Paris confirms IS’s weakness

ISIS not only lacks the confidence to inform about the truth, but as a self-proclaimed divinely ordained state it can only enjoy victory and never suffer defeat. Here lies its Achilles heel because with defeat it loses its appeal and its claims ring hollow

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:34 pm IST

Published - November 19, 2015 02:15 am IST

It should come as no surprise that radical Islamists associated with the Islamic State have engaged in >terrorist attacks in Paris . The Islamic State, or ISIS, has always called on Muslims to engage in violent, lone wolf, attacks in the West, if they are unable to “emigrate” to its territory in Syria and Iraq. The priority in ISIS’s ideology is for Muslims to travel to build the caliphate, where they can lead a virtuous life in ISIS-land.

Bernard Haykel

Understanding the Paris attack What makes the Paris attack different, however, is its complexity and coordination — it is not a lone wolf attack. Rather, it appears to have been organised and directed by the Islamic State, and, as such, resembles an al-Qaeda-style overseas operation that ISIS leaders have explicitly condemned in the past. For ISIS’s ideologues, organised violence has invariably been focussed on the enemy that is near, principally Shias and agents of “apostate” Arab governments (e.g., Iraq or Saudi Arabia). Major and coordinated attacks in distant lands are to be avoided because these can result in a massive retaliation and the loss of the territorial base that was acquired by the caliphate. ISIS leaders have often criticised al-Qaeda for the 9/11 attacks because this led to the crushing of the movement in Afghanistan and the defeat of its host, the Taliban regime. Furthermore, attacking the distant infidel is not a priority given the closer and more dangerous enemies at hand such as the Shias.

So what explains the Paris attacks, which represent a departure from ISIS’s tactics and perhaps even strategy? In a word, defeat. ISIS has been dealt a string of recent defeats with the loss of territory, the death of many of its top commanders and numerous fighters as well as the drying up of its recruitment networks. ISIS has lost territory in both Syria and Iraq, most recently the towns of Sinjar to the Kurds and Baiji in October to the Iraqi government and irregular forces. The road connecting ISIS’s two most important urban centres, Mosul and Raqqa, is no longer under ISIS control. In Syria, ISIS not only lost Kobani, but also Tal Abyad and looks about to lose all its territory along the Turkish-Syrian border. After ISIS’s suicide >attack in Ankara in October , Turkey effectively stopped the pipeline that was feeding the movement with recruits through its territory. At the same time, the >Russian air force became involved in the Syrian war on the side of the Bashar al-Assad regime and ISIS has been targeted.

The need for ‘success’ Furthermore, the allied air campaign, including the French air force’s from October, has been devastating. But the most decisive military factor has been the coordination of air power with local ground forces, such as the Kurds. ISIS’s response to its defeats has been desperate; namely, to engage in an endless number of suicide attacks as the only means to make up for its losses. ISIS’s predecessor, al-Qaeda in Iraq, followed the same pattern of increasing its suicide attacks as it lost territory, especially from 2007 onward. Farther away from Syria and Iraq, ISIS’s situation has also worsened militarily: its top commander in Libya was recently killed, and Boko Haram, its affiliate in Nigeria, is suffering defeat too. Even in Yemen, ISIS appears to have been eclipsed by other Sunni forces, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

This combination of factors helps explain why ISIS feels the need to engage in attacks in places like Paris and to break with its previous policy of focussing on the local. ISIS is looking increasingly like a lost cause and it needs to place itself back at the centre of global events, to prove its relevance, and resilience, as well as to attract new recruits. Its propaganda machine requires it to have “success” stories. It should therefore come as no surprise that the social media sphere exploded with tens of thousands of postings during and after the Paris attacks, jubilating about the “conquest of Paris” and the “killing of infidel pigs”. ISIS’s daily radio news bulletin (Al Bayan Radio) is quite revealing in this regard. It consists of recounting an endless list of victories, on all fronts, with details of enemy losses, but none for ISIS. It is very much like listening to the old Nazi or Soviet radio propaganda — onward and forward but no retreat or defeat. ISIS not only lacks the confidence to inform about the truth, but as a self-proclaimed divinely ordained state it can only enjoy victory and never suffer defeat. Here lies its Achilles heel because with defeat it loses its appeal and its claims ring hollow.

The campaign by the Western allies, including at times an uncomfortable coordination with Russia, to contain and degrade ISIS is working. And the Paris attacks — of which we should now expect more to take place as the Islamic State’s desperation increases — are unfortunately a sign of this success. But this success, and the ultimate military victory against ISIS, is fraught with difficulty because ISIS represents more than an organisation.

As expression and symptom ISIS is an expression and symptom of the political disenfranchisement and humiliation that many Sunnis, in particular Sunni Arabs, feel in today’s world. Such feelings arise from a complex set of factors. Among these, certainly, is Western intervention, such as the U.S. invasion of Iraq and its devastating effects on Iraqi society. But perhaps more important has been the decades long brutalisation of, and the provision of a poor education for, Arab populations by their own governments, who also have not delivered on promises of economic development. In addition, though more difficult to describe and apprehend, is a civilisational sense by the Arabs (and Muslims) of having been bypassed by history and left behind while other peoples advance and enjoy the fruits of progress. Addressing such grievances and structural problems cannot be done militarily. The answer must involve finding political solutions for the Syrian and Iraqi conflicts, and engaging in cultural and educational efforts to defeat ISIS’s ideology that sanctifies violence as the only means for Sunni empowerment and glory. This is not something Western governments are equipped to do or capable of accomplishing. It is an effort that must emerge from within the Arab and Muslim communities. Thankfully, there are increasingly important voices, even in places like Saudi Arabia, that are courageously speaking up against the ideology of jihadism and its cul-de-sac promises. Until such persons prevail, and this won’t happen anytime soon, we must remain vigilant and expect the persistence in our lives of this violent feature of global politics.

(Bernard Haykel is Professor of Near Eastern Studies and Director, The Institute for Transregional Studies, Princeton University, U.S.)

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