Is the Islamic State (IS) movement the final challenge for Western and other civilizations?

Al Qaeda was the meta-threat to the West after September 11, 2001. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, this challenge has often been considered as being overcome. The ISIS (later IS) threat is different insofar as they control territory – chunks of Syrian and Iraqi land. They are media-savvy, and were successful in establishing the narrative of being particularly cruel. So how can we meet and match this threat?

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  1. Shen Dingli 4 years ago

    That is hard to tell. Al Qaeda has launched a terrorist attack on the US, hijacking airplanes and slaughtering thousands of people at one time, with far-reaching implications for the future and it has not yet ended, despite the demise of Osama bin Laden. As Al Qaeda is a non-state actor without territory, it is hard to be traced and contained.
    ISIS, with physical territory to claim, is more visible and prone to being confined within a locale. In this sense it is more vulnerable than Al Qaeda. Given its notorious brutality, it is shaping an unbelievable coalition of nations such as the US and Iraq, as well as Syria. It is also inviting America to reflect upon its foreign policy of the recent past, suppressing Saddam and Assad’s regimes without proper regional balance. Western and other civilizations, with an improved strategy, are more likely to forge concerted efforts so as to prevent ISIS from emerging as the final challenge to humankind.

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  2. Panayotis Tsakonas 4 years ago

    The recent advance of IS (Islamic State) in Iraq and the declaration of a Caliphate by al-Baghdadi have forced the West to reconsider its policy in the region. The establishment of a Sunni-dominated state in parts of Iraq and Syria is bound to create an alliance of the willing against it; the United States, Iran, the Iraqi government, and the Kurds would put their differences aside and work towards a common goal, namely the containment of Sunni extremism in the region. Yet, such a development will only intensify the isolation of the Gulf monarchies, which view the US-Iranian rapprochement with great suspicion. Engaging the Gulf Arab countries in the fight against IS should be the top priority for the West.

    Second, IS seems more intent on spreading its deadly rule in the region rather than advancing a global crusade through terrorist attacks on distant countries – at least in the short run. Hence, the terror threat from IS perceived in North America and Europe is probably exaggerated for now.
    Since, however, it is a former part of al Qaeda – indeed, often referred to as “al Qaeda on steroids” – it could easily pick up this mantle at some point. Meanwhile, it does indirectly pose a terrorist threat in the hundreds of young British, Germans, French, etc. recruited into its ranks.
    Radically inclined to begin with, these militants have been exposed to bestial behavior that, beyond the techniques they are learning, has inured them to unimaginable human suffering rendering terror an easy act for them. If the numbers are accurate – e.g., 500 British and 700 French – they, with their western passports and knowledge of their home countries, could pose a very serious threat unless carefully tracked. Again, something easier said than done.

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  3. Dmitri Mitin 4 years ago

    The rise of the Islamic State represents a serious threat to stability in the region. But, at least for now, it is neither a direct challenge to the West, nor a manifestation of a novel, particularly coherent and broadly appealing political vision (comparable to fascism and communism, the two principal 20th century alternatives to Western liberalism). It is, therefore, preferable not to frame the conversation about ISIS in terms of mega-civilizational rifts or grand-scale ideological rivalries.

    Assumptions about the nature of a threat inform appropriate response strategies. The Islamic State immediately threatens local governments, tribal and ethnic leaders, paramilitary organizations, established political groups and religious authorities. Propping up these actors – wherever possible – is likely to constitute the main approach to containing and, possibly, reversing, the spread of the IS.

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  4. Theodoros Tsakiris 4 years ago

    I do not personally believe in finalities in international politics.
    ISIS will not pose the final challenge because there will never be a final security challenge. Believing that is equally fallacious as Fukuyama’s ideas regarding the “end of history” which won unwarranted popularity in the dawn of the post-Cold War era.

    Furthermore it would be a great mistake to associate the death of Bin Laden with the destruction of Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda’s security challenge to Western values and interests was essentially ideological. Its primary goal was to not necessarily win against the “Jews and the Crusaders” militarily. After 9/11 the combined military, economic and intelligence assets of the US-led alliance in Europe and the Middle East all but crippled the operational capacity of Al-Qaeda especially after 2005-2006.

