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Strategies to combat and defeat the international menace of ISIS

Ghelawdewos Araia, PhD                                         May 3, 2015

Dedicated to the 30 Ethiopians who were shot and beheaded by ISIS in Libya on April 19, 2015


While the overall general trend of history could be reasonably predicted, history itself often comes up with relatively unfathomable phenomena, and we humans are caught at the crossroads and thresholds and rather become helpless. This might sound ironic but it happened many times in history every time societies encountered quandaries and conundrums, as well as social calamities manifested in the form of Nazism, Fascism, Jihad etc. In the above context, thus, the new ex machina of Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) or Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), would be one more surprise of history. Ex machina, is a positive attribute to a Godly appearance in religious tenets or a sudden appearance of a character in a drama that would provide solution to an insoluble difficult problem; it would be inappropriate to depict ISIS as ex machina in its literal sense, but I am using it only as “a sudden appearance of a phenomenon.” ISIS, far from providing solutions to problems, is in fact an international menace and global challenge. This menace should be combated and defeated.

In order to combat and defeat ISIS once and for all, however, it is imperative that we study the nature and characteristics of this organization, its evolution, its membership, its philosophy and ideology, its organizational structure, as well as its political objectives.

From whence did ISIS emerge? Is it simply a disgruntled group with obscure objectives or a robust detachment of a precursor Islamic movement such as Moslem Brotherhood or al-Qaeda? Or, a completely independent grouping that somewhat evolved in failed states? I shall critically examine the background history of ISIS so that the reader can get the gist and flavor of what this organization is all about and for what is stands for.

A significant number of academes, analysts, and researchers contend that ISIS is a Salafi group that professes extreme version of Islam with a violent modus operandi; others view ISIS as a Jihadist movement that currently serves as the torch bearer of the Moslem Brotherhood that emerged in Egypt following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the 1920s.

Jihad, apparently, is an Islamic holy war, but in the strict sense it is not simply a war “against the infidels” as extremist Muslims like ISIS preach and as some scholars allude uncritically in some literature. Jihad is a struggle within oneself in its religious sense and mobilization of people against foreign invaders as Samori Ture’s struggle against the French in the Futa Jalon and Futa Toro areas of West Africa in the 1860s. In the latter definition of Jihad, some violence is involved and destruction would be inevitable, but barbaric and inhumane atrocities were not carried on as ISIS has now made it fashionable.

The ISIS type Salafis do not tolerate reform and change in Islamic creed and they are indeed identified by their ubiquitous black flag that symbolizes the seal of Muhammad, and yet they await for Christ-like redeemer (the Mahdi or the “Guided one”) to come and purify Islam. The ISIS group truly believes that it is ordained by Allah that, the prophesied appearance of the Mahdi will be observed at Dabiq, a town in northern Syria.

ISIS has gathered momentum over the last few years, but its religious philosophical viction is not accepted by all Muslims. Even some Salafis, not to mention the political establishments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iran, the Gulf Emirates, and Qatar reject ISIS’ creed. However the opposition to ISIS by these countries, the UN, and Western countries like France and the United States is rather meek and of lip service, a verbiage, so to speak. This kind of “incapacity” or indifference resulted in ISIS control of areas in weakened states. It is obvious that ISIS actions may result in invidious counter-reaction, but that may not effectively corner and ultimately eliminate the monstrosity of the so-called Islamic State.

On top of the above scenario and the dominant framework of thinking of ISIS that I have mentioned above, what makes it suspicious and paradoxical is the fact that ISIS gets its funding from countries like Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, and Qatar. The governments of the latter countries may not be involved in such funding but there is no doubt that some Wahabi tycoons are raising funds for ISIS. Other source of money for ISIS could be the oil fields that controls in Iraq, but this source alone could hardly sustain its movement and field operations.

We therefore are further obliged to engage additional parallel of inquiry and delineate the foundation of the ISIS phenomenon or of the new history, if you will. Though ISIS is a new politico-religious movement, as I have already discussed it above, it is a substantial continuity of the past Jihadists and a new version or hybrid of al-Qaeda. Once we establish the nature and characteristics of ISIS, it is important that we discuss the underlying reasons that could help us understand the ISIS phenomenon, and I am particularly interested in exploring the origins and structural organization of this organization.

