Jihadists as the Great Coalition Builders

March 26, 2015

When Tunisia’s authoritarian government fell, that democratizing and relatively free country became a place in which jihadists could operate with substantial impunity. One result was that Tunisia contributed a disproportionate number of foreign fighters to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Now, however, ISIL has fouled its own nest.

The recent terror attack at Tunisia’s Bardo National Museum has been a watershed moment for that transitioning nation. Though the dead were mostly foreigners, by attacking tourism the terrorists are directly threatening the livelihood of 10 percent of Tunisians, and indirectly threatening the rest of the population, too. Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, in a televised address, told the people “to understand that we are in a war against terrorism and that these savage minorities do not frighten us.” He added that “we will fight them without mercy to our last breath.” European leaders rushed to offer security and economic assistance to the country and to help it continue its democratic transition.

This is not the first time that a Sunni jihadist group has scored an “own goal” and helped build the counter-jihadist coalition. In 2003, al Qaeda launched major attacks in Riyadh, turning Saudi Arabia decisively against the group. Two years later, the Saudi government blotted out the first incarnation of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi of al Qaeda in Iraq thought it would be a good idea to attack a wedding in Amman, Jordan in 2005. Then in 2015, ISIL burned a Jordanian pilot alive in a cage on video. The reaction both times was virulent from both Jordan’s government and people. King Abdullah promised an “earth-shaking response” and Jordan has enhanced intelligence and security cooperation with India (probably among other states). The Pakistani Taliban’s incursion into the Swat Valley of Pakistan in 2008 turned into a public relations disaster for the group and prompted a counteroffensive by the Pakistani Army which continues operations against the group to this day. Even Pakistani-Afghan security cooperation is on the upswing. ISIL’s atrocities in the Middle East and the political environment created in France by the Charlie Hebdo attack have turned that often nay-saying NATO member into a full-fledged member of the military coalition bombing ISIL. Al Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001 led NATO to activate Article 5, the collective defense provision of the North Atlantic Treaty, for the first time since the alliance was founded in 1949. Zarqawi and his successors have made a point of attacking Shia populations. Now they have to fight not only the majority of Iraq’s population, but Iranian special forces as well.

The simple fact is that both Muslim and Western countries fall into two categories: those that have been the victims of dramatic terrorist attacks by Sunni jihadists and those at significant risk of such attacks. Every country concerned realizes the truth of this. The result is that a coalition has been built to fight ISIL and al Qaeda-style jihadism that bears comparison to the great coalitions of history: that which ousted Saddam from Kuwait in 1991 and that which destroyed the Axis powers during World War II. Like those earlier coalitions, this one includes great power, middle powers, and minor powers. It includes militaries, such as those of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Bahrain, that virtually never go into combat. It includes virulent enemies brought together to cooperate against a common enemy. And like both earlier conflicts, though more particularly World War II, it includes life and death struggles on the ground by partisan forces struggling against cruel invaders. In addition, nearly every country in the world is engaged in intelligence and law enforcement cooperation to degrade and defeat the Sunni jihadists. Moreover, the governments that join these coalitions more and more have the support and passions of their people behind them.

However, there is an important difference between this grand coalition and its forebears. The 1991 coalition was put together by President George H. W. Bush and his diplomatic team. The World War II coalition was held together by the Big Three: Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin. Today’s coalition is primarily the work of ISIS and al Qaeda themselves.

They are rather like Scrooge’s business partner, Jacob Marley, who forged the heavy chains that bound him in the afterlife with every act of cold-hearted indifference to his fellow humans. For their part, al Qaeda, its allies and affiliates, and especially ISIL can’t help building the coalition that will be their downfall. The reason is that counterproductive behaviors are built into their ideology and their structure. Their structure, in turn, is forced on them by the realities of the international security environment. During the Cold War, it was a major challenge to build a coalition to counter Communism because, as one of Upton Sinclair’s characters put it in 1953, the Communists had “taken all the good words” like “liberal,” “democratic,” “people’s,” and “worker’s.” Today, ISIL and al Qaeda proudly stand on words like “slavery” and “terror.” The coalition to destroy them practically forms itself.

When these groups declare that the leaders of every Muslim country in the world should be hung from a lamppost, they should expect those countries sooner or later to fight them. They should also expect those countries to band together out of a sense of enlightened self-preservation. When these groups kill innocent people, they should expect populations to turn against them. Aggrieved populations naturally garner international sympathy, as the “Je suis Charlie” — and now “Je suis Bardo” — campaigns and the worldwide revulsion at ISIL’s killing of the Jordanian pilot show. When they threaten the livelihood of a population, they should expect it to resist. When they become a brand more than just clandestine organizations — as Abu Musab al-Suri argued that they must in order to survive — they will be unable to control the deeds of the people who act in their names. Those people, then, will do stupid things that harm the overall effort.

If these Sunni jihadist groups back off from any of these things — their ideology, their tactics, or the broadening of their brand — they either cease to be Sunni jihadists or they render themselves even more vulnerable to rapid defeat. It’s a strategic dilemma from which there is no escape.

Certainly defeating ISIL, al Qaeda, et al, will be a long, hard slog for all of us and there will be more attacks and more gruesome videos, but it is hard to imagine how these terrorists can avoid ultimately being consigned to the ash heap of history.


Mark Stout is a Senior Editor at War on the Rocks. He is the Director of the MA Program in Global Security Studies and the Graduate Certificate Program in Intelligence at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Arts and Sciences in Washington, D.C.