US President Barack Obama’s speech announcing a broad US campaign against the Islamic State group marks yet another shift in the way we understand our enemies. When the Cold War drew to a close after 45 years, the world’s major powers shared a certain world view.
Threats came from states. These might be superpowers such as the Soviet Union, ultra-nationalists like Milosevic’s Serbia, revolutionary theocrats like Khomeini’s Iran, or expansionist tyrants such as Saddam’s Iraq, but they had in common well-defined institutions that exercised authority over a fixed area, and were capable of compromise.
Even as an obscure band of radicals called al-Qaeda managed to destroy US embassies and bomb a US warship in the late 1990s and 2000, this view survived. But it crumbled when al-Qaeda struck New York and Washington in 2001. Over the subsequent years, these non-state actors would conduct spectacular attacks across nations as diverse as Spain, Algeria, Pakistan, Britain, Indonesia, and Kenya. They drew the United States into Afghanistan, and followed it into Iraq.
But after the initial invasions, US policy adjusted. A global “war on terror” was abandoned in the ashes of those two big wars, replaced with a series of smaller, sporadic, secretive wars focusing on Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.
Fragmented ‘war on terror’
When the US consulate in Benghazi was assaulted a decade on from 9/11, and a US ambassador was killed, it shocked Americans – but didn’t produce a drastic shift. Where the US might once have lashed out in force, it instead did nothing, waiting almost two years to seize a suspect in Libya. By 2014, drone strikes in Pakistan dwindled to almost nothing. Even where al-Qaeda’s affiliates seized territory, most notably in Yemen and Somalia – this was viewed as a manageable problem. In short, the “war on terror” mellowed and fragmented.
Osama bin Laden never had to coordinate a military campaign spanning two Arab states, command 15,000 fighters, manage millions of dollars of revenue daily, or establish a system of tax collection, law enforcement, and municipal service in multiple cities. We are used to so-called terrorist states; but state-like terrorists have been rarer.
The Islamic State group has, therefore, been doubly disruptive – to a century-old Middle Eastern order that was already under historic strain, but also to our basic assumptions about the nature of modern threats and our ability to contain them.
The Islamic State is neither just a terrorist group nor a state, but it has fused concepts and practices from both. In doing so, it evokes the power and permanence of the 20th-century enemy, as well, the fluid, menacing quality of its 21st-century counterpart.
Obama compared his impending campaign to those he has pursued in Yemen and Somalia, but this understates the Islamic State group’s distinguishing features. There is no better illustration of this hybridity than the fact that, in the Islamic State, dozens of Saddam’s officers are united with millennial rappers from London.
At the same time, the Islamic State is much like any other revolutionary movement that has had to grapple with the simultaneous demands of governance, conquest, recruitment, and diplomacy. Mao, in the 1940s, might have understood many of the challenges faced by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-declared Caliph, today.
Osama bin Laden never had to coordinate a military campaign spanning two Arab states, command 15,000 fighters, manage millions of dollars of revenue daily, or establish a system of tax collection, law enforcement, and municipal services in multiple cities. We are used to so-called terrorist states; but state-like terrorists have been rarer.
These activities give credence to the Islamic State group’s pretensions to a caliphate, but they generate profound vulnerabilities, too. The Islamic State owns tanks that can be destroyed, oil fields that can be bombed, and command posts that can be dismantled. The same conventional military forces that enabled the Islamic State to defeat an army on the battlefield, something al-Qaeda never sought to do, are also targets of opportunity that will be severely weakened in the combination of US air strikes and Iraqi and Syrian fighters that will follow in the coming weeks.
Given Iraq’s gaping sectarian divisions and legacy of authoritarianism, the Islamic State group will challenge Baghdad’s authority for years to come. The group is sufficiently entrenched in the profoundly disaffected Sunni communities of northern Iraq and Syria so that its lingering presence is a certainty. But once its material hardware is eroded and it is dislodged from fixed territory, what will be left of the caliphate other than scattered weapons, dispersed foot soldiers, underground leaders, and the memory of a utopian idea?
Once the cloak of statehood is torn off, the Islamic State might choose to focus on local sectarian warfare against Iraqi Shia Muslims, as its forerunners did in the 2000s, or deploy some of its thousands of foreign recruits in plots against foreign nations. If they choose this latter path, they have every chance of some success. But what, then, makes them qualitatively different from al-Qaeda?
This is the paradox. If the Islamic State group is “beyond anything that we’ve seen“, as US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put it in August – stronger and wealthier than al-Qaeda – then it is also vulnerable in ways that al-Qaeda never was. Where al-Qaeda could hide, interwoven into Pakistani cities, the Islamic State group must stand and fight – or watch its caliphate melt away.
But if the Islamic State is, or becomes, merely another al-Qaeda, intent on striking the West or its allies, then where is its comparative advantage? It has so far failed to shatter al-Qaeda’s global network, with the biggest affiliates – in Yemen, Somalia, and North Africa – remaining loyal. It has failed to hurt the US or Europe directly other than by killing captive hostages, hardly the most demanding of tasks.
The irony is that, as the noose tightens around the Islamic State from all sides – Kurds, Arabs, Iranians, and Americans united in common purpose – it will lose the very same qualities that so distinguished it from al-Qaeda in the first place. Thirteen years after 9/11, that would be familiar ground for the United States.
Shashank Joshi is a research fellow of the Royal United Services Institute in London and a PhD candidate at Harvard University. He holds Masters degrees from Cambridge and Harvard universities. He specialises in the international politics of South Asia and the Middle East.