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Who Will Be the Heir to ISIS?

The Islamic State group has been considered for years the number-one enemy of the United States. Its barbaric actions plus its ability to manipulate social media have become legendary. But it is now time for ISIS to join the ranks of the has been. The view that was formerly held by the U.S. policymakers, projecting a war against ISIS extending for twenty years, is now passé with the election of President Trump; he wants ISIS decimated now.

Assuming ISIS’s pending demise, who is most likely to emerge as the leading extremist Muslim enemy? As of today, there is no heir-apparent to ISIS, but one will be found in due course. ISIS itself is a reminder of the danger of assuming no new unheard of organization would yet emerge; seven years ago ISIS was that new emerging prime terrorist organization. ISIS’s leaders will no longer rule ISIS’s territory in Syria and Iraq; thousands of ISIS’s fighting men will no longer do the organization’s bidding. “Foreign fighters” (that is, all non-Iraqi and non-Syrian fighters) will return, if they survive, to their home countries. Although ISIS the state would be demolished, the U.S. is likely to continue to speak of possible rebirth of the organization.

Most American observers seem to forget how ISIS came to be. The U.S. and its allies in Iraq, the Arab Shi’a, determined that Arab Sunnis in Iraq will have no future in Iraqi politics, and that Arab Sunnis will not have a meaningful role in the country’s armed forces. The core of ISIS’s leaders and fighting force came from Iraq’s de-politicized Sunnis. Even if the Islamic State disappears, the organization is not disappearing. What happens if ISIS the organization is left without its state? Will it simply disappear, morph into another organization, or rebrand itself as something new?

While ISIS was gaining territory and wealth, Al-Qaeda Central (AQC) was recovering from a decade of pounding by the U.S. military and losing footholds in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Its leaders, post-Osama bin Laden led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, were busy charting new directions: they considered and rejected diverting the organization towards becoming more theological; they refused actions that would bring about a more violent U.S. response; they looked for ways to expand; identified new countries in which to operate; and sought and formed alliances with new organizations.

In each locality Al-Qaeda presented itself as defender of persecuted Muslims, and their defender against local tyrannical regimes and their supporters in the West. In China they organized to defend the Uyghur. In Central Asia they organized The Islamic Movement of Central Asia, an Al-Qaeda affiliate since 2002. They later utilized their central Asia affiliates to provide approximately eighty percent of the 3,000 central Asia fighters in Syria. AQC’s presence in Syria also included Arab fighters organized in AQC affiliates such as Al-Nusra, which has not conducted any operations against Western interests, and none of which is likely to emerge as super terrorist. AQC also targeted India establishing in 2014 the Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) when Zawahiri appointed Asim Umar, a Pakistani, as the AQIS “emir.” AQIS capitalized on resentment against India’s pro-Western stand portraying it as anti-Muslim, and playing up communal violence against Muslims in India. AQIS did not show many successes although it also attacked targets in Pakistan and Bangladesh.

More important perhaps is Al-Qaeda’s success in spouting regional subdivisions: Somalia, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, and Al-Qaeda in North Africa.

The Somali central government is appointed and supported by agencies of the U.S. Government. No government that has support from the Somali population can obtain the blessings of Washington and vice versa. Al-Shabab will continue to be a U.S. target and under President Trump may attract more violent U.S. attacks, but Al-Shabab has not shown much interest in carrying out militant actions beyond Somalia and its neighboring countries. Yet Somalia’s neighbors, mainly those whose troops are in Somalia under U.N. or regional umbrellas, will continue to portray Al-Shabab as terrorists. The regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) Security Sector Program on August 16, 2016 officially called Al-Shabab “a Transnational Security Threat.”

