The 20 November 2015 attack on a luxury hotel in the Malian capital of Bamako killed nineteen people and highlighted Mali’s ongoing security concerns. In the wake of the attack, three terrorist groups known to operate regionally claimed responsibility. Amongst them is al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Many experts have indicated that the attack was partly aimed at asserting the global terror network’s relevance as it continues to face an unprecedented challenge from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group for leadership of the global jihadi movement. It came exactly a week after IS carried out several attacks in Paris, which killed 130 people in what is the bloodies attack on France in decades. That attack, which is also the deadliest to take place on the European continent in the last ten years, also marked the first time that suicide bombers were used to carry in Europe, it has also prompted the questioning of security across the European Union and the ongoing migration crisis. What is evident however is that in recent years, al-Qaeda has to a certain degree been eclipsed by the IS group and its self-styled caliphate. As IS continues to expand in Syria and Iraq, and garners further allegiance from terrorist groups operating in other regions of the world, such as Nigerian-based Boko Haram, al-Qaeda is attempting to remind the world that the movement founded by Osama bin Laden continues to pose a serious threat.
IS began as al-Qaeda in Iraq, a local affiliate that battled American troops and carried out deadly attacks which targeted the country’s Shi’ite majority. However from the beginning there were tensions between the local group, led by Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, and al-Qaeda’s central leadership. In a 2005 letter, which was obtained and publicized by US intelligence officials, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, Ayman al-Zawahri, objected to al-Zarqawi’s brutality towards Shi’ite civilians, stating that it would turn Muslims against the group. While Al-Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, he is seen by man as being the founder of IS, which continues to use brutal tactics.
In 2013, IS leader Abu Bakh al-Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and proclaimed his authority in Iraq and in neighbouring Syria. Abu Mohammed al-Golani, the leader al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the al-Nusra Front, rejected the move and swore allegiance to al-Zawahri, who ordered al-Baghdadi to confine his operations to Iraq. Al-Baghdadi however refused and by 2014, al-Nusra Front and IS were battling each other across northern Syria. This split was felt across the world, with al-Qaeda affiliates in Yemen and Northern Africa remaining loyal to al-Zawahri while others choosing to pledge their allegiance to IS.
While both al-Qaeda and IS want to end Western influence in the Middle east, and want to unite Muslims under a transnational caliphate that is governed by a strict version of Islamic law, both groups are bitterly divided over tactics. Bin Laden believed that attacking the “far enemy” of the US would weaken its support for the “near enemy” of Arab autocracies and rally Muslims to overthrow them. Under al-Zawahri, local al-Qaeda affiliates have sought to exploit post-Arab Spring chaos by allying with other insurgents and tribes and by cultivating local support in places such as Syria and Yemen, where they provide social services. For bin Laden, who was killed in a US raid in Pakistan in 2011, as well as his successor al-Zawahri, the establishment of a caliphate was a vaguely defined end goal.
IS however began seizing and holding territory in Syria and Iraq and later forming affiliates across the Middle East, and into Africa. In the summer of 2014, IS declared a caliphate, and deemed the Syrian city of Raqqa as its capital. Al-Baghdadi has since claimed to be the leader of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, however an overwhelming majority have rejected his ideas and brutal tactics.
Last week, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that France had carried out its first surveillance flights over Syria in order to prepare for possible airstrikes on Islamic State (IS) group extremists.
Speaking to reporters, Fabius stated that “these surveillance flights will determine what action can be taken when the time comes.” A French military source, the reconnaissance flights were carried out by two of France’s Rafale fighter jets, which are equipped with photo and video cameras. The source disclosed that the “two Rafales left the Persian Gulf this morning (Tuesday 9 September) and have just returned.”
The surveillance flights follow President Francois Hollande’s announcement last Monday that France would soon begin surveillance flights over Syria. During a press conference, he stated that the intelligence gathered from these flights would then be used in order to determine if France would go ahead with airstrikes against IS group targets in the Middle Eastern country. The French President noted that he wanted to find out “what is being prepared against us and what is being done against the Syrian population.”
This move represents a major shift within France’s strategy in Syria as while the country is part of a coalition of nations that have been carrying out airstrikes against the extremist group in neighbouring Iraq, Paris has so far not commented on extending its bombing mission to Syria.
