Among The [Dis]Believers

French police conduct a control at the French-German border in Strasbourg, France, to check vehicles and verify the identity of travelers after last Friday's series of deadly attacks in Paris. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler

The Rapid Rise of Daesh Has Come to A Head in Paris
“A man that flies from his fear may find that he has only taken a short cut to meet it.”
This was the sage advice of the author, J. R. R. Tolkein in his work, The Children of Húrin. It rings hollow today, this admonition not to be fearful, seeing the images out of Paris, of panicked men and women screaming as they fled the Bataclan concert hall, the blood-soaked survivors who got a new lease on life, the darkened Eiffel Tower, the images of flames and destruction in Beirut, scene of a double suicide bombing on Friday, and mourners in Moscow whose relatives didn’t survive a flight home from Sharm El Shaikh.
It has been a month of cataclysmic grief. Gunmen laid siege to Paris, storming a music concert, carrying out shootings elsewhere, and blowing themselves up near the Stade de France, killing at least 127 people and injuring many more. In Beirut, three suicide bombers, one of whom failed to detonate his explosives, killed over 40 people in one of the most crowded neighborhoods in the southern suburbs, after close to a year of peace in the Lebanese capital, so close to the armageddon in Syria and tied to it by strings of intertwined fate. And over the Sinai, an apparent bomb smuggled onto an airliner carrying Russian tourists detonated, sending over 200 people plummeting to their deaths.
Suicidal attacks like these leave a permanent etch in your memory—the twisted metal of nearby cars, the fragments of flesh on the sidewalk, the tears of children, the tree leaves burned in the blast, the brutal illogicality of it all.
Yet there is a logic to it, as Daesh now appears to be shifting to a new strategy of striking abroad beyond the borders of Iraq and Syria.
“Daesh has claimed responsibility for three attacks in less than a month,” said Hisham Al Hashimi, an expert on Daesh who advises the Iraqi government. “These are preludes to a major operation intended to put Daesh on top of the terrorism pyramid, to push aside Al Qaeda in the top most wanted.”
Daesh has of course threatened retribution in the past against the U.S., Rome, Paris, even “Constantinople”, and its sympathizers have conducted attacks over the past few months in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Tunisia. The group has remained largely unscathed by the halting U.S. response to its lightning offensive through the plains of the Iraqi governorate of Nineveh in the summer of last year. Though it lost the Yazidi capital of Sinjar in Kurdistan last week after a major Kurdish offensive backed by American airstrikes in less than 48 hours, as well as swathes of territory in northern Syria to the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), it has continued to hold on to the Syrian city of Raqqa and Mosul in Iraq and to seize within a week this summer the historic city of Syria’s Palmyra and Iraq’s Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province.
And as its latest attacks abroad show, there is no lack of decline in its ability to inspire terrorism beyond its borders, despite the punishing year-long aerial campaign by the U.S.—led coalition.
The response so far has been rather predictable, with French President Francois Hollande declaring that his country’s war against terror will now be “merciless” and launching revenge airstrikes against Daesh at the seat of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Raqqa. Marine Le Pen’s Front National has decried yet another attack inspired by Islamist fundamentalism, and called for stricter border controls, and the possibility of future attacks cast into doubt the future of the Schengen agreement.
What ought to emerge in the coming months is whether Daesh attacks on foreign soil are likely to change the calculus for western powers that have so far adamantly insisted on Syrian President Bashar Al Assad’s departure in Damascus, the subject of talks in Vienna that have so far garnered limited traction. Analysts have long argued that the fires of Syria will not be contained there, a prophecy that has borne fruit as great powers engage with the quagmire as though it is some chessboard of global geopolitics whose quarter of a million dead and four million refugees are nothing but numbers to shake heads over.
Meanwhile, Assad has promoted himself as the best alternative to terrorism despite playing a leading role in radicalizing the uprising against his rule by releasing jihadists, abetting their rise in Iraq during the U.S. occupation and his militant response to the protests. He predictably blamed French policies for the attacks in Paris, saying its “mistaken policies… have contributed to the spread of terrorism.” His allies in Hezbollah were often fond of declaring that if it weren’t for their intervention to save the regime, there would be Daesh checkpoints in Beirut and Sidon, conveniently forgetting that they publicly intervened in the war in early 2013 before Daesh had declared its formal existence.
That is ultimately the aim of the Russian campaign in Syria, the vast majority of which has targeted non-Daesh elements—to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. In interviews, Syrian rebel sources have repeatedly said that the aim is to create a battlefield where the only alternatives are Assad or Daesh.
But Europe’s reaction matters also because of its impact on refugees fleeing to the continent’s shores in the thousands.
Already, reports have emerged of mysterious Syrian and Egyptian passports being found that are believed to belong to the attackers near the sites of the brutal massacres in Paris, including one allegedly belonging to a man who had entered Europe through Greece, a report later denied by Greek authorities.
