Was he Islamic State’s end run, or is a sequel in the offing?
Sreeram Sundar Chaulia
The daring raid by American special forces in northwestern Syria to take out the leader and self-declared ‘Caliph’ of the Islamic State (IS), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was a phenomenal military achievement made possible by crucial multilateral cooperation. It was not only one of the finest hours in the history of US commando missions but also a rare moment of hope that the world can band together to counter the menace of terrorism.
For a unilateralist ‘America First’ president like Donald Trump, who habitually blames other countries for not picking up the tab, to acknowledge that the operation to decapitate the IS’s head was accomplished through “certain support” from Russia, Turkey, Iraq, Syria and the Syrian Kurds, underlined the salience of unity.
The intense geopolitical rivalries among fractious regional powers of the Middle East, plus the broader hostility between the US and Russia, had created the fertile environment in which Baghdadi’s brutal IS climbed to its pinnacle. By the time Baghdadi proclaimed in 2014 that he was the new ruler of the entire Muslim world, it was obvious that proxy wars fuelled by outside powers had paved the way for the monstrous IS phenomenon.
For a ‘Caliphate’ crisscrossing Syria and Iraq to once control 88,000 square km and govern 12 million people, the main causal factor was divisions among the various Arab, Turkish, Persian and Jewish states, overlaid by the calamitous US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
IS exploited the ‘Sunni versus Shia’, ‘Muslim versus non-Muslim’, ‘pious versus unbeliever’, ‘ruler versus ruled’ and ‘masculine versus feminine’ dichotomies in the context of vested power plays. That it took so long to nail Baghdadi (he was wanted by the US since at least 2009) shows how narrow turf wars made extreme jihadist violence a permanent feature.
Baghdadi’s good riddance was made possible because, at least temporarily, everyone agreed that he had to be dispatched. What happens next is the crucial question now, because Baghdadi was a symptom of the malaise and not the malaise per se.
The fatal temptation of using Syria and Iraq, not to mention Yemen, Somalia and Libya, as proxy battlegrounds to settle scores and gain leverage over one another, remains among the region’s unreformed potentates and their extra-regional patrons.
Baghdadi may be gone but fears of an IS resurgence in northeastern Syria due to Trump’s troop withdrawal and Turkey’s invasion are well founded. The lack of reconstruction in war devastated Sunni inhabited parts of Iraq and Syria, as well as the mutual obsession of Saudi Arabia and Iran to wage an eternal struggle for supremacy, mean that some sequel to IS will linger to keep the pot boiling.
Globally, the death of Baghdadi will demoralise affiliates from far-flung parts of Asia and Africa which swore allegiance to the ‘Caliph’. But Baghdadi was actually the fourth in a sequence of leaders of IS and its previous avatars (‘Al-Qaida in Mesopotamia’ and ‘Islamic State of Iraq’) who have all been killed.
His successor too will be named and the ideological venom of wiping out ‘infidels’ and ‘apostates’ will not cease as long as the systematic misgovernance and skullduggery of the authoritarian ruling classes in the Middle East continue unchecked.
Baghdadi’s appeal was, of course, not limited to the Middle East. At its peak, IS had attracted over 40,000 foreign fighters from 110 countries. Propaganda-fed redemption seeking Sunni youth from far-flung corners flocked to Baghdadi’s call to wage holy war in Syria and Iraq. Those who could not reach the ‘Caliphate’ carried out terrible atrocities in their home countries and surrounding areas in the name of IS.
Trump’s rhetorical flourish that “the world is now a much safer place” after Baghdadi belies the reality that the deadly mix of local grievances and online radicalisation will keep spurring IS and al-Qaida inspired hatred and martyrdom culture. Regulating internet and social media-based communications is as urgent a task today as providing inclusive governance and social structures wherever purposeless youth are at risk of gravitating into radical traps.
Baghdadi was the product of a grand failure of the international community. History could repeat itself if all concerned, including the principals in the Middle East, do not reflect upon and correct their multiple mistakes.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.