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Tracking Islamic State

Russia's Unhelpful Game In Syria

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (right) meets with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu in Damascus on June 18.

On June 16, U.S. F-18 fighter jets scrambled to intercept a group of Russian Su-34 fighter-bombers that had just conducted an air strike against a camp of soldiers who are central to the mission of the United States and the United Kingdom in their efforts to defeat the Islamic State (IS) terrorist group.

The camp that was hit was relatively new, and a British newspaper had just recently broken the news that British special forces regularly operate there, though it's unclear whether British or U.S. soldiers were in the camp at the time. Regardless, the commanders of the U.S.-led coalition believed that the Russian air strikes needed to be stopped, and they sent fighter jets to stop them.

According to the Los Angeles Times, the F-18s reached the Su-34s on emergency broadcast frequencies and told them to cease their activities, a capability the United States and Russia put in place in order to avoid accidental conflicts or midair collisions. But when the F-18s left the area to refuel, the Russian bombers ignored the U.S. threats and conducted a second bombing raid on the same camp.

If this story played out in Afghanistan in 2001, in Iraq in 2003, during the NATO mission to end genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 or in Kosovo in 1999, this incident would have made front-page news, with 24/7 coverage of the growing threat of war plastered across every television in the United States.

But since the incident occurred in 2016, in a small desert town in Syria called Al-Tanf, near the border with Jordan and Iraq, the Western media and political apparatus does not seem to care. Perhaps some are confused by the complicated conflict and don't know who to trust on the topic of Syria. Perhaps some have bought the Russian line, echoed by some Western politicians, that Russia is fighting IS. For sure, everyone is tired of headlines about war in the Middle East.

To be sure, the Pentagon addressed the issue with both the Russian Defense Ministry and the press, expressing its "strong concerns about the attack." A U.S. official told the Los Angeles Times that this was "an egregious act that must be explained." The unnamed source continued: "The Russian government either doesn't have control of its own forces or it was a deliberate provocative act. Either way, we're looking for answers."

It appears Russia is continuing to focus exclusively on preserving the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even if that means drawing out the conflict, or even allowing terrorism to flourish. I argued previously that Russia's bombing campaign, which started in September 2015, was nearly exclusively focused on bombing anti-Assad rebel groups, including groups that were backed by the United States and which played a major role in ejecting IS from northeastern Syria.

In May, Russia did indeed assist the pro-Assad coalition in recapturing the ancient city of Palmyra from IS. As I noted, those actions served to accomplish three aims, all of which strengthen the Assad regime: to consolidate territory, to secure access to the energy-rich fields of central Syria, and to propagate the myth that Russia and Assad are primarily locked in a battle against terrorists.

That was six weeks ago. As my new analysis of the work done by the Institute for the Study of War shows, since then there has been a significant increase in Russian air strikes, almost exclusively against civilians or rebel groups that have been trained and armed by the United States. Russia has largely returned to its pattern of ignoring IS. Russian air strikes, by crippling Western-backed rebels that oppose IS, have allowed the terrorist organization to expand into new territory.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Frederic Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and former special adviser for transition in Syria at the U.S. State Department, says that "Russia's decision to bomb an anti-[IS] unit trained by the U.S. and the U.K. illustrates two points: the low priority Moscow places on fighting [IS]; and the contempt in which today's Russia holds the U.S."

He continues: "Assad and the Russians see [IS] as Assad's ideal adversary: a horrific organization that may serve as Assad's ticket back to polite society, notwithstanding all of the regime's war crimes.... Moscow's assessment of American leadership emboldens it and encourages it to act in ways that may prove -- during the time left to this administration or in the next -- reckless, destabilizing, and dangerous."

The Orlando gunman, Omar Mateen, was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.

Details continue to emerge about the man who killed 49 people and wounded 52 others at an Orlando gay nightclub on June 12. While we cannot say with confidence what the killer’s motivations were, we are learning more about what he told emergency dispatchers when he called 911 in the midst of the massacre.

According to FBI Director James Comey, Omar Mateen professed allegiance or affinity toward a wide-ranging group of disparate and often-opposed terrorist organizations. The Associated Press reports:

The Orlando gunman professed allegiance during the attack on a gay nightclub to the leader of the Islamic State militants, even as he called the Boston Marathon bombers, who had nothing to do with the extremist group, his homeboys. Before that, the FBI said, he claimed family connections to Al-Qaeda and boasted of ties to Hezbollah, organizations deeply at odds with the Islamic State extremists.

