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The World

Baghdadi’s New Middle East Caliphate: Is it a Pure Fantasy?



Osama bin Laden’s death in May 2011 did little to diminish the threat posed by jihadist groups like al-Qaeda. “The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it” was the ‘fatwa’ issued by bin Laden in 1998. Ayman Mohammed Rabie al-Zawahiri, the aging Egyptian Islamic theologian who leads al-Qaeda today, is having difficulty controlling the newly formed Islamist affiliates.

The U.S.-led incursion into Libya in 2011 emboldened a new breed of Islamist extremists—young, eager and brutal—wanting to take control. In addition they have infiltrated the Maghreb and Sahel regions in Africa, and the Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s mission of destroying western interests will continue, while the newer Islamist groups have a more territorial plan–creating Islamic states, ruled under Sharia law.

New recruits have been inspired by radical Wahhabist and Salafist clerics believing Islam has been disenfranchised and want to create a caliphate, taking the region back to the 12th century when Islam reigned under Sultan Saladin, and more recent past under the Ottoman Empire. The irrational borders created by the European powers after World War I separated tribes and religious factions, which is at the heart of the conflicts today, with everyone wanting their piece of the turf.

Arab monarchies have used their oil fortunes to control the masses, and giving money to the radical fundamentalists to expand their jihadist message. The Islamists have become dependent on the financial support of these oil sheiks, who fear losing power otherwise. Hence they are supporting the Islamists territorial ambitions, as we have seen in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, the Sahel, and now in Syria and Iraq. Large caches of unprotected weapons have also fallen into the hands of the Islamists operating in Libya, Iraq and Syria. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iran and Lebanon have added to the chaos in the region by supplying Islamists additional armaments.

More than a dozen countries have been infiltrated by al-Qaeda linked Islamists in recent years. In West Africa and North Africa Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar al-Sharia, Libyan Islamic Fighters, Ansar Dine, and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOJWA) have a major presence. In Iraq and Syria al-Nusra Front and Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) are vying for control, both fighting government and opposition groups. And in Yemen Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has taken control of large swaths of the country.

The goal of the Islamists is to take control of the governing process in the countries and rule under Sharia law. The U.S. has a myopic view believing that establishing democratic institutions in these religiously polarized Muslim societies, will lead to a peaceful outcome. In Egypt the U.S. supported the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power, which turned out to be a chaotic disaster. Libya fared no better, with Islamists now controlling the government, with leaders being kidnapped and killed. Islamists across the Maghreb continue to press for influence in the political process.

The Global War on Terrorism is far from over. The growing presence of jihadists in Iraq and Afghanistan show a resurgence of terrorist activity in both countries. In Iraq the chaotic government has given Islamists the opportunity to join in the fight. ISIS has taken control of several Syrian and Iraqi border towns, which has caused Obama administration officials to wring their hands and lament that the U.S. should have kept a residual military presence in Iraq. Thousands of Islamist recruits have eagerly joined ISIS to undertake jihadist attacks.

President Barrack Obama has stated with the death of Osama bin Laden al-Qaeda has been decimated. Americans are led to believe that the war in Iraq and Afghanistan is over. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has stated that the death of Osama bin Laden dealt a major blow to al-Qaeda: “His ideology of hatred and violence is thankfully being rejected,” adding “His death will make our country and the world safer.”

General David Petraeus the former commander of the allied forces in Iraq noted, “We won the war but lost the peace in Iraq…and the same thing is happening in Afghanistan.” He further said that the current U.S. military strategy will not diminish al-Qaeda’s presence in Africa and the Middle East in the foreseeable future. ISIS leaders said that while al-Qaeda as an organization that undertakes terrorist attacks against the West, their goal is to establish an Islamic state—eventually a worldwide caliphate.

Reportedly there are over 70,000 Islamists in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa and Sahel. Many have come from European countries and the United States. They are well-trained and some could return home in the near future—a dangerous thought! With al-Qaeda’s fatwa still in place the new generation of jihadists will continue to grow– putting U.S. interests at risk.

In Iraq a U.S. military ‘creep’ is underway. What started out with 150 military advisors a week ago has grown by an additional 150 trainers this week. Then yesterday 500 more troops were announced to protect the U.S. Embassy. Further, attack helicopters and Predator drones were promised immediately, and F-16 fighter jets this fall. Experts say it will take more than 20,000 U.S. troops to rout the ISIS Islamists that are embedded there, and to underpin the weak Iraqi army that allowed ISIS to take control of major military armaments in their hasty retreats.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the ISIS leader in Iraq, last weekend declared a caliphate. In designating himself as the caliph, he claims to be a direct descendent of the prophet Muhammad. As such all Islamist militants would have to take orders from him. Al-Qaeda’s leader al-Zawahiri will not take this step lightly. Expect Iraq to enter into a new phase of U.S. military involvement, adding to the chaos in Afghanistan and Syria, with the Islamists moving to create Islamic states.