By Osama Al-Sharif
20 December 2017
The year 2017 will be looked upon as setting a crucial milestone in the long and costly war against extremists, and in particular the self-proclaimed caliphate of Daesh. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of celebratory events marking the defeat of this brutal cult. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider Abadi declared two weeks ago that Iraq had finally rid itself of the terrorist group, which at one point was close to taking over Baghdad. Likewise, the US administration also claimed that President Donald Trump had finally defeated Daesh. And last week Russian President Vladimir Putin announced, as he paid a surprise visit to a Russian air base in northwest Syria, that he was ordering a partial troop withdrawal now that Russian forces had delivered a fatal blow to Daesh in that war-torn country.
But is it too early to sign the death certificate of one of the most enigmatic and radical groups in recent history? French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Sunday that Daesh will be crushed in Syria by next February. Despite heavy losses in eastern Syria, where they were dislodged from key positions, remnants of the group are believed to have dispersed in the open desert of southern and eastern Syria. The same could be said about Iraq, where experts believe fighters may be regrouping in the no man’s land along the Syrian-Iraq border to wage an insurgency. Little is known about the fate of its top leaders, including Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
But, while the so-called caliphate no longer exists, the brand continues to linger. There are reports that hard-line fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria may be recuperating in Libya — a failing country with rival governments and many militias. Furthermore, Daesh remains active in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria and northern Sinai. Even in Syria, a small heavily armed faction, Jaysh Khaled Ibn Al-Walid, remains wedged in the Yarmouk River basin not far from the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
In addition to all this, you have Daesh sympathizers and sleeper cells in some European countries, where the threat of terrorist attacks remains a present danger. And, while Daesh may have been defeated on the ground, its propaganda arm remains active online.
The military fight is only one component of the war on Islamist militancy. Even after more than four years since it emerged, little is known about the group’s infrastructure and internal workings. To date, Iraqis are searching for answers on how so few militants were able to march into Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul in 2014 and take control in a matter of hours.
Moreover, there are plenty of unanswered questions regarding the fall of Raqqa in Syria and the role that foreign powers played in enabling the rise of Daesh in such a short time.
But if 2017 is to become the year that witnessed the collapse of the group as a quasi-state with vast territorial control, 2018 should be the year that sees the beginning of the defeat of the dogma that continues to appeal to disenfranchised young men and women. This requires a major shift in strategy and approach. It also underlines the need to examine individual cases in order to pinpoint the common denominators that tie Al-Shabab in Somalia to Boko Haram in Nigeria and the group’s proxy in Sinai to its affiliate in Afghanistan.
There are remedies, difficult as they may seem, that must be implemented to undercut the extremists’ access to fertile incubator environments. In Iraq and Syria, that means an end to sectarian politics and the mustering of a political will to create a new society based on citizenship rights, democracy, civil institutions, separation of powers and an independent judiciary. In Europe, it mandates a thorough look at the reasons why so many young second-generation Muslims feel marginalized and unable to integrate. Across the vast Muslim world it requires a dedicated and sustainable campaign to rid Islam of radical, antagonistic and isolationist dogma that allows the likes of Al-Baghdadi to rally young and aggravated Muslim youth.
There is no doubt that the fight against extremists is not over yet. There are genuine fears that a third wave of Islamist militancy may be in the works. A dangerous ingredient may have just been added by the irresponsible decision of the US to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The risk of turning the Arab-Israeli conflict into a religious war has never been greater. This decision may have handed religious extremists, on both sides of the divide, a lifeline. Al-Qaeda and Daesh had rarely treated Palestine as a central cause, but that could be about to change as the issue of Islam’s holy sites in Jerusalem continues to enrage Muslims all over the world.
• Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.