Death in the desert

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The barbaric beheading of James Foley has focused global attention on the atrocities of ISIL in Iraq and Syria.

Why does the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) speak with a British accent? Who finances the ISIL? Where did they get hold of their arms? ISIL rigidly enforces vertical lines of authority. On Saturday, a series of deadly bombs exploded in several Iraqi cities including the oil hub of Kirkuk in northern Iraq. Bombs were also detonated in the Iraqi Kurdistan capital of Irbil.

Northern and central Iraq have metamorphosed into a wild frontier and the ISIL is acting out of desperation. The gruesome video widely circulated on the Internet graphically depicts American journalist James Foley barbarically beheaded by an ISIL militant whose accent was decidedly British.

Social media is now deployed ingeniously by ISIL to advance their cause and sow the seeds of terror into the hearts of their perceived foes. American and British intelligence services are attempting to identify the butcher of Foley, who is said to have a “working class” British accent, according to the British authorities quoting a “language expert”.

The identity of Foley’s executioner is a prerequisite for the proper identification of the membership of ISIL, an extremely well armed and funded apocalyptic movement. Their sophisticated weaponry is American, yet another clue to their international nature. Their funds are said to have come from renegade Saudi Arabian princes sympathetic to their cause, as well as from Qatar and certain Kuwaiti tycoons.

On matters of both politics and religion, ISIL follows an altogether different trajectory than does the secular West. ISIL are adept at using social media and in particular Twitter to advance their cause. Many Western European Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIL. The main means of communication and recruitment are social media networks.

Rolling back ISIL is a messy task. The West is now contemplating collaboration with Iran and Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad in its bid to defeat ISIL. Indeed, the West’s strategy is based on the principle that “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”.

ISIL is recruiting disgruntled Sunni Muslim insurgent militias. Their venom, however, is vented against the Shia Muslims, Assyrian, Chaldean, Syraic and Armenian Christians in addition to non-Muslim, non-Christian religious minorities such as the Yazidis, the Druze, the Shabaks and the Mandeans. The ISIL is intent on genocide.

To head off such a disaster eventually requires the cooperation of the international community. Humanitarian aid is desperately needed. ISIL must be defeated if confidence in the democratic process in Iraq is to be restored.

Nevertheless, ISIL aggression is not restricted to religious minorities such as the Christians and Yazidis. On Sunday, ISIL launched a savage artillery shelling of the hapless Iraqi Shia Turkoman in the villages of Bashir and Amirli. Some 145 Torkomen villagers perished in the massive strike. ISIL aims at eclipsing other contenders for primacy in the Sunni Muslim world of Iraq and the Levant.

This basic plot-line played out by weakening, simultaneously tribal, traditional institutions and the authorities in Baghdad and Irbil. It is against this backdrop that in 2007, the Sunni tribes of Al-Anbar in a daring uprising chased Al-Qaeda out of their territories. Last Sunday, the Islamic State set ablaze a historic 14th century mosque in Mosul and assassinated 12 Sunni Muslim imams in the city.

A recently released video showing ISIL leader Abu-Bakr Al-Badgdadi unequivocally dispelled rumours of his death. The self-styled Caliph of Muslims worldwide demanded the allegiance of Muslims all over the world even though he carved a niche, a huge swathe of territory straddling eastern Syria and northwestern Iraq.

The conflicts in Syria and Iraq bolster ISIL. The Syrian-Iraqi border is porous and boundaries between the two countries are meaningless. Al-Qaeda was the precursor of ISIL. Shia Muslims geographically concentrated in southern and central Iraq have joined forces with the Iraqi Army and the Kurdish Peshmerga to contain ISIL. On Friday, Iraqi Shia militias stormed a Sunni Muslim mosque in Diyala province, northeast of Baghdad, during Friday prayers. At least 70 Sunni Muslims were murdered in cold blood and scores more injured. Promptly, Kurdish Peshmerga forces stormed the flash-point Sunni Muslim towns of Jalawla and Sadiya, thereby wrenching them from ISIL control.

The ISIL is on the retreat. Their strategy is most probably doomed and that is why the ISIL is now resorting to the most desperate and deplorable methods of mass destruction. They took advantage of the power vacuum with the US withdrawal from Iraq in 2010.

To understand the contemporary dynamics of ISIL one must recall the past. Not so long ago, Al-Qaeda’s Abu Musaab Al-Zarqawi in 2004 embarked on a strategy that deliberately provoked Shia Muslim militias in Iraq in order to win over the Sunni Muslim tribesmen. Al-Zarqawi’s strategy failed precisely because his own Sunni Muslim coreligionists turned against him and Al-Qaeda was flushed out of the predominantly Sunni Muslim heartlands. In 2007, 150,000 American troops occupied and policed Iraq.

The irony is that the ISIL does not learn the lessons of history. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel described ISIL’s ideology as “apocalyptic”. Iraq’s Sunni Muslims want a prosperous future where they can freely participate in the decision-making process in the country. The Sunni tribesmen of Iraq may well overrun ISIL forces as they did with Al-Zarqawi. The foreign fighters will flee back to their home countries in the West.

The international outcry over the international community’s handling of the ISIL debacle has been damning. There has been a chorus of vociferous discontent. Outgoing United Nations Human Rights Chief Navi Pilay was severely critical of the UN Security Council. “I firmly believe that greater responsiveness by this council would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives,” Pillay lamented in her last address to the UN. “These crises hammer home the full cost of the international community’s failure to prevent conflict,” Pilay solemnly added. “None of these crises erupted without warning,” Pilay extrapolated.

Gamal Nkrumah is a Cairo-based African and international affairs expert.