By Talmiz Ahmad
September 9, 2016
Fifteen years ago two acts of terror took place very close to each other. On September 9 Ahmad Shah Masood, enemy of the Taliban, was assassinated by two suicide killers. Two days later the attacks in New York and Washington, which came to be known since as 9/11, took place.
Both events bore the fingerprints of al-Qaida, and both had horrendous consequences. Afghanistan has experienced external assault and continued civil conflict, while West Asia, commencing with the “global war on terror”, remains mired in internecine warfare on several fronts.
Jihad, that started all this, remains robust, though now al-Qaida is competing for geographical space and ideological influence with the new transnational grouping Islamic State (IS), while their affiliates have proliferated globally and inflict repeated blows on Arab, Asian, African and European cities.
IS, at its peak last year, had carved out a proto-state across Iraq and Syria, described by it as a “caliphate”, that had territory the size of the UK, a population of six to nine million, an army of over 30,000, and annual revenues of over $2 billion. While it has recently lost some territory and income due to attacks by regional and world powers, it shows no sign of collapse. It will take massive ground action to dislodge it from its principal towns, Raqqa and Mosul.
IS is shaped by the mainstream ideology of Salafi jihadism. But it has also inherited hard sectarianism from its former mentors who used it to lethal effect after the US assault on Iraq in 2003. IS has attracted Arab youth in the thousands from West Asia, North Africa and Central Asia, as also from Muslim migrant communities in Europe, particularly Belgium and France. Most recruits have been lured by slick messages on social media, which have given a unique seductiveness to the jihadi organisation.
North African-origin migrants have carried out most of the “lone wolf” attacks in Europe. However, in these attacks, observers are increasingly unable to see the dividing line between ideological belief and personal nightmares. For, the backgrounds of these purported Jihadis show little evidence of religious faith and zeal; instead, a more forceful picture is that of troubled, angry, lonely and volatile personalities, with confused sexuality, a record of personal, marital and professional failure, uncertain religious identity, and past history of mental instability and petty crime.
These misfits find both comfort and a sense of purpose in the IS websites, which create for them a welcoming “virtual community”, channelise their anger into an assault on the enemies of their faith, heritage and identity, and impart to them the sense of fulfilling a higher destiny. They have been appropriately described as “followers of a borderless loyalty”.
What do the last 15 years teach us? First, that, western military interventions in West Asia to reshape regional politics as also mobilisations by regional states of communal and sectarian identities in geopolitical competitions have had the effect of perpetuating cleavages that will not heal, and structure alliances that will engage in prolonged internecine conflict.
Thus, the US assault on Iraq is a litany of violence, abuse and destruction, which has entered the discourse of Muslim victimhood across the region. Western culpability also extends to suborning local potentates and failing to promote the reform agenda after 9/11. More recently, in the ongoing Saudi-Iran strategic competition, local and regional mobilisations of support on sectarian basis by the principal antagonists have made sectarian identity the crucial fault line between national communities.
Second, modern-day jihad has usually been state-sponsored to obtain short-term political advantage. It began with the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan sponsoring “global jihad” in Afghanistan, and continues with Pakistani support for al-Qaida and Taliban to this day. Later, in Iraq, a number of Gulf countries actively backed the jihadi upsurge of Abu Masab al-Zarqawi, which culminated in the formation of IS 10 years later.
In the Syrian conflict, Turkey allowed Jihadis in their thousands to cross into Syria and join the various militia, including the al-Qaida affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra and later IS itself. In fact, regional powers are using jihadi militia in their conflicts to promote regime change in Damascus and destruction of the Houthis in Yemen, both being treated as sectarian foes.
Third, most West Asian polities as they are presently organised just do not fulfil the aspirations of their populace: they are non-transparent and non-accountable, are generally associated with crony capitalism and corruption, are intolerant of dissent, and provide no scope for popular participation in national policymaking.
These archaic models of governance are being enforced at a time when all of West Asia is in state of an economic, political and cultural crisis, in which young people, poorly educated and often unemployed, are crying out for leadership, guidance and inspiration. Thus, frustration among young people encourages some among them to join jihad and seek a Muslim utopia.
Finally, whatever happens to IS, jihad will not be defeated militarily: under attack, it will disperse and operate from different underground stations. It has survived several years of sustained assault and has lost several of its leaders; but, so long as West Asian politics remains dysfunctional, jihadi rank and file will continue to raise their battle cry: “We remain and we expand.”