Current strength of Al-Qaeda in North Africa cannot be understood without understanding what France, not the U.S., has been doing during the last five years, especially recent French foreign policy as summarized in the so-called Hollande Doctrine, named after the French president. Since his election in May 2012 President Hollande embarked on a new policy calling for France to re-assert its presence in its former African colonies. The doctrine states that France will be ready to intervene militarily since military intervention would likely help improve France’s image as a world power; but intervention should be governed by at least two conditions: the first, intervention should be justified to the French people and the world community as necessary on humane grounds; and second, intervention must help improve President Hollande’s image at home i.e. there should be no significant public opposition to the particular intervention. The Hollande Doctrine expects military intervention to be more successful if there is support from neighboring states, approval from the U.N. Security Council, intervention was made at the request of the country’s ruling group, and it had limited objectives or duration. The last condition applies to an overthrow of an existing regime then turning over governing responsibility to others who are beholden to France. The doctrine does not advocate that France remain for long as an occupying power.

Al-Shabaab’s tactics mirror those of ISIS.

French troops are currently found in ten African countries; their victims are mostly Muslims. The French and U.S. governments describe all resistance to French military intervention as terrorism. U.S. forces belonging to the Africa Command are there to support French re-colonialism: one U.S. military spokesman described the U.S. mission as “building critical host country capacity; enabling, advising, and assisting our Counter Terrorism partner forces so they can swiftly counter and destroy al-Shabab, AQIM, and Boko Haram.” All three named groups are not affiliates of ISIS but of Al-Qaeda.

As a reaction to French incursions in Mali, four of the major rebel groups in Mali decided to join forces under the name of “Nusrat al-Islam wa Al-Muslimeen.” Eyad Ghali, the leader of Mali’s Ansar al-Din, became the chosen leader. Other mergers were on the way. Four African Islamic resistance groups joined the alliance: they included The Emirate of the Great Sahara, based in Algeria and led by the Algerian Yahya Abu Al-Hammam, which was authorized by Osama Bin Laden in 2006 to change its name to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This alliance of forces points to how important AQIM will be to both France and the United States.

The U.S. government describes the war in Yemen as part of the war on terror; allegations are made that Yemen is home to about 400 (or up to 4,000) Al-Qaeda members. The U.S./Saudi intervention ended former president Saleh’s tenure and replaced him with his vice president.

Civil war became a reality when militias formed mainly by Houthis, a Shiite minority, ousted the new president from his capital. He found refuge in Saudi Arabia; the Saudis took military action, under the guise of re-imposing the regime, and fighting a pro-Iranian rebellion. Saudi Arabia led a coalition of Gulf States in waging a brutal air, ground and sea campaign that has killed thousands of Yemenis, dislocated millions, and generally caused irreparable damage to Yemeni lives and society. The U.S. continues to provide Saudi Arabia with the tools by which Saudi Arabia is ruining Yemen. With or without Al-Qaeda as a threat it is likely that the Trump administration will become more engaged in fighting Yemeni rebels, as an act of support for Saudi Arabia but also as an anti-Iran campaign.

The JV teams

ISIS and Al-Qaeda are considered the two major international terrorist organizations. Other organizations do not even come close; for the purposes of this discussion we will designate them as the JV Teams, with thanks to former President Barak Obama, who used the term to describe ISIS.

The JV teams: Muslim Brotherhood: An Executive Order drafted for President Trump’s signature to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a “terrorist organization” has been temporary shelved. Naming the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization is supported by Israel, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The Egyptian military that ousted the only popularly elected government has gone to extremes to blame the Brotherhood for whatever ails Egypt. Saudi Arabia cannot conceive of any Islamic state authorizing any ideology or form of political Islam that deviates from the Wahhabi sect that dominates the Kingdom. The UAE and Egypt asked a summit meeting of the Arab League held in Jordan in late March 2017 to consider “political Islam” the greatest threat to Arab countries. The Emir of Qatar came to the defense of the Brotherhood reminding other Arab heads of state that political Islam is not militant terrorism. Israel supports the Egyptian military since the Brotherhood is less accepting of Israeli excesses in dealing with the Palestinians, in addition to Israel’s concerns about the similarities between the Brotherhood and Hamas, and its close cooperation with Hamas.