    But the other strategic objective of Osama bin Laden was to galvanize global jihadist forces that are not controlled by a central operational/financial authority, but are driven by the same extremist ideology. This, to a certain extent, pre-dated Al-Qaeda as is exhibited in the Mujahedin resistance against the Soviet invasion of 1980-1988.
    But what bin Laden did for the movement was to (a) systematize it ideologically, (b) provide it with a blueprint for operational autonomy and financial autarky, (c) not micro-manage it and (d) galvanize it through the “success” of 9/11.

    The 2001 attacks were the first global jihadist offensive against the West that actually worked. After 2003 the mismanagement of the post-Saddam occupation of Iraq by the U.S. and the chaotic conditions in post-Arab Spring Syria and Libya merely provided the geopolitical opportunity for ISIS to emerge.

    Despite their respective national and historic differences, ISIS, Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb, Boko Haram and the plethora of salafist-like jihadist groups clashing over the control of Benghazi and Tripolitania are different fruits from the same Al-Qaeda tree.

    Only a combination of a sustained air campaign by the US and other willing NATO members along with the arming of the Kurdish peshmerga in Northern Iraq could initially contain the expansion of ISIS in Iraq. Nevertheless the reluctant coalition would also either have to force the Shia to share power with the Sunnis and the Kurds or force the Shia to accept the further devolution of power to an expanded Kurdish Regional Government that would include Mosul in a new more decentralized federated state. If either option fails then a serious consideration should be given to the issue of Kurdish independence.

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  5. Alexei Voskressenski 4 years ago

    One of the goals of Osama bin Laden was a resurrection of Caliphate that will help to bring the end to the West. However Osama believed that this goal can be achieved through the whole 21t Century, and he lost long before the first quarter of the 21st Century. As soon as the USA transferred the power in Iraq from the Sunni to the Shia majority, that strengthened Iran and Hezbollah and changed the confessional balance in the region. Saudi Arabia and Israel both, for different reasons, disliked the new situation. Saudi Arabia thought that changing the political regime in Syria would help the restoration of balance. The USA considered that American mediation will restore its role in the region and will help the decrease of authoritarianism. That did not happen, however at least one goal was achieved: the USA, Russia and the international community managed to eliminate the chemical threat to the region together. We also saw an increase of stronger and more rigid versions of Islamic states and more radicalism. This, in turn, resulted in the return of the military in Egypt and later the creation of the New Caliphate. This is quickly becoming a threat to the region and to the world due to its sponsorship of the new wave of radicalism and terrorism as inevitable consequences. The only solution to this is a new entente, formal or informal, between the West and the moderate Muslim states on the understanding that a victory over a new wave of radicalism and terrorism can be achieved only through joint efforts. If the New Caliphate is a last challenge to the West or not depends on the form and decisiveness of this new Western-Muslim accord in moving Islam to a moderate constructive version that will concentrate on development, modernization and prosperity of the population and not on pursuing jihad against the West and others.

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  6. Robert Legvold 4 years ago

    The threat posed by IS should be seen on several levels. First, it is a regional threat as it swells its numbers, spreads across the chaotic territories of Syria, Iraq, and beyond, captures sophisticated arms from crumbling military forces – particularly in Iraq – and terrorizes whole ethnic communities. The threat in this case is the establishment of an expansionist caliphate that would menace the entire Levant. As events have shown, its military offensive can be thrown back, if the Kurdish peshmerga are properly armed, the Sunni tribes mobilized, the Iraqi military forces reconstituted, and U.S. airpower applied. All of this, however, requires a Shiite government in Baghdad that undoes the damage done by the Maliki government, and permits these elements to come together. That is a tall order. Even then, IS will still have a potent base in Syria, and bringing this down is probably not within the reach of the United States and its European allies – not without Russian and Syrian collaboration, a most unlikely prospect.

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  1. john borner 4 years ago

    isis is a disease on this planet and like cancer they must be canceled. And if they use chemicals or any biological agents to kill they should be nuked, point blank, period, end of conversation people, so wake up all of you kind hearted fools out there.

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  2. Christian Frank 4 years ago

    Is ISIS a final threat for the West or other civilizations?

