The prospects for Islamic State (the organisation formerly known as ISIS) playing a major part in the future of Iraq and Syria shouldn’t be under-estimated. The future of IS depends on its military performance, image-building skills, and overall momentum. It appears to have positioned itself as both more successful than al-Qaeda and a more credible defender of Sunni interests than the mainstream Iraqi Sunni political class or the Sunni tribes.
It has yet to face the challenges of a more concerted military campaign that uses improved US-backed assets as well as Iranian assistance to the Shia militias, and the more effective use of air power. But IS is strongly motivated, well-resourced and tactically sophisticated. The failure to date of the Iraqi forces backed by Shia militias to recapture Tikrit shows it’ll be extraordinarily difficult to remove from urban centres under its control.
IS articulates a vision which both motivates and provides a sense of identity that rejects established (temporal) authority and jihadist alternatives. The poetic appeal of such imagery shouldn’t be under-estimated. The so-called ‘dignity of jihad’ resonates with youth who are alienated and frustrated. It offers a sense of empowerment and a divinely-sanctioned opportunity to fight.
True, the IS reading of Islam is narrow and self-serving. But while not neglecting the need to defend itself in theological debates, it aims to tackle theological disputes from a position of strength on the ground—literally calling the shots in dealing with opponents. For political purposes, it stakes out more radical positions than other jihadi scholars and conservative critics.
It draws upon both in-principle Islamic approval of the notion of a Sunni caliphate, and long-standing condemnation by Sunni ulema of the Shia as heretics. It uses violence—and social media dissemination of the imagery of that violence—as an instrument of politics, as well as a means of intimidating and co-opting its opponents and those who fall under its military control.
Its cruelty—and perhaps the problems it faces further down the track in delivering basic services—probably reduces the amount of time IS has to achieve military successes before its popular appeal begins to wane and rivals begin to coalesce against it. But in coming months, at least, its violence may not have much negative effect on its military performance.
For most countries, one of the primary concerns is the extent to which IS influence will be felt through ‘foreign fighters’ returning to their countries of origin. Whatever the outcome in Syria and Iraq, a proportion of those jihadists will return. Some will have lost faith in the cause for which they fought, on the basis of first-hand observation of the venality and political realities of civil war.
But for others the motivation for returning will be ideological, and strengthened by a newly-discovered sense of identity, peer recognition and self-esteem.
If the Caliphate becomes entrenched in northern Syria and Iraq (and connections between the two areas are quite strong) the potential for the ongoing engagement in violence of a proportion of that cohort against their opponents, or in support of the Caliphate’s wider objectives, has to be recognised.
The risks are greatest to countries in the Middle East that have provided most of the foreign jihadists. Tunisia, for example, has possibly 3000 fighters in Syria, 80% of whom are with IS. And there are around 2000 Jordanians fighting in Syria.
Still, signs of support for IS and al-Qaeda in Australia are concerning—especially given the record of jihadists returning from Afghanistan, and recent Australian suicide bombers in Syria and Iraq. We should anticipate ongoing efforts in some quarters actively to exploit feelings of outrage and obligation to act in defence of fellow Muslims.
The professional abilities and information-sharing arrangements of Australian authorities have advanced considerably since 2001. Yet it’ll never be possible to gain much insight into the effectiveness of the government’s preventive work.
Unlikely to be an area of policy disagreement between government and opposition, the main challenge will be in containing public demands for visible government action in the light of possible incidents here and in other Western countries.
There are real limits to the capacity of government to deal with individual Australian citizens whose activities are within the law. But the emphasis should be on promotion of mutual respect between Australian communities, in which political leaders should take a leading role without being made party to disputes within the communities—a very tough line to tread.
Where there’s clear evidence of activity contrary to law, the response is likely to be firm. If backed by a sophisticated media campaign, that’s the approach most likely to secure the support of the Australian Muslim community.
It’ll be important to sustain public confidence in the government’s approach to dealing with the jihadist issue.
However, care also needs to be exercised to avoid compromising useful inputs from the Australian Muslim community who have to contend with the appeals of jihadist propaganda and highly professional activists within their own social—sometimes family—milieux.
The Syrian conflict has already been highly divisive for the Australian Muslim community—much more so than the Lebanon, Afghanistan, or Iraq conflicts.
Much will ultimately depend upon the quality of cooperation between communities and government agencies, a solid intelligence effort, and the sense of common concern to combat values and behaviour that put the reputation and well-being of Australian Muslims at risk.
Bob Bowker is adjunct professor at the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies, Australian National University. He was Australia’s ambassador to Syria, accredited from Cairo, from 2005 to 2008. He also served in Damascus from 1979 to 1981. Image courtesy of Flickr user Henry Patton.