NEW YORK -- Western Jihadists are being employed as "cannon fodder" for the Islamic State (ISIS), according to an expert on the movement. Speaking with HuffPost, Austin Long, an Assistant Professor Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, said that many young fighters travelling to Iraq and Syria are being thrown into frontline warfare or are being "manipulated" into carrying out suicide bombings.
Here we pick out five key points about the Islamic State in conversation with Long - the level of threat to the West, the makeup of the leadership, the role of Western jihadists and how the group is markedly different from that of al-Qaeda under bin Laden. The academic also notes what would be required to stop the advance of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi's hitherto resilient modern Caliphate.
Is the Islamic State a threat to the European and American homelands?
“The threat is not zero but it’s not large,” says Long. "The ISIS strategy for victory is entirely focused on fighting in the region. As such, the real concern would be fighters travelling back from Iraq or Syria and launching their own independent attacks".
“The closest analogy would be Faisal Shahzad, the Times Square bomber, who went to Pakistan and volunteered to work with the Pakistani Taliban. They decided the best use for Shahzad would be to send him back to attack the US. This could happen if ISIS wanted to strike back at America for a bombing campaign but so far they’ve used volunteers to fight in Iraq and Syria”.
Long says Western volunteers could return to the US or Europe and independently launch an attack, similar to the Boston bombing or the failed Times Square bombing, "but not a huge 9/11-style, multi-year conspiracy to do massive damage".
Who are the ISIS leaders?
Many ex-Baathists and former members of the Iraqi military (under Saddam Hussein) have been part of al-Qaeda in Iraq and now the Islamic State’s "organizational DNA" for years, says Long. "One of the great strengths of the Islamic State is that they are very well organised and have standard operating procedures, and functional speculation – you have administrative personnel, military personnel, security personnel – and the Baathists brought a lot of that to the organization.”
The Islamic State has also found it easier to recruit many of these ex-Baathists, particularly amongst Sunnis, due to the country's muddled politics.
"The Sunnis turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2006 and put their hopes on political progress but the 2010 parliamentary elections.” However, the Sunnis supported Ayad Allawi at the polls and though he won the most seats but wasn’t able to form a government, “so for the past four years the Sunnis have felt really disenfranchised because they bought into the political process and were pushed out, giving the Islamic State an opportunity to recruit former military officers and ex-Baathists”.
Where do Western jihadists fit into this?
“Most of them are being used as cannon fodder. There have been some examples in other al-Qaeda affiliates of using Westerners for media purposes, but so far we haven’t seen that with the Islamic State.”
The academic says ISIS is primarily made up of Iraqis, “with some Syrians and some foreign fighters principally from the Gulf States that have been incorporated into the leadership, but so far Westerners are being used as frontline fighters”. This is, of course, exactly what many Jihadists are going over there to do, however Long says they are susceptible to manipulation and to being talked into carrying out suicide bombings “even if that wasn’t their original intention”.
How does the group differ from al-Qaeda?
The Islamic State has a different "theory of victory" to al-Qaeda, the group run by bin Laden and now al-Zawahiri, says Long. “For al-Qaeda, the best way to get rid of corrupt governments in the Middle East, particularly the Saudi government, was to get the US out of the Middle East – the Saudis were too strong with US backing.”
As such, al-Qaeda focused on the idea of hitting the “far enemy”, to get the US out of the region, after which they believed they would be able to take down the “apostate regimes”. Obviously, this strategy didn’t work out so well.
“Al-Qaeda in Iraq, now the Islamic state, has a much different strategy – let’s fight the near-enemy directly.” As such, the Islamic State has concentrated on fighting the US when it was in Iraq, then the successor regimes and now Bashar al-Assad in Syria. “The ISIS focus is fundamentally about fighting the people in their neighbourhood, and so far they’ve been very successful.”
Is the Islamic State becoming overstretched?
“They certainly are vulnerable as they are fighting on multiple fronts – the Kurds in Iraq, the Iraqi government, the Syrian government, other Syrian rebels – and they’re even having trouble keeping their fellow Sunnis on side,” says the Assistant Professor. “It will likely come down to the ability of those fighting against ISIS to coordinate, but that will be difficult.”
In Syria ISIS is fighting against the Free Syrian Army and the Assad regime – opposing groups that are unlikely to co-ordinate against the Islamic State. “In Iraq it’s a little easier," he says, "where you could see some co-ordination between Sunnis in Western Iraq and Northern Iraq but ISIS won’t just collapse, it will take a coordinated effort.
You can be an effective fighting force on multiple fronts for a short time, but even the German Wehrmacht couldn’t cope with it in the end.”