,” said Brahimi. “Both Maliki and Assad have attempted to deploy military solutions to political problems.”

“One simple thing in ISIS’ favour is victory,” said Cockburn, pointing to the organisation’s military successes in Mosul, Anbar and Tikrit, and the fact that it has inflicted heavy defeats on the Syrian army. “In the context of great numbers of bitter, angry Sunni young men in Syria and Iraq, their lives pretty hopeless. . . . All of a sudden there’s this victorious army that they can join. It’s all very appealing.”

ISIS has taken advantage of a groundswell of anger and disillusionment among unrepresented Sunnis, which make up about 20% of the population in Iraq and 60% in Syria, and tapped into a history of insurgency that dates back to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

“ISIS has ridden on the back of an overall revitalised Sunni insurgency in Iraq,” said Brahimi. “You can draw a straight line between [the invasion of Iraq] and the rise of ISIS. So many in Syria . . . cut their teeth in the Iraqi insurgency, trying to take the whole territory in the war against the US.”

For the time being, ISIS is focused on the ‘near enemy’, but it is likely that it will eventually move against Western targets. “[ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-] Baghdadi will relish straying onto [Al Qaeda leader] Ayman al-Zawahiri’s ground,” said al-Tamimi. “Conducting attacks against the west has the ability to re-energise the ranks and silence internal critics. Baghdadi and Al-Zawahiri are in a race.”

The conflict has attracted between 12,000–15,000 foreign fighters to Syria and Iraq in the past three years, the largest overseas participation of independent fighters since Afghanistan in the 1980s, according to Neumann. Foreign combatants make up an estimated 40% of ISIS recruits.

Many were initially motivated by humanitarian reasons, but more recent converts to the ISIS cause are driven by a mixture of ideology, idealism, and adventure. “The idea of a caliphate . . . motivates people to build something that can be there in a thousand years time,” said Neumann. “It’s like an adventure holiday minus the alcohol.”

“The narrative is increasingly utopian and the reality increasingly dystopian,” said Brahimi. “We have to make more of that.”

The broad international appeal of ISIS is storing up huge problems for the future, and this is something that airstrikes will not change. “You have 15,000 people who may go to other conflicts, go back to their own countries, or stay in the region,” said Neumann. “These networks will keep us busy for another generation.”

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