Show Hide image

Blowback: who are Isis and why are young Brits fighting with them?

Hundreds of young British men are said to have joined the murderous group, first in Syria and now on its bloody incursion into Iraq. What happens when they come home?

Shakir Waheib, a senior member of Isis, stands next to a burning police car in Anbar Province, Iraq


The reaction to Tony Blair’s “Iraq, Syria and the Middle East: an Essay”, published by his office on 14 June – not least John Prescott’s suggestion that the former Lab­our prime minister wanted to take Britain “back to the Crusades” – is a reminder of the old adage about how we often end up fighting the last war. When it comes to western involvement in the Middle East, we have too many to choose from – and that includes the wars we haven’t fought, as well as the ones we have.

It is certainly the case that the west’s new bogeyman, Isis – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham – did not exist before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and cannot be understood without it. Isis grew out of al-Qaeda in Iraq and was formed in response to western intervention there. The guerrilla group’s current leader, Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, was held captive by US forces from 2005 to 2009.

It is equally true, however, that western non-intervention in Syria has allowed Isis to flourish and become the dominant force across swaths of the country, giving it the perfect platform for its swift and bloody incursion into Iraq.

The Syrian civil war has been raging for three years. The one purported success that western policy has to its name is the partial disarmament of Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons stockpile, despite suggestions that only a fraction has been declared to inspectors, and that some weapons are still being deployed. Incredibly, given the death of an estimated 1,400 people in a sarin gas attack by the Assad regime in August last year in the suburbs of Damascus, this now looks like something of a sideshow.

On every other index, the western diplomatic failure in Syria has been acute. US support for the rapidly dwindling number of moderates in the Syrian opposition, which has increased to the sending of “light arms” since January, is over a year too late to yield any success. Now, even the most unambitious bottom line of the western approach – containment of the problem within Syria – has disintegrated.

Yet it is worth remembering that many of the circumstances facilitating the rise of Isis are out of western control: an open Turkish border with relative freedom for jihadist networks to travel back and forth; extensive funding from the Gulf states; Assad’s previous tacit encouragement of Isis’s forebears (releasing prisoners to fight the coalition forces during the Iraqi insurgency); and, since the civil war in Syria began, the decision of the Assad regime to expend more energy against the rivals of Isis within the Syrian opposition.

Though it is flimsy, something of a Faustian bargain has existed between the two, with Isis even selling assets – such as oil from the territory that it controls – back to the regime in Damascus.

That the conflict has spilled over into Iraq, where so much western money and blood has been expended, has raised the stakes considerably in Washington. A military response of some sort, possibly involving US air strikes, is increasingly likely. But the fault lines run much deeper. The truth is that a military operation will do nothing to alter the reality that the region is now on the brink of all-out Sunni-Shia war, in which Isis has just opened up a new front, promising to attack the “filth-ridden” Shia holy cities of Karbala and Najaf.

Broader diplomatic initiatives are also on the table – including the unlikely one of co-operating with Iran in order to combat Isis – but such moves are fraught with even greater potential dangers.

“While our interests in Iraq momentarily coincide (maintaining unity, fighting al-Qaeda) our larger interests do not, be it in Syria, or co-operation with our Israeli, Turkish and Sunni Arab partners, or in trying to win over Sunnis in Isis-dominated areas,” said James F Jeffrey, US ambassador to Baghdad from 2010 to 2012, in an interview on the defence website War on the Rocks. “Too close a US approach to Iran would be fatal,” he said.

As Washington explores its (limited) options, the first thing to note is that the risk of further fragmentation, sectarian conflict and civil war in Iraq does not depend simply on the next move by Isis. The abrasive sectarian approach taken by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-dominated government has in effect thrown away the brief opportunity that existed for stabilising and broadening the basis of the state. Gone is the window provided by the US-led surge and the so-called Anbar Awakening of the Sunni tribes who threw out Isis’s previous incarnation, al-Qaeda in Iraq, in 2006.

Nonetheless, the rapid progress Isis made in taking Fallujah, then Mosul, then the oil-refinery town of Baiji and (at the time of writing) the Turkmen-majority town of Tal Afar is likely to force some issues, both for the movement itself and for those in its sights. In some ways Iraq, with an aggrieved Sunni population alienated from the state, provides similarly conducive circumstances to those that Isis has exploited in Syria. On the other hand, Isis’s own recent history in Iraq complicates the situation.