While President Hollande noted that the fight against terrorism needs to be carried out both at home and in places where it is entrenched, he ruled out deploying ground forces to Syria, stating that such a move would be “ineffective and unrealistic.”
Islamic State now controls over 50% of Syria, after its capture of the ancient city of Palmyra. The group took control of Palmyra on Wednesday after a week-long siege. Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al Assad collapsed away after at least 100 Syrian regime troops were killed overnight in fighting against ISIS. The terrorist group also reportedly began to massacre members of the Shaitat tribe, who had previously rebelled against ISIS in Deir Ezzor. At that time, ISIS killed 800 of their members. ISIS has imposed a curfew in the city and has conducted weeps to find remaining members of Assad’s forces. The capture of Palmyra brings Islamic State closer to the government controlled strongholds of Homs and Damascus. ISIS control of the ancient city also severs supply lines to Deir Ezzor.
ISIS also now has control of the Arak and al-Hail gas fields near Palmyra. These fields power most of the Syrian regime’s strongholds in the west. Control of these fields has given ISIS control over a large portion of the country’s electricity supply.
ISIS now controls over 95,000 square kilometres in Syria, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The group controls majority of Raqqa province, which is the group’s de-facto “capital”, and also controls most of Deir Ezzor. ISIS has also taken parts of Hassakeh and the Aleppo countryside, as well as parts of the Homs countryside and the Yarmouk refugee camp in southern Damascus. The group also controls most of the Syrian Desert. The areas it holds are mostly sparsely inhabited.
Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was once a Silk Road hub a cultural centres of the ancient world. It is home to beautiful ruins of antiquity, including the Temple of Bel, built in the first century. ISIS considers the preservation of historical ruins a form of idolatry. UN and Syrian officials fear that ISIS plans to destroy the ruins, as it did in the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and in Iraq’s Mosul Museum. In the absence of opposition, the group can enter and destroy the historic city’s ancient ruins. ISIS has used the destruction of heritage sites as a form of profit; selling looted remnants of destroyed ruins on the black market. The group also uses the destruction of these sites as propaganda.
The cohesion and strength of Syrian troops has been called to question amid the fall of Palmyra. Forces fell away from the city rapidly, surprising many observers, considering the importance of Palmyra and its proximity to supply routes. Syria’s main cities, including Damascus, are located in the west, near the border with Lebanon or on the Mediterranean coastline. These cities have been the priority for the Syrian military. It appears the troops are focusing their attention on protecting areas to the west, rather than fighting for areas currently occupied by the terrorist group.
18 March- Gunmen dressed in military uniforms and armed with grenades and assault rifles attacked the National Bardo Museum in central Tunis, killing nineteen. Among the dead were seventeen foreigners including Italian, Spanish, Polish and German citizens. The museum is near the national Parliament, which was evacuated as police officers responded to the attack. Tunisian officials have suggested that Parliament was the originally intended target, as reports emerged that legislators were discussing an antiterrorism law on Wednesday.
Among the dead were seventeen tourists and two Tunisians. Eight people were killed as they alighted from a bus to visit the museum. A further ten were taken hostage and then killed. A Tunisian museum guard who was injured in the attack and died later of his wounds. During a news conference, Prime Minister Habib Essid said that 24 more people were injured in the attack.
The identity of the two terrorists has not been established. There are reports that a third gunmen and additional operatives may remain at large. At the time of this writing, the operation at the museum remains ongoing but is near completion, according to Tunisian authorities.
Protests in Tunisia beginning in 2010 were the spark of a series of popular revolts in the region termed “The Arab Spring”. Tunisia has experienced a successful, although at times turbulent, transition of governments and has fostered democracy. The nation recently held presidential and parliamentary elections. Recently elected Prime Ministar Essid called the incident “a critical moment in our history, and a defining moment for our future.” Tunisia is striving to reinvigorate its economy and tourism industry after years of unrest; tourism is a critical sector in Tunisia’s economy.
