By Bill Roggio
Editor’s note: Adapted from Bill Roggio’s testimony before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa and International Terrorism.
The Sri Lanka bombings took place just one month after the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) declared a victory over the Islamic State. While the Islamic State may have lost its physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it is by no means defeated.
For today’s hearing, you ask us to examine the landscape of global terrorism. My testimony will focus on the threat from both Sunni jihadists and Shiite militias backed by Iran, as well as other state sponsors of terrorism.
In short, the jihadist threat has become more diverse since the horrific attack on September 11, 2001. Prior to 9/11, al-Qaeda maintained a base in Afghanistan and fought alongside the Taliban, operating primarily at the cellular level in several other countries throughout Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Al-Qaeda’s base in Afghanistan was key to allowing it to recruit and train its cadre of global operatives for attacks against the U.S. and its allies. Iran’s primary proxy was Hezbollah in Lebanon, and it also supported Palestinian terrorist groups against Israel.
However, al-Qaeda is no longer the only global jihadist actor. The Islamic State, which arose from a dispute between al-Qaeda branches in in Iraq and Syria, now rivals its parent group in many ways. The Islamic State has what it calls “provinces” in countries spanning from West Africa through East Africa and into the Middle East, all the way to Southeast Asia. Since it declared its so-called caliphate in 2014, the Islamic State has taken credit for most of the Sunni jihadist attacks in the West, including operations that were inspired or directed by the group.
Shared Goals, Differing Strategies
Our enemies share the same goal: the establishment of a global caliphate and imposition of their harsh brand of sharia, or Islamic law. However, they disagree on how to achieve this objective. After decades of fighting, al-Qaeda has concluded that its best chance of success will come by working alongside local jihadist and Islamist insurgencies, as well as tribes and clans, in order to overthrow the existing governments and regimes. Al-Qaeda has had some success with co-opting these local insurgencies. Al-Qaeda believes that declaring a caliphate before it could be properly defended will only lead to failure.
The Islamic State, on the other hand, has taken a more radical approach to its jihad. The Islamic State declared its caliphate in June 2014, after overrunning much of Iraq and Syria. The Islamic State demands allegiance to its caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and ruthlessly targets those who refuse to submit.
These militias (two of which the U.S. has designated as terrorist organizations), have organized under the banner of the Popular Mobilizations Forces (PMF), which is now an official security force answerable only to Iraq’s prime minister. The PMF is an organization akin to Iraq’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and some PMF commanders have sworn fealty to Iran’s supreme leader and said they would overthrow the Iraqi government if ordered to do so. This development should concern patriotic Iraqis. The implications of the creation of the PMF have yet to be fully understood. If the history of Hezbollah is any guide, it will not bode well for Iraq or the region.
There is one aspect of Iran’s tremendous influence in Iraq that has gone virtually unreported: its access to a vast recruiting base among Iraq’s Shiite population. In Lebanon, Iran stood up Hezbollah, which has waged proxy war against Israel for over three decades, by recruiting from the country’s 1.65 million Shiites. Today, Hezbollah is the most influential player in Lebanon; its military eclipses the Lebanese army, and its arsenal of Iranian-supplied weapons poses a direct threat to Israel’s security. In Iraq, where the polarization between Sunni and Shiite populations remains high due to nearly two decades of jihadist insurgency, Iran has a pool of more than 24 million Shiites from which to recruit.
Contrary to popular opinion and despite its open war with the Islamic State, the Iranian regime is not averse to forming pacts with Sunni jihadists to achieve its goals. Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Treasury Department outlined “Iran’s secret deal with al Qaeda allowing it to funnel funds and operatives through its territory.” Iran has also supported the Taliban since 2001.
The Loss of the Islamic State’s Physical Caliphate
In March of this year, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces took control of the Islamic State’s last stronghold in Syria, rendering it landless. While this is a welcome development, it is far too soon to declare victory.
It took a vast coalition of forces, with the U.S. and its allies on one side and the Syrian government backed by Iran and Russia on the other, more than five years to drive the Islamic State underground (the Islamic State first took control of Fallujah and much of Western Iraq in January 2014). Recent history tells us that the Islamic State may indeed return in force.
The Islamic State’s predecessor, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), was a front for al-Qaeda in Iraq and controlled large areas of Iraq before it was defeated during the U.S. surge from 2006 to 2010. The ISI responded by going underground, biding its time until conditions were ripe for its reemergence. The Syrian civil war and political unrest in Iraq gave the ISI new life. By 2013, it was on the offensive.
In fact, this same cycle has been seen in other theaters against jihadist enemies. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula overran several provinces in Yemen and held them for extended periods of time twice since 2011. Shabaab held Mogadishu and large areas of southern Somalia for two years between 2009 and 2011 before being driven out by African Union forces; it reorganized and today it controls 25 percent of the country. In Afghanistan, U.S. forces ousted the Taliban after 9/11; today, the Taliban controls at least 10 percent of the country and hotly contests another 50 percent. Boko Haram, a jihadist group previously loyal to al-Qaeda and now part of the Islamic State, has controlled large areas of northern Nigeria several times since 2009.
There is one other major problem that exists in both Iraq and Syria: the handling of captive Islamic State fighters, particularly the ones from outside these countries, and their families. The SDF is currently holding more than 3,200 Islamic State fighters, and several thousand family members are detained in camps. More than 17 years after 9/11, there is no consensus in the international community on how to deal with detainees and their families. Should citizens of Western countries be repatriated, or tried in local courts in Iraq or Syria? Some wives of Islamic State fighters remain unrepentant; their repatriation to their home countries poses serious security risks. The SDF has threatened to release these prisoners if action is not taken.
Western Will has Waned
As this long war is close to entering its third decade, one thing is clear: The West’s will to continue the fight has waned. We are facing an enemy that cannot match our resources and technology, but it does possess the will to fight. We have failed to take a long approach to this war. We have viewed clashes in Iraq and Afghanistan and other countries as individual wars instead of theaters in the overall war. Make no mistake, this is how the enemy views the fight.
Our political and military leadership have failed us. Three successive administrations have failed to explain to the American public the nature of the threat and the importance in remaining engaged. Our military leaders have routinely provided rosy assessments of fights that are going badly.
Today, U.S. policymakers are largely seeking ways to disengage from the fights. Victories have been few and far between, primarily due to our inability to define the enemy and create a strategy to deal with it. We refuse to recognize there is a religious ideological component to this war, and have done little to effectively counter the jihadists’ narratives.
If the U.S. government is serious about continuing the fight against our jihadist enemies, it must regroup, reevaluate the nature of the threat, and develop a whole-of-government approach to tackle critical issues. Such issues include properly defining the nature of our enemy and recognizing its goals and strategies, combating the ideology, and developing our own strategy to fight the war over the long term. Additionally, the president must explain to the American public on a regular basis the existential threat and the need to fight a long war.
The U.S. must work with its allies to develop a comprehensive strategy for dealing with the issue of detainees captured on the battlefield, particularly those who are Western citizens.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.