The ISIS group originated in Iraq in 1999 under the Arabic name Jamal’at al Tawahid Wal-Jihad, but later changed its name to al-Qaeda. Following the invasion of Iraq by the United States in 2003, the al-Qaeda ISIS group was involved in the Iraqi war. At this point, it did not call itself ISIS, but when the rank-and-file fighters of the Mujaheeden Shura Council joined it in 2006, for the first time it declared its new name of Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

By the time ISI established its camp of operations in Iraq and its operations coupled by the US occupation of that country, the secular state of Iraq was undermined and done away with. It is under a similar circumstance that ISI branched out in Syria, a country torn apart by civil war, in 2011. The Syrian ISI was also known as Jabhat al Nusra (the Nusra Front) and when it began fighting as one of the many contending forces within Syria, it was led by al-Baghdadi, perhaps considered by ISIS as the Mahdi. By 2013, al-Baghdadi unilaterally declared the merger of ISI with the al-Nuna front and gave a new name of ISIL to his conceptual united front in spite of the rejection by the Nuna leadership and the al-Qaeda that still operates independently.

Despite some opposition to ISIS from some Jihadist factions, however, the organization gained momentum in Iraq, Syria, and Libya (all destabilized failed states). Not only has ISIS gained foothold in all these three countries, but it also enjoyed allegiance from militant Sunni Muslims around the world. ISIL/ISIS does not completely control Libya although it has hegemony over the eastern province of Cyrenaica, the western district of Tripolitania or the Tripoli greater area, and the southern part of Libya known as Fazzan.

ISIS may not have full control of Libya, but there is no doubt that it has the support of the Shura Council of Islamic Youth and other jihadist militants. It is also highly probable that the Shura and the militants serve as informants to ISIS, and their allegiance and service has enabled ISIS to pick up Ethiopians from the refugee camps and subsequently carried on its diabolical beheading of 30 Ethiopians on April 19, 2015.

Now, ISIS has entrenched itself in other places like the Gaza strip and also getting endorsement and allegiance from militants such as Ansar Bait al-Maqdis. These groups, in Sinai, Gaza, Lebanon, and Jordan are potentially a threat to the powers that be and the larger societies in these countries. It is also a threat to the security of Israel and the Palestinian Authority. If ISIS solidifies and consolidates in the Middle East, it will challenge the stability of Egypt, will foment a formidable anti-Israel stance, and will undermine the cause of the Palestinian people. The radical Hamas would then be viewed by both Egypt and Israel as better enemy to deal with vis-à-vis ISIS.

So, what should nations do in order to combat and ultimately defeat ISIS? At present, most of the nations that are directly or indirectly affected by ISIS are exhibiting a defensive posture and this is quite astounding. If the global community seriously considers world peace and wanted to thwart the ISIS evil mission and objectives, it should come up with a common agenda or blue print that could systematically overcome all forms of terrorism. Below, I am proposing some offensive strategies for provoking discussion and eventually adopting the enumerated suggestive models:

1.      Nations must strengthen their national securities individually and in partnership with their regional organizations. For instance, France’s security agents must operate in conjunction with the European Union, but most importantly with neighboring countries like Belgium and Spain.

2.      Some nations like Israel and Ethiopia, that encounter a unique political climate of geopolitical challenge, should device a unique strategy to combat ISIS and other terrorists. Israel is alone in the Middle East, and whether she likes it or not it should strengthen its security parameters and objectives by cooperating with moderate countries like Egypt and Jordan. By the same token, Ethiopia finds itself in the midst of unstable Horn of Africa and historically conflict-ridden region. Unlike Israel, however, Ethiopia is in good terms with neighboring countries like Kenya, Djibouti, and Sudan. It could be a stretch for Ethiopia to be involved in peace negotiations of South Sudan and peacekeeping mission in Somalia, but is has no choice but to be involved in such undertakings. The logic is simple! If its neighbors are not at peace, Ethiopia would not have peace and the latter is a precondition for the countries development and economic growth. Ethiopia is spared (at least for now) from ISIS attacks because a) the leadership of the Ethiopian Christians (particularly that of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church) and Muslim communities are working in tandem against terrorism; and b) the Ethiopian security and intelligence services have done a superb job in protecting the country from Al Shabab attacks.