But the sad reality is the truth really doesn’t matter. Like many of the conflicts that have polarized public opinion both in the Middle East and the West, the refugee crisis is also under the mercy of competing narratives that pay little attention to facts.
One such fact is that these refugees are fleeing horrors akin to the attacks in Paris that they are instead subjected to every day, whether it is Daesh chopping off limbs or executing opponents in public squares, stoning adulterers or throwing homosexuals from rooftops, or a bloodthirsty regime abetted by a U.N. Security Council member that has used chemical weapons on its own people or has killed and maimed thousands by dropping crude barrel bombs on markets, hospitals, mosques and public squares. Over 40 people were killed in one fell swoop in late October after the Assad regime bombed the crowded Damascus suburb of Douma again, itself under siege for years, just weeks after his air force bombed a crowded market in the area and killed over a hundred people.
It was perhaps only a matter of time before Daesh infiltrated the refugee trail into Europe, but whether or not whoever carried out the attack was a homegrown radical or someone posing as a refugee, the damage has already been done. French nationalists have already seized upon the possibility to call for tougher measures to stem the refugee influx, and the claim bolsters the rhetoric of European politicians of the ilk of Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orban, himself an immigrant, who said the refugees amassed on his country’s borders look like an army and that Western Europe ought to keep out Muslim refugees.
In the aftermath of Paris, U.S. Republican presidential candidates Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio have said that the US should no longer accept any Syrian refugees at all or without a thorough screening process, even though the White House was planning to only accept a pitiful 10,000 refugees over the next year while a country like Lebanon with a population of four million has sheltered over a million fleeing the war.
But reacting with anti-refugee ire is exactly what Daesh has been telling those fleeing the war will happen all along, and it is not hard to see twisted purpose in attacks that provoke anti-Muslim reactions in Europe. The group has repeatedly admonished refugees for fleeing to infidel lands and seeking refuge there instead of in the caliphate’s embrace. In that sense the attacks are timely for Daesh—they are hoping to provoke the very anti-Muslim backlash they predicted would happen through attacks that cement the perception of a civilizational war a la Samuel Huntington and that aims to keep Muslims as permanent outsiders in Europe.
“The reality is, [Daesh] loathes that individuals are fleeing Syria for Europe,” wrote Aaron Zelin, who tracks jihadist messaging on his blog, Jihadology. “It undermines IS’ message that its self-styled Caliphate is a refuge, because if it was, individuals would actually go there in droves since it’s so close instead of 100,000s of people risking their lives through arduous journeys that could lead to death en route to Europe.”
Indeed, there was an element of frothing rage and illogicality to the Daesh claims of responsibility. In Beirut, it was simply this—they bombed a heavily populated neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city, in order to kill Shia Muslims. There was no pontification about Hezbollah’s pivotal role in keeping the regime of Bashar Al Assad alive, or about Iran’s staunch support for its Syrian ally.
After the French attacks, Daesh implausibly described France as a nation of crusaders, the protector of the cross in Europe, surely a laughable notion for anyone vaguely familiar with French history. The claim of targeting so-called crusaders is absurd to the point of tragicomedy, because what legitimate target resides in an ironic pop rock band concert or at a football game? Referring to the German and French football teams as crusaders surely must have elicited a smirk from even their own ardent supporters – Arabs can despise the European forces of colonialism all they want, but during the World Cup almost every apartment in Beirut is draped with the flag of the residents’ favorite team, including France, England, Spain, Holland, Italy, Germany and Portugal.
It is a rage that is nihilistic, killing for the sake of killing in an orgasm of fury, but one that is deeply steeped in the searing zeal of righteousness. The debate over whether Daesh is Islamic or not misses the point, because that is their Islam, they have adapted it in the same way the Umayyad caliphs adapted it to create their own Mandate of Heaven, or the Abbasids to slaughter the entire Umayyad dynasty, or the arch-conservative ulema who presided over the decline of the pre-Ottoman Muslim empire and decreed women second-class citizens in violation of the Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) egalitarian religion, upon him be peace.
And it is not difficult to see the appeal or logic of this rejection of the modern world that is by necessity attached to the Daesh utopian ideal. As I was growing up I devoured cassette tapes and books about the heroics of the early Muslims, the Prophet’s (pbuh) companions, as they erupted forth from the Arabian Peninsula and conquered Persia and Jerusalem. The glories of the early battles – Badr, Uhud, al-Khandaq, the conquest of Mecca, the battles of Yamamah and Yarmouk, angels fighting alongside the believers, great heroism and the promise of a place on God’s throne in the event of martyrdom.
We are taught a history where the first Muslims are demi-gods beyond the reach of political and human motives and emotions. And worse, that this utopia could be recreated – that you could have a perfect world that shuns today’s ambiguities and gray morality, where it is easy to prove your honor and courage. Except much like Karl Marx’s Communist utopia, the post-Muhammad caliphal utopia never really existed, and never will in a fallen world.
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