THE ISLAMIC STATE COALITION
When in late January Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond convened a gathering in London of his counterparts from more than 20 nations to strengthen an international coalition against Islamic State, there was a deliberate attempt to be upbeat. US Se
Referring to Islamic State by the Arabic acronym Daesh -- a term increasingly seen as pejorative -- Kerry went on to claim that half of the group’s top commanders had been killed and hundreds of square kilometers of territory in Iraq had been recaptured. He also pledged greater US military assistance to Iraq, whose prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, lamented that the sharp fall in oil prices had meant his government was facing a budget shortfall, thus hindering its ability to fight.
Since then, the coalition has grown, but so too has the problem it is trying to confront. Islamic State is no longer just focusing on carving out the heartland of a new self-declared caliphate in territory seized in Iraq and Syria. Libya has become a major area of Islamic State operations -- highlighted by the filmed beheading of 21 Egyptian Coptic hostages there in mid-February -- and the ramifications of Islamic State activity are being felt throughout the Middle East. Groups linked to what one might call the Islamic State franchise -- a network that has evolved, rather as Al Qaeda previously did -- have become active in Afghanistan and the Indian sub-continent. Moreover, as volunteer jihadi fighters from countries as far apart as Tunisia and Indonesia return home after a spell with Islamic State, they are posing a threat to the domestic security of their own countries, not least in Europe, where radicalized young Muslims, marginalized or disengaged from their home communities, are still being recruited to the Islamic State banner, mainly through videos and social media.
The young Malian-French Amedy Coulibaly, who killed four hostages on Jan. 9 after he seized a Jewish delicatessen in Paris, was directly inspired by Islamic State. Several years previously, while in prison for an armed robbery conviction, he had befriended the French-Algerian Chérif Kouachi, who was responsible with his brother Said for killing cartoonists and journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Jan. 7. The Kouachis claimed to have been acting on behalf of al-Qaeda in Yemen, but French police believe they and Coulibaly were part of the same radical Islamist terror cell. “We have put our finger on some extremely dangerous people,” French police union spokesman Christophe Crepin told The Guardian. “We are really in a war.”
Certainly, the outrages in France helped to galvanize Western governments to take action against what they see as a global threat from radical Islam, of which Islamic State is the most egregious example. What some of the well-documented human rights abuses by Islamic State in areas under their control -including beheadings of foreign hostages and the rape, forced marriage and sexual enslavement of Yazidi and other minority women and girls -- has undoubtedly done has been to broaden the anti- Islamic State coalition, so much so that it makes one wonder whether this was a deliberate strategy by Islamic State commanders. When a Jordanian pilot was burnt alive in a cage, for example, Jordan’s King Abdullah was so incensed that he flew home from meetings in Washington, D.C., to take part personally in aerial bombings of Islamic State positions.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unsurprisingly jumped on the bandwagon by championing the need for a concerted approach to combating Islamic State and radical Islam. Standing up to Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, was also a major campaign theme for Netanyahu in Israel’s March election, strengthening the perceived common interest of the Israelis and Gulf Arab states such as Saudi Arabia. Yet on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” Tehran’s condemnation of Islamic State and support for Iraqi and Syrian government offensives against IS forces has prompted a review in Western capitals of Iran’s status as a potential ally. US President Barack Obama sent a letter to the Iranians suggesting they could be part of the anti-IS Coalition if there is progress in talks to limit Iran’s nuclear capability, but the scale of the Iranians’ involvement in anti-Islamic State military action in both Iraq and Syria means that de facto they are already part of a looser coalition. There is even a growing acceptance among European governments that some sort of working arrangement must be made with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Damascus, even though not so long ago many of them, along with Turkey, were calling for Assad’s ouster.
Iran’s increased involvement in the war against Islamic State could risk heightening the perception in much of the Western media that the war is inextricably linked to a wider confrontation between Sunni and