Arguing against promoting the Brotherhood to the rank of the terrorist is its long history of life devoid of violence, decades of providing social services, multimillions membership, and participation in the political life of several countries friendly to the U.S. Moreover, the Brotherhood has no armed wing to wage covert or overt violent actions.

The JV teams: Hezbollah: Hezbollah came about primarily because the existing agencies of the Lebanese state could not protect the Lebanese people, especially residents of southern Lebanon, against frequent Israeli raids and occupation. Hezbollah became a fixture of the Lebanese scene and eventually a challenge to Israel. Hezbollah was established much like other resistance movements in the Muslim world, by religious clerics. In this case, however, the leading clerics were educated in Karbala, Najaf and Qum, and belonged to Shiite Islam. From its start, the Party tried to create a culture of resistance in southern Lebanon that encouraged recruitment, training, discipline, socialization, and martyrdom. The Party took the lead in resisting Israeli presence achieving some success; Israelis were more successful in killing Lebanese civilians; it is estimated that no less than 20,000 Lebanese civilians were killed in the Israeli invasion 1982-2000.

Hezbollah took much credit for Israel’s withdrawal and for the relative peace that prevailed in southern Lebanon for the next six years (2000-2006). Hezbollah began to take an active role in Lebanese politics eventually becoming part of a minority bloc supportive of Syria, even after Syrian troops were withdrawn from Lebanon. Hezbollah also got seats in the Lebanese Parliament and cabinet. It formed an alliance with a strong Christian political group led by retired General (now president) Michel Aoun who was once kicked out by the Syrians. The 2006 war with Israel began after Hezbollah kidnapped two Israeli soldiers intending to use them to free Lebanese captured by Israel. Israel’s retaliation in a 34 day long war resulted in massive damage to Lebanon and its economy, and helped precipitate a political crisis that lasted nearly two years. Despite overwhelming military advantage and support by the United States the Israeli policy of mass destruction worked only as far as destruction of Lebanon’s infrastructure is concerned, but it did not seriously weaken Hezbollah nor result in disarming Hezbollah. Other Lebanese did not rush to condemn Hezbollah or to carry arms to disarm its fighters.

Primarily because of its history of resisting Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the United States designated Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization. U.S. officials have tried, mostly without proof, to blame Hezbollah for various “terrorist acts.” All Arab and Muslim countries refused to go along (until the Gulf States discovered an Iranian/Shiite threat) as did most European countries, except the U.K., which compromised by designating as terrorist only Hezbollah’s military wing. Hezbollah’s latest tilt with the U.S. centers on its active participation in the current Syrian civil war on the side of the Syrian regime.

Despite calls from Saudi Arabia to brand the Party as a chief terrorist organization there is little justification to holding it as an international threat, given the fact of Hezbollah limiting activity to Lebanon and Lebanon’s neighborhood. Furthermore, it is not convincing to hold a party that has representatives in its country’s Parliament as the grand world terrorist.

The JV teams: Palestinian militants: Palestinian organizations have long led the U.S. list of terrorists, starting with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the 1960s and 1970s. Even when Palestinian organizations commit no violent acts against the U.S., its Government can accuse the Palestinians of terrorism against a “friendly” state. At this time, the major Palestinian organization to be so accused is Hamas.

Hamas would be natural: it is strongly disliked by Israel, and Israel’s European and American supporters. Hamas has been listed by the National Counterterrorism Center as a terrorist organization since 1987, the year the organization was founded, and before it did much of anything.

Hamas has also acted for about two decades as a political party, participated in an internationally monitored election in which its candidates won significant percentage of seats in the national Palestinian legislature, and for about a decade it has formed a “government” to manage the affairs of an important segment of the Palestinian population as the Government of Gaza. Yet Hamas has never received any understanding from the Government of the United States. In the four years of Hillary Clinton’s stewardship HAMAS was blamed for bringing on its war with Israel (Pillar of Defense 2012), blanketing Israel with rockets, and using Gaza civilians as shields. The Bush 43 administration was very supportive of Israel’s 2008-2009 war (Operation Cast Lead), as was the Obama administration, when their turn came, in supporting Israel’s war (Protective Edge 2014).

