A day after the couple Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik killed 14 people in San Bernardino, CNN reported that Malik had made “a pledge of allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.” Subsequently, it was reported that Malik attended al-Huda, a religious institute whose funding and curriculum were decided by Saudi benefactors, and Farook visited Saudi Arabia and married his wife in that country. The connection between terrorists and Saudi sponsored religious institutions is well documented. The connection between ISIL and its derivatives, terrorism, and the civil war in Syria and Iraq must be properly understood and factored into any global strategy to combat terrorism and reduce violence around the world. Law enforcement officials’ reaction to the San Bernardino shooting–suggesting that the attack “may have been inspired by ISIS” but “not directed or ordered” by the group–shows that the connection between Saudi political/religious systems and terrorism is not properly made and understood.
Besides the usual claims of responsibility that ISIL releases after the fact, there is no evidence that the group ordered or directed any of the other attacks, including the most recent ones in Beirut, France, and Tunisia. Distinguishing attacks inspired by ISIL from the ones ordered by ISIL reveals a lack of understanding of the ideology and methodology of ISIL and an incoherent response that allow this group to carry out its genocidal agenda. This willful ignorance is present among federal law enforcement officials and political leaders, the main authorities that are supposed to formulate a comprehensive strategy to neutralize and eradicate such threats. Moreover, the occurrence of these brutal attacks in many countries, Muslim and non-Muslim majority ones, underscore the link between the crises in Syria and Iraq and the spread of terrorism. It is now clear, that the longer the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars are allowed to continue the graver the threat of terrorism around the world. Therefore, defeating ISIL in Syria, Libya, and Iraq is necessary to protecting civilians in this country and elsewhere. These conclusions are based on a number of facts.
1. Once in control of territories in Syria and Iraq, and upon declaring himself “caliph,” al-Baghdadiordered, through his spokesperson al-Adnani, all his followers all over the world to carry out all kinds of acts of violence against anyone who disagrees with his interpretation of Islam everywhere—inside or outside Muslim majority countries. The order included specific and appalling instructions about murderous acts and targets. That order was meant to be open as long as the “Islamic State” is in existence. With that being said, the notion that ISIL did not order this or other attacks is factually untrue.
2. Ideologically, every lone terrorist and every fighter in the ranks of ISIL and its derivatives, from the ones who carried out the 9/11 attacks to the ones who carried out the attacks in Tunisia, follow Salafism. Not all Salafists are ISIL terrorists. However, it is immanently true that all ISIL terrorists are Salafist. Therefore, terrorism cannot be defeated without confronting states that espouse, sponsor, and support Salafism and Salafist figures and force them to purge their educational and religious institutions from hateful and genocidal ideas.
3. The fight against combatant Salafist terrorists of ISIL and its derivatives must be constitutional and within the limits of international law. No government should imprison or kill Salafists based on membership, only combatants in the ranks of ISIL and its derivatives can be pursued so that the war on genocidal fighters is not turned into an ideological war against Salafism or Islam in general. Analogically, the KKK espouses a genocidal ideology not that different from ISIL’s but the US government does not arrest or kill KKK members just for being members. The same standards should be applied to Salafism and fighters affiliated with ISIL and its derivatives to prevent leaders of these groups from using real or perceived Western double standard for propaganda and recruitment purposes.
4. The US’s anti-ISIL coalition has failed to contain, let alone defeat, ISIL because it had embraced a strategy based on the faulty logic of equating the malfeasance of the government of Assad with the crimes of ISIL and its derivatives. The equivalency is factually false for a number of reasons:
4.1. Before and after the peaceful uprising of 2011, Assad’s government has not distinguished among Syrians on the basis of sect or religion. ISIL and its derivatives have.
4.2. During the peaceful uprising, Syrian government’s soldier did not blow up homes belonging to specific religious groups, destroy bridges and public buildings, kill police officers at checkpoints, execute them and chew on their internal organs, and enshrine rape and slavery. FSA and ISIL fighters did. Indeed, some Syrian security forces violently attacked protesters, arrested opposition figures, and tortured political prisoners–common practices among all Arab regimes–and perpetrators of such acts should be held to account. Those who took up arms and hijacked the peaceful uprising should be held responsible, too.
4.3. After the peaceful uprising and during the civil war, Assad’s government did not behead people because they were Christian, Shi`a, secular, or kafir; ISIL and its derivatives did and continue to do so.
4.4. The 250,000 thus far killed were not killed by Assad. They were killed by FSA rebels, fighters from ISIL and its derivatives, and government forces. FSA, which was initially the umbrella organization of all rebel groups including al-Nusra and ISIL, self-documented their fighter committing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
4.5. The millions of displaced Syrians were not forced out by Assad. If they were, why haven’t they left before the civil war. They were forced out by ISIL and other armed groups that moved into their neighborhoods, towns, and cities, in violation of international law of war, bringing war to civilian areas. ISIL and its derivatives are the ones who attack communities on religious and sectarian grounds, purging area after area from religious and ethnic groups. Damascus and other cities still controlled by Assad are still inhabited by Sunni, Christian, Shi`a, and Alawites; Alawites, Shi`a, or Yazidisare not able to live in cities under the control of ISIL or its derivatives.
4.6. Assad’s government, as authorized by the old and current constitutions, did not and has not wanted to impose its version of the shari`a on all Syrians. ISIL and its derivatives have.