Terrifying final moments: Isis gunmen take aim at captured Iraqi soldiers before shooting them dead, 14 June. Photo: AP via Militant website




Isis has taken up the mantle of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq before his death in 2006. His extreme bloodlust, taking “all-out war” to the Shias, even earned him a rebuke from al-Qaeda’s central command. Though it is often said that the organisation is too extreme even for al-Qaeda, the “new Zarqawists” of Isis, led by al-Baghdadi, believe they have found a more effective formula. An Isis spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, last month issued a stinging rebuke to al-Qaeda’s official leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, for being slow to respond to revolutions in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.

Zawahiri was also denounced for failing to take the fight to Iran and for obsessing about the “far enemy” (the United States), leaving Sunnis open to the revenge of Shias. In the increasingly fractious communications between the two, Isis has also pointed to success where al-Qaeda has failed, establishing a de facto caliphate across a wide expanse of territory.

Whereas Zarqawi’s modus operandi was apocalyptic sectarian terrorism, al-Baghdadi sees himself very much as an emir, or head of state. Without diluting any of its sectarian fervour and bloodlust, Isis has nonetheless demonstrated a more pragmatic side than in its previous campaign in Iraq. It has gained experience of governance in Syria by filling the vacuum left by the collapse of state authority – running schools, ensuring the electricity supply, collecting taxes and even trading with outside entities.

Its pragmatism has also been seen in renewed efforts in Iraq to rebuild relationships with the Sunni tribes it alienated in Anbar from 2004 to 2006, and even with remnants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist regime in Tikrit. This time, partly because of the failings of the Iraqi government, the incentives for the tribes to take a strong stand against Isis as they did during the Awakening are much reduced, and many of them feel that promises made at that time have not been delivered on. That said, it should not be forgotten that the Awakening was an extremely violent and bloody affair; any reconciliation between the tribes and Isis is unlikely to be seamless.

Will Isis rush to Baghdad or attempt to consolidate what it has gained in such a short time? In Syria, after bursts of expansionism, it has preferred to focus on establishing full authority in its immediate neighbourhood rather than risking all by staging a sustained assault on the regime. Indeed, it is perhaps best thought of as a highly effective insurgent group, which uses terror as a tactic but which is primarily interested in acquiring and holding a defined area of territory. In the meantime, Isis sympathisers are already doing significant damage in the capital with frequent suicide bomb attacks, allowing the group to exert other forms of pressure without courting a full-scale confrontation with the Iraqi army on the outskirts of Baghdad.

Another variable in Iraq is how Isis approaches the matter of the Kurds, who are in a much stronger position in Iraq than they are in Syria. The Kurdish peshmerga – potentially the most formidable opponents that Isis faces in the region – have seized the opportunity provided by the melting away of the Iraqi army in the face of the Isis assault to strengthen their own claim on northern Iraq. The peshmerga have an estimated quarter of a million trained men to draw upon.




Can Isis afford to point its bayonets at both the Shias and the Kurds, who are tough and well-prepared opponents, at the same time? One effect of its gains in Iraq, and in particular Mosul, is to open up a new front with the Kurds hundreds of miles long. It is unlikely that the peshmerga will be willing to afford Isis the luxury to entrench itself without challenge. This could be the battle to watch.

Under what circumstances, finally, might Isis turn its attention to the west?

It is alleged that, on his release from US custody in 2009, al-Baghdadi told US soldiers, “See you in New York.” Yet the gravest threat here, at least from a European perspective, is the one posed by foreign fighters who have flooded into Syria and will return home at some point. There are believed to be 2,000 – most likely more – European citizens fighting in Syria. Between 400 and 500 of those are Britons, and most of them have joined Isis.

While the Isis leadership has preferred to focus its efforts in Iraq and Syria, some of those who have travelled from Europe to join the fighting are known to think differently. Last month in Brussels, a man opened fire at a Jewish museum, killing four people. The chief suspect is believed to have spent a year fighting in Syria. Several Britons in Isis have also taken to social media to express their desire to replicate something on the scale of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the UK.