If Hamas were guilty of anything it would be advocating a policy towards Israel that is not to Israel’s liking, or to the liking of Israel’s American supporters. Hamas’s views on cultural diversity, Jewish-Arab eventual accommodation, or lack of possibility for settlement, are always seen in the West as “hate speech” requiring Western criminalization or branding as pro-terror. The belief set advocated by Hamas is held not worthy of intellectual consideration, while the ideas adopted by many Israeli parties and groups propounding more objectionable opinions are treated more kindly.

If Hamas is not scary, maybe its “militant arm” would be. While Hamas runs a local government and engages in national and international politics they have developed Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades as their military wing. But, these brigades have never operated outside Gaza.

The unexpected

It should not come as a surprise that in predominantly Muslim countries where religion has a strong influence over the daily lives of people that occupied people would rally around their religious leaders and that religious leaders become symbols of resistance. Government officials become tarnished as agents of foreign powers and as corrupt rulers, thus lose credibility in the eyes of their own people. Religious leaders become the ultimate “authority” for direction and leadership. This is the case in Lebanon with the Maronite cardinal and Shiite Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, in Iraq with Shiite Ayatollahs Sistani or Muqtada al-Sadr, in Palestine with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem or with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, founder of Hamas. Few if any of the political leaders even come close to these personalities in terms of influence and public respect.

Armed movements that form around religions and sects under conditions of political instability are likely to be intolerant and violent. In the absence of overwhelming state monopoly of the means of violence, each sect begins to acquire as much weaponry as it can, presumably to protect its members against other sects and against the foreign occupier. Biblical history tells of the “Zealots,” a Jewish “terrorist” group rising against the Romans, which inspired popular uprisings, using violent means to realize their objective of eliminating Roman rule, and their religious objective of heralding the arrival of the Messiah; the Zealots were opposed to compromise, committed atrocities including slaughtering prisoners, violated truces and murdered Jewish moderates.

Militant Islam combined with militant anti-colonialism will be violent. Hundreds or thousands of people who care little for their lives are a powerful resistance force. One individual with no military training but with a car full of explosives can kill several government or foreign soldiers.

Counter-insurgency efforts against such elements will be difficult at best. This is the more so when religious indoctrination is combined with military training and scientific know-how. Predicting more and more violent militant resistance to foreign intervention is fairly easy given the history of the region. If NATO, for example, attacks Syria, it is safe to predict that not one but several militant organizations, organized along nationalist and religious lines, will arise. These militias will not stop once active NATO operations stop, as seen in Iraq once U.S. operations stopped. Violent consequences will last much longer.

The conditions in Iraq have not improved much since the U.S. invaded, and Mr. Trump wants to re-impose further foreign occupation, which was resisted strongly from 2003 to 2011. Should President Trump introduce U.S. troops in Syria, he will significantly increase the likelihood of resistance organizations in Syria formed to oppose foreign (U.S.) occupation. Future insurgents in Iraq and Syria may be organized by ISIS, or not, but all are likely to be branded as terrorists. Western military actions in Muslim countries will determine when and where the next terrorist organization may arise. It will also dictate its form and its pace.

The known enemy

As of now, Al-Qaeda remains as the most likely organization to replace ISIS. It is the only “international” organization with branches in several countries ranging from East Asia to central Africa, including Russia. It has the strongest presence in Africa where several affiliates have joined forces to fight the most blatant “Western” (mostly French) intervention. Al-Qaeda’s forces forming AQIM would present a tempting target. AQIAP will be there to demonstrate regional reach and justify further military action in Yemen. Al-Qaeda’s “record” would add further credibility.

It is faced in the Middle East by CENTCOM, with experience in fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and in Africa by the Africa Command, also with experience in assisting French military forays. The stage is thus set for continued “war” against the successor to ISIS.