By Jamil Maidan Flores
Jul 26, 2015
The galloping military success of the Islamic State (IS) ceases to be a mystery once you learn that its field officers are battle-hardened veterans of the 2006 anti-American insurgency. They were at one time officers of the Special Forces and military intelligence under the regime of Saddam Hussein.
The IS thus represents the marriage of the most brutal sort of religious fanaticism and the sharpest of military skills with intimate knowledge of the war terrain. And this is a pity because the incarnation of the IS— its coming into existence — as the scourge of the Middle East was hardly inevitable. It was the upshot of two sets of events.
First was the summary dismantling of the Saddam Hussein’s military establishment soon after the US-led invasion of Iraq, humiliating and taking away the livelihood of thousands of well-trained and experienced officers and enlisted men who could have stabilized the occupation. Of course, the co-option of this group would have spawned its own problems, but it would also have deprived the IS of a professional officer corps.
Second was the premature pullout of virtually all US troops in 2011, leaving Iraq to be defended by a corrupt, incompetent Shiite government that had nothing but contempt for the aspirations and interests of the Sunni and Kurdish parts of the country. The maintenance of a substantial US force in Iraq would have created its own problems but it would have forestalled the military bloom of the IS.
Remarkably the IS today is very much into state-building. This is the rationale behind its drive to seize and control real estate. Apart from collecting taxes, it has established courts of law that deal out swift justice to murderers, thieves and adulterers. It issues regulations on community life and organizes civic events. Even more telling, its functionaries are proving themselves resistant to bribes — unlike their counterparts in Baghdad and Damascus.
It remains a bloodthirsty regime of unsurpassed cruelty. Yet if the residents do not cross its agenda, it delivers the stability that they thirst for.
There are now political scientists who deem it possible that the IS can hold on to the territory it now controls and resist all efforts to destroy it on the ground. Some say it’s even possible that it will eventually graduate into a de jure state after years or decades of surviving as a de facto state.
I say that’s possible only if the powers ranged against it — the US and the NATO, the Arab states of the Gulf, Turkey and Iran — can’t get their act together and work as a team to destroy the IS in ground battles.
But if they can, then they will prove the IS to have feet of clay. And the IS will be forced to morph back from an aspiring state to a network of terrorist cells.
In the end, the biggest threat of the IS isn’t its pursuit of statehood but its cultivation of a global constituency of alienated and intolerant Muslims, mostly young, who assure the IS of an inexhaustible supply of fighters and operatives. Spread out in 80 countries, these have been seduced by the viral promise of a paradisal caliphate. If they can’t go to the Middle East to fight, they can wreak havoc on their own societies.
This is precisely one important aspect of counter-terrorism that authorities in countries like Indonesia have failed to address. So far the IS has been winning the battle for the hearts and minds of alienated and intolerant Muslims, radicalizing them in the process.
To fight back, just shutting down radical websites won’t do. What’s sorely needed is a wisely packaged narrative that can eclipse the sophisticated blandishments of the IS.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy.