The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant ISIL, one of the most brutal and dangerous terrorist groups in modern times which has captured territory in Iraq and Syria has declared itself an Islamic “caliphate” and called on Islamic factions worldwide to pledge their allegiance. The move is an expansion of the group’s ambitions to wage a war and pose a direct challenge to the central leadership of Al Qaeda, which has already disowned it. In a statement from the group posted on Islamist websites and Twitter, the group has renamed itself “Islamic State” and proclaimed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as “caliph”, the head of the state. But the grope is not only a threat to the region, it poses a threat to UK national security with hundreds of British Muslims fighting there and will sure come home to cause atrocities here.
The declaration comes as fierce fighting continues in Iraq, with the military making a counter attack on insurgents in the northern city of Tikrit. The group represent major direct threat to British interest and to the homeland. A week earlier, both Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband were right to establish a cross-party agreement on dealing with threat to Britain’s national security posed by the Iraqi crisis. At the time All of Iraq borders crossings with Syria and Jordan, together with Sunni populated towns in central Iraq, fell into the hands of ISIL.
The group is referred to, in most media outlet as ISIS second “S” in the acronym ISIS stems from the Arabic word “al-Sham”. This can mean the Levant, Syria, or even Damascus. In the context of the global jihad, it refers to the Levant. It is an offshoot of al Qaida, which has actually condemned it as too extreme. Estimates of ISIS numbers range from 7,000 to 10,00 jihadists. The majority if them are non-Iraqis. Out of 30-odd nationalities, as many as 500 may come from Britain. Some of these are thought likely to seek to commit atrocities if they return to the United Kingdom, intelligence services warn.
The leader or emir (prince) of Isis is Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, or Abu Dua, whom the ISIL weekend statement “ordered” all Muslims to swear allegiance to him as their leader. (Jihadists who follow the teaching established by the Muslim Brotherhood leaders like Hassan al-Banna and late Sayyed Qutb, have narrow interoperation from the life of Islam founder prophet Mohammed who was the leader, the supreme-judge and also a warrior who led his group against the unbelievers in armed confrontations in the seventh century AD). Al-Baghdadi is actually his nom de guerre and his real name is Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri al-Samarrai. The charismatic 43-year-old Sunni was held prisoner by American forces from 2005 to 2009. Some accounts say was radicalised while in captivity. According to others, he was firebrand preacher when Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship held sway. The United Nations listed him as terrorist in 2011.
ISIL declared aim was always to establish an Islamist emirate similar to the Taliban’s in Afghanistan in the 1990s, and al-Shabab’s in Somalia now.
After a long siege, the insurgents have captured Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji, 155 miles north of Baghdad, and captured Tal Afar military airport, thus tightening their grip on land from central Syria to 40 miles north of Baghdad. They captured United States-made modern weapons as the American-trained Iraqi army fled, and were reported to have looted $425 million from Iraqi National Bank when occupying Mosul – thus becoming “the richest terrorist organisation in the world”.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the US State Department were asleep on the job. Regional allies such as autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan Prime Minister Nechrivan Barzani have repeatedly warned Washington and London about ISIS. Barzani’s intelligence officers claim to have alerted MI6 in February but nothing was done.
Both the US State Department and FCO focused on Syria, ignoring Iraq-based Western diplomats’ reports that for every operation ISIS (supported and armed in Syria by Qatar and other US allies) executed in Syria, it carried out many more in Iraq – from individual assassinations to mass bombings.
It is imperative to contain ISIS and protect British national interests at home and regionally in partnership with the US.
President Barak Obama has not shown the leadership required, while David Cameron’s Government faithfully follows Washington. Arab officials say they have been urging London to give the right advice to the Americans whom they regard as “naive and unpredictable”.
But the FCO was too busy facilitating Foreign Secretary William Hague’s photo-calls with Angelina Jolie to formulate a coherent strategy.
