The Gates of Hell are open in Iraq…
– Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa,
two years after his 2002 warning against a strike on Iraq went unheeded
International headlines have been filled with frightening headlines of the Islamic State’s heinous acts over the last weeks.
“Orlando shooting: 49 killed, shooter pledged ISIS allegiance.”
“Iraq violence: IS bombing kills 125 Ramadan shoppers in Baghdad”
“Three American students among 20 people hacked to death in Bangladesh by ISIS terrorists – who only spared those who could recite the Koran – before armored troops moved in“
Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina declared two days of national mourning and pleaded in a televised address that “Islam is a religion of peace. Stop killing in the name of the religion… Please stop tarnishing our noble religion.”
Pope Francis condemned the Orlando attack as ‘homicidal folly’.
The zealous savagery and the proliferation of terrorist attacks claimed by ISIS signals a new, more dangerous phase of the war. But it signals that the Gates of Hell are beginning to close.
Those gates were opened at the turn of our century. In an attempt to tame and transform the Middle East, the hubris-filled Americans gave their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor to successfully topple Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein. The power vacuum left in the wake of Saddam’s deposition would go on to turn Iraq into a hellscape of civil war, ethnic tensions, and never-ending insurgent fighting — a tragedy we saw repeated in Libya with the overthrow of Gaddafi, proving that the one lesson of history is that no one ever learns.
In the lead up to the Iraq war in February 2003, Donald Rumsfeld famously speculated about how long the war would take “It could last six days, six weeks. I doubt six months.” Things didn’t quite go as planned and the invasion turned into occupation; trouble-makers were interned at prisons like Abu Ghraib and the government of Iraq was handed over to the Shia majority which promptly persecuted Sunnis and Saddam’s old veteran soldiers. And thus the Islamic State was born from a ragtag bunch of radical Sunnis, a handful of battle-tested Saddam veterans and demented footmen that survived torture in Iraq’s prisons.
As luck would have it, a great power had a special mission for this ragtag bunch. That power was the United States, and the mission was to overthrow yet another Middle Eastern country refusing to take commands from Washington: Syria. Thus began the “innocent” supporting, funding, training and arming of the Syrian rebels, or what we now call the Islamic State (IS).
Then the attack dog the Americans had created and fostered got off its leash. After gaining control of a fair portion of the Syrian countryside and with the U.S. military withdrawn from Iraq in 2011, they swept aside the Iraqi toy soldiers left behind and took over major Iraqi cities Mossul, Fallujah, and Ramadi. Their rapid ascension to power in 2014 put them in control of a territory the size of Britain. Baghdad was only spared by the rapid intervention of the professional military from Shia neighbor and regional power Iran.
The territory controlled by IS made their dream of establishing a caliphate more credible and attracted militants from the region, North Africa, and Europe. ISIS has been a sort of rebranding of Al-Qaeda with its own effective social media campaign, rallying radical Islamists to their banner around the globe.
Fast-forward to today and IS is in a much more tenuous position as its own sovereign state with territory. The Iraqi government, the tough Kurdish peshmerga forces and Bashar Al-Assad are still standing. IS is losing grounds on all fronts, losing Palmyra to Syrian forces in March and losing Fallujah last weekend to the Iraqis.
The modus operandi is clear: this wild dog is on the loose and will bite. Russia intervened on the Syrian side with air strikes, IS struck back on October 31 2015 by sneaking a bomb into a Russian airliner leaving the Egyptian resort town Sharm el-Sheikh, killing all 224 passengers, the Russian strike back harder. France was bombing IS positions in Iraq, IS responds by killing 130 people in Paris on November 13 2015, and France intensifies its strikes in response. Most shocking may be the attack on Tuesday last week at the Istanbul airport that left 41 dead — the dog now bit the hand that used to feed him as Turkey had allowed soldiers and arms to flow freely across their border into Syria, fought a common enemy in the Kurds, and even shot down a Russian warplane in November last year that was attacking IS positions.
The Istanbul attack confirms any lingering doubts: IS is losing, and they know it. But before things will get better, they are going to get worse. Commandos trained in Syria and Iraq are returning to European capitals. Lone wolves are being converted to this radical, poisonous cause over the Internet as was the case with the Orlando attacker.
Another curious aspect of the Orlando attacker is worth noting. The first reaction was to crack down on radical Islam and their intense hatred of homosexuals, to put mosques under surveillance and to have Muslims report on each other about suspicious activity. But Omar Mateen was not a typical Muslim: he himself was a confused gay man that often hooked up with Latino men and had very strong feelings against the gay Latino community, which is why he attacked a gay nightclub on its Latin night. The day after Orlando, another confused and socially excluded man jumped into action in the suburbs of Paris, killing a French policeman and his partner at their home. While held up at the home, he was on the phone with police and he told them that he had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, only three weeks earlier. As for the killers in Paris, they were petty drug dealers and party animals.
Let’s face it, we are not up against professional soldiers or some comic book league of super-clever super-well organized villains plotting to take over the world. We are mostly fighting some zealots with Twitter feeds and a band of deranged nobodies that feel like they have a dead-end life and nothing left to lose. The few scattered fighting forces associated with IS, like the one in Bangladesh or Boko Haram in Nigeria, are just franchisees benefiting from a well-known brand that would be fighting under a different banner if there was no IS.
The Islamic State in its current form is already on its way out, make no mistake about it. And nothing justifies the barbarian injuring and killing of innocent people. But so long as our societies are so divided and so many are left feeling excluded, and so long as parts of the world are destabilized and exploited by foreign powers, there will be resentful individuals and groups who will run about like wild dogs, biting those they encounter.