Abu Dhabi


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Tuesday 20th March 2018

Al-Baghdadi’s New War of Attrition

Counterterrorism & Security

David Robert Powell

Tue, 07 May 2019 10:13 GMT

The sudden video reappearance of the elusive Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was clearly an attempt by the Daesh leader to show that the organisation had not disappeared, despite the loss of the last sliver of territory of its short-lived dystopian “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. 

No doubt al-Baghdadi also was keen to disprove repeated claims he had been killed or maimed at the hands of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) or international coalition. His message was full of the same lies, hypocrisy and bombast as those of his predecessor in religiously-inspired terrorism, Osama bin Ladin. Al-Baghdadi claimed that “crusaders” were responsible for the defeat of his forces in Baghouz, while it was principally the men and women of the Kurdish-Arab SDF that drove the final nail in the coffin of his short-lived “caliphate” in Syria, albeit assisted by international coalition air strikes. Before that, the Iraqi army had driven it from the towns and cities of Iraq, at dreadful cost to their own soldiers and Iraqi civilians. The condemnation of the “barbarism and brutality” of the “crusaders” by the leader of a group that prides itself on committing mass murder, rape and enslavement of any who stand in its path takes hypocrisy to a new level.  

Al-Baghdadi boasted of murdering Sri Lankan Christians on Easter Sunday in revenge for Daesh’s defeat at Baghouz and threatened of a “war of attrition” in the Middle East and beyond. The ability of Daesh to combine with local groups such as that in Sri Lanka to sow death and destruction on a mass scale is deeply troubling. But at the same time we should not equate the physical threat to individuals with a threat to the coherence of societies themselves. Al-Qaida’s bid to stir war between “Islam” and “the West” through the 9/11 attacks failed. And Daesh, though a murderous threat to innocent civilians anywhere of whatever faith or none, does not post an existential threat to countries and societies.  

The real threat to societal cohesion comes from those who seek to sow division from within. Among them are those who equivocate in their condemnation of jihadi terrorism, while condemning that directed against Muslims. The latest example is the contrasting reaction to the mass murder of Muslims in two mosques in Christchurch by a white supremacist and the bombing of the churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday. 

After Brenton Tarrant shot dead 51 Muslim worshippers in New Zealand, the country’s leadership rightly warned of the threat of the ideology of racial and religious supremacism that motivated him. The call by New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern for such hate-filled ideology to be eradicated was widely applauded, including by Islamist groups in the UK.  

The Muslim Association of Britain, claimed anti-Muslim hatred displayed by the Christchurch attacker was not confined to extremists, but was promoted by mainstream politicians, society and media in the UK. The head of the MAB said it was tragic that such a bloodbath should have to happen for people to realise this. Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) said the Christchurch attacks were not an isolated event and called on the British government to “clearly and urgently outline its plans to tackle far-right politically motivated violence in the UK.” 

It is, of course, vital to tackle white supremacist extremism not only as a security problem, but also as a cultural one – to tackle the ideology behind the violence. How strange, then, that when terrorism is directed against non-Muslims by violent extremists, these same Islamists in the West seem far less willing to confront the ideology that underpins jihadism.  

After the suicide attacks on Sri Lankan churches and hotels, the Muslim Association of Britain posted a brief message of condolence on its website. There was no call for a worldwide confrontation of the ideology that lay behind this act of mass murder. This is despite the fact that Zahran Hashim, the founder of the National Thowheed Jamath in Sri Lanka, the Salafi jihadi group that Daesh helped to carry out the attacks, was known to have long called for imposition of Sharia in Sri Lanka, railed against democracy and demanded death for “idolaters.”  

Islamists in the west consistently turn a blind eye to hate-filled jihadist ideology, pretending that the terrorism it spawns is a rational if extreme reaction to political grievances from Palestine to Kashmir. In Britain they consistently smear government initiatives to tackle extremism as one-sided and directed solely at Muslims. In doing so they breed an unfounded fear of persecution among Muslim Britons and risk undermining their confidence in finding their rightful place in society and thereby the confidence of the wider British public in Muslim willingness to integrate.   

The new war of “attrition” that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi hopes to wage against liberal societies is founded on the belief violence will breed violence, undoing community cohesion and citizens’ trust in and respect for each other, regardless of faith and ethnicity. To prevent this, the reaction to terrorism of all kinds must be to re-double efforts to bring people together, not divide them. The seeming determination of Islamist groups in the West to use the language of rights and democracy to undermine rather than promote community cohesion by encouraging a sense of victimhood and alienation among Muslims risks helping rather than hindering the designs of the jihadis. 

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