The Islamic State (IS), previously known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, released a video earlier this month showing a group of Arab extremists on a slaughtering frenzy in eastern Syria. On the floor were several tied-up Syrian rebels, prepared for the knife.
“The best thing about what you did is that you started with the Military Council, no question about this one,” says an Egyptian member in jest, referring to the killing of a fighter affiliated with the Free Syrian Army, deemed by the Islamic State to be apostates for working with the West.
A Tunisian member then raises the head of his next victim and tells him: “Brother, you will be slaughtered now, brother.”
The Egyptian then tells his colleagues that the videos should not be uploaded to the Internet, to which the Tunisian replies: “Brother, I like these scenes. I like to watch them at night.”
The video received little international media attention, compared with last week’s gruesome murder of US photojournalist James Foley. However, it was widely circulated in the Middle East as the scene of the Islamic State extremists joking and laughing about their victims revealed a new level of barbarity to the group. It was not only cold-blooded, but also sadistic. Those who have often justified the group’s barbarity as a necessary aspect of wars saw a different face.
The two murders, in a morbid way, united the East and West against the Islamic State. In western Asia, Foley’s killing was widely condemned. Many took to social media to offer condolences to his family, mostly emphasizing that people in the region, primarily from the religious sect the Islamic State claims to represent, have suffered from the group in the same way.
However, many objected to the West’s readiness to act against the Islamic State, despite the group having slaughtered thousands of people, displaced whole villages and demolished places of worship.
Despite these actions, people have contrasted the West’s response to Foley’s killing by being ready to strike the Islamic State’s bases with its lack of an appropriate response to the havoc the Islamic State systematically wreaked for months in the region against Syrians.
They said that some of the most atrocious killing happened as the US was preparing to intervene to save stranded Yazidis in northern Iraq.
However, despite the ambivalence toward the West, people and politicians in the region have been unequivocal in their condemnation of the Islamic State. On Tuesday last week, Saudi Arabian Grand Mufti Abdulaziz ibn Abdullah Al ash-Sheik described the Islamic State as Islam’s “Enemy No. 1” and called for “decisive” measures against clerics who lure young Saudis into extremism.
Even radical clerics associated with al-Qaeda have made unparalleled statements about the group.
Abu Mariya al-Qahtani, until recently the second top official of the Jabhat al-Nusra Front in Syria, asked al-Qaeda to “apologize and repent to God” for failing to speak out against the extremism of the Islamic State’ predecessors in Iraq.
The failure to condemn their acts in Iraq was a direct cause of the group’s extremism today, he said.
Atiyatallah al-Libi, an al-Qaeda ideologue from Libya, said that the indiscriminate killing of innocent Muslims did not represent “jihadism.”
Politically, there seems to be a race throughout the region over who is better positioned to fight the Islamic State.
Riyadh pledged US$100 million to the UN Counter-Terrorism Centre to counter what officials called “an evil that affects us all.”
Kuwait has taken steps to shut down some Islamic charities suspected of sending money to extremists. On Wednesday last week, Kuwaiti authorities arrested suspected extremist financier Hajjaj al-Ajmi, before releasing him a day later.
Even the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), listed by the US as a terrorist organization, has been pushing to reverse the designation since it has been fighting against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Iran and its allies in the region, on the other hand, have been more assertive in presenting themselves as a viable partner against the Islamic State. The Syrian regime has uncharacteristically started bombing the Islamic State bases in Syria, long spared the bombardment that affected other rebel factions and territories.
Reading the regional shifts in alliances might seem bewildering, but the shifts themselves can be hugely significant.
According to Arab and Kurdish sources, the crisis has led to closer links between Tehran and Iraqi Kurdish region President Massoud Barzani. A Kurdish source said that the reason for these improved ties is Iran’s quick move to assist the Kurds in their fight against the Islamic State, unlike Arab allies who merely provided humanitarian assistance.
Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, in an interview with the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar, used the opportunity to reiterate two messages he has made in the past. The first is that without his party’s involvement in Syria, extremists would have marched into Lebanon. The second is to present his party, along with its patrons and allies, as a regional force against takfirism, a term that usually refers to radical Sunnis.
In the wake of its military involvement alongside the Syrian regime to repress a popular uprising, Hezbollah’s decade-long perception in the region as a resistance force started to unravel and its sectarian position prevailed in people’s minds.
However, the party quickly adopted a new rhetoric: Anti-takfirism ensures that Hezbollah wins influence not only among minorities, but also from moderate Sunnis who equally fear the rise of groups such as the Islamic State. This strategy is slowly coming to fruition.
The predominance of the Islamic State as a regional concern for most forces has also led to a slight, yet important, regional realignment, with Qatar and Turkey moving closer to the Saudi position of prioritizing the fight against extremism, particularly in Syria.
The Saudi position itself is edging closer to the Iranian one, of not seeking the downfall of the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime — at least, not now.
This past week was one of drawing parallels. Saudi Arabia’s top cleric condemned the Islamic State’s behavior, but authorities there have beheaded at least 19 convicts since Aug. 4. Many of those who condemned the summary execution of the Islamic State rivals celebrated Hamas’ execution of 18 suspected informants.
While the world’s attention was focused on the Islamic State, a like-minded Shiite militia attacked a Sunni mosque in the Iraqi province of Diyala on Friday last week, killing almost 70 worshipers. This militia is linked to the Iraqi government and has fought alongside the security forces against the Islamic State.
US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel said on Thursday last week that the Islamic State is “beyond anything that we’ve seen before.”
And yet the causes that led to the rise of the Islamic State are all too familiar. And the US has contributed its share to these causes.
The IS thrives on the inconsistencies and injustices that plague the region. A response to it cannot involve, for example, working with a government-linked militia that indiscriminately kills worshipers, while rhetorically recognizing that a credible and viable political process is necessary for Iraq. Nor does it involve flirting with the al-Assad regime to fight the Islamic State after the regime has killed or caused the deaths of close to 200,000 people.
The battle against the IS, which itself came on the heels of failure to address the root causes of al-Qaeda before it, has to be far-reaching and consistent. Otherwise, the defeat of the Islamic State will only give way to an even more extreme and formidable force.
Hassan Hassan is an analyst at the Delma Institute, a research center in Abu Dhabi.
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