Why ISIS has to be fought to the bitter end

The only short-term solution is military defeat of the Islamic State and the recapture of all towns and cities held by it.

 |  5-minute read |   08-07-2016
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A string of horrific suicide attacks, most recently in Baghdad and Turkey, directly attributed to the Islamic State (IS), may have caused some confusion about the nature of this beast.

More importantly, what needs to be done to end the menace of IS-inspired lone wolf attack on June 12, in Orlando, Florida and the July 1 wolf pack attacks in Dhaka?

There is also confusion about its identity. Is the Islamic State a terrorist group or an insurgency? And why should we celebrate successes of the Iraqi army like the June 18 recapture of Fallujah from the IS.

Also read - Muslims must wage a war against Islamists

The IS variously known as ISIL, ISIS and Daesh (the Arabic acronym for ISIS) is a product of twin tragedies. The Sunni-Shia ethnic strife in Iraq after the 2003 US-led invasion and the fracturing of Syria post the 2011 "Arab Spring".

The IS controls an area the size of England and administers cities like Mosul, Tikrit and Raqqa with millions of Iraqis and Syrians. It is both a terrorist group and an insurgency, the equivalent of a countryside insurgency, the Afghan Taliban, and the urban terrorist al Qaeda, rolled into one.

This distinction wouldn't matter much for the family of a Shia civilian killed in Baghdad or for a Yazidi girl trying to escape from its sexual slavery. Both identities are equally vicious.

Also read - From Arab Spring to Islamist Winter

But for the IS, these dual identities feed off each other making it into a terrorist group almost without precedence. The IS urban insurgency allows it to create vast sanctuaries for mobilising and training terrorists.

From secure bases in Iraq and Syria, the IS runs a massive social media campaign to draw recruits to its cause and instigate "lone wolf" attacks in Orlando and Dhaka and dispatch highly-trained terrorists to strike at urban centres from Paris to Istanbul.

20lanka.600_070816014202.jpg Sri Lankan troops carry LTTE leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran's body. (Reuters)

Only one other insurgent group in recent history has effortlessly juggled twin identities - the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). At its apogee in 2003, the Tamil Tigers ran a virtual autonomous proto-fascist "Tamil Eelam" state which controlled two-thirds of the territory of northern and eastern Sri Lanka.

The Tigers had a conventional standing army of nearly 10,000 men and women guerillas divided into fighting brigades, with artillery and mortars and a few captured battle tanks and armoured vehicles, a small speedboat navy, a rudimentary air force and a merchant shipping fleet, the "Sea Pigeons", that supplied it with arms and ammunition.

Like the IS, it was a product of a decades-old ethnic strife - Sri Lanka's Tamil minority marginalised by the dominant Sinhala majority. One of several armed militant groups which came to the fore after the July 1983 race riots in Sri Lanka, the LTTE eventually subsumed all other groups to emerge as the sole, self-styled, representative of the Sri Lankan Tamils.

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But it also had a darker side - the dreaded Black Tigers directly under Tiger Organisation Security and Intelligence Service (TOSIS) chief, Pottu Amman.

Shiite militias in Lebanon pioneered the modern suicide attack using vehicle-borne bombs in the early 1980s. It was the LTTE Black Tigers who perfected it into the portable suicide belt which it used to assassinate former Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in May 1991, Sri Lankan President Premadasa in 1993 and scores of other key figures. The suicide belt is now the de rigueur tool of terror for groups ranging from the Pakistan Taliban to the IS.

There are, of course, several other significant points of divergence between the LTTE and IS. Religion is one of the key differentiators.

The IS projects itself as a medieval Islamic Caliphate locked in global struggle with Christian "Crusader" nations. Religion may have initially played a significant role in the LTTE's struggle against the Sinhala majority Sri Lankan state because the Tamil minorities were predominantly ethnic Hindus. The religious identity was gradually subsumed into the idea of Tamil nationalism.

Also read - Defeating ISIS a far cry without a settlement in Syria

The Islamic State thrives because it straddles two nations, Syria and Iraq, on either side of the colonial era Sykes-Picot line. Neither Iraq nor Syria possesses armies it would need to militarily defeat and destroy the IS. The US assistance is confined to training Iraqi government troops and Kurdish militias and harrying IS through air strikes.

The LTTE thrived when it faced the Lankan army on two fronts - in the north and east. Colombo lacked the political resolve or the military means to end the conflict. When the east broke away with the rebellion of Prabhakaran's key aide, Colonel Karuna in 2003, it marked the beginning of the end for the Tigers. Both its identities as state and terrorist group collapsed in 2009 where the group was militarily annihilated by Lankan forces.

If the IS had confined its ambitions to West Asia it would have become the global headache it has now become. The group's proficiency in social media and its potential to continually instigate global violence make it a threat that must be destroyed.

To this end, the military defeat of the IS and the recapture of all the towns and cities held by it, is the only short-term solution, albeit one that is likely to take several years. The world will be a better place without this group and its poisonous idealogy.


Sandeep Unnithan Sandeep Unnithan @sandeepunnithan

The writer is Executive Editor, India Today.

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