However while Tunisia has enjoyed a degree of success, today’s attack reveal the significance of another emerging issue for the nation. A number of Tunisians have left the country to become fighters abroad. Some have left to join the fight against Bashar al Assad in Syria, while others have been tempted by recruiters for ISIS. Recruiters for the terrorist group have taken advantage of the unrest in Tunisia and targeted jaded youth; including those who are angry with the high unemployment rate and the abusive police force (remnants of the old regime). Tunisia is currently one of the largest sources of foreign fighters for ISIS. In December 2014, a video of three Tunisian fighters for ISIS warned that Tunisians would not live securely “as long as Tunisia is not governed by Islam.” Today’s attacks indicate that Tunisia may experience similar attacks as fighters return to the country. This concern rings true for many nations across the Middle East and North Africa.
Tunisia’s woes are amplified by the unrest in neighbouring Libya has become increasingly unstable. Fighting in Libya has come close to Tunisian borders, and Tunisian security forces have engaged in battles with terrorist elements who cross into Tunisia in the mountainous regions that share a border with Libya. Tunisian authorities have also battled with fighters linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb who occasionally target Tunisian security forces.
Today’s attack comes a day after ISIS reported the death of a prominent Tunisian field commander during fighting in Libya. A eulogy statement posted online late on Monday said Ahmed al-Ruwaysi, also known as Abu Zakariya al-Tunisi, was killed in recent days amid clashes in Sirte. Al-Tunisi, according to the eulogy, planned and participated in the 2013 assassinations of two prominent liberal Tunisian politicians: Mohammed Brahmi and Chokri Belaid. It is likely that the attacks today are directly related to the death of Al-Tunisi.
In June 2014, the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) has metastasised into one of the most horrific fighting groups of this century. The group has become renowned for rampant murder, the pillaging of villages and cities, widely publicised beheadings, the theft of oil and artefacts, and more recently of human organs.
Since they appeared on the world stage, ISIS has come to remind many of a combination of the worst villains Hollywood has ever imagined. More terrifying, the group’s combination of savvy marketing and recruiting, has resulted in numerous would-be fighters attempting to travel to ISIS strongholds to join the group.
The Debate: What does ISIS want?
ISIS seeks to form a caliphate that extends to the Mediterranean Sea. Their ideology has sparked numerous debates on whether they are a political group with a religious foundation, or a religious groups with a political foundation.
There is no denying that ISIS perceives themselves as an Islamic group; it’s in their name. However ISIS has modified their interpretation to create their own version of Islam. Their brand of Islam is a combination of fundamentalism similar to Wahabism in Saudi Arabia, but it is coupled with “violent Salafism” which deviated from evangelical Salafism in the 1960s and 70s. Further, the group has enacted a series of its own rulings or “fatwas” that are often in direct contradiction to Islam (for example, the burning of humans is strictly forbidden in ever interpretation of Islam—except for that which is held by ISIS).
ISIS has based its ideology on an apocalyptic message. Their magazine, Dabiq refers to a city in Syria that is said to be a site of great fighting during Armageddon (Malahim). The magazine states, “One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.” However the mention of this end-times battle is not found in the Qur’an. It is believed to be in one of the “lesser” Hadiths. This is an important point: in Islam, the Hadith is a collection of stories recounted of the prophet Muhammad. Each Hadith, over time, has been studied carefully to determine whether it can be verified and whether it is consistent with the Prophet’s teachings. Greater Hadiths are those which have extensive historical and scholarly evidence to support them. Lesser Hadiths have limited evidence to support them.
Despite their religious ideology, at the core of ISIS beliefs is an equal mix of political ideology. ISIS conducts itself as a state; collecting taxes and implementing its own version of judicial law and social controls. It grew out of region wide crisis in Iraq and flourished in the aftermath of the Iraq War. Here too, their political ideology has been the source of great debate. Some argue that US intervention was responsible for the creation of ISIS; others argue that former Iraqi President Nouri al Maliki institutionalised sectarian division in the nation, instigating a violent response among militant Sunni groups which already existed in the nation. The political goal of ISIS is to restore Sunni Islam to a place of (at least) equality, and their political message initially gained the support of non-militant Sunni Muslims who were marginalised by the nation’s government. In addition, ISIS often calls for the erasure of the Sykes-Picot lines which, in 1916, divided the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire outside the Arabian Peninsula into areas of British and French control or influence.
The question of what ISIS really wants has made it difficult to know how to deal with them. ISIS governs itself as an extreme Islamic caliphate, organises like a modern state, and fights like a guerrilla insurgency.