The significance of the foreign fighter threat, which was already of great concern to the British government, will not increase drastically in the short term because of recent Isis successes in Iraq. Evidence suggests that most of the British volunteers have remained in Syria rather than taking part in the offensive over the border.

That said, the allure of success and the opening of new fronts of jihad will likely strengthen and underpin the appeal of Isis, which has already overtaken Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s “official” branch in Syria, as the rebel force most attractive to foreign fighters. Notwithstanding the superior aptitude for the territorial game that Isis boasts, momentum remains the lifeblood of global jihadism. Isis certainly has that, though its rapid success in Iraq means that it now has something to lose. 

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer and an award-winning historian. Shiraz Maher is a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London, and a co-author of the report “Greenbirds: Measuring Importance and Influence in Syrian Foreign Fighter Networks” (ICSR)

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Islam tears itself apart

Show Hide image

Boris Johnson isn't risking his political life over Heathrow

The anti-Heathrow campaigner was never a committed environmentalist. 

A government announcement on expanding London’s airports is expected today, and while opposition forces have been rallying against the expected outcome - a third runway at Heathrow - the decision could also be a divisive one for the ruling Conservative party. A long consultation period will allow these divisions to fester. 

Reports suggest that up to 60 Conservative MPs are against expansion at the Heathrow site. The Prime Minister’s own constituents are threatening legal action, and the former London mayoral candidate, Zac Goldsmith, has promised to step down as MP for Richmond rather than let the airport develop.

But what of Boris Johnson? The politician long synonymous with Heathrow opposition - including a threat to lie down “in front of those bulldozers” - is expected to call the decision a mistake. But for a man unafraid to dangle from a zipwire, he has become unusually reticent on the subject.

The reticence has partly been imposed upon him. In a letter to her cabinet ministers, Theresa May has granted them freedom from the usual rules of collective responsibility (under which cabinet ministers are required to support government positions). But she has also requested that they refrain from speaking out in the Commons, from “actively” campaigning against her position, and from calling “into question the decision making process itself”.  

Johnson is not about to start cheering for Heathrow. But unlike Goldsmith, he is no committed environmentalist - and he's certainly a committed politician.  

Boris’s objections to the expansion at Heathrow have all too often only extended as far as the lives of his London constituents. These local impacts are not to be belittled – in his role of mayor of London, he rightly pointed to the extreme health risks of increased noise and air pollution. And his charisma and profile have also boosted community campaigns around these issues. 

But when it comes to reducing emissions, Johnson is complacent. He may have come a long way since a 2013 Telegraph article in which he questioned whether global warming was real. Yet his plan to build an alternative “hub” airport in the Thames Estuary would have left the question of cutting UK aviation emissions worryingly un-resolved. This lack of curiosity is alarming considering his current job as foreign secretary. 

And there are reasons to be concerned. According to Cait Hewitt at the Aviation Environment Federation, the UK fails to meet its targets for CO2 reduction. And the recent UN deal on aviation emission mitigation doesn’t even meet the commitments of the UK’s own Climate Change Act, let alone the more stringent demands of the Paris Agreement. “Deciding that we’re going to do something that we know is going to make a problem worse, before we’ve got an answer, is the wrong move”, said Hewitt.

There is a local environmental argument too. Donnachadh McCarthy, a spokesperson from the activist group “Rising Up”, says the pollution could affect Londoners' health: "With 70 per cent of flights taken just by 15 per cent of the UK's population... this is just not acceptable in a civilised democracy.”

The way Johnson tells it, his reason for staying in government is a pragmatic one. “I think I'd be better off staying in parliament to fight the case, frankly," he told LBC Radio in 2015. And he's right that, whatever the government’s position, the new “national policy statement” to authorise the project will likely face a year-long public consultation before a parliamentary vote in late 2017 or early 2018. Even then the application will still face a lengthy planning policy stage and possible judicial review. 

But if the foreign secretary does fight this quietly, in the back rooms of power, it is not just a loss to his constituents. It means the wider inconsistencies of his position can be brushed aside - rather than exposed and explored, and safely brought down to ground. 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.