The beginning of the 21st century is marked by a succession of uprisings in different areas of the world. An insurgency is a rebellion against a settled authority to take control of its territory –sometimes considered identical to terrorism because of similar goals. The difference between an insurgency and terrorism is that the former is linked to a political movement with a specific aim, and the latter is a method that can be used to achieve that aim. Today, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) possesses the tools to be considered an insurgency instead of a terrorist group, and the first of its kind to be established in several different countries.
ISIS came into existence after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Small Islamist groups merged together after the Sunni-dominated Baathist Party was banned from the Iraqi government, and a new political system in Iraq began. Now, ISIS represents the main jihadist threat. The Caliphate, a form of Islamic government that is a major part of ISIS’ final goal, is supposed to transcend national boundaries to extend its rule globally. A group as efficient as ISIS is unprecedented; many insurgencies had appeared and widened during the 20th century, but they have not been extended to several countries.
During an event at the Heritage Foundation, A View from the Frontlines of Islamist Insurgency, Dr. Sebastian Gorka, an expert on counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, pointed out that ISIS controls large areas in Iraq and Syria and hopes to create a Caliphate. Boko Haram territories in Algeria are also controlled by ISIS. In fact, ISIS territory is even larger than Great Britain, and its influence is extended to countries like Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The group’s expansion was recently highlighted in the media after ISIS instigated an attack in Turkey that killed 32 people. Surrounding countries have helped ISIS, including militants in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Such a broad influence is one of the major strengths of this organization.
ISIS is not a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda even though it uses terrorism to attempt to overthrow Syrian and Iraqi governments. There are many unique characteristics about ISIS as a group. For one, ISIS has a trained army, has recruited 19,000 foreign fighters in the last nine months, 6,000 alone joined during Ramadan. Some foreign fighters have come from Western countries, but the great majority of members are from the Arab World. The CIA estimated that the approximate total number of ISIS fighters ranges from 30,000 to almost 200,000, and it is difficult to determine how much land has been destroyed by U.S. lead airstrikes. Hence, it is difficult to determine whether airstrikes alone are an effective response to combatting ISIS.
Secondly, ISIS is able to move easily, unlike a Western army. This is because recruitment around the world can be done from a computer using the internet and social media networks to ensure an influx of foreign fighters. After new members arrive on ISIS territory, they are physically and psychologically trained in military camps and study Arabic and Koran. Thirdly, fighters are able to inflict extended and repeated damage in a very short amount of time, as shown by the five Vehicle-borne Improvised Explosive Devices and two Suicide Vest attacks that targeted Shia civilians and Iraq security forces in multiple parts of Baghdad. Fourthly, ISIS pays a salary to young soldiers as a motivation for more to enroll. However, the religious motivation is central to attract new recruits.
Almost sixty countries have formed a coalition under the leadership of the Obama administration, including the European Union and Sunni Arab states, to “degrade and ultimately defeat” ISIS. At this time, airstrikes are used in an attempt to defeat ISIS without troops on the ground. Despite numerous air strikes in Syria, Washington does not have a fighting partner on the ground and political efforts to end the civil war have failed. Nevertheless, recent attacks motivated the Turkish government to allow the U.S. to use bases in exchange for a no-fly zone over a part of Syria. However, U.S-Turkey relations are not entirely reliable because the two countries hold diverging objectives.
President Obama stated that a “comprehensive and sustained counterterrorism strategy” is required to defeat ISIS. However, it is far too early to establish counterterrorism when the West is losing the battle. The notion of “counterterrorism” itself provides yet another reason for ISIS to demonize America. Another potential obstacle is that the coalition views the fight with an American and European perspective, unlike ISIS. One major difference between, for an example, is that there is separation between the church and state. In contrast, leaders of ISIS intertwine religious beliefs with their governance.
The battle with ISIS will likely last a decade or more especially since the Western coalition has an unclear approach to defeat ISIS. For example, at the end of the G7 summit in Germany, President Barack Obama admitted that the U.S lacks a precise strategy to conquer ISIS. Perhaps after a clear strategy is developed, experts could focus more on what will result after ISIS is defeated to prevent another powerful group from rising out of nowhere. For instance, leaders should explore who should be in control instead of ISIS leaders to instill stability in the area.
Unlike the Western coalition, ISIS fighters have a clear vision: fight a battle that will lead to a global Caliphate or governance. Not only does the group have clarity, but they are even willing to die to accomplish their goal — this makes them hard to conquer. Even though ISIS is not a state, it has attracted people from around the world to believe in their vision and fight their battle.
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