In 1916, Scottish novelist John Buchan wrote a prophetic warning in Greenmantle, a fictional account of an uprising in the Muslim world during World War I and the attempts to stop it from happening. In it, the permanent secretary of the British Foreign Office, Sir Walter Bullivant, remarks, “There is a dry wind blowing through the East, and the parched grasses wait the spark.”
Bullivant’s prophetic warning rings true for the world even after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death two days ago. The American raid successfully managed to kill the head of the ISIS, but he was only one such satanic figurehead carried on to fertile shores by the bloody tides of Middle Eastern politics. The Lethean seas of Islamic millenarianism and the undercurrents of Jihadism and puritanism that roil it, will long continue to throw up such sinister figures onto the battle spaces of the future.
The world is understandably jubilant and yet, simultaneously cautious at this juncture. While the head of the snake has been cut off, like a Medusa, many other heads are waiting to sprout. Yet, that is to look at terrorist and radical Islamic movements as the same, undifferentiated from the other. It is to gauge the threat presented by these disparate groups to metrics more suited to conventional armies, like number of fighters, arms and ammunition, funding etc. Nothing could be more wrong or dangerous.
Groups fighting under the banner of Islam transcend national boundaries and political climates. They range from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Philippines to the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group in western Africa, from Chechen militants in the Caucuses Mountains to Boko Haram in Nigeria. The fissured landscape of the Islamic world has large numbers of tribal congeries, mercenaries and splinter groups fighting against state actors. Though they rally under the call of jihad, they are mostly fighting local insurgencies in specific theatres and are supported by regional networks of terror.
Al Qaeda and its global offshoots are however different in that they had significant ability to operate in multiple theatres with financing, logistics and ideological mobilization networks across the world. Yet even Al Qaeda lacked the global appeal that ISIS has. The former was mostly composed of male fighters from within the Arab world and relied mainly on tribal networks and kin relationships for manpower, arms and financial resources. A smattering of others like Indonesians and Pakistanis were recruited as auxiliary resources.
ISIS is more globalist and, theologically, more sophisticated than Al Qaeda or indeed any group that came before it. As the scholar Shiraz Maher, noted Baghdadi is first Sunni Muslim leader who could claim the title of Caliph (Khilafah) with any credibility since 1924. Its messages resonated among violent youth far beyond the pale of the frontiers of Islam, into American suburbs, Parisian boulevards and the chawls of Mumbai. In many cases, the recruits who converted themselves to Islam were from Caucasian or African backgrounds—and were female. Eager volunteers poured in from the West, leaving behind secure, peaceful communities to enlist and march in the hellish legions of the ISIS.
The reason behind this is that ISIS is the most deadly manifestation of one of the tectonic forces of geopolitics, Salafist-Jihadism.
As an ideological movement and as disruptive and deterministic force across Islamic lands, Salafist-Jihadism is a potent and growing force. Though there are multiple strands of thinking and splinter factions, Salafis include purists, politicos and jihadis whose aim is to restore the Muslim world to a primaeval state of pristine purity. This is held to be the time of the first three generations of authentic and orthodox Islamic believers. They believe that after this period, Islam itself fell to corruption and decay, hobbled by heresy and unlawful innovation.
Salafist Jihadism seeks to remedy this situation through violent and unyielding force against what it sees as corrupt, morally bankrupt regimes that are propped up by the West. In fact, they violently reject the state and regard its laws and morality as contrary to divine laws and injunctions. The scholar Mohammed Hafez opines that contemporary Salafism has five core beliefs: Tawhid (unitary oneness of God), Hakimiyya (rule of Allah), a rejection of bid’a (heretical innovations), Takfir (excommunication of other Muslims) and jihad. It is, indeed, a political religion like Nazism which is totalitarian, radical and brutally nihilistic. It contrapositions itself not only against the array of authoritarian regimes of the Middle East but also against the permissiveness, egalitarianism and liberalism of western society.
Though it has many precursors in the Islamic world, it is the Iraq war that served as a crucible for this movement. The collapse of the modern Iraqi state and the violent sectarian strife that followed created the deadly vortex that churned and moulded this movement. Like dominoes, relatively stable and forward-looking states of the Arab world collapsed and transformed many areas of the Islamic world into lawless territories, pitting populations against each other and the state.
Parts of the Middle East continue to be awash with this ideology. If the past is any guide to the future, then it is looking very grim for the Middle East and the wider world. Stemming the onslaught of this movement will require the regimes of the region to ideologically mobilize its populations behind a political and cultural movement that is forward-looking and anchored in a decent and dignified future for its citizens.
The general bankruptcy of the Arab political project and the ham-handed interventions of the West have, however, ruled that out. The regimes reigning and tyrannising in the region are based on clan, tribe and kinship, ruling by bribery and force and economically based on resource extraction. These rudderless regimes are slowly and steadily withering away, providing a fertile backwash for Salafist Jihadist movements to grow. As the populations become more and more alienated, other messianic figures like Baghdadi, leading even more sinister groups, will come along to lead violent sects into an infernal dance of death.