Fighting between tribal and religious factions is not new. Rulers and dictators have come and gone through history. In the 12th century Sultan Saladin’s Muslim forces defeated the Crusaders, and created a caliphate in the Middle East and North Africa. The mantle was passed on to the Ottoman Empire rulers who controlled much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe until 1915. Islamists today want to establish another caliphate in the same region. In the early 1700’s the Muslim preacher Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab formed a political pact with Muhammad bin Saud to engage in armed jihad against the other tribes in the region. The al-Saud dynasty by 1932 had become the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, controlling a vast region in the Middle East. The Wahhabi sect has since spread throughout the Middle East, Africa and Southern Asia, and adopted armed jihad as part of the Islamic doctrine.
The Salafist fundamentalist movement started in Egypt in mid-1800 and has spread throughout North Africa, and Middle East, also espousing armed jihad. Radical Islamic preachers are supported by the Arab States using their vast oil revenues, as are Islamist extremists who want to destroy Western culture. Cutting off the oil revenues from these monarchies could stop the flow of funds that support terrorist operations around the world.
Islamist attacks against U.S. interests go back to 1979 when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun, then in 1983 the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed, followed by the bombing of the military barracks housing U.S. peacekeeping troops in Beirut. That same year the U.S. embassy in Kuwait was also bombed. We could have learned a lesson from these early attacks by Islamists that more would follow, since we were considered infidels in their countries. Osama bin Laden, who formed al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, was our ally as the U.S. clandestinely supported the Mujahedeen to oust the Soviet troops from their country in the 1980′s. In the vacuous situation that followed the Taliban took control. Had the U.S. stayed to help rebuild the country this radical Islamist movement might not have taken control of Afghanistan.
In 1991 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait the U.S. was allowed to use Saudi Arabia’s bases as staging areas, which infuriated Osama bin Laden. He did not want our troops on the soil of the two holiest Islamic shrines–Mecca and Medina. He viewed the soldiers as infidels and declared a jihad against the United States. Osama bin Laden subsequently planned the attacks on the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996, the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya in 1998, the USS Cole destroyer in Yemen in 2000 and the attacks on September 11, 2001. Killing Osama bin Laden in 2011 did not destroy al-Qaeda which has morphed into new Islamist affiliates, several focusing on creating Islamic states ruled under Sharia law.
The Arab Spring uprisings in North Africa and Middle East gave Western powers the opportunity to introduce democratic institutions. The U.S.-led incursion into Libya to oust the ruler Muammar Gaddafi opened the door for new al- Qaeda affiliates to fight for control of the country. Deposing the dictator Hosni Mubarak in Egypt also did not bring about democratic changes, since electing the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi led to chaos. Tunisia has fared no better after the ousting of the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The Muslim Brotherhood continues to work hard to gain influence across North Africa and the Middle East.
In Yemen protesters brought about regime change but not peace. President Ali Abdullah Saleh was replaced by vice president Abd Rabbuh Manṣûr Hâdî, who has failed to unify the country. Last Sunday Prime Minister Mohammed Salem Basindwa resigned as Islamists were fighting for control of Sanaa, the capital. In Yemen’s long civil war al-Qaeda linked terrorists have taken control of large swaths of land in the southern region. These Islamists have joined with North African and Iraqi affiliates in the battle against the Syrian government troops and the opposition rebels. In this quagmire the Islamic State (IS) has become the dominant force, controlling large swaths of land along the Syria and Iraq border region. Recently declaring a caliphate, their success and financial strength has led to recruiting many young Muslims. Upwards of 30,000 are fighting in IS ranks.
Regime change in Iraq has failed to bring about democracy in the country, or unify the different tribal and religious factions. Former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite autocrat, made no effort to form an inclusive government. He reluctantly resigned in August allowing another Shiite leader Haider al-Abadi to take his place. Sunni and Kurd minorities have lost hope that a unifying alliance will be formed to help stabilize the country. Withdrawing the U.S. peacekeeping forces in 2011 was a miscalculation, not foreseeing that Sunni Islamists could take control.
On September 23, the U.S. began airstrikes on IS and al-Qaeda strongholds in Syria. Just weeks earlier U.S. and French jets started bombing Islamist strongholds in northeastern Iraq. However airstrikes to destroy the Islamists, without adequate ground support, will prove to be a long battle and victory may not be achievable. The plan to train Iraqi forces and also opposition rebels in Syria is fraught with ‘angst’ since vetting will be a difficult task. The U.S. had trained and equipped the army in Iraq, only to find that under pressure from the Islamists many Iraqi soldiers abandoned their positions leaving behind a large cache of armaments. So what can we expect in the future?
The U.S. needs to seriously consider working with Syria’s ruler Bashar al-Assad to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, before attempting to arm opposition rebel groups. Stabilizing the country is a paramount first step. Removing Assad from power should be secondary, and carefully considered since further destabilization could allow Islamists to fill the void and take control. The airstrike coalition has shown how difficult it is to recruit allies to enter the fight. So far only France and five Arab countries have undertaken these bombing missions.
The number of Islamist factions throughout the region will make it difficult to defeat them militarily. They are better organized today, and becoming a standing army of religious fanatics believing that through armed jihad they will reach their goal of a larger caliphate. A new generation of young jihadists is emerging every day. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel recently noted that “this is beyond anything we have seen.” CIA Director John Brennan told the House Committee on Intelligence that Islamists in Syria and Iraq are a great threat to the region. Airpower alone will not defeat the Islamists, nor will training and equipping a small number of ground troops prove successful. In addition the training period alone will be an obstacle, allowing the Islamists to further extend their reach.
In December 2011 as the U.S. troops left Iraq President Obama stated that his strategy of building a sovereign, stable, self-reliant Iraq had succeeded, leaving behind a representative government. “We are ending a war not with a final battle, but with a final march toward home. Iraq’s future will be in the hands of their people.” The Global War on Terrorism never ended, as IS and the al-Qaeda affiliates have proven. President Obama recently stated that the U.S. aim was to degrade and disrupt the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. In a more recent speech he added the word ‘destroy.’ However without U.S. boots on the ground it appears no other alliance will have the strength to defeat the Islamist factions embedded throughout the Middle East and Africa.
Airstrikes will exacerbate the instability in Syria and Iraq, unless there is ground support to go door-to-door to seek out the Islamists. The U.S. can expect to have a major involvement for the foreseeable future to protect our security interests. In the long run the U.S. needs to address solutions for the next generation of young Muslims, who will continue to be radically indoctrinated. Arab countries need to rein in the radical preachers and their curriculum that teaches armed jihad and hatred. They also need to cease financing the terrorists and seize their bank accounts. The U.S. needs to start investing more in secular education and job creation in the countries at risk. We must give young Muslims hope for a better future, or else radical Islamists will continue to spread their influence.