The jihadist forces of the Islamic State are strewing a path of atrocities, destruction and conquest across the heartland of the Middle East. They thrust down into Iraq from Syrian battlefields in June 2014, sweeping all before them, including thousands of Iraqi army troops who abandoned uniforms and top-of-the-line U.S. weaponry as they fled south to Baghdad.
Who stands between the Islamic State and its dream of a global caliphate? The Kurds are doing their best with a Peshmerga spirit but outdated weaponry. The United States and some European allies have begun to intervene militarily. Saudi King Abdullah gave a couple of speeches imploring his fellow Muslims to do something. Iran reportedly sent Gen. Qassem Suleimani and some Qods Force advisers to buck up its tottering puppet regime in Baghdad. The question is, where are the rest of the region’s Muslims, those supposedly so threatened by what the Islamic State represents? The silence from the Organization of Islamic Cooperation has been positively deafening. Above all, Gen. Suleimani and the Qods Force notwithstanding, what is Iran really doing to take the fight to the Islamic State and roll back its advances?
A directionless U.S. national security leadership helps explain why the United States can’t seem to figure out who’s the enemy (this week) or what to do about it all. As long as the Islamic State was still the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), fighting (at least occasionally) against the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar Assad in Syria, the U.S. along with assorted companions of dubious pedigree — Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood — channeled aid, intelligence, training and weapons to Syrian rebels, some of whom were of likewise dubious pedigree. But now that ISIS has morphed into the far more ambitious and dangerous Islamic State (or simply, the Caliphate), it seems to be another story. In between rounds of golf, even President Obama has expressed something akin to alarm.
The problem, as Cliff May of the Foundation for Defense of Democracy pointed out recently, is that the United States has no “overarching strategy.” What Mr. May and others term (the politically correct) “jihadism,” in fact is nothing other than the purest expression of Islamic doctrine, law and scripture that has been waging wars of conquest against the non-Muslim world for more than 1,300 years. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, after all, earned a doctorate in Islamic studies from a Baghdad university. Like Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahri and others before him, he cites with specificity Islamic law and scripture to underscore the justification of his jihad. However, thanks to massive penetration of the top levels of U.S. national security leadership, which collaborated with affiliates of the Muslim Brotherhood to effect a governmentwide purge of training materials about such topics, the American ability to name the enemy and take the offense to confront and defeat his threat doctrine has been neutralized. So we see the Obama administration jerking from response to response, sending Libyan weapons and training future ISIS recruits in Jordan one day, bombing the Islamic State positions inside Iraq the next, too tongue-tied to identify the Islamic ideology at the root of the whole mess.
Andrew Bostom nailed it in an Aug. 17 tweet in which he asked, “Whither the Muslim-led coalition to crush ‘un-Islamic [Islamic State] drawn from vast, modern-equipped militaries of Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan, et al?” Yousef al-Qaradawi, senior jurist of the Muslim Brotherhood, bleated something about how al-Baghdadi’s declaration of a caliphate was “void,” according to Islamic law. No call to arms here, though, and certainly nothing at the level of his thundering fatwas endorsing suicide bombings against American troops in Iraq or Israelis. Even when the Islamic State calls the Shia “rafidah,” meaning deviants (from the “true Islam”), and jihadis flock from all over the world to volunteer for suicide missions to blow up Shia shrines, the most Iran seems to be doing is helping defend the ones that are left and making sure the Islamic State doesn’t capture Baghdad.
That leads to the nagging concern at the back of all this: What if the reason neither the ostensibly petrified Arab Muslim regimes nor the supposedly directly targeted Shia have called an emergency session of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation to denounce the “un-Islamic” Islamic State is because it really isn’t all that “un-Islamic” to want to re-establish the caliphate or enforce Islamic law (Shariah)? None of them wants to lose his throne — or his head — to the bloodthirsty thugs, but how to condemn something that Muhammad and the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs who followed him did on a much grander scale?
Iran, for one, long ago made its own operational terrorist pact with the Sunni al Qaeda (which led to Sept. 11 and beyond) and has openly supported Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, for decades. It surely will be recalled that the closest sponsor of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Shia-hating al Qaeda commander who tore Iraq’s mixed Sunni-Shiite communities apart in the mid-2000s, was none other than the Iranian Qods Force. In fact, when the Islamic State first emerged as ISIS is the Syrian war in 2012, it arrived out of Iraq as the direct descendant of al-Zarqawi’s savage fighters. Even then, as long as ISIS was slaughtering fellow anti-Assad rebels among the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and other militias, Iran, Syria and its proxy terrorist group Hezbollah held back from going after it full force.
The chaos in the Middle East plays out on several levels. At one level, the most easily seen, it is an intra-Islamic sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites. Such fitna dates to the death of Muhammad in 632, when his followers couldn’t agree on who should succeed him. However, as the obvious reluctance of the broader Muslim world to forge that pan-Islamic coalition allows Islamic State to advance and consolidate, committing unspeakable atrocities against Christians, Shiites, Yazidis and anyone else in its way, and Westerners once again step into the middle of an Islamic jihad on the march, it would be wise to look at the macro-level of these developments.
The very top level of what may be called “balanced opposition” plays out in Samuel Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations.” It is at this level that America’s leaders must remain alert. As five intelligence officials told Bloomberg News, elements of the Islamic State already are looking outward with the intention of organizing sleeper cells to carry out future terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. The Islamic State, pan-Islamic or “merely” Sunni, eventually will pose a direct national security threat to U.S. interests abroad as well as to the homeland. Bing West, writing in National Review Online on Aug. 14, urges a sober assessment of this jihadist army, now the richest and most capable Islamic force since the high point of the Ottoman Empire. He is right to declare that only a “warrior resolve” to physically destroy this jihad army will halt its inexorable advance.
Even more important in the long run, though, is the “warrior resolve” to name, confront and destroy the allure of the Shariah-based ideology that drives jihad. That’s the only way “we get to win this time.”
Clare M. Lopez is the vice president for research and analysis at the Center for Security Policy.