First time for thirteen years of the global war on terror the US has been challenged by the Islamic State - a terrorist group more powerful than al-Qaeda. Radio VR is discussing the issue with Adam Dolnik, Professor of Terrorism Studies, at the University of Wollongong, Australia and Theodore Karasik, Director of research and consultancy at INEGMA, Dubai, UAE.
In one of his recent statements the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described the Islamic State as a threat the US had never seen. The Islamic State, he said, "marries ideology [and] a sophistication of strategic and tactical military prowess. This is beyond anything we've seen."
Could it be that the Defense Secretary has overestimated the threat?
Adam Dolnik: Basically, Chuck Hagel’s statement is based on two important factors. One is the fact that he needs to attract attention to the issue of the IS with the need to mobilize people, to wake up that there is a very serious potential threat to the US. And in a context like that, people are motivated to kind of overstate the conclusions or to overstate the threats, in order to make sure that their voices are heard and that the threat does not go overlooked. So, that is an important factor to take into consideration.
And the other one has to do with the fear of the unknown. 12 months ago nobody was talking about the Islamic State, everybody was focusing on the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the al-Qaeda-linked group. And it was seen as a much greater threat in Syria at that time. And the rapid speed with which the IS came to the forefront, how quickly they advanced to capture an area the size of Jordan; the thousands of fighters, they’ve been able to recruit from the overseas; the fact that they’ve declared the caliphate – this was seen as a big surprise, I think, by many analysts. And the fear of the unknown now kind of makes people to overstate the threat even more, because people were clearly wrong in the past.
That doesn't mean that we shouldn’t worry about the IS. I mean, it is a very capable group. It does possess huge financial resources. I've seen some estimates in the range of $2 billion, which is more than any other terrorist groups has had in the past. They do have seasoned fighters from many countries in the world, who have added to the capacity of the fighting force. They are truly international, being able to recruit fighters from Britain, France, Belgium, the US, Canada and other places. The fact that these people understand the Western psyche and speak the language also adds to the propaganda efforts of the IS. And many of the videos and their social network campaigns are very knowledgeable of the Western psyche.
So, all of these things make IS a formidable enemy. Have we seen very formidable and capable terrorist groups before? Yes, we have. If you look at Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka, they controlled a very large part of Sri Lanka. They were very capable of attracting funding from overseas, from the Tamil diasporas in Europe and in North America. They were able to attract recruits from that part of the world. They were incredibly innovative in their use specific suicide bodysuits and suicide torpedoes. They were very-very capable militarily.
The only different thing was that they were not really targeting the West. So, we never really focused on them as a threat. But we have definitely seen very capable organizations in the past as well. So, I do think that the Chuck Hagel’s statement overstates the importance of IS to some extent.
You’re saying that it is mostly the fear of the unknown. And, on the other hand, you are also saying that these people seem to have been closely linked with the Europeans and possess good knowledge of the European psyche. But if we remember how the IS started, it started in Iraq, at least that’s what we have been told. Then, it moved to fight in Syria and it has been fighting on the side of the opposition. And the opposition has been supported by the West. So, is the IS really that unknown to the West?
Adam Dolnik: I think this is really a good point. And the issue that we had in Syria, especially in the North America the analysis is really quite black and white on this issue. So, if we have Bashar Assad – a brutal dictator – and there is a bloodbath in Syria, then mobilizing some sort of an opposition against him to fight him sounds good, until people realize that there is really no democratic opposition to Assad, that it is a naïve interpretation of the reality. And then, they started realizing that they have groups like al-Qaeda, linked to al-Qaeda and even worse than al-Qaeda who are on the side of the opposition. And now some people are saying that there is no choice but to basically team up with Assad to fight against the IS threat.
And I think it is very much influenced by a very naïve interpretation of the good versus evil in the international relations, and much of the analysis just did not capture that complexity. So, I don’t think there was a willing effort of the West to kind of arm al-Qaeda-linked groups. I think that would be too cynical. But I don’t dispute the fact that on the sidelines there may have been that effect, when some of the money and arms that were flowing into the Syrian opposition did in fact end up in the hands of the IS.
So, what is to be done?
Adam Dolnik: I think the West right now is in a position of ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’, because, quite clearly, the IS wants an invasion of the Western troops, preferably the US troops, into Syria and Iraq. They simply want it. They are trying to provoke it. They tend to overestimate their own capacity to fight. They do understand that there is a war fatigue in the West. They do understand that they don’t need to be victorious militarily, all they have to do is drag it out and cause some casualties.
And it will give them the legitimacy that they are seeking for in terms of portraying themselves as a viable opposition to the West. And they know that if they prevail for long enough, they are unlikely to face an enemy for another ten years , because the US will have a lot of fatigue and they will just withdraw much faster than that.
