‘No limit’ to ISIS ambitions

Middle East expert Patrick Cockburn tells Jamie Kenny about the jihadi group's opportunistic strategy

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Despite recent setbacks in Iraq and an intensifying bombing campaign by the United States, the caliphate declared by the militants of the Islamic State (IS, also known as ISIS) represents a long term threat to the nations of the Middle East, raises the spectre of all-out war between the Sunni and Shi’ite branches of Islam and puts Britain in the crosshairs of a ruthless, bigoted and extremely violent fundamentalist movement.

That’s among the conclusions of The Jihadis Return: Isis and the new Sunni Uprising, a new book by veteran Middle Eastern analyst and journalist Patrick Cockburn.

“They believe in exactly what they say they believe in,” Cockburn told The Big Issue in the North. “They don’t just want to establish a new Islamic state in the Middle East. They want to unify the Muslim world under their banners and go on to convert and conquer the rest. There is no limit to their ambitions.”

While this guarantees ISIS will face the hostility of the rest of the world, the group has already succeeded in incorporating large parts of Syria and Iraq into its self-declared caliphate, which first came to widespread public attention after the group seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in June. Many observers expected an immediate attack on Baghdad. Instead, ISIS turned north and drove towards Kurdistan.


ISIS’s cross-border presence, said Cockburn, gives it considerable advantages on the ground.

“We still think of Iraq and Syria as separate countries towards which we have different policies. But to ISIS it is all one area. They can attack from the area they control wherever the opportunity seems best.

“For instance, when Kurdistan was becoming inundated with journalists after the attacks on the Yazidis, ISIS switched to Syria and seized several villages around Aleppo, near the Turkish border.”

Led by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi (pictured above), ISIS describes this strategy as “moving like a serpent between the rocks”, he said.

David Cameron recently warned that ISIS, unless stopped, “would target us on the streets of Britain”. Cockburn agrees, but said the group acts differently than the purely terrorism-focused bin-Laden era al-Qaeda.

Utter ruthlessness

“They combine a bigoted ideology with utter ruthlessness and a competent military command structure. They are a more ‘Nazi-like’ organisation, interested firstly in expanding territory under their control.

“So I think the threat of people going out from the UK and returning to Birmingham or wherever to blow themselves up is a bit overblown. But there is absolutely no doubt that they would target Britain if they believed that it represented a threat to their expansion.”

Cockburn: veteran analyst
Cockburn: veteran analyst

The threat to civilians was underlined in grisly fashion on last week when ISIS beheaded US journalist James Foley, who had been captured while working in Syria, in revenge for US airstrikes against its fighters in Iraq. Filmed public beheadings were a trademark of al-Qaeda in Iraq, the group from which ISIS evolved.

In the Jihadis Return, Cockburn lays ultimate responsibility for the rise of ISIS to the Iraq invasion, which started a cycle of insurgency and civil war and finally led to the emergence of a corrupt, authoritarian Shi’a-led- government. This in turn made many Sunni Iraqis tolerate or even welcome the arrival of ISIS.

Cockburn also points the finger at the export of extreme Wahhabist Islamist ideology by Saudi Arabia and western government’s inconsistent policy of supporting the government ISIS is fighting against in Iraq while demanding the end of the Assad regime in Syria, whose main opponent is ISIS.

Given the complex political challenges posed by the rise of ISIS, it’s no surprise that some analysts hope that the Sunni Iraqis in the territories they control will rise up and expel it, as they did al-Qaeda in Iraq, back in 2007.

This time it’s different, said Cockburn.

“Many Sunni Iraqis are terrified of what might happen if Baghdad regains control,” he said. “And ISIS are more than a band of terrorists. They’re a large, well-organised, extremely violent organisation, which fully expects a stab in the back and acts accordingly.”

The Jihadis Return: Isis and the new Sunni Uprising by Patrick Cockburn is published by OR Books on 28 August

Photo of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi: Balkis Press/PA

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