Interview: Present ISIL Middle East paradox?

Interview conducted by Jaime Ortega.

 

Steven Emerson

He is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing and operations. He serves as the Executive Director of The Investigative Project on Terrorism, one of the world’s largest storehouses of archival data and intelligence on Islamic and Middle Eastern terrorist groups. Emerson and his staff frequently provide briefings to U.S. government and law enforcement agencies, members of Congress and congressional committees, and print and electronic media, both national and international. Since 9-11, Emerson has testified before and briefed Congress dozens of times on terrorist financing and operational networks of Al Qaeda, Hamas, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and the rest of the worldwide Islamic militant spectrum.

1) Abu Sayyaf was killed a month ago, how will that affect ISI operations in IRAQ and Syria? 

I think the effect will be short lived. ISIS is an organization that has actually learned from the demise of core Al Qaeda. Its leadership structure is only superficially in the form of a pyramid.  But those intelligence specialists tell that  ISIS has learned the lessons from the demise of the core Al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan by  building  in redundancy into parallel layers of leadership. So that if one leader goes down—killed or captured—his area of jurisdiction, whether it be ISIS finances or ISIS arms acquisitions or whatever, is not fatally affected.  This by the way is one of the reasons  why ISIS has remained so resilient in the face of some punishing US led strikes, albeit mostly  ineffective. Its an asymmetric terrorist group that  has created a symmetrical fighting organization—think of a conventional fighting force like the US Army which has multiple levels of built in leadership redundancy—that btw, is also fighting a symmetrical war unlike other terrorist groups. The only asymmetrical aspect of the ISIS strategy—and I don’t mean to be callous here—is the headline grabbing horrific decapitations and executions  of hundreds  and hundreds of  those it has designated the enemy which it has captured, ranging from Yazidi men to western journalists to Arab soldiers to Shiite civilians.

2)  ISIL just captured Ramadi, and are trying to expel Syrian Armed Forces from Palmyra what message does that send to the those countries that support logistically and militarily govern by Haider Al-Abadi and Al-Assad? 

Well, they have already as you know captured  Palmyra and have gone on to carry out a massive killing spree in the city of Syrian soldiers who did not make it out as well as other “enemies” it designated.  But I am not so sure of what your question means. If you are asking me, what is the effect of iSIS victory in Palmyra on those that support Al-Assad,  frankly  that is limited to only a few entities: Iran, Hizbollah and Russia. And we see that both Iran and Hizbollah have just redoubled their support of Assad’s regime in the belief that ISIS has made too many inroads. If I have misinterpreted your question, let me know.

3)  If ISIL theoretically defeated Syrian Armed Forces, and controlled mayor cities in Syria, will Jabat-Al-Nusra oppose an Islamic Caliphate govern by Al-Baghdadi? Would they fight each other, despite greeting their rhetorical alliance combating western forces? 

Well, you raise a very interesting question that used to be very hypothetical but given the losses by Assad recently, is not so hypothetical any longer. It is my belief that  if  the Syrian Armed Forces were defeated,  Jabat  Al Nusrat would never concede that ISIS had achieved that victory but rather that Al Nusrat itself—not ISIS– was either mostly or partly responsible for the victory. Hence, Al Nusrat would never recognize ISIS as the dominant military and political conqueror of a “liberated” Syria. And since Al Nusrat is an outgrowth and effective franchise of Al Qaeda, it would not agreed to ISIS  political dominance of territory that Al Nusrat has occupied or has sought to liberate.  For the past year or so, we have witnessed a very tentative cease fire between ISIS and Al Nusrat, who prior to that had been fighting each other with vicious ferocity. But that  defacto cease fire I believe would cease to exist if  ISIS declared itself the sole political and military heir to the territory of a liberated Syria. And in that scenario, it is my belief that would be a “settling of accounts” between Al Nusrat and ISIS much as we witnessed in Afghanistan in the 1980’s between the 7 different Mujahideen factions  once they victoriously ousted the Soviets.

4) The US, and NATO, have financially supported Kurdish Pashmerga Troops, to help fight against ISIL in Iraq and Syria, but without ground troops are western forces doing enough? 

In an answer, no. Vietnam taught us the limits of air power. Air power alone cannot win wars. Boots on the ground are also required. Without American and other Nato boots on the ground, I just don’t see enough firepower by the valiant Kurds.

5) There is intelligence suggesting Recep Erdogan is supporting ISIL, with the help of Intra-Secret/Service-Intelligence in Pakistan because of their former ties with Saddam’s Bathist party who is entwined with ISIL fighting Kurds. Is this possible? 