Impact of Global Politics
ISIS is believed to have amassed over 200,000 fighters, with potential members coming from as many as 90 nations. As stated earlier, ISIS has developed a savvy social media presence, and nations are stopping people on a near daily basis from travelling to the region.
Despite a US led coalition of forty nations that have agreed to fight ISIS, the battle against the terrorist group has become. However since the initiation of the coalition in August 2014, ISIS has continued to grow.
In part, ISIS has thrived because of the complexity of international politics. The main fighting forces on the ground are the Kurdish Peshmerga, who belong to a political movement known as the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has sought an autonomous Kurdish state in parts of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. The conflict between the PKK and the Turkish government reached its zenith in 2005 when the PKK conducted a series of bombings, leading them to become a designated terrorist group in Turkey, the United States, NATO, and the European Union. The EU Court removed its status as terrorist organisation in April 2008. However, the designation by the US and Turkey has brought with it problems of arming the PKK; the only group that has successfully battled ISIS on the ground.
To add to the complexity, another nation that has a vested interest in defeating ISIS is Iran, which is on the US “enemies” list. As such, Iran, with over 500,000 active troops, is not a member of the coalition. Iran has been facing heavy sanctions that have been put in place by the west; the US has taken the lead in negotiating nuclear reduction in Iran. The US believes that Iran could use nuclear infrastructure to build weapons which could be a direct threat to Israel. Iran maintains that the facilities are part of their energy infrastructure.
In Iraq, the Iraqi military fell apart with alarming speed when ISIS first came onto the scene. It has been reported that when ISIS militants sought to overtake a region, the generals left first, leaving the soldiers uncertain of what to do; and so they left as well. Under Maliki, it is believed that the Sunni members of the army were unhappy to fight for a nation that had alienated them. With a new president in place, the 350,000 member army is currently being trained by Western forces in order to engage in battle against ISIS. However in the meanwhile, Shiite militias have been remobilised to fill the vacuum, however their presence has left Sunni Muslims in a precarious situation.
The Syrian army is believed by many to be the most likely to contain the ISIS threat. In early February, Syrian forces together with the Kurdish fighters repelled an ISIS advance in north-eastern Syria. However, Syrian troops have been divided between fighting in a protracted civil war and fighting ISIS forces. This has decreased their ability to focus on a single target.
Why are more Arab ground troops not involved?
ISIS has overtly stated that they seek to gain ground in Lebanon, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. In North Africa, ISIS has established a presence in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and along the Libyan coastline. In mid-February, Egyptian conducted airstrikes against ISIS positions in Derna, Libya, following the beheading of 21 Coptic Christian Egyptian nationals. Shortly after the airstrikes, Egyptian President Sisi called for a joint Arab military force to tackle extremist groups in the region, and called for a United Nations mandate for foreign intervention in Libya. Sisi’s call raises an important question: why have Arab nations —particularly those at greatest risk from ISIS— not sent in ground troops to fight ISIS?
In short, many Arab militaries have not acted as fighting forces for some time. For example the Egyptian army had not engaged in ground war since the three-day border war with Libya in 1977. Further, the Egyptian military has not been deployed to a foreign nation since the North Yemen civil war of the 1960s, where it was defeated. The story is similar for many militaries in the region. Another problem arises from the history of Arab cooperation in defence. Divisions along political lines (Turkey and the Kurds, for example), prevent full trust and therefore full cooperation. Western analysts espouse hope that the GCC Peninsula Shield, a 40,000-strong force made up of countries in the Persian Gulf, will be deployed to fight ISIS, however the group is designed to prevent political unrest in existing regimes. It is a force for suppression, not battle. The GCC Peninsula shield was most recently deployed to quell unrest in Bahrain in 2011. Their targets were unarmed, disorganised civilians. It is unlikely that they are prepared to engage in battle against armed, methodical militants.
This does not mean that the battle against ISIS cannot be won. However it will require renewed training of security forces, the updating of weaponry, and the combined efforts of both Middle Eastern and Western forces. The biggest advantage that ISIS has is the political divides that keep forces from uniting. As long as nations around the world debate whether to send forces, or to interfere on sovereign land, or base their involvement on political conditions, ISIS will continue to thrive.