People on both sides of the Atlantic have no stomach for military intervention, making air strikes the practical option. But air raids can have grave consequences, as the Saudi ambassador to London has warned. Targeting ISIS terrorists, who enjoy cautious support in some Sunni villages, must involve coming to the aid of an inclusive Iraqi government, otherwise it will be seen as the Shias taking action against the rest, according to General Jay Garner, the first governor of post-Saddam Iraq.
Iraqi Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki has presided over a thoroughly divisive administration since he was elected. He is widely considered to be a puppet of Iran who has deepened sectarian splits in Iraq by marginalising the Sunni-Arabs (28-30 per cent of the population against 52.4 per cent Shia) who ruled the country from its foundation in the 1920s until Saddam’s fall.
Following the American troops departure over two years ago, the Sunni Arab tribes rose up and pushed al-Qaeda out of their areas in central Iraq. But instead of working with them, Mr Malki alienated them, called their armed tribesmen “ terrorists” and deprived them of basic services. Many now support ISIL to spite al-Malki.
If Western military assistance is to be seen as legitimate, it should be called for by a national unity government of Iraq embracing Sunni and Shia Arabs, Kurds, Turkmens, Assyrians, Mandeans and other Christians, and others such the Yazidis and Shia Kurds.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Baghdad on June 23 to press Maliki to form a unity administration. It should have been British diplomacy, say some Arab commentators
ISIL will find it difficult to take Baghdad with its seven million population. The majority are Shia, protected by heavily-armed militia. The Islamists don’t have the manpower, or the logistics, and they are already over-stretched. Their aim is not regime change in Baghdad, but to target Jordan (or its northern parts) to complete the Islamic caliphate Levant-Iraq arc.
What is needed is a strategy to contain the Islamist threat by military, economic and political means, rather than the ad hoc policy improvised by the Americans who are only too quick to seek to get Iran to do the groundwork in Iraq – either directly or indirectly via surrogate Shia militia.
With an appalling record on human rights, Iran’s leaders have a deep-seated animosity to Western democracy and want to advance Shia interests in Iraq. They would deepen sectarian divisions, and alienate Arab allies and trade partners in the Gulf.
Maximum support, including military equipment and air cover, must be given to the Kurds as a matter of urgency. Their Peshmerga forces stopped the advance of ISIS and its allies while the Iraq army ran away. Autonomous Kurdistan is the most stable democracy in the region since the no-fly-zone was imposed in the 1990s.
We need to be step ahead of the Islamists in Jordan, a country that has been a staunch ally of Britain for decades. Its defences may require air cover, although its army is among the best trained in the Middle East.
With more than 646,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, camps may have ISIS sleeper cells, intelligence sources suggest. Jordan has its own problems with underground branches of the Muslim Brotherhood that inspire (and even liaise with) terror groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (a notorious Syria-based organisation recruiting British Muslims). Generous economic aid would help Jordan stop Muslim Brotherhood exploiting hardship through its welfare centres – actually a cover for a less savoury activities such recruiting jihadists.
Once Jordan and the Kurds’ autonomous regions are properly defended, then a counter attack with air cover – legalised by declaring no-fly, no-drive zones – could start to eliminate the terrorists threat. Special forces, with help of Peshmerga, could be utilised to arrest ISIS leaders and bring them to face justice.
However, a long-term plan is also needed to repair the damage caused by the sectarian split which is of America’s making.
In addition to the disastrous disbanding of the Iraqi army, leaving the country without security forces and letting hundreds of heavily-armed soldiers join the Sunni rebellion, US diplomats and officials worked with their Iraqi allies (mainly Shia groups) to change the electoral system to one of proportional representation.
This led to politicians fighting elections on lists, mainly on ethnic, tribal or faith-ideological lines, some with armed militia. Again, there should be a role for British diplomats to work with the Iraqis in changing elections rules back to a constituency-based system. Such a move would almost certainly be resisted by Nouri al-Maliki and his Shia allies. But using the newly restored relations with Iran might prove useful, if the FCO reminds itself that diplomacy is an instrument of foreign police to serve national interests, not a self indulgent fantasy.