    I personally think that it is not the case! Taking a Realist perspective, I even dare to predict that ISIS is only “noise in the international system”. I know that I am provocant now, but this is definately the purpose of my short essay here. Working within military intelligence for a couple of years now, I assess ISIS to be presumably neither a terrorist organization like Al-Qaeda, nor a bureaucratic organized army like the military organizations of the West. It definately is a threat for the Levant, but as a guerrilla force it is also vulnerable to conventional attacks from convential fighting forces, because it operates in units which are not (as terrorists) organized in clandestine cells. Additionally, and here I see the choke point, ISIS is vulnerable to sophisiticated counter-terrorism (CT) attempts, conducted by Special Forces, which go hand in hand with efficient secret intelligence operations (e.g. “wet operations” where people are targeted and killed). But, fighting ISIS down is not done by military and CT means alone; it takes social and political measures to bring the whole dilemma to an end. ISIS, and also AL-Qaeda with all its offshoots, is rather a counter-culture to Globalization, and, in the special case of ISIS, to sectariean violence. If the West wants to bring an end to the greater conflict in the Middle East, it needs to consolidate the problems in Iraq and Syria, as well as the whole Levant, as soon as possible. This might even indicate to completely redesign the map of the Middle Eastern States and to re-draw borders along ethnic and religious lines.

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  3. Wisam 4 years ago

    Is this the final challenge? Absolutely not. The fight against ISIS will take time. ISIS has served as a major rallying point for every regime in MENA. The United States, Iran, GCC, Egypt and Syrians of all stripes all have a mutual vested interest in defeating ISIS and the like. All countries in the region (and the world) are struggling with containing extremist criminal organizations. There must be a multifaceted approach:

    1) Unified Military Support: all major powers need to unify behind the central government in Baghdad. Arming the Kurds is fine, but it must be done with Baghdad’s approval (which is likely already happening).

    2) Coordination and dissemination of intelligence data and analysis, ideally through the United State’s Joint Operations Center in Baghdad and Erbil.

    3) Political support of Iraq’s incoming Prime Minister and his efforts to build an inclusive government.

    4) Economic support and development assistance (including supporting Iraq’s bid to join the World Trade Organization) delivered to Baghdad, under the condition that it be equally dispersed in those areas that are in dire conditions.

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  4. Torge Matthiesen 4 years ago

    I tend to side with Christian and Wisam – the Islamic State (among others) is a menace to Iraq and Syria these days. But I think it is unlikely to transform into a protracted threat for the region or even “the West”.

    Why is that? In my view, IS was able to gain traction because nation states (Syria and then Iraq) had lost control over large swathes of their territory. In the absence of basic forms of statehood, IS occupied this vacuum with very limited resources (the invasion of Mosul is reported to have been conducted by some 8000 fighters). This conquest was also fueled by ethnic and religious fractions and conflicts – parts of the Sunni population in Iraq may have temporarily sided with IS in order to overcome Shia domination within the political system of the country. I however predict that IS will collapse once this support is withdrawn either in the wake of a military defeat (ground troops in the desert tend to be easy prey for airpower) and / or when more inclusive policies are implemented to accommodate the interests of these parts of the population.

    In a way I would also say that IS in its current form is less dangerous than AQ at its peak. IS seems to conduct a campaign of conventional conquest and is thus very vulnerable to superior firepower that the US or other Allies of the Iraqi (or Kurdish) government can easily provide. In contrast, AQ embarked on a decentralized, asymmetric campaign that was difficult to detect and to target. That said, we should expect IS to quickly adapt to the new situation…

    Syria is a different case then – are western powers are willing to strike IS even if this will aid or consolidate the position of the Assad regime?

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    1. Wisam 4 years ago

      Very interesting points, Torge. You said that ISIS is likely to experience a military defeat (especially considering POTUS announcing increased military engagement in the last 48 hours), which I would agree with you. What about the threat that ISIS poses to the United States, Canada, Australia and Europe? The tragic event that took place in Brussels is a prime example.

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      1. Christian Frank 4 years ago

        @ Wisam: Concerning the threat of fighters returning to their homelands, it is definately worth it to take such a potential threat serious. I personally think the main danger comes from so called ‘lone wolf terrorists’. Fighting them is extremely difficult – even for the best intelligence service.
        Nevertheless, it is also important to flip the coin and to take into consideration fighters who come back totally disenchanted with the holy war. Some of them are even paralyzed by the experiences they have made in combat. Most of them, coming from the West, to fight in the Levant, never performed the Hajj and are not prepared for combat at all; those guys are a perfect source to gather information from. Getting some of them as sources may even give a hint to potential ‘lone wolf terrorists’.

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