Daniel Lazare is the author of several books including The Frozen Republic: How the Constitution Is Paralyzing Democracy (Harcourt Brace)
Hillary Clinton has unveiled a two-part plan to defeat the Islamic State, and just as critics might expect, it’s a doozy. One part calls for an “intelligence surge” to combat the group both at home and abroad while the other urges that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Islamic State’s self-styled caliph, simply be knocked off.
Both are indicative of why the disaster in the Middle East can only get worse. The problem with an “intelligence surge” is twofold: (1) it’s not clear what it’s supposed to do beyond undermining civil liberties in the name of anti-terrorism and (2) whatever information it turns up will only be as good as the people who use it. Stalin had excellent sources warning him in 1941 that a German attack was imminent. But since some said the attack would occur in April, he was able to ignore them once April came and went and stick with his original conclusion that Hitler would not attack at all.
Since the U.S. is unwilling to examine how its policies have contributed to the growth of the Islamic State, stepped-up intelligence will undoubtedly do the same, i.e. confirm all of Washington’s preconceived notions and allow it to continue on the same disastrous course.
Moreover, considering that U.S. authorities received advanced warnings not only about Ahmad Khan Rahami, the 28-year-old Afghan-American charged with last week’s bombings in New York and New Jersey, but also about Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, “underwear bomber” Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, and Orlando shooter Omar Mateen, it would seem that what’s needed is not a super-sophisticated intelligence “surge” so much as old-fashioned police work like knocking on doors and following up leads.
Instead of “big data,” the FBI needs to do a better job with “little data” in the form of a concerned father phoning up the FBI to warn that his son has developed an unhealthy fascination with jihadi music, poetry, and videos.
As for part two of Clinton’s anti-Islamic State plan – knocking Al-Baghdadi off – it’s simply a medley of her greatest hits, i.e. the murder of Muammar Gaddafi (“We came, we saw, he died”) and the assassination of Osama bin Laden (“I was one of those who recommended the President launch what was a very risky raid”). Since Clinton seems to think her ratings go up every time she kills an Arab leader, she figures it can’t hurt to kill more.
But what she ignores is that doing so only makes matters worse. The record is clear. Seventeen days after killing Bin Laden in May 2011, Barack Obama bragged about the “huge blow” that Al Qaeda had just suffered, saying: “even before his death, Al Qaeda was losing its struggle for relevance, as the overwhelming majority of people saw that the slaughter of innocents did not answer their cries for a better life. By the time we found Bin Laden, Al Qaeda’s agenda had come to be seen by the vast majority of the region as a dead end, and the people of the Middle East and North Africa had taken their future into their own hands.”
Taking a Break
But as the world now knows, the mujahedeen were just taking a break. By August 2012, which is to say a scant fourteen months later, the Defense Intelligence Agency was reporting that Al Qaeda was among “the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria,” that the West, the Arab Gulf oil states and Turkey were backing such forces to the hilt, and, even more astonishingly, that the rebels were seeking to establish a “Salafist principality in eastern Syria … and this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want in order to isolate the Syrian regime.”
Al Qaeda was stronger than ever. The only thing killing Bin Laden accomplished was to remove a leader who was a bit out of touch and allow even more aggressive jihadis to take his place. Gaddafi was a bit different: rather than a holy warrior, he was an anti-mujahedeen who, in a February 2011 phone call, tried to warn Great Britain’s former Prime Minister Tony Blair that the pro-Al Qaeda forces seeking his ouster “want to control the Mediterranean and then they will attack Europe.”
Needless to say, he was ignored. The only thing killing him did, therefore, was to remove the last barrier to a Salafist offensive bought and paid for by Qatar, which the U.S. had recruited to join the anti-Gaddafi effort and which promptly paid Washington back by distributing some $400 million to fundamentalist forces. [See Consortiumnews.com’s “Hillary Clinton’s ‘Entangled’ Foreign Policy.”]
By 2014, the former “Al Qaeda in Iraq” had spun off into the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL and Daesh) and was claiming large swaths of Iraq and Syria, even as Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Nusra Front, was taking over other areas of Syria and bringing U.S.-backed “moderate” rebel groups under Al Qaeda’s command structure.
Al Baghdadi is a bad guy whom no rational person would miss. But bumping him off will be just as ineffective as killing bin Laden. Indeed, we already have an idea of who his successor would be, and it’s not pretty.
According to an article by Giorgio Cafiero in the well-informed Al-Monitor website, it’s Turki al-Binali, an influential 32-year-old cleric from the island kingdom of Bahrain who is seen as a rising force within ISIS and who may have authored the bizarre fatwa allowing ISIS soldiers to take captured Yazidi women as sex slaves.
If al-Binali takes over, Cafiero says that it “would mark a major transfer of authority from the old vanguard of global jihadists to a younger and more puritanical one.” The changeover would have a particularly “toxic effect” on Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states where young people are “vulnerable to the dark trap of radicalization.”
Instead of radiating outwards from the Persian Gulf in other words, al-Binali’s accession could conceivably cause jihadism to reverse course so that it flows back in. The upshot could be an eruption of ISIS-style terrorism right under the nose of the U.S. Fifth Fleet anchored at a $2-billion naval base on Bahrain’s Manama Harbor.
