CSP, by Jennifer Keltz, June 15, 2015:
Last week, articles suggesting the US should ally itself with Al Qaeda and should consider the Islamic State (IS) as a legitimate power were published by the prominent news sources The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy. These articles are part of a growing trend, demonstrated by an earlier 2014 Foreign Affairs article, calling for greater US complacency in regards to violent jihadist groups.
The recent pieces present different, equally dangerous ideas, and should be addressed individually.
Yaroslav Trofimov, of the Wall Street Journal, reports influential policy thinkers and U.S. Allies are discussing the possibility of a US alliance with the Syrian Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (Nusra). They say that many secular, Western-backed militants fighting in Syria already work closely with Nusra on the battlefield. They also point to Middle Eastern governments, such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar, that work closely with Nusra to help topple IS and the Assad regime, which has a horrible human-rights record. This perspective fails to recognize that these are Sunni states and their backing of Nusra has more to do with their desire to weaken Shia Iran and Syria than to help Syrian civilians.
The report presents Nusra as the lesser of two evils: in comparison to IS, its religious views are “certainly radical” but “aren’t nearly as extreme.”
The policy-makers in question lack a greater perspective of the Syrian conflict and of Nusra and Al Qaeda. Its Al Qaeda affiliation demonstrates that, while it may have local goals now, it ultimately wants to install Islamic regimes all over the world, and indeed has the same end goal as IS.
The only reason why Nusra is not attacking the West is because Al Qaeda Central ordered it to refrain from doing so. That does not mean that it is not planning to attack in the future. Any group that must be ordered to not attack the US is not a group with which the US should be aligned.
In an unrelated op-ed in Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt, a Harvard professor, asks his audience to consider what the US should do if IS “wins.” He believes IS is likely to establish itself and retain power, similarly to how the USSR and People’s Republic of China started as revolutionary movements before establishing themselves as states.
Walt believes the US should treat IS and its worldview in the way that it treated the USSR and communism throughout the twentieth century – with containment. He ignores history: the Soviets never abandoned efforts to violently spread their ideology, from the 1919 invasion of Poland to the 1989 retreat from Afghanistan.
Walt states that IS is not powerful on a global scale, and its foreign recruitment of 25,000 from a world population of 7 billion is not that large. In fact, he says he would rather see all of the people that desire to join IS actually join it because this would put them all in one place, where they can be isolated from the rest of society. Unfortunately, he only considers IS’s foreign recruitment. Size estimates of the organization range from the tens- to hundreds-of-thousands.
Walt ignores IS’s calls for its international followers to attack Western people and civilizations, and that its followers are listening. A quick Google search shows that it inspired attacks in Texas, New York (where one woman “couldn’t understand why U.S. citizens like herself were traveling overseas to wage jihad when they could simply ‘make history’ at home by unleashing terrorist attacks”), Australia, Canada, and elsewhere.
Though its ranks may be small in comparison to the world population, with its strategic use of the internet and media it has permeated through Western society. The US is not as far away from IS’s violence as Walt wants to think. The widespread use of the Internet means that containment can never truly happen and its ideas will still spread, leading more people to want to join. Additionally, recognizing IS as a state would legitimize it, leading to increased recruitment.
He states IS has few resources, and can now no longer surprise its enemies. However, it brings in millions of dollars daily from oil alone, and it has other sources of income. It is also much larger and better-resourced than Al Qaeda was at the time of the 9/11 attacks, which had a core membership between 500-1000 people. IS is therefore expected to have capabilities far beyond those of Al Qaeda in the early 2000s.
Walt’s argument that IS would self-moderate if it became an actual country is important to his argument for containment. He explains it would need to self-moderate in order to gain legitimacy amongst other nations and to be welcomed into international politics and the world economy. This argument lacks an understanding of the IS worldview.
Cole Bunzel, in “From State to Caliphate: The Ideology of the Islamic State,” describes it as “the view that the region’s Shi’a are conspiring with the United States and secular Arab rulers to limit Sunni power in the Middle East.” In IS’s declaration of return of the caliphate, “This is the Promise of Allah,” they laid out its founding principles and described it in verse:
“We took it forcibly at the point of a blade/…We established it in defiance of many./ And the people’s necks were violently struck,/ With bombings, explosions, and destruction,/ And soldiers that do not see hardship as being difficult…”
Fundamental to IS’s beliefs is that they cannot be compromised because they are mandated by Allah. Founded upon religious beliefs, which do not appeal to logic but instead to faith, IS cannot and will not become more moderate. Its members view the western concept of “moderation” as the antithesis of what their divinely-conceived worldview requires. It already operates as a pseudo-state anyway; international recognition is irrelevant to its purpose for existence.
The points of view expressed in the two op-ed pieces mentioned are dangerous if left unaddressed. They display a shallow and dangerous understanding of the nature of the Jihadist organizations, their methods, and their goals.