On October 10, Prime Minister Haidar al-Abadi renewed Iraq’s determination to eliminate the ISIS terrorist group from the country. This statement came at a time when each of the United States and the Iraqi political authority are set on permanently destroying ISIS before the end of the year.
To that end, Abadi said that the joint forces managed to reach regions that no military force was able to reach since the fall of the former regime in 2003. This, to him, serves as one of the clearest indications that the terror group of Abou Bakr al-Baghdadi was coming to an end. US Secretary of Defense James Mattis echoed this belief when he said during his last visit to Iraq on August 22 that ISIS’ days have become numbered.
Research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Katherine Zimmerman said during a recent study however that the US is emerging as the loser in its war against terrorism. The history of the confrontation against al-Qaeda and ISIS is rife with strategic errors and wrong perceptions of the real enemy. This has been exploited by the terror groups, which have become more powerful than ever.
Even though some 16 years have passed since the US launched its direct confrontation against terrorist organizations, the course of the conflict and the strategy of each side have played a decisive role in the renewal of the confrontation since the September 11, 2001 attacks.
Despite their temporary defeats, Zimmerman explained that there are several factors that help terrorists persevere and spawn new groups. This can be attributed to three factors:
The first factor is linked to the historic experience of the radical organizations that have managed to blend “jihad” and terror (western media has helped perpetuate this misconception). The roots of these groups can be traced back to the Afghan war that honed these types of global networks that exploit local conflicts. The conflicts are exploited to form a foundation and spread a religious ideology that is based on restoring a form of “caliphate.” It also focuses on the confrontation with the West, which is viewed as an infidel and a colonial power.
These organizations have garnered practical expertise. They have developed strategic thinking that have, on many occasions, enabled them to regroup without losing their ideological and organizational base in Afghanistan. This therefore made it easy for these groups to emerge in Algeria in the early 1990s and continue there to this day. They also later emerged in Bosnia, Tajikistan, Somalia, Egypt, Chechnya, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Niger, Nigeria and other countries.
The second factor revolves around the common goals and similar ideology of these groups. This factor allows terrorist organizations to achieve shared general aims without organizational coordination. Perhaps this is what pushed Zimmerman to highlight the network-like structure of these terror groups. She said that radical Islam “threatens the US, west and Islamic societies. They are not one specific group or organized members, but they derive their strength from their ideology, which helps them unite their network of individuals or groups in order to achieve the global and common goal of destroying current Muslim societies to impose their Islamist thought on them.”
Zimmerman believes that destroying terror groups, such as al-Qaeda and ISIS, will not lead to the imminent end of this phenomenon because they do not derive their strength from their leaders, such as Osama bin Laden or Baghdadi. The central strength of these groups is their radical Islamist base, which has a wide reach that enables it to keep producing new terror groups. This movement derives its strength from its violent ideology that motivates different organizations to achieve a common goal without having to coordinate their actions between them.
The third factor these groups enjoy is their great ability to exploit local conditions, such as instability and political and sectarian conflicts. This experience has allowed them to spread rapidly and garner new members.
Zimmerman gave the example of Libya and how terrorists were able to abuse local conflicts to link up with international terror organizations. The Libyan branch of ISIS emerged strongly during the country’s civil war before gaining enough ground to become part of the organization’s global terror network.
Given the above, we can say that the US’ reliance on military confrontation and targeting of terror leaders are not the keys to success in the difficult and bitter confrontation with terrorism. Zimmerman said that the US is in a crisis because it unable to pave a path to quit this war and it is unable to defeat the radical extremists by confronting their ideology.
The extremists are powerful today because of the current circumstances in Muslim countries. This is prompting Sunni societies to accept help from whoever is offering it in order to survive. This in turn gives radical forces an upper hand in their ties with the locals.
It is true that military force against terrorist groups is necessary and it does have an effect on them. This effect is however temporary. Zimmerman demonstrated this by noting that narrow victories against the groups are often short-lived because the terrorists are constantly evolving and improving their methods, which in turn leads to their longevity.
Contrary to what is being promoted, Zimmerman believes that the US is losing the war against terror. She explained that the US and Europe are confronting an unprecedented level of terror attacks launched by ISIS and al-Qaeda. This proves the extent of the failure against an enemy that can quickly adjust to local and international conditions through various networks and a great geographic reach. US President Donald Trump is therefore required to alter his traditional strategy that was adopted by his predecessor Barack Obama and George W. Bush before him.
*Khalid Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Mohammed V University in Morocco.