“Deeply at odds” to say the least.

The Islamic State (IS) extremist group has significant disagreements with Al-Qaeda and the Al-Nusra Front, Syria's Al-Qaeda affiliate. The two groups have even fought heavy battles against each other. Al-Nusra and IS, both radical Sunni groups, are literally at war with Hizballah, a radical Shi'ite militia and terrorist group based in Lebanon and a staunch ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Furthermore, the online media presence of all of these groups -- their publications, Twitter accounts, YouTube videos, and blog posts -- often focus on these internal divisions. Dabiq, the slick English-language magazine published by IS, focused their entire last issue on internal divisions between Muslims. Just this month, supreme Al-Nusra Front religious official Sami al-Oreidi released a video statement that stressed the need to destroy Alawites, the sect of Shi’a Islam to which Assad and many of his supporters belong and to which Hizballah is allied.

In other words, it is clear that the Orlando gunman may not have been particularly indoctrinated in even the basic tenets of the radical groups he pledged allegiance to. Far from being a devoted apostle of a particular form of radicalized Islam, the gunman was described by U.S. President Barack Obama as a self-radicalized example of “homegrown extremism.”

The Orlando shooter was a lone wolf. And he is also exactly the kind of person Islamic State wants to encourage.

Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers to strike landmarks and symbols of Western decadence or imperialism, while largely avoiding civilian casualties, IS believes there is no such thing as collateral damage. Everyone who does not accept their narrow and radical prescription of Islam, whether they be in the West or in the Middle East, is a worthy target. Whereas Al-Qaeda prefers its “soldiers” to have some sort of ideological and theological foundations, IS will welcome all sinners as long as they are willing to die for Islam.

In many ways, this is the natural evolution of a concept spread in the preachings of infamous jihadist Anwar al-Awlaki, who told the story in his online propaganda of Usairin, a non-Muslim who fought for the Prophet Muhammad at the battle of Uhud and died just after accepting Islam. Crucially, he was granted acceptance into Jannah (paradise) without having followed the rest of the path set out by the Prophet. Usairin's story, popularized in propaganda videos, is perhaps the perfect example of the kind of person IS is so eager to inspire -- those who are lost, seeking a cause and identity, rather than those who are already committed to one.

Hassan Hassan, a journalist and expert on IS who hails from the first town in Syria that the terror group took over in 2014, wrote in The Financial Times that this issue is yet another dividing line between Al-Qaeda and its syndicate Al-Nusra Front on one side and IS on the other:

Al-Qaeda presents itself as a vanguard movement whose aim is to rally the Muslim masses to the cause of jihad. The very existence of sympathisers means its project is working and so is regarded as a gain in and of itself.

Isis, on the other hand, views sympathisers as potential recruits to its army. Al-Qaeda has also done so from time to time, but Isis is different in that it views the mobilisation of its sympathisers strategically, rather than as a revenge tactic or a short-term call for action.

But just who are these “lone wolves” who are fighting and dying for IS's cause? That, too, is evolving, in perhaps the most disturbing way.

Six days before the attack in Orlando, I wrote that IS's version of terrorism is an evolution from what Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda envisioned just 15 years ago. I contrasted the 9/11 attacks -- which the official U.S. government commission report estimates cost Al-Qaeda between $400,000 and $500,000 -- with the Paris and Brussels attacks, which were conducted by a terror cell using simple nail bombs and guns.

Yet the Orlando attack was orders of magnitude less complicated than what took place in Paris and Brussels. From what we know now, Islamic State extremists based in the Middle East never coordinated with the attacker, nor spent a single dollar to facilitate the attack. Instead, Mateen, with his half-cooked radical jihadist ideology, legally bought a gun that typically costs $500 to $600 and takes less than an hour to purchase.

In many ways, this could be a worst-case scenario -- IS can now potentially inspire terrorists who appear to have little indoctrination, limited religiosity and, based on what we know so far about the Orlando shooter, plenty of personal problems.

The haunting and ultimately unanswerable question is whether Omar Mateen ever would have committed such a horrifying act if it were not for the existence of the Islamic State militant group.

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About This Blog

"Under The Black Flag" provides news, opinion, and analysis about the impact of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group in Syria, Iraq, and beyond. It focuses not only on the fight against terrorist groups in the Middle East, but also on the implications for the region and the world.

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