While working on a documentary about Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, I had the chance to meet Abu Omar, a former IS operative who was once an inmate in the infamous Camp Bucca facility that brought together all those who later became the ruling elite of the most notorious terrorist group in modern history. I asked Abu Omar whether there was any recipe to defeat IS, which seemed unbeatable. In response, he smiled and said, “First, the world will have to really believe it exists — that it’s not an American conspiracy, nor a Turkish secret project, nor an Iranian-Syrian backed organization — that it’s simply the most advanced edition of global jihad resulting from 30 years of experience. It also must not be conceded that no one can win this war.”
Since the abolition of the Ottoman caliphate in 1924, the dream of reviving the caliphate has been alive in the souls of those adopting political Islam as a doctrine. Ordinary Muslims' feelings of weakness and a sense of disconnection with and lack of support from the regimes that have ruled the Arab and Muslim world grew over time and was inherited by members of the Muslim millennial generation who wanted to belong to an entity that blends power, religion and modernity. IS came with the three together. While many might debate the last point, IS is using cutting-edge technologies in many of their activities, including in the professional use of media tools that fulfill a feeling of superiority through well-crafted videos and clips. As for power, IS was able to prove its strength by creating a de facto state within the borders of Syria and Iraq, challenging the world powers and showing a high level of discipline in the areas under their control. The other element, religion, is the magnet that directly or indirectly attracts people to IS, for the group introduces itself as the guarantor for the application of God’s rule on Earth, and that the caliph is a continuation of the Prophet Muhammad’s legacy.
The fact is that the Islamic State, as a doctrine and practice, has been an unbeatable model in the Sunni Muslim world to those seeking this blend of religion, power and modernity. Sunni and Shiite Islamists shared many similar aspirations until the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran succeeded in toppling the Shah; at the time, Sunni Islamists such as Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, the co-founder of al-Qaeda with Osama bin Laden, celebrated Imam Ruhollah Khomeini’s victory in one of Amman’s mosques. Later it became clear that the revolution was more an answer to the aspirations of Shiite Islamists than Sunnis; therefore, the next stop for Azzam and his comrades was Afghanistan, and they later became what were called the Afghan Arabs.
When the creation of the Islamic State was announced, one of the main strategies adopted by its leadership was social engagement. The de facto, self-styled state opened its doors to jihadi foreigners, and thousands came with their families and settled in cities under IS control; according to a UN report, more than 25,000 from over 100 nations have made it to IS territory. Some of them get married to women from tribes in the areas in order to strengthen ties and complicate any attempts to oust IS. The foreign jihadis are persona non grata in their home countries, and if IS falls, their lives and future may be endangered wherever they may be; they have no safe haven but the Islamic State and therefore will fight to the last man standing to keep it alive.
Part of its social and economic strategy was to engage the main tribes in control of the oil business; this helps not only in providing profits but also in strengthening ties with local tribes.
The thinking is that IS tied several knots around its core to make it extremely difficult for enemies to target it effectively. This apparently meant that three years of ground and air operations, international and regional attempts to counter IS and direct media and public campaigns did not effectively harm the group, and now it is able to function in several countries in several continents and is capable of carrying out its tactics with effective command and control, with the multiple attacks in Paris being a strong example.
To defeat IS, the world needs to hit the core of the group, and this means untying the shroud of knots surrounding it and cutting blood off from IS' heart. A counter model is needed to fight the IS model, a model that is powerful, modern and shows real respect and appreciation for Islam. With such a model it would be easier to deprive the terrorist entity of sympathizers who might become future operatives. As former IS operative Abu Omar told me, “IS is very clever and smart in attracting people with potential; they know how to talk to them and how to address their ambitions. They are also very smart in exploiting mistakes committed by their enemies, and use these mistakes to prove to their supporters why they are the right choice.” He said, “I was behind their walls; therefore, I understand the mentality. If you really want to finish IS, you need to address people’s concerns, let the sheikhs talk to youths and stop making big mistakes. IS is surviving as the result of the dire mistakes committed by governments of the region.”
Defeating IS should not be impossible if the above is addressed and serious military and economic steps are taken to prevent the group from expanding both financially and geographically. This means doing battle on the war fronts and imposing sanctions on countries and individuals financing the group or allowing money to flow to it or buying goods, mainly oil, from territories under its control. Long-term strategic steps must be taken or IS will be here to stay and expand.