Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)
Tuesday,12 December, 2017
Issue 1233, (12 - 18 February 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Let’s face it, this is WWIII

When capitals fall, armies crumble and thousands of recruits join well-funded jihadist outfits, it may be time to change our terminology, argues Nabil Shawkat

Al-Ahram Weekly

When historians look back, two or three decades from now, to the current world turbulence, they will have no trouble labelling it correctly: World War III.

So why are we still hesitant to use this term? There are at least ten regular armies involved in the battle against jihadists around the world. They are confronting more than ten jihadist groups with advanced military capabilities, and more than three million people have been displaced by the fighting.

Up to 5,000 people die every month on both sides. And two major Middle East capitals, Tripoli and Sanaa, are now in Muslim militant hands, from both the Sunni and Shiite denominations.

Chechens are fighting alongside Iraqis and Libyans in Syria. Iranians and Lebanese are deployed in force in Syria. Egyptians and Afghans give and receive training in Libya. The camaraderie of Islam’s lunatic fringe now has a global reach, digital expertise, media know-how and a brutality that only fiction can match.

At present, we have ten or so armies (from Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Kenya, France and the U.S.) engaging a more or less equal number of jihadist groups on a daily basis, and yet no one is calling it World War III.

Is it because we’re all embarrassed about it?

The Americans are embarrassed because it was their dismantling of Iraq that set the stage for what is now occurring. The disbanding, instead of reform, of the Iraqi government and army is what created the power vacuum that Al-Qaeda and its affiliates, wannabes and copycats took as their cue to step in.

The Arabs are embarrassed as well. Their sweet dream of salvation from the hands of long-standing dictators was shattered before it even started. It took only a year or so in the region for the wave of protests that clamoured for freedom to end in one collective gasp of horror, as the jihadists in the battlefield and their friends in and out of government scrambled to occupy every inch of land and power they could get their hands on.

For now, people are still calling it a war on terror, an outdated term that does not adequately describe this much bigger and devastating reality.

For decades, we called the jihadists “terrorists,” but today they are much more. They have friends in power, allies in business suits, accomplished publicists and hordes of young men ready to join their ranks. They are no longer terrorists but masters of terror, lords of the dark world, kings and princes of a fractured and dystopian empire.

“Terrorist” is no longer the right designation for Islamic insurgents, not when a few thousand of them can grab, with minimal combat, in broad daylight, a central bank with half a billion dollars worth of cash and gold bullion in its coffers, as they did in Mosul, Iraq. Not when they run oil fields, as they do in Syria. Not when they control major capitals, as they do in Libya and Yemen.

At heart, the jihadists are thugs, just like the Nazis were, before Hitler turned them into a systematic killing machine. Now several rightwing writers have begun to refer to the jihadists as the Fourth Reich, an appellation that is worthy of examination, although the accompanying analysis is mostly unpalatable.

War, particularly a global one, takes dedication, mental focus, the right moment in history and a lot of money. And none of that seems to be in short supply today.

Let’s focus on money here. In the past, jihadists used to rely on the charity of gullible Muslims, especially in the Gulf, with the Americans helping with logistics. That was back when Osama bin Laden was still an enterprising jihadist, joining in the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan. From the American point of view, this seemed like a good idea at the time, to get rid of the Russians with Arab money and Muslim blood.

And the money has kept coming ever since. Al-Qaeda itself had enough money to give to friends, even after the 9/11 attacks. In 2002, according to one report, Osama bin Laden sent a representative to Nigeria with $3 million in local currency to stimulate jihadist start-ups.

One of those start-ups was Boko Haram, the jihadist group that mirrors the tactics of Islamic State (IS), but as yet is less media-savvy.

As the jihadist start-ups in Nigeria and elsewhere turned into minor armies, they had to expand, for unless they did, they would shrink and die. Jihadism may be a growing business, but it is in almost every single case met with heightened consumer dissatisfaction.

You take a town, the locals run away. You try to sell what they have, and the return is not always profitable. Televisions and mattresses and antique furniture, regardless of the quality, cannot finance a war.

What can are drug trafficking, taxing roads and local businesses, protection money, hostage-taking and oil field production.

Ancient wars, modern wars between regular armies, symmetric confrontations in battle — all of these are like chess games. Jihadist wars are more similar to a game of Monopoly. You take the hospital, the airbase, the nearby farms, and you have a colony.

But from then on, you’ll have to have still more money, a process that invariably makes you alienate more people, get you bombed more often, and eventually forces you to march on the next town and do more of the same.

When IS snatched nearly $430 million from the Mosul branch of Iraq’s central bank in June 2014, a regional analyst, Brown Moses, noted that this money “could pay 60,000 fighters at $600 a month for a year.”

The total number of jihadists in active service around the world is at least 100,000 men under arms. The Houthis, a Shiite group that controls the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, have just demanded that 20,000 of their men be incorporated into the country’s army and police.

The Shabab in Somalia shrink to 3,000 or more when deprived of cities to pillage, but grow five-fold as soon as they grab power. IS has 20,000 men in Syria and perhaps as many in Iraq. In all, there are nearly 100,000 jihadists on active duty, and they can — when cash is at hand — recruit many more.

All of the above creates a dire need for funding and not only for the militants, who often work for pittance.

A fighter may be paid only $20 a day, as Moses noted, but there are other expenses that the outfit has to pay. Once you include the cost of ammunition, guns, communication equipment, gasoline for cars, money to smugglers and fees to subcontractors, the average cost of a fighter can easily go up to $100 a day during periods of active combat.

So, the cost of having a 60,000-man army for a year is not really $0.5 billion, but $2 billion or more. This is why IS is now demanding $100 million per hostage, a lot more than the meagre $100,000 that lesser groups may demand.

IS, with its “caliphate” present in two countries, and with affiliates in two or three other places, is definitely the richest terrorist group in history. But it is also the most cash-strapped. Unless it grows, it will shrivel and die.

If your only sources of income are extortion, bank robbery, smuggling and hostage selling, it is hard to parlay that into global domination. You may grab a city or a small-sized country, and that’s if you’re extremely lucky and determined, but only for a while.

The Shabab won and lost Somalia. Boko Haram is now crossing the borders of three nations in search of shelter

This is not the way to build your imagined empire. But in the jihadist mindset, it is close enough. It is the beginning of their world dominance — their Fourth Reich, so to speak.

Moral repugnance aside, their quest is also self-destructive. Evil empires do exist and have existed throughout history. But evil empires that are based on a zero-sum game, that hope to survive solely on continual conquest, cannot last for long. The jihadists should know that, but they are in denial about it. Denial is what keeps them going.

The most they can do is destroy more cities, kill more hostages, displace more people, upset more governments, hijack more ships, rob more banks and create still more mayhem.

The suffering of their victims will be unimaginable. Their war will be protracted, brutal and game changing. But their empire will remain foot-loose and ever shifting, bland and brutal: an itinerant and megalomaniac spectre forever looking for new victims.


The writer is a linguist, commentator and the author of Breakfast with the Infidels.

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