Last week’s double suicide bombings in Baghdad demonstrated that Daesh had evaded Iraq’s security protections.
To stabilise the Greater Middle East the Biden administration will have to rein in the rise of Daesh in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and North and Sub-Saharan Africa. Although President Joe Biden himself and senior cabinet nominees were members of the Obama administration, they cannot afford to follow its example and ignore Daesh again as it is already a potent force around the globe.
President Barack Obama did not take action against Daesh until after it had established its rule in Raqqa in Syria and conquered Mosul, creating a cross-border false “caliphate” covering 30 per cent of Syria and 40 per cent of Iraq. Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, loudly proclaimed the “defeat” of Daesh in 2019 by the offensive conducted by US airpower and Syrian and Iraqi ground forces. However, thousands of fighters had escaped capture and found refuge in the eastern Syrian “badia” and the western Iraqi desert and in the rugged lands of north-eastern Iraq. They have re-grouped, rearmed, and mounted operations at an increasing rate against targets in Iraq and Syria, the initial Daesh battleground, and elsewhere.
Last week’s double suicide bombings in Baghdad demonstrated that, for the first time in three years, Daesh had evaded Iraq’s security protections in the capital to detonate devices in a crowded marketplace, killing 32 hapless civilians and wounding 100. The attack followed the pattern set by Al Qaeda, the parent movement, during the 2003 US occupation of Iraq and subsequently adopted by Daesh and its twin Jabhat Al Nusra (now Hay’at Tahrir Al Sham). One bomber detonates his device and once bystanders rush to aid the wounded, a second sets off another. This is called the “double tap” and is widely used by both radicals and their enemies.
Ahead of last Thursday’s “double tap,” Daesh had regrouped and resumed offensive actions, carrying out hundreds of attacks in Iraq by planting improvised explosive devices (IEDs) along roads used by the military, staging assaults on army barracks and checkpoints, and assassinating prominent or influential figures. Daesh fighters also took control of areas where the Iraqi army was absent, particularly in the northeast.
Daesh operations accelerated, in part, due to the Trump administration’s isolationist “America First” agenda which led to the reduction of US forces in Iraq. Donald Trump and his Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also focused on exerting “maximum pressure” on Iran rather than dealing with the deteriorating situation in Iraq. Preoccupied with the COVID pandemic, the US and other global powers ignored the revival of Daesh, imperilling the entire region.
Daesh revived because following the dismantling of its “caliphate” in 2017, the Shia fundamentalist government installed by the US stuck to the very same sectarian policies that had alienated the country’s Sunnis following the US occupation. Sunnis were marginalised, discriminated against, persecuted, imprisoned, harassed and murdered. Sunnis who had stayed in Mosul and areas during the Daesh occupation were considered “collaborators,” rounded up and placed in camps. Those who fled Daesh-held areas during the military campaign against the “caliphate” were held in internally displaced camps and were refused permission to return to their homes and properties. The Iraqi government has recently decided to clear these camps, which shelter and feed residents, without making arrangements for them. Those who try to go to their original homes are often abused by those living there.
Sunnis who had believed the 2019-2020 mass protests for the ouster of the corrupt sectarian government and its replacement by a secular regime have seen their hopes dashed. Shia militias disappear and kill leading dissidents while the government is powerless to act against them. Iraq’s economy is in crisis, COVID is spreading, poverty rising and Daesh is training new recruits and mobilising veterans.
Fighters holed up in Syria’s eastern desert have mounted ambushes on Syrian troops along the Syrian-Iraqi border and attacks on Turkish occupied enclaves along the Syrian-Turkish frontier.
Thousands of fighters, family members, and alleged sympathisers remain in Syrian prisons and camps run by the US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which has also been targeted by Daesh.
The Syrian army and its allies are overstretched. They have focused on the containment of Al Qaeda’s affiliate Tahrir Al Sham in the north-western Idlib province and cannot marshal enough troops to counter Daesh. The Syrian economy, diminished by warfare and sanctions, cannot sustain a full-scale campaign against Daesh while the government struggles to provide the populace with food, water, fuel, electricity, and services.
Based in Taliban-controlled territory, Daesh-Khorasan, the movement’s branch in Afghanistan, has boosted bombings and shootings in the Kabul area in order to torpedo the 2019 deal the Taliban reached with the Trump administration. Under this agreement the US pledged that all Nato troops would withdraw from the county by May this year if the Taliban severs ties with Al Qaeda, Daesh, and other radical organisations. The accord also envisioned a prisoner swap, Taliban-Afghan government negotiations, and the lifting of sanctions. Daesh-Khorasan also seeks to scupper these talks in the belief that the Taliban will be forced to abide by the Trump deal and compromise if it is to settle with the government. So far, the Taliban has demonstrated bad faith by intensifying attacks against government forces which have been weakened by Trump’s drawdown of
US troops from 12,000 to 2,500.
Thousands of Arab Daesh fighters who escaped from Syria and Iraq have migrated to North Africa where they have mounted strikes against energy targets in Egypt and Libya. Tunisian security forces have been repeatedly attacked by Tunisian converts and returnees from the Syria-Iraq front where they formed the largest contingent of fighters.
Daesh in the Greater Sahel has established branches in Mozambique, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad and Mali in Sub-Saharan Africa where the group clashed with other jihadi factions and killed more than 1,125 in attacks on military and civilian targets last year.
Since the Pentagon estimates there are 30,000 insurgents operating across the globe and their numbers swell daily, the Biden administration cannot afford to bide its time.