Friday,15 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)
Friday,15 December, 2017
Issue 1308, (18 -24 August 2016)

Ahram Weekly

IS: The apocalyptic scenario

US officials claim that every IS attack is a sign of desperation and fracture. But what if IS wants to provoke a global conflagration, asks Emad Awwad

Al-Ahram Weekly

The multiples attacks committed or inspired by IS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) — not only in the Middle East but all over the world — deserve to be analysed carefully, not as separate actions but rather as integral parts of a far reaching strategy. In doing so, one should bear in mind the theory of the “clash of civilisations” and the “remaking of the world order” developed by Samuel P Huntington in 1993. Are we in presence of a concrete application of this theory? Was IS’s strategy, at least, inspired by it? 

In reality, the analysis of the IS’s actions over its short period of existence reveals that it has certainly developed a very complicated strategy aiming at producing a “clash” not only within the Islamic civilisation per se, but also between it and the Western Judeo-Christian civilisation. Furthermore, it aspired not only to remake the world order, but also to change the map of the Arab world. 

From its inception, it was clear that IS aimed at distinguishing itself from Al-Qaeda. While the latter left the establishment of a “Caliphate” to the last stage and privileged confrontation with the “far enemy”, IS (or Daesh in Arabic) opted for the immediate proclamation of an Islamic Caliphate. The presence of its elite in Iraq, the adherence of a large part of the previous Iraqi army, dismantled by American rule after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, and instability in the country, all were elements that played if favour of this decision. The destabilisation of the Syrian regime in 2011 worked to push to the forefront the idea of challenging the borders designed by colonial powers in 1916. Moreover, unrest in various parts of the Arab world, following what was called the Arab Spring, was a decisive factor pushing IS’s leadership to give priority to combating the “near enemy” and spreading its presence in the Arab world through a chain of welayets (provinces). 

Yet, in pretending to be the only representative of “real” Islam, IS forced many regional powers to intervene against it, either by funding rival groups or sending arms and munitions. Others didn’t hesitate to dispatch “military experts” and to assist Shia paramilitary forces (El-Hashed El-Shaabi) in their efforts aimed at liberating territories occupied by the so-called Islamic State. The fact that the Caliphate was proclaimed triggered a double violent struggle among Muslims: one among Sunnis, and the other opposing regional Sunni and Shia powers. 

On the other hand, by defying the map tailored by former colonial powers, the so-called Islamic State became a privileged target for many international powers who refused that a third party impose a new map that may negatively affect their interests. While the Unites States took the lead of a military coalition that conducted air strikes against presumed IS positions in Iraq, the Russian Federation seized the occasion to return in force to the region under the slogan of combating IS in Syria.

In view of this situation, it is legitimate to ask whether IS’s leadership was conscious of the dangers created by the single act of establishing the Caliphate or not? Did IS neglect the confrontation with the “far enemy”? In order to answer these questions, one should bear in mind the following factors.

First, it is not quite true that IS neglected combat against the “far enemy”. On the contrary, the establishment of Caliphate and its quick and surprising expansion provided its leadership with the possibility to raise funds and attract followers from all over the world. The massive use of social media as an effective means to diffuse its “ideas” and “victories” played an important role in addressing the “far enemy” dimension. In fact, IS presented itself in different ways to attract different categories of foreign fighters, to whom the newly born “State” has different meanings (defending the “real Islam”; offering an opportunity to those looking for “adventure”; and providing a means to those full of desire for revolt against discriminatory approaches in the West, or who to get rid of their status as marginal in Western civilisation.

Second, the large involvement of international and regional powers implied the eventuality of military clashes between them. It also offered IS the possibility to reach temporary arrangements with some powers due to their conflicting aims and interests. In doing so, it was able to survive and continue its propaganda. Moreover, the fact that Western powers formed a coalition to combat the Caliphate was presented by IS media in a way that reminds Muslims of the period of the Crusades and its atrocities.

Third, by committing attacks against Shia places of worship, particularly in Gulf monarchies, the IS leadership had in mind two objectives: destabilising these monarchies by pushing Shia minorities towards revolt, and provoking an eventual military confrontation between them and Iran, which presents itself as the defender and protector of Shias. Such confrontation would be a great demonstration of the “clash” within civilisation already announced by Samuel Huntington. At the end, IS hoped that it could impose itself as the only power capable of saving the Islamic world. 

Fourth, the recent attacks committed or inspired by IS all over the world, particularly in Europe and the US, confirmed the fact that it is willing to export combat to the enemy’s homeland. Not only does it seek to inflect heavy casualties on the “far enemy”, but it also has sought to trigger the desired “clash” of civilisations.

“Islamic State’s ambition and allure grow as territory shrinks,” read the title of an article published by The Washington Post on 4 July 2016. Such a statement deserves to be analysed in view of the recent attacks not only in the Middle East but also in Europe, Asia, Africa and the United States. It contrasts with the frequent declarations of the US secretary of state describing these attacks, whether conducted or inspired by the Islamic State, as a sign of the group’s desperation as the territory it controls in Iraq and Syria is chipped away. In reality, it seems that the group has planned from the beginning such an eventuality.

In projecting the image that Shias are massacring Sunnis in Iraq and Syria, on the one hand, and that Crusaders are destroying the Caliphate, which represents “real Islam”, on the other, IS aimed at provoking a “clash” not only inside Muslim civilisation but also between it and the Judeo-Christian West. In this respect, it already has tools at its disposal: foreign fighters returning to their countries of origins after acquiring practical experience in conducting acts of terror; “lone wolves” inspired by ideology disseminated through social media or affected by social marginalisation and the violent riposte expected from Western populations towards Muslim minorities. In this context, France, which has the largest Muslim population in the European Union, is an excellent place to trigger such a riposte, which could open the door to a “religious war”. The existence of so-called “no-go zones”, or Muslim enclaves that are breeding grounds for Islamic radicalism, poses a significant threat to the country’s security.

According to IS leaders, successive attacks led by its followers on French soil could accelerate the “clash”. The assassination of Father Jacques Hamel, in Normandy in July, during morning prayers by two followers of IS aimed apparently at provoking a violent reaction against Muslim populations. 

In such circumstances, the “clash” will probably occur and the Caliphate could then present itself as the defender of Muslims all over the world. For the time being, Pope Francis considers that “it is war, but not of religions”. However, if the abovementioned scenario occurs, the world will face a terrible nightmare, since the danger will be the “man next-door”. Such an apocalyptic scenario should be prevented at any cost.


The writer is a former diplomat specialising in Middle Eastern affairs. He has taught at universities in Egypt and abroad and has published widely in Europe and the Arab world.

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