Gwynne Dyer: Islamic State and the worst-case contingency

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      It’s often a good idea, when faced with a really frightening situation, to model the “worst case” outcome and see how bad it could get. That can be quite bad, but it’s rarely as bad as the half-formed fears that build up if you don’t actually analyse the problem. Like Islamic State, for example.

      It began with the conquest of parts of eastern Syria by an Islamist group called ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) in 2011-13. Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country. They were allegedly in Syria to help overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, but they actually spent their time conquering territory held by other rebel groups.

      Once ISIS had a territorial base in eastern Syria, its fighters surged back across the border into Iraq in June 2014 and captured Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city. First the hopeless Iraqi army and then the supposedly competent Kurdish army crumbled in front of them. In July ISIS declared the border abolished and proclaimed the foundation of the “Islamic State” in the conquered parts of both Syria and Iraq.

      A few days later the leader of ISIS, Abu Baqr al-Baghdadi, declared in a sermon in Mosul’s great mosque of al-Nuri that he is the caliph to whom all Muslims owe obedience. It was a bold step—there has been no caliph since 1924—but it had great resonance among those many Muslims who blamed the collapse of the Islamic world’s power and prosperity on the neglect of its traditional religious institutions and values.

      Since then, Islamic State has conquered no more territory. Its one big offensive, against the Kurdish enclave of Kobane along the Turkish border, was defeated after thousands of ISIS fighters died in the attempt to take it. Aircraft from the U.S., other Western countries, and various conservative Arab countries patrol the skies over Islamic State, bombing anything that looks even vaguely military. Yet it still scares people to death.

      One reason is its sheer ferocity and endlessly inventive cruelty. It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive, and posts videos boasting about it all. It attracts large numbers of recruits from the Sunni Muslims living in the Arab lands now included in Islamic State, but also thousands of eager volunteers from other Muslim countries and from the Muslim diaspora in the West.

      Islamic State is now collecting pledges of allegiance from like-minded Islamist fighting groups in other Muslim countries, each of which lends a little more credibility to its claim to be the new caliphate. In November Islamist groups in Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia all declared that they acknowledged al-Baghdadi, now calling himself Caliph Ibrahim, as their leader and guide.

      Little more has been heard from the Yemeni, Saudi, and Algerian groups, but the Egyptian group, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, controls parts of the Sinai peninsula, regularly attacks the Egyptian army, and was officially designated a “province” (wilayat) of the Islamic State in November. Libya, where Islamist groups have been gaining ground in the civil war, was carved into three further “provinces” at the same time.

      In late January a former commander of the Pakistani Taleban and ten other jihadi leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan also acknowledged al-Baghdadi’s authority , and declared that they constituted the new IS “province” of Khorasan, taking in those two countries and “other nearby lands”.

      Then last Saturday Abubakar Shekau, the leader of the militant group Boko Haram, which controls much of northeastern Nigeria, also pledged allegiance to Islamic State: “We announce our allegiance to the caliph... and will hear and obey in times of difficulty and prosperity. We call on Muslims everywhere to pledge allegiance to the caliph.” It’s certainly making progress, but how far can it go?

      Probably not much further. All the new “provinces” of Islamic State, like most of the original ones, are in mainly rural areas, often sparsely populated, and with few natural resources (except some oil, in Libya’s case). They are areas that corrupt and autocratic governments, many of them distracted by civil war, can simply abandon for the short term as not vital for their survival.

      For Islamic State to seize big metropolitan areas and their resources would require a level of popular support in those areas that is unlikely to emerge. Big cities are full of relatively sophisticated people who have something to lose, and are unlikely to see Islamic State as an attractive solution for their problems.

      Without the big cities and their communications facilities—especially airports and harbours—there can be little effective cooperation between the widely dispersed “provinces” of Islamic State. They will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help, and some they will lose.

      The broader struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade, and impose heavy costs on the people of the Middle East. But ultra-radical organisations like ISIS and Boko Haram are likely to break up in bitter theological disputes a lot quicker than that.



      Nothing is forever

      Mar 9, 2015 at 12:31pm

      Good article, especially for it's brevity. While ISIL (now starting to be pronounced as 'ice-hole') may be winning supporters now, younger generations may not be so quick to see it as the salvation that this current crop of young, arrogant men and women seems to view it. This is mainly because following generations usually reject the authority they have grown up with. Sooner or later, the pure barbarity will also strengthen the resolve of those opposing them.

      But unlike Dwyer, I don't see this as continuing for a decade, but much longer than that. I believe that there will always be a core group of Islamic fanatics who will continue to cause trouble for centuries to come.

      Bill Thompson

      Mar 9, 2015 at 1:19pm

      I agree with Nothing Is Forever. This one is not going to go away anytime soon. I can see this going on to greater and lesser degrees for many, many years to come.

      I do believe it is manageable if we can keep it contained.

      I Chandler

      Mar 9, 2015 at 2:15pm

      DYER::struggle against Islamist extremism will probably continue for at least a decade"

      Perpetual war for perpetual profits?

      DYER: "It began with the conquest by an Islamist group called ISIS of bits of territory in eastern Syria in 2011-13.