5. Removing Assad will not remove ISIL, it will strengthen it and here are the facts that support this conclusion:
5.1. In Libya, Qatar and its allies, backed by NATO planes, armed the rebels arguing that removing Qaddafi will end extremism and usher in democracy in that country. Qaddafi was murdered in 2011, yet, just two weeks ago, ISIL’s branch in Libya declared the coastal city of Sirte part of the “Islamic State”, in addition to its other stronghold of Derna.
5.2. In August 2014, Nouri al-Maliki, under pressure from Saudi Arabia and the Obama administration, was forced to resign after having had won the elections by a huge margin, so that ISIL is defeated in Iraq. Instead of being defeated, ISIL was able to take over more cities and provinces, including Ramadi, which lies just 70 miles west of Baghdad.
5.3. Before the Saudi war on Yemen, leaders of ISIL and its derivatives admonished their Yemeni followers for not building significant presence in Yemen. After Saudi Arabia and the coalition of countries under its economic sway bombed that impoverished country for nine months and after they sent Sudanese and even Colombian mercenaries to southern Yemen to push the Houthis and their allies out, ISIL and its derivatives moved in and are now in control of a number of cities and provinces in the south and east of Yemen.
5.4. In Syria, ISIL and its derivatives extended their control over areas previously controlled by the Free Syrian Army and other so-called “moderate” rebel groups. There is no evidence to suggest that “moderate” rebels were, are, or will be able to wrestle away territory from ISIL and its derivatives and hold it for long periods of time. Only the Kurdish fighters, who are not part of the rebel groups, are able to resist and even defeat ISIL, but only within Kurdish majority areas.
5.5. ISIL and its derivatives exist in countries with failed states. If the Syrian government is further weakened or were to collapse, ISIL and its derivatives will fill the void. Therefore, providing support for the Syrian government is the only sensible, practical, and legal option to defeat ISIL and its derivatives.
6. ISIL and its derivatives did not have the capacity to carry out threats around the world and control territory in Syria and Iraq without the political, financial, and military support they have received from individuals and countries like Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. The evidence presented by the Russian military about oil from areas under the control of ISIL being sold in Turkey is damning. Russia’s evidence, in fact, only confirms what NATO members had communicated to Turkey in September 2014, when they asked Turkey to “tighten its border controls, stem the flow of fighters passing through Turkey, and crack down on the oil smuggling from Syria that is financing ISIL.”
The US administration must push for a principled definition of terrorism and terrorist entities. Administration’s official focus on ISIL, and only ISIL, as a terrorist organization in Syria raises doubt about the US commitment to ending the violence in Syria and fighting all terrorist groups-not just ISIL. US rhetoric criticizing Russia for not limiting its airstrikes to ISIL distorts reality and gives comfort to other genocidal groups and their sponsors.
When considering that ISIL’s leaders adopted three different namesin the past three years, looking at a name to identify which is or is not a terrorist group becomes absurd. Singling out ISIL as the only terrorist group that should be fought allows the latter’s members to join other groups like al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham, which are equally genocidal in their thinking and practices. After all, al-Nusra was al-Baghdadi’s original armed group in Syria before he had a fall out with al-Julani. Instead, of waiting for groups to self-identify as subscribing to al-Qaeda ideology, the world community must come up with an objective definition of terrorist entities taking into account the nature of the creed, practice, and connections of the group. This way, the name of the group would not matter. What the ideology it espouses and acts it carries out should determine if the terror label shall apply.
Should ISIL and its derivatives be allowed to continue to occupy and control cities in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria, or Yemen and should the ideology espoused by ISIL fighters go unchallenged, the recent attacks in Beirut, Paris, Tunis, and San Bernardino will not be the last. The US must work with the Syrian and Iraqi governments, now, not in six or eighteen months, to defeat these genocidal fighters. Instead of continuing to send weapons to today’s moderate fighters who will be tomorrows ISIL soldiers, the US and its allies should send those arms to the Syrian government troops, the only legal force on the ground that can defeat ISIL and that can be held responsible for past and future violations of international law of war. If the international community has evidence that Assad or any of his generals have ordered the murder of civilians, they should pursue legal action and seek justice for the victims, not remove him by arming his adversaries in violation of international law.
If the US administration wants to protect its citizens, end racist and hateful threats against American-Muslims, and stop the flow of refugees, it must develop a principled, not political, strategy to defeat genocidal fighters in Syria and Iraq. It should start by confronting regimes and individuals who provide moral, ideological, financial, and military assistance to ISIL and its derivatives. It is reckless to tolerate ISIL and its derivatives so that Saudi Arabia or any other country achieves some geopolitical goals. It is irresponsible for the US administration to continue to give credence to the bizarre Saudi logic that the presence of one man, Assad, created ISIL and its derivatives, and that his removal will result in ISIL’s defeat. ISIL and its derivatives have existed in many countries not ruled by Assad, and have existed long before Assad’s troops fired a single bullet in Syria’s cruel civil war. As a first step in fighting terrorism, stopping the civil wars that create the suitable environment for terrorism, and ending Saudi spread of hateful, genocidal ideology, Syrian and Iraq must be made whole again.
* Prof. SOUAIAIA teaches at the University of Iowa. His most recent book, Anatomy of Dissent in Islamic Societies, provides a historical and theoretical treatment of rebellious movements and ideas since the rise of Islam. Opinions are the author’s, speaking on matters of public interest; not speaking for the university or any other organization with which he is affiliated.