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After Paris, Islamic State war enters deadly new stage

The fact Islamic State put such effort into attacking the European mainland may be a perverse sign of weakness. At the same time, though, it shows the conflict entering a new phase that brings with it a much greater chance of attacks on the West.

A welcome sign along the Beirut-Damascus highway (Paul Keller).
A welcome sign along the Beirut-Damascus highway (Paul Keller).

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).
In some ways, the fact Islamic State put such effort into attacking the European mainland is a perverse sign of weakness. At the same time, though, it shows the conflict entering a new phase that brings with it a much greater chance of attacks on the West.

Unlike the original Al Qaeda, IS and the precursor groups behind it had always been much more focused on the Middle East. While Osama bin Laden prioritised fighting the “far enemy” — the United States and its Western allies — Islamic State’s entire purpose for existence was to carve out territory to create its caliphate.

For my of last year, it appeared to be being remarkably successful in that goal, seizing towns and cities across swathes of Iraq and Syria. It was also remarkably effective in attracting and creating new affiliates, from pre-existing militant groups in Libya and Afghanistan to forging an alliance with Nigeria’s Boko Haram.

To maintain its momentum, though, it desperately needs to be able to maintain that “winning” narrative. Even when pushed back elsewhere, it has always been quick to throw resources into producing a high-profile victory — for example, the seizure of the historic town of Palmrya earlier this year — to distract attention from difficulties and defeats elsewhere.

Recent weeks have in fact been amongst the toughest for Islamic Stake in its short history.

High profile losses include UK-born Islamic State executioner Mohammed Emwasi — widely known as “Jihadi John” — whose own death in a US drone strike was announced by British and American officials only hours before the Paris attack. On Saturday, a Pentagon’s announcement that the group’s Libya chief had been killed in the strike was entirely overshadowed.

Also on Friday, Kurdish forces backed by US airstrikes ousted IS
from the northern Iraqi town of Sirjar. Isabel Coles, the excellent Reuters correspondent in the region, described it as “one of the most significant counter-attacks since the militants swept through… last year”.

No one, of course, noticed. By attacking France — and probably bringing down a Russian airliner over Egypt on October 31 — the group has reframed its story and ambitions..

As with Al Qaeda, it is always difficult to tell how much direct leadership is exercised from the centre of IS. But either by accident or design, IS has now made showcasing its ability to strike at the West and other external enemies an essential part of its image.

The Paris and possible Russian airliner attack were not the only attacks outside the immediate combat zone. Thursday saw a suicide bombing in the Lebanese capital Beirut that killed 43.

These attacks will almost certainly supercharge foreign military intervention in the region, most particularly from Russia and France but also the United States. There, though, it gets a lot more complicated.

Foreign military action alone is never going to be enough to defeat Islamic State. As I wrote earlier this year, many regional experts believe the group will only be pushed out of the areas it currently controls when the local populations — mostly Sunnis — feel safer and more secure under the currently Shi’ite governments in Baghdad and Damascus.

Any further uptick in fighting — particularly if it comes with further heightened ethnic tension — may only serve to increase the exodus of Syrians in particular fleeing to Europe.

The colossal majority of migrants, of course, have nothing at all to do with Islamic State — indeed, the dislike of them and life under their rule is one of the principal reasons people are fleeing.

The problem, of course, is that it is virtually impossible to detect the relative handful of potential Islamic State attackers who may be infiltrating as part of that group.

Even many of the hundreds or more European Muslims who have gone to fight for Islamic State and then quietly returned, some security experts suspect, are as sick of the war as everyone else and pose little use genuine threat. Indeed, some argue, their support and intelligence they provide may prove key in the battle to come.

The danger, though, is that the aftermath of the Paris attack in particular just serves to deepen the divide in Europe between Muslim populations — both established and new migrants — and everyone else.

So far, the signs are mixed at best, with the attack in Paris already prompting the Polish government to get back on its pledge to take Syrian migrants. On the other side of the political agenda, there are calls to somehow avoid discussing the attack and migrant issues together for fear of worsening divisions.

That doesn’t really work, I’d argue — the attack and much of the migrant crisis, after all, were birthed in the same conflict. The current conflagration in the Middle East now includes Europe, albeit with only sporadic attacks and much more limited casualties that within the primary war zone itself.

Stirring up sectarian divisions, after all — whether between Muslims and non-Muslims or Shi’ite and Sunni — is at the core of what Islamic State is all about.

Further attacks on the West — including potentially the United States — would certainly help the group maintained its narrative of success. But it also needs to avoid significant losses in Iraq and Syria and by its new affiliates in Libya, Afghanistan and Nigeria.

Those trying to defeat IS need to craft their own narrative. That means winning real victories on the ground — both in Syria and Iraq — and stopping as many terror attacks as possible. It means highlighting victories and avoid letting the militants dictate the storyline as they have so far.

Most importantly, it means creating an inclusive enough environment in both Europe and the region that moderate and even not so moderate Sunnis do not find themselves utterly alienated.

That won’t be easy — not least because so far those supposedly fighting IS have often been more focused on a very real rivalries based on geopolitics or ideology. Neither Sunni Gulf states nor Shi’ite rulers in Iran and Syria dare lets the other dictate events . Russian and Western leaders have desperately entrenched opinions over the future of Assad that go to the heart of their different worldviews and much wider stand-off.

The more dangerous Islamic State appears, however, the more likely those differences can be at least temporarily overcome. With any luck, this weekend’s international conference on Syria in Vienna and G20 in Turkey will be the start of that process.

The last week has been the group’s most successful when it comes to grabbing the global agenda. They might also be its most devastating miscalculation.

This article was originally posted on Reuters.com on 14 November 2015.

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