So, I do think that there is a situation where we are damned if we do and damned if we don’t. Clearly, we can’t just let the IS do whatever they want, especially when you have the dimension of ethnic cleansing and other things that are happening there. You could also say that if there was a major plot against the West that was organized in the IS-held territory, the argument would be there that it is impossible to just let them live and do their own things, because, clearly, that is only contributing to their capacity to attack the West.
So, it will very much depend on how the IS plays its cards vis-à-vis the West. I mean, they are sending all sorts of messages, trying to scare the West in terms of attacking, but we have not seen that yet. So, they could either just keep it at the level of rhetoric or they could really launch some sort of 9/11-wannabe-style attack which would probably not have the same impact as 9/11, but might be a game changer in people’s minds in terms of a decision to potentially go and fight against the IS directly. But I don’t see that happening in the absence of some sort of a major attack or a plot, or some sort of information about the weapons of mass destruction in the hands of the IS, or something like that.
The IS, of course, with the execution of James Foley directly challenged the West. But we are talking about something that was not technologically that difficult. I mean, they beheaded a hostage. It was very-very graphic and very gruesome. And it is a provocation. But I don’t think it reached the brink of kind of changing the people’s minds in terms of actually going in and facing the IS head-on in Syria and Iraq.
Theodore Karasik: I think many analysts are beginning to recognize that the Islamic State is something unprecedented in modern times, where the US has to contend with this threat. The IS is an organization that is literally hellbent on starting or hotwiring the apocalypse. Within their vision of trying to achieve the caliphate, they want to be able to bring the end times closer. And if you read Hagel’s statement carefully, you’ll see him talk about the fact that the group is apocalyptic. That is significant and that is why this is an unprecedented threat.
Do you think we could explain to our listeners the meaning of “apocalyptic”? Are they prepared to blow up the world?
Theodore Karasik: They are prepared to make the apocalypse come faster by creating events on the ground that signal the end times. And in that sense they want to be able to capture the city of Dabiq where the final battle is supposed to occur. And that they did last week. They are also teasing the US and other powers to intervene in order to have “the crusaders” fight the final battle against those who are inviting, in other words – the Islamic State. So, in this sense, that’s what they are trying to do.
What is their goal? there could hardly be any survivors in apocalypse?
Theodore Karasik: Their goal is to be able to have the return of several prophets and to have the end times come clear. But, at the same time, they want to build their state and to be able to expand it. So, whether this end time comes now in their mind or whether it comes in three of five years, they are the ones who are in control, because they are the ones who are able to grab the land and able to put forward this message that actually has a lot of resonance amongst the recruits.
But I think that when Mr. Hagel was making his comments, he also said that this group is unprecedentedly well organized. Is it even better organized than al-Qaeda used to be?
Theodore Karasik: The group is more organized because of the fact that they’ve established the state. The IS has all the vestiges of good governance. The Islamic State has tax collection. It has sanitary services. It has legal services. It provides education. It is a group that knows how the functions of state work. And anybody who lives in the Islamic State, of course, is living under an extreme form of Sharia, but they are able to survive under this.
Having the fact that they are so well organized also is a testament to their military capability. They have been able to capture a lot of equipment in Syria and in Iraq. And they are using that equipment to fight the battles that they are fighting today, and also tomorrow. And they are getting more advanced. Their military-technological capability is growing. They are able to actually fight UAVs in order to conduct reconnaissance.
The third portion of why the IS is dangerous is the fact that it has its own economic model. The IS is able to conduct trade in wheat and in oil. It is able to sell products along the supply routes that run through Iraq and Syria into Turkey and Jordan. And so, it is really starting to function as a state. And this is why it is more dangerous than al-Qaeda, because al-Qaeda never had a state.
But then, how come that after 13 years into the global war on terror we are running into a threat which has grown exponentially?
Theodore Karasik: The reason why this group appeared is because the international community, mainly the US, did not register the value of this threat early on. It was seen as a bridge too far – if you will – for the US and other European partners to get involved in Syria in terms of the civil war there. When the IS went into Iraq, that began to wake people up to the fact that this group is very dangerous.
Now, compared to al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda was mainly interested in large-scale killings. And then, it learnt the lesson that large-scale killings don’t achieve the goal of the group, and they began to concentrate more on small-scale attacks. And also, the emergence of this franchises, like the al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula, and al-Qaeda in Maghreb and so on, this created more localized conflicts. And those conflicts seem to be within the region that they were operating in. Only ACAP was attempting to do something overseas directed against the US and never succeeded.
This group, however, has plans to eventually strike out globally, because they do have global support networks.
And in a situation like that, do you think that, perhaps, nowadays the US is fighting a wrong enemy? It is not actually Russia which is a threat, is it?
Theodore Karasik: Here is the interesting fact that I think the US needs to begin to recognize. The US needs to work with Russia, Iran and Syria in order to mitigate the Islamic State, because the IS threatens literally everyone. And Washington needs to put aside its differences over Ukraine, over Iran and over Assad, because this threat from the IS is greater than any of these other ones.