3.      Moderate Muslims all over the world should campaign against the ISIS string of curses and satanic beheading of innocent people. The cliché of ‘Islam is peace and ISIS militants are not Muslims’ would not effectively mitigate, let alone completely stop ISIS’ murderous operations. A more sustainable campaign by Muslim clerics and Muftis is a necessary precondition to the defeat and elimination of ISIS.

4.      Russia and China are also threatened by local Muslim separatists of Chechnya/Dagestan and Uyghur respectively; they should not underestimate the threat on their countries and they should work hand-in-glove to either peacefully resolve the crises or systematically defuse Muslim extremism in the continental Sino-Russian borders.

5.      Arab countries like Saudi Arabia must shoulder responsibility to minimize the influences of Wahabism, a conservative Islamic doctrine that directly or indirectly creates a fertile ground for ISIS. Saudi Arabia could face dilemma when it comes to the Wahabi sect and its influences in religious (not necessarily terrorists or militants). The current ISIS reality, however, should oblige Saudi Arabia to cooperate even with its rivals like Iran in the elimination of ISIS. Saudi Arabia and Iran should not be distracted by their rival involvement in Yemen (Sunni vs. Shiite), when they face a common enemy like ISIS. If Saudi Arabia does not make efforts to limit the influences and deeds of the Wahabi, however, commentators that charged the country for “exporting Wahabism” will be vindicated.

6.      The United States should revise its Middle East policy and play a pivotal role in the fighting and elimination of ISIS. The latter, by default, is a game changer, and the US should change its policy accordingly. For instance, if the US is not in a position to assist the Free Syrian Army, it should at least cooperate with the Assad regime against ISIS. If the US can negotiate with Iran, it can do so with its former adversaries. In conjunction with game changer Middle East policy, the US should seriously consider its limited military operations in Iraq and review the current aerial bombardment of ISIS-controlled areas. The bombardment might stifle the terrorists’ military capability, but it could not defeat them altogether, because they are also elsewhere in the Middle East and if the worst comes they will abandon their Iraq territory and masquerade in other parts of the region, and to be sure it has affiliates in many areas of the Middle East. It is therefore recommended that the US must go against ISIS loyalists such as the Baal Bek Brigade in Lebanon, the Sons of the Call for Tawahid and Jihad in Jordan, and Anar al Sharia in Yemen, by cooperating with the moderate governments and civic and religious leaders of these countries.

7.      The UN and other global institutions, as well as higher institutions of learning should first study the nature and characteristics of ISIS and come up with some novel solutions. For a start, here is some data on ISIS: It is headed by al-Baghdadi, who in turn, is assisted by a cabinet of advisors and twelve district governors under the latter; and at the bottom of the hierarchy ISIS has various councils of finance, military affairs, legal matters, aid to foreign fighters, security & intelligence, and media.

Concluding remarks:            

Given ISIS’ organization and the day to day increasing allegiance it is enjoying from Muslim extremists, as well as its control of territories in relatively weak states, it is simply impossible to dismiss ISIS as a terrorist group only. In my opinion, it should be viewed as a non-state terrorist force, and in the strict historical and sociological sense, ISIS is in fact a dynamic force, however negative and destructive its agenda is. The reason I say a dynamic force is based on the overall operational capability of the organization, the funds it managed to garner, and most importantly its ability to attract young Jihadists. It is a force to be reckoned with, but its strength emanates from the weaknesses of the states in which it is operating and if the now defunct states are revived and a cohesive global force is put in place, ISIS would reach its vanishing point.

All Rights Reserved. Copyright © IDEA 2013. Dr. Ghelawdewos Araia can be contacted for educational and constructive feedback via dr.garaia@africanidea.org.