The Sunni Jihadist Rebirth

The most important news in the past week was not the humiliation of Peyton Manning, the arrest of a leading Bitcoin entrepreneur, or the drug death of another Hollywood celebrity; it was not even the Congressional Budget Office revelation that Obamacare will cost over 2,000,000 jobs. It was the break between al Queda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Let’s explain:

The act itself was simple. Last April the leader of the Iraq-based ISIL, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, decided to expand his insurgency operations from western Iraq and join the growing civil war in Syria. The problem was that there was another al Queda affiliate, the Nusra Front, already operating in Syria as part of the chaotic anti-Assad coalition. Al Queda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, told ISIS that their franchise territory was limited to Iraq, but Abu Bakr ignored the instructions, tried unsuccessfully to take control of the Nusra Front, was a successful recruiter of foreign fighters in Syria, and had some striking military successes. On Monday Zawahiri had had enough and excommunicated Abu Bakr’s organization in favor of the Nusra Front.

This is a disagreement about personalities and tactics rather than strategic objectives. Both Sunni groups are committed to the overthrow of Bashir Assad’s Shia Allawite regime. Both groups seek to establish a fundamentalist Islamic state in the center of what was once the center of the Sunni Muslim Caliphate. (Damascus was the capital of the Umuyyad dynasty from 661 to 750; Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid dynasty from 750 to 1258.) Tactically, al Queda and their franchise Nusra Front are willing to work with a broader coalition to remove Assad while seeking popular support; abu Bakr is committed to using suicide bombers, foreign fighters, and the intimidation of civilians that have marked the rebellion in Iraq.  Al Queda is the modarate.

The rise of ISIL should be viewed in the broader Middle East context. The Levant refers to the general area along the Mediterranean between Turkey and Egypt – today’s Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine. The western reaches of ISIL’s current operations include not only Syria, but also Lebanon where they have been attacking the Shia militia Hezbollah and a local jihadist has established an ISIL branch. Jordanian and Palestinian leaders are keeping their heads down, fearing ISIL more than Assad. The Syrian civil war has also been spreading back eastward into bordering Iraq, where the Sunni population has been enflamed by the arrest of prominent Sunni leaders by the Shia-dominated government of Kamal al-Maliki.  ISIL-led fighters have recently captured Ramadi and Falluja  and are becoming more aggressive in Baghdad, as the Obama administration has been searching for a way to recover the stability which has been lost since we withdrew in December 2011.

This expanding Syrian civil war provides some lessons from the Obama/Clinton Middle East policy that should guide the Obama/Kerry team if policy can trump politics:

– The retention of a small NATO force in Iraq could have mediated between the Shia Malaki government and the Sunni leaders in western Iraq, precluding the rise of the al Queda ISIL franchise. We are faced with a similar question in Afghanistan where a small NATO presence would also enable the maintenance of a level of engagement against al Queda’s headquarters in Pakistan. We should not make the same mistake twice.

– The administration’s domestic political message prior to Benghazi – that the killing of bin Laden and many of his top lieutenants had effectrively ended the jihadist threat – was clearly wrong. This is the answer to Hillary’s “what difference does it make?” rant: the Benghazi attack was not just some guys out for a walk; the jihadists are alive and well and regrouping. Our friends in the region are at severe risk if we do not recognize the escalating threat and continue to treat military and intelligence capabilities focused on the jihadist threat as a high priority.

– Our dithering inaction in Syria – not arming the pro-west opposition early on – was a mistake which led to not only a protractred civil war with over 130,000 killed, but also to a potential jihadist sanctuary, not in the mountains of Afghanistan, but in the center of the old Muslim empire. That cannot be allowed to happen.


This week’s video is a Weather Channel explanation of why global warming is responsible for this season’s extremely cold winter. Perhaps next month they can explain the record expansion of ice coverage at the South Pole.

bill bowen – 2/7/14