Why ISIS is targeting Europe
In less than three months, three horrific terror attacks have taken place in the United Kingdom: the Westminster plowing and stabbing incident on March 22 by Khalid Masood, the Manchester Arena suicide bombing two months later by Salman Abedi who was known to be a member of Al-Qaeda-linked Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) and was also suspected of having ties with the Islamic State, and now another vehicle-ramming and stabbing atrocity has taken place last night at the London Bridge in which ten people have lost their lives including the attackers and 48 people have been injured.
In order to understand the motive that why the Islamic State is targeting Europe in particular, we need to keep the background of the British and French foreign policy in the Middle East in the recent years in mind. The seven-year-long Sunni-Shi’a conflict in Syria that gave birth to scores of Sunni militant groups, including the Islamic State, and after the conflict spilled over across the border into neighboring Iraq in early 2014 has directly been responsible for the recent spate of the Islamic State-inspired terror attacks in Euorpe.
Since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in August 2011 to June 2014 when the Islamic State overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, an informal pact existed between the Western powers, their regional allies and the Sunni Arab militants of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis. In accordance with the pact, Sunni Arab militants were trained and armed in the training camps located in the border regions of Turkey and Jordan to battle the Shi’a-dominated Syrian regime.
This arrangement of an informal pact between the Western powers and the Sunni Arab jihadists of the Middle East against the Shi’a Iranian axis worked well up to August 2014 when the Obama Administration made a volte-face on its previous regime change policy in Syria and began conducting air strikes against one group of Sunni militants battling the Syrian regime, the Islamic State, after the latter overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, from where, the US troops had withdrawn only a couple of years ago in December 2011.
After this reversal of policy in Syria by the Western powers and the subsequent Russian military intervention on the side of the Syrian regime in September 2015, the momentum of Sunni Arab militants’ expansion in Syria and Iraq has stalled, and they now feel that their Western patrons have committed a treachery against the Sunni jihadists’ cause, that’s why they are infuriated and once again up in arms to exact revenge for this betrayal.
If we look at the chain of events, the timing of the recent spate of terror attacks against the European targets has been critical: the Islamic State overran Mosul in June 2014, the Obama Administration began conducting air strikes against the Islamic State’s targets in Iraq and Syria in August 2014, and after a lull of almost a decade since the Madrid and London bombings in 2004 and 2005, respectively, the first such incident of terrorism took place on the Western soil at the offices of Charlie Hebdo in January 2015, and then the Islamic State carried out the audacious November 2015 Paris attacks and the March 2016 Brussels bombings, and now, three horrific terror attacks have taken place in the United Kingdom within a span of less than three months.
Regarding the argument that how the British and French Middle Eastern policy of lending indiscriminate support to the Sunni Arab militants against the Shi’a-dominated regime in Syria has been responsible for the recent wave of terror attacks in Europe, remember that Saudi Arabia, which has been vying for power as the leader of Sunni bloc against the Shi’a-dominated Iran in the regional geopolitics, was staunchly against the invasion of Iraq by the Bush Administration in 2003.
The Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein constituted a Sunni Arab bulwark against the Iranian influence in the Arab World. But after Saddam was ousted from power in 2003 and subsequently when elections were held in Iraq which were swept by the Shi’a-dominated parties, Iraq has now been led by a Shi’a-majority government that has become a steadfast regional ally of Iran. Consequently, Iran’s sphere of influence now extends all the way from territorially-contiguous Iraq and Syria to Lebanon and the Mediterranean coast.
The Saudi royal family was resentful of Iranian encroachment on traditional Arab heartland. Therefore, when protests broke out against the Assad regime in Syria in the wake of Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, the Gulf Arab States along with their regional allies, Turkey and Jordan, and the Western patrons gradually militarized the protests to dismantle the Shi’a Iranian axis comprised of Iran, Iraq, Syria and Iran’s proxy in Lebanon, Hezbollah.
More to the point, the dilemma that the Sunni Arab militants and their regional backers are facing in Syria is quite unique: in the wake of the Ghouta chemical weapons attacks in Damascus in August 2013, the stage was all set for yet another no-fly zone and “humanitarian intervention” a la Qaddafi’s Libya; the war hounds were waiting for a finishing blow and then-Turkish foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu, and then-Saudi intelligence chief, Bandar bin Sultan, were shuttling between the Western capitals to lobby for the military intervention. Francois Hollande had already announced his intentions and David Cameron was also onboard.
Here, it should be remembered that even during the Libyan intervention, the Obama Administration’s policy was a bit ambivalent and France under the leadership of Sarkozy had taken the lead role. In Syria’s case, however, the British parliament forced Cameron to seek a vote for military intervention in the House of Commons before committing the British troops and air force to Syria.
Taking cue from the British parliament, the US Congress also compelled Obama to seek approval before another ill-conceived military intervention; and since both the administrations lacked the requisite majority in their respective parliaments and the public opinion was also fiercely against another Middle Eastern war, therefore Obama and Cameron dropped their plans of enforcing a no-fly zone over Syria.
In the end, France was left alone as the only Western power still in the favor of intervention; at this point, however, the seasoned Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, staged a diplomatic coup by announcing that the Syrian regime is willing to ship its chemical weapons stockpiles out of Syria and subsequently the issue was amicably resolved.
Turkey, Jordan and the Gulf Arab states, the main beneficiaries of the Sunni Jihad against the Shi’a-dominated regime in Syria, however, had lost a golden opportunity to deal a fatal blow to their regional rivals.
To add insult to the injury, the Islamic State, one of the numerous Sunni Arab militant outfits fighting in Syria, overstepped its mandate in Syria and overran Mosul and Anbar in Iraq in 2014, from where, the US troops had withdrawn only a couple of years ago in December 2011, as I have already described.
Additionally, when the graphic images and videos of Islamic State’s executions surfaced on the internet, the Obama Administration was left with no other choice but to adopt some countermeasures to show that it is still sincere in pursuing its schizophrenic “war on terror” policy; at the same time, however, it assured its Turkish, Jordanian and Gulf Arab allies that despite fighting a war against the maverick jihadist outfit, the Islamic State, the Western policy of training and arming the so-called “moderate” Syrian militants will continue apace and that Bashar al-Assad’s days are numbered, one way or the other.
Moreover, declaring the war against the Islamic State in August 2014 served another purpose too: in order to commit the US Air Force to Syria and Iraq, the Obama Administration needed the approval of the US Congress which was not available, as I have already mentioned, but by declaring a war against the Islamic State, which is a designated terrorist organization, the Obama Administration availed itself of the war on terror provisions in the US laws and thus circumvented the US Congress.
But then Russia threw a spanner in the works of NATO and its Gulf Arab allies in September 2015 by its surreptitious military buildup in Latakia that was executed with an element of surprise unheard of since General Rommel, the Desert Fox. And now Turkey, Jordan, the Gulf Arab states and their Sunni jihadist proxies in Syria find themselves at the receiving end in the Syrian civil war.
Therefore, although the Sunni states of the Middle East and their jihadist proxies still toe the American line in the region publicly, but behind the scenes, there is bitter resentment that the US has betrayed the Sunni cause by making an about-face on the previous regime change policy in Syria and the subsequent declaration of war against one group of Sunni Arab militants in Syria, i.e. the Islamic State.
About the author:
Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and Middle East regions, neocolonialism and petroimperialism.