You have now entered the Middle East “Twilight Zone” (remember Rod Serling’s television series from the 1960s’?) where anything is possible and nothing is impossible. The only thing that I know for sure is that Erdogan has dragged his feet in joining the coalition against ISIS; he has refused to clamp down on the infiltration route to ISIS thru Turkey; he has refused to crack down on the illegal sale of black market oil by ISIS thru Turkish middlemen; he hatred for the Kurds is so visceral that he will do anything it seems to hurt them even if it means helping ISIS although indirectly;  and finally because ISIS ultimately is  the final perfection of the embodiment of the  Muslim Brotherhood,  a group whose values and  belief system  Erdogan religiously enforces (sometimes leading critics to charge him with being a self anointed Calif), then yes, anything is possible.

6)  Is their a race between Al-Qaeda and ISIL to regain more power in the Middle East? The control of Lybia is not only ISIL’s target, but also Al-Qaeda’s? 

Forget Al Qaeda. They are not looking to control the Middle East anymore. At this point they are looking only to hang on to franchises that are now defecting to ISIS.  ISIS is the new kid on the block.  ISIS is the only player in this race. Just look at the attacks in Saudi Arabia last week and in Tunis three weeks ago. And in northern Algeria.  Al Qeda in Yemen is AQ’s only remaining star franchise.

7) Is there any other group outside of ISIL and Al-Qaeda who can present a serious hazard to western targets like the US or Europe? 

I don’t see any other transnational group other than Hizbollah with the capabilities of hitting US or Europe. And Hizbollah’s  threat is totally controlled by what Iran wants. And since Iran wants a deal with the sanctions lifted,  Iran is going to play nice for the time being. But don’t expect that to last forever. And don’t expect Hizbollah to retire into an old age home even while it is still a player to be reckoned with via Israel.  Remember until  9-11, Hizbollah was the terrorist group that had killed more Americans than any other terrorist group.

8) If ISIS takes down Assad’s regime, then it will be a battle between Al-Nusra, Ahrar- Al-Sham and ISIS because in Nov 2014, they started to attack each other. In case ISIS battled Al-Qaeda, and that is a high possibility, out of the two who would win? Who would receive more support from Qatar, Kuwait, KSA, Turkey and Pakistan? And who would be more successful in unifying with other jihadist groups like Ansar-Al Islam, Ansar Al-Sharia, Al-Tawid al Jihad, besides other smaller faction groups in the Middle East?   

Already, ISIS has been battling the Taliban and winning their skirmishes as Taliban forces have been defecting to ISIS. Now when you raise the question of who would win in an Al Qaeda-ISIS confrontation, its hard to see that direct confrontation emerging at this time because the core Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has been decimated. What remains is Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS has not ventured forth into Yemen at this point. So the only possible convergence of a confrontation between AQ and ISIS would be between AQ surrogates, like Al-Nusrat and Ansar Al Sharia (not really a surrogate of AQ though). In this case, I think that ISIS would win hands down.

As for receiving support from those countries you mentioned, well you have to remember that ISIS is Sunni and so are those are countries overwhelmingly Sunni. Yet, there is no doubt that ISIS has been taking the battle to these Persian Gulf potentates, even though they are Sunni, because they are seen as Western puppets and committing apostasy. The question has been—ever since the US formed the Sunni coalition—how fierce will these Sunni oil rich regimes fight ISIS. Saudi Arabia certainly showed its military capabilities and willingness to flex it muscles going it alone but going against Iranian backed Shiites, a far more easily political target among its dominant Sunni population that ISIS.

Even though these Arab regimes have participated nominally in the joint US led coalition against ISIS, their participation has been quite wanting. In the case of Turkey, well its got so many conflicts of interests regarding its own interests visa-vis the players in the ISIS/Syria/Kurdistan/Iran spectrum  that Turkey cannot be counted on to be a serious combatant against ISIS.  Turkey despises the Kurds and sees their victories as threats to Turkish national security. Turkey also maintains good relations with Iran.  And Turkey does not want to pick a fight with ISIS.  Conversely ISIS has not shown any real desire to confront Turkey head on or destabilize it unlike ISIS’ attitude towards Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Jordan, Libya and even Egypt.

As for who would be more successful in unifying the groups, all you need to do is watch how the once-AQ dominated brigades in the Sinai switched over ISIS as did Al Shabab and Boku Haram,  certain Libyan factions like we now are seeing with Ansar al Sharia.  Military momentum and Islamic ascendancy are certainly with ISIS and those two are as powerful magnets among certain Muslim populations as is the force of gravity in the earth’s atmosphere.