U.S. policies make this more likely than not. Bahrain is a deeply polarized society, torn between a 60-percent Shi‘ite majority that has suffered some 15,000 arrests since the government called in Saudi troops in March 2011 to help crush Arab Spring protests and a Sunni minority that enjoys a virtual political monopoly under the al-Khalifa family dictatorship.
Making Matters Worse
What makes matters even worse is the monarchy’s policy of importing Sunnis from places like Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Iraq and Pakistan – an estimated 100,000 over the last decade – granting them citizenship, and then using them to staff its security forces and bolster the Sunni population in general.
Since the “New Bahrainis” are recruited for the express purpose of bashing Shi‘ites, the effect is to strengthen Sunni militancy and drive up tensions another notch. Since the island kingdom is dependent on U.S. military protection, it has tried to ingratiate itself with Washington by sending jet fighters to bomb ISIS positions in Syria.
But when Islamic State launched a blitzkrieg across eastern Iraq in mid-2014, top officials could barely contain their glee. Finally, they said, militant Sunnis were striking back at an Iraqi government in Baghdad that, with typical sectarian paranoia, they see as an arm of the international Shi‘ite conspiracy no less than the Baathist regime in Damascus, Syria.
Even while denouncing ISIS as a “deviated cult,” Foreign Minister Khalid al-Khalifa therefore tweeted his suspicion that America was using the group as an excuse to attack Sunnis. Minister of Information Sameera Rajab chimed in that rather than an eruption of terrorism, the ISIS offensive represented a Sunni uprising against Shi‘ite oppression.
“ISIS is a name,” she said, “that is being thrown around in the media as a cover-up to silence the will of the Iraqi people for freedom and dignity.” What the U.S. called terrorism was really “a revolution against the injustice and oppression that has reigned over Iraq for more than ten years.”
Rhetoric like this is common in the Persian Gulf where Saudi Arabia’s longtime foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told Secretary of State John Kerry around the same time that “Daesh is our [Sunni] response to your support for the Da’wa,” the pro-Shi’ite party that rose to power in Baghdad on the heels of 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. As much as Persian Gulf Sunnis dislike ISIS, they dislike Shi‘ites even more and therefore can’t help applauding when Islamic State deals the Shi’ites another blow.
The effect is to provide ISIS with an opening to exploit. Thanks to Bahrain’s two-faced attitude, commenters on pro-ISIS websites brag that they enjoy more freedom there than anywhere else in the Gulf. The government allows Sunnis to fly ISIS flags from their cars and to wave Al Qaeda banners and pictures of Osama bin Laden at public protests, activities that would earn Shi‘ites a stiff prison sentence if they tried anything similar.
Bahrain allowed Turki al-Binali to preach openly before leaving the kingdom in 2013 and permitted his writings to be sold in local bookstores. Yet when Nabeel Rajab, a leading civil-rights campaigner, tweeted, “Many #Bahrain men who joined #terrorism & #ISIS came from security institutions and those institutions were the first ideological incubator,” Bahrain threw him in jail.
Rather than mollifying ISIS, the combination of war abroad and tolerance at home drives the group to ever greater heights of fury. In September 2014, ISIS released a video showing four young men armed with assault rifles urging members of the Bahrain security forces to turn their guns on the ruling family and join Islamic State. In October 2015, a member of a Bahraini ISIS cell attacked a Shi‘ite meeting place a few mile away in Saudi Arabia, killing five worshipers and injuring nine others. A few months later, ISIS issued four more videos urging supporters to kill Shi‘ites in both countries.
ISIS despises the al-Khalifa family not only because the monarchy bombs their positions in Syria, but because it allows alcohol and other sinful Western practices and merely jails Shi‘ite protesters rather than killing them outright. The more the regime tries to meet ISIS halfway, the angrier the group grows.
A Blind Eye
The U.S. contributes to the same vicious cycle by turning a blind eye to Bahraini sectarianism. Hillary Clinton ventured a few mild criticisms at the height of the crackdown. But she welcomed Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa to the State Department a few months later and then, in May 2012, announced that the administration would go ahead with a range of weapons sales.
The tone changed even more markedly in 2014 as Bahrain leaped upon the anti-ISIS bandwagon by bombing Syria. Now it was as if a crackdown had never occurred.
As Ala’a al-Shehabi, a Bahraini dissident, noted with regard to ISIS, “The monarchy’s Western allies are… more concerned about the monstrosity growing in the bosom of the Arab world rather than the environment that bred and nourished it.”
Indeed, the West not only ignores such conditions, but contributes to them by backing Sunni sectarianism to the hilt. This is the case not just in Bahrain but in Syria where Riyadh is attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad not because he’s a dictator – as if the Saudis could care about anything so paltry – because he is an Alawite, a variant of Shi‘ism. It is also the case in Yemen where at least 10,000 people have died as a result of a Saudi campaign aimed at crushing an uprising by Houthi Shi‘ites.
The more the U.S. assists in such crusades, the more bigotry will grow. The more it grows, the more arch-sectarian outfits like Al Qaeda and ISIS will prosper. Thanks to her close ties to the Sunni Gulf states – Persian Gulf interests have contributed as much as $75 million to the Clinton family foundation – Clinton’s new plan is not a strategy for defeating ISIS, but a recipe for helping it grow. ISIS should send her a letter of thanks.