by Ali Rizk
A recent report from the Pentagon inspector general, warning of the “resurgence” of the Islamic State (IS or ISIS), highlights a fact that has become abundantly clear: Washington’s “war on terror” is a failure.
Despite the formation of a “Global Coalition” to fight ISIS back in September 2014, the Pentagon report estimates that there are still between 14,000 and 18,000 ISIS combatants in Iraq and Syria. The report also argues that the terrorist group has enhanced its insurgent capabilities. These estimates and assessments are the latest piece of evidence showing that the U.S. has adopted the wrong approach to counterterrorism.
Terrorist Groups Remain as Dangerous as Ever
Since former U.S. president George W. Bush declared the “war on terror” following the attacks of September 11, 2001, the problem of terrorism has arguably worsened. While Washington has not witnessed another “9/11”, al-Qaeda is widely believed to be as dangerous as ever. A study by Bruce Hoffman of the Council on Foreign Relations in March 2018 found that al-Qaeda had managed to form a global movement comprising more than two dozen franchises, stretching from Northwest Africa to South Asia.
U.S. officials have also warned of the threat posed by al-Qaeda. During a press conference earlier this month, State Department counterterrorism coordinator Nathan Sales warned that al-Qaeda today is “as strong as it’s ever been”. In some places—like Yemen, Somalia, and Syria—its presence has grown since 2001.
Meanwhile the ISIS threat isn’t isolated to Syria and Iraq. The terrorist group has affiliates in Nigeria, Sri-Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines and elsewhere. Earlier this month it claimed responsibility for a brutal terrorist attack targeting a wedding in Kabul, which left at least 80 people dead.
Saudi Arabia and Israel: Obstacles in the “War on Terror”
Washington’s failure in the “war on terror” has a lot to do with the fact that two of its closest allies are Saudi Arabia and Israel.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS are terrorist movements that adhere to the Saudi sponsored Wahhabi doctrine—a narrow minded extremist ideology that Saudi Arabia has spread throughout the world.
The Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka that killed over 250 people put the spotlight once again on Wahhabism and Saudi Arabia’s role in spreading it. Five Sri Lankans believed to be linked to the bombings were deported from Saudi Arabia to Sri Lanka where they were taken into police custody. Sri Lankan authorities also arrested a Wahhabi scholar in the aftermath of the bombings.
Despite the ideological lifeline Saudi Arabia provides to these terrorist groups, it has never been the focus of Washington’s “war on terror”. U.S. administrations have focused on military means that include killing senior terrorist leaders, without addressing the critical ideological factor. Washington has therefore failed in “destroying the idea” and terrorist movements are quickly able to replenish their ranks with new terrorists replacing those that are killed.
Under the leadership of crown prince Mohammad bin Salman, Saudi Arabia has become an even bigger enabler of al-Qaeda. Due to the reckless Saudi war in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (often described as the most dangerous Al-Qaeda affiliate) has greatly expanded its presence in that country. Saudi Arabia has also joined forces with al-Qaeda in Yemen against the Houthi movement. Nevertheless, Washington has supported the Saudi war in Yemen from the beginning, and the Trump administration has doubled down on this support.
Israeli enmity with Iran and Hezbollah is a major reason why the U.S. labels these actors as terrorists when in fact they have actually fought against terrorists in places like Syria and Iraq. Israel supported the anti-Assad forces in Syria, and Israeli officials let it be known that they would prefer a Wahhabi takeover of that country as opposed to president Assad remaining in power. The reason? Assad’s alliance with Iran. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post back in September 2013, the Israeli ambassador to Washington at the time, Michael Oren, remarked, “We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren’t backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran”. Israel even went as far as to provide assistance to al-Qaeda elements fighting the Syrian state. A report by the Wall Street Journal in March 2015 revealed that Israel had provided medical treatment to al-Qaeda terrorists who had been wounded in the fighting.
Owing largely to Washington’s traditional “Israel first policy” in the region, it too chose to take sides with the anti-Assad forces, despite the fact that a large segment of them were Wahhabi extremists from groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS. From a logical standpoint, however, Washington’s interests required taking the exact opposite approach. This point was driven home on two separate occasions by former defense secretary Chuck Hagel. In early 2016, after leaving his post, Hagel remarked, “We’ve allowed ourselves to get caught and paralyzed on our Syrian policy by the statement that, ‘Assad must go.’ Assad was never our enemy.” And in an interview with CNN in late 2015 (also after leaving his post), Hagel stated, “ISIS represents the real threat to our country — the world.”
Trump Administration Policies: Even More Counterproductive
While Washington’s “war on terror” is in need of a complete overhaul, the Trump administration appears to be moving in the opposite direction. Trump’s first two foreign trips as president were to Saudi Arabia and Israel, and strengthening Americas ties with these two allies has become a hallmark of the White House’s foreign policy.
The Trump administration’s designation of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization was a dream come true for Saudi Arabia and Israel and at the same time a step that runs contrary to any logical approach in the fight against terror. Iran and allies like Hezbollah have proven very capable in fighting Wahhabi terrorists. Because of the special hatred these terrorist have for Shiites, Iranian and Hezbollah fighters enjoy an advantage of doctrine and are highly motivated in waging this battle. A logical approach would therefore be for Washington to team up with Iran and its allies in the fight against terror.
Sadly, however, the Trump administration has diminished any chances of this becoming a reality.
Ali Rizk has been working in the field of journalism since 2003 including five years in Iran. He is a contributor to Al-Monitor and Al-Mayadeen and has written for other outlets including the Lebanese dailies Assafir and Al-Alakhbar. He is the former Beirut correspondent for Iranian PressTV.