9) Democracy does not to suit well the Middle East. Is this because politics will never take over religion? Is western democracy an illusion to reach in the Middle East? 

Well, I would never use the term never. Remember the Protestant Reformation took hundreds of years and cost  hundreds of thousands of lives. It just seems at the present time that the stars of democracy are not in alignment for many countries in the Middle East. But I would not put the blame on religion or claim that this is a permanent status.

10)  A lot of children seem to adopt religious radicalism with danger. Will the hate towards the west ever change the minds of these Middle Eastern children, of is frantic radicalization a process that cannot be achieved by democracy? 

I am not so sure of your question here. There is good reason to associate religious radicalism with danger. And that doesn’t just apply to Islam but applies to all religions.  All religions, not just Islam,  have their fanatics and killers.

Yet, Islamic terrorism is responsible for an average of about 65 to 70% of all international terrorism annually for the past decade according to US intelligence studies published by NCIS.   Why the disproportionate amount of terrorism within the Islamic world?  And when one looks at the  state sponsored media and  educational curriculum being studied in Islamic schools, not only in the Muslim world but also in the west,  outside educators, ngo’s and investigators have found  a frightening level of continued incitement,  conspiratorial allegations against the West and glorification of terrorist violence (rather than an emphasis on pluralism and non violence and equality) that is a natural breeding ground for violence.

When the Palestinian Authority names and honors  public squares on the West Bank in the memory of the most horrific terrorists who carried out mass murders, what does that tell  the youth? When groups like CAIR, the Council on American Islamic Relations, tell followers in the United States that the FBI is responsible for more “terrorism” than Al Qaeda, what does that invoke in the minds of its followers?  When  the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, like Sheik Yousef Al Qardawi, issue fatwas saying its religiously ok to kill Americans and Jews,  it doesn’t take a genius to figure out the consequences.  And when Muslim dissidents are murdered in the streets—let alone apostates—because they were condemned as  blasphemous for their views,  what lesson is drawn by the next generation?  You ask whether democracy can reverse this radicalization? I am not so sure. I think we in the west make a huge mistake in equating civil society with democracy.

11) History has shown that in 1258 the brutal seizure of Mongols in Baghdad, gave lasting peaceful effects in the region up to 200 years. We have adopted democracy, but an Iron fist seems to be a better alternative to the sectarian violence shown in the Middle East. Has the issue of extermination, historically seen in 12th century by mongol troops ever been presented in congress as an alternative to defeat global Yihadist to secure national and international interest worldwide?     

Whoa, this may be above my pay grade. If we equate modern day authoritarianism (eg the Mubarak regime, the Qaddafi regime) with what you call the “Iron Fist,” there is no doubt that as they say in the American Express commercials, “membership has its privileges.”  I personally am not  a fan of authoritarianism over democracy but we have to be real here: In the 1930’s, Hitler used democracy to obtain power. So democracy in and of itself without  the corollary values of an open pluralistic society is not a viable answer to sectarian violence. If anything, we have witnessed the tragedy of the Arab Spring turning into the Arab Winter because the nascent democratic movements were turned into violent jihadist power plays, leaving most of the populations more disenfranchised and more oppressed than even under their previous authoritarian rulers.  But you have raised a civilization question that has never been answered and may never produce a final answer. .

– Will the issue of extermination be seriously examined only after another 9-11 strikes the United States?  

Remember what Winston Churchill  said right after Czechoslovakia  was taken over by the Germans in 1938 with full complicity of Britain and France, “ Democracies act only when there is blood on the street.” How right he was.

12) What is the best issue to resolve the problem? 

I don’t have one. Sorry. I can only tell you that we in the west are being  been eviscerated  by the adopted  and delusionally progressive  notions of  multi-culturalism where no set of moral values is greater than any other. I totally disagree. I believe that the values of western civilization, of the separation of church and state, of  gender equality and secularism are values that are morally superior to other sets of value systems.  Of course, I will be charged with chauvinism, maybe even “fascism”  for saying such a thing. But that proves my point.

If I cede ground to my critics, why should Hitler’s Nazi ideology be deemed morally inferior at the very least to other western value systems? Radical Islamic values are not mine. Nor ought they be accepted by the high priests of morality in today’s world as nothing more than religious fascism? The same goes with the Christian Identity Movement. But no one seems to have a problem recognizing the latter for that dangerous anti-civizational movement it is. Why it is so hard to recognize other values systems for the other regressive movements?

 

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