      When did it all begin? A few years - for those with historical amnesia. Putting the start date aside - Where did they come from? Didn't Libyans get training somewhere in the UK way,way back in 2010?

      DYER:"Its founders were almost all Iraqis who had got their start fighting the American occupation of their country."

      Didn't these guys got their start fighting FOR the Americans in Iraq and Libya - it was called the Awakening in Iraq...Peter Maass wrote about The Salvadorization of Iraq where death squads were used to create a civil war in Iraq. Rolling Stone wrote about how a Colonel James Steele, a veteran of "dirty wars" in Central America started one in Iraq:

      There seems to be varied answers to question of where did isis come from?
      1) Hell - From the Hollywood neocons.
      2) A sort of organic reaction to the repeated US interventions - bleeding heart interventionists.
      3) Mercenaries of Washington

      DYER: "Islamic State will have to go on fighting their own wars with little outside help..."

      They're getting outside help...Maintaining isis requires billions in constant support - it cannot be raised from bank robbery,ransoms and black market oil. A seizure of 160 USB flash drives, in 2013, revealed a budget of billions. US and UK aircraft carrying arms to isis shot down by Iraq:

      DYER: " It crucifies people, hacks their heads off, burns them alive"

      Killing Up Close and Personal From Afar: explains that The Act of Killing was much easier for Stratofortress pilots than drone pilots. Drone pilots are leaving because they are overworked and the horrors of war, seen up close on video screens, day in, day out is too much:


      Mar 10, 2015 at 6:55am

      Good article, but I don't think that this counts as a worst-case model. This is basically a summary of IS "achievements" so far. All my Duer says about the future is:

      "How far can it go? Not much further, probably."

      Its certainly plausible and perhaps even probable that this is the case, but I think I can come up with alternative scenarios that are way worse than .

      (1) Foreign "volunteers" are sent to attack civilian targets abroad, say France. This brings Muslims into wider conflict with their compatriots. Police surveillance, anti-muslim political movements. I would guess that 10 fatal attacks in the space of 2 years with major involvement of French citizens would be sufficient to drive a wedge the French-Muslim pollution and everyone else. Combined with the already lower socio-economic conditions, this could revitalize recruitment efforts.

      (2) Assad collapses and IS gain some of his territory or at least put up enough of a fight so that there are crucifixions in Dmascus.

      (3) Any one of the mentioned "provinces" of IS gain ground. There are enough of them in unstable enough places, that they all have an outside chance of controlling territory to the extent that IS do in Syria & Iraq. 2 "provinces" out of the 10 candidates would definitely be enough to add momentum.

      (4) We said worst case, didn't we? Here's the worst I can think of: The Saudi monarchy falls to IS. This could happen lots of ways. None of them are all that likely, but not impossible either. Saudi could hit a MB revolution, in which IS get involved. A succession could create an instability window. If oil prices fall another 30%, Suadi's oil industry could come to a stop, or at least shrink by over 50%. The majority in Saudi are poor muslim migrant workers. They could be radicalized to a sort of modern day slave revolt.

      5) This one seems likely enough to me. IS are recognized by a handful of countries and begin to transform into an actual country, with airports, armies and such. This could happen as part of aggressive diplomatic maneuvers, or even under duress. If IS in Yemen or IS in Libya can harass the local government enough into negotiating, it could start there.

      I dunno if any of these are likely, but I'm pretty sure there are some likely enough scenarios that are worse than everything staying as it is.

      petr aardvark

      Mar 10, 2015 at 5:43pm

      The problem with Iraq is that is that after the collapse of the Ottoman empire the British intentionally created it as a country of 3 cultural/religious groups (Sunni, Shiite & Kurd) who had opposing interests. This way they could play off one group against the other and keep using the resources. They did this not just Iraq of course, but in many parts of the world. So after decades of Sunni rule under Saddam, the bandaid is being ripped off. The US invasion pretty much left a Shiite Maliki in charge, who looked after Shiite interests and ignored the Sunnis. Many of the Sunni tribes of the Anbar uprising have joined Isis because they were disillusioned with Baghdad and are essentially trying to set up a Sunni state. Iraq, is pretty much already 3 states, it really is only a matter of time but I suspect at some point the Sunnis will turn on Isil (some commanders have already made this statement).

      Alexander Tchaikovsky

      Mar 10, 2015 at 7:24pm

      He kills Christians, beheads people, dries up the Euphrates River and desires to conquer Jerusalem. Caliph Ibrahim? Yes, but I was thinking of the Anti-Christ in the Bible.

      Susan McLoughlin

      Mar 10, 2015 at 7:49pm

      Without the unlimited access to global media that ISIL enjoys they would be nothing more than a collection of brutish thugs with grandiose ambitions. What stands out for me with ISIL is their fundamental lack of imagination. They are repeating the same barbarous atrocities as those perpetrated by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan and so many, many others. Burn, torture, rape, pillage, destroy. It is the ghastly under belly of human history and I believe it is their Achilles heel. Are they not almost a caricature of vicious depravity? Is this what makes their media presence so compelling? The daily witnessing of the grotesque reality of the 2nd century from the comfort and safety of the 21st century?