They are not the first in history to cut throats, slash chests, or eat the hearts and livers of the victims they slaughter in cold blood. They savagely rape, loot and kill their captives.
Yet humans believed they had come a long, long way in time since such acts were ‘normal’ practice; today they are war crimes. But the fundamentalist Islamic jihadi groups —jihad is holy war—claim they are closely following sharia (Islamic law) and Islamic wartime tradition. It’s the same with jihadi groups everywhere; Boko Haram in Nigeria, the Shabab in Somalia, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group in Libya, Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, Ansar Beit al-Muqdis in Sinai, and the list goes on. And now in our own backyard, there’s the scourge of Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, also known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. In this story we prefer to use ISIL not ISIS, since ISIL is the more precise translation.
ISIL’s jihadi activity in Syria, which began in 2012, has recently moved to Iraq. ISIL itself is much older than that, dating back to 2000 when it operated under the name Jama##at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, founded by Abu-Musaab al-Zarqawi and with close links to al-Qaeda. It moved into Iraq with a vengeance. Marching from Syria across northern Iraq, ISIL swiftly captured large swaths of land almost unresisted. They enforced their version of sharia with summary executions of military and civilians, floggings and amputations; they forced women out of sight, and banned political parties and public, civil bodies. According to Amira al-Tahawi, a writer and expert on Iraqi issues, ISIL have termed their wars the “Omari conquests”. This is a clear reference to the seventh century wars by the Arab army, under the Muslim Arab Caliph Omar Ibn al-Khattaab, that marched from the Arab Peninsula to conquer all the surrounding lands—and conquer them they did.
A map published by ISIL draws the borders for its prospective Islamic State. Besides Syria and Iraq, the borders include Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, and Lebanon. Until Watani went to press, ISIL had occupied 38,000 kilometres of land, reached the Jordanian border and was on the threshold of Baghdad. “Even though the group has grown rich in funds and arms, the expansion has fatigued it. It now loses as much ground as it gains, since it does not have the manpower to control the areas it captures.” Yet Dr Tahawi reminds that the borders declared by ISIL do not express its ambitions, these being no less than the borderless pan-world Islamic caliphate.
Questions that beg answers are all-too-many. Is ISIL fighting its own battle or is it war by proxy for the benefit of some other power that wishes to keep its hands clean while ISIL does the ‘dirty work’? Is the war no more than an internal Iraqi Sunni-Shia conflict? Or does it carry hidden implications, menacing all the Middle East? Does it especially target Syria where Assad’s secular regime appears to be gaining the upper hand in the war against the Islamist and Jihadi militants? But perhaps the most important—and intriguing—questions for Egyptians are: Is there any direct threat to Egypt? Where does Egypt figure in all this?
Dr Tahawi says that there are Egyptian fighters among the ranks of ISIL, who have the potential to spawn terrorist cells inside Egypt or to facilitate the entry of foreign ISIL elements into the country. Yet she says any Egyptian military intervention against the jihadi group is inadvisable and would pull Egypt into the swamp of Iraqi and regional religious, sectarian, and political divides. “Military action will involve incalculable losses on our part,” Dr Tahawi says. “The current situation is not directly threatening to us, and there is no legal justification such as a defence pact or suchlike that would warrant military action on our part.
“In all likelihood,” Dr Tahawi says, “the situation will spiral into a Somali-like condition where, since 1991, there are no two States or orderly armies fighting each other. Rather, it is war by proxy governed by no rules, laws, or basic humane standards. It is descent into total anarchy, with small unending battles that expand horizontally even across national borders. There may be brief respites, but the battles eventually resume.”
It does not help that the Shiite Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki is an oppressor, and is hated by Sunnis. This resulted in persecution of Sunni Iraqis, and led many analysts to claim that it was only through Sunni support that ISIL was able to advance into the depth of Iraq so swiftly with almost non-existent resistance. “The Iraqi army, however,” says strategic expert Nabil Fouad, “is a strong army despite US efforts to enfeeble it. ISIL is no more than a number of militias, and will not be able to stand before a regular army.” But such an analysis risks reducing the conflict into a mere local one, without taking into account the full scale of international complications involved.
The writer and political researcher Mu’men Sallam insists that the ISIL march into Iraq cannot be separated from the situation in Syria or the entire region. “The West is bound to benefit from this war either by directly intervening or through selling arms,” Mr Sallam says. Iran might be in the same camp as the US and the UK. Work on this front began months ago with the Iran/US rapprochement and agreement on the Iranian nuclear file. The ISIL war will probably end in Iraq divided into three States: Sunni, Shia, and Kurds. Christians and religious minorities will find the Kurdish to be best for them, since the two main rival political parties there are secular.” As for Jordan, Mu’men believes it is impossible for ISIL to gain a foothold there, since the country is a “US Israeli protectorate”. Israel, he says, will take very good care that ISIL should never be at such close quarters to it.
Strategic expert and former Interior Minister Deputy Major General Sayed Muhammadein insists that the ISIL advancement into Iraq is the newest western ploy, the Plan B so to speak, of their project for the Middle East. Plan A, General Muhammadein says, was defeated by the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the diminished power of the Islamists in other Arab countries, notably Libya and Syria. The new plan, he says, was to open terrorist fronts in Libya, Syria, and Iraq. That was sure to keep the infighting on, maintain a state of unease in Egypt, and even hopefully pull the Egyptian army into battles outside its territory, a guaranteed plan to fatigue the Egyptian army.
“The Egyptian administration,” General Muhammadein says, “is too shrewd to have its leg pulled that way. It can read the scene very well, and will never be drawn into intervention unless Egyptian national interest is at stake.”
29 June 2014