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ISIS "Greater Threat" to West than al-Qaida

Experts at IWPR briefing highlight dangerous implications of Islamist force’s rise in Syria and Iraq.
By Daniella Peled
  • Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House (left) with IWPR's Ammar Al Shahbander. (Photo: IWPR)
    Nadim Shehadi of Chatham House (left) with IWPR's Ammar Al Shahbander. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Audience members at the July 23 briefing on ISIS. (Photo: IWPR)
    Audience members at the July 23 briefing on ISIS. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Audience members at the July 23 briefing. (Photo: IWPR)
    Audience members at the July 23 briefing. (Photo: IWPR)

The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) poses a greater threat to Western security than al-Qaeda did in its day, according to an IWPR briefing this week.

Visiting London from Baghdad, IWPR Iraq chief of party Ammar Al Shahbander told the July 22 gathering that ISIS was an independent entity that operated in diverse ways and with different alliances in Syria and Iraq.

Speaking at the briefing via video link, IWPR Syria programme coordinator, Z.E., gave a snapshot of life in Aleppo and her work supporting citizen activism there. (Her name is not given here for security reasons.)

“Many people think that ISIS is not a threat to the West,” said al-Shahbander. “I completely disagree. ISIS is a much greater threat than al-Qaeda – it is the number one magnet for jihadis internationally.”

Not only has ISIS created its own de facto state, but it has a much more open recruitment policy than al-Qaeda.

“This is a very dangerous mix of people with top fighting capability and no ethics. ISIS is capable of violence beyond anything seen by al-Qaeda,” he continued, adding that the international mix of fighters made it all the more likely that they would bring extremist ideas back to their own countries.

At the same time, Shahbander argues that ISIS’s days are numbered in Iraq, as the range of Sunni groups that have struck up a temporary alliance with it and operate under its flag will ultimately turn on it – and they have significantly more military clout than it has.

The process will begin once the Iraqi establishment completes the tortuous process of appointing a prime minister. Assuming they do not settle on the incumbent, Nuri al-Maliki, the new premier’s first task will be to negotiate a political settlement with the Sunni Arabs, likely to result in a kind of devolved status for the territory the insurgents have captured in recent weeks.

Nor, Shahbander argues, will the other Sunni militias and groups tolerate the ISIS’s imposition of its narrow, hard-line ideology in the longer term.

Chairing the discussion, Nadim Shehadi, associate fellow at the Royal Institute for International Affairs (Chatham House), agreed that the complex nature of the conflict made mapping alliances very difficult.

“If you go to some policy circles in Europe and in the United States, there is confusion,” he said. “You have people saying that to solve this issue we have to collaborate with Assad and Iran, our allies in the fight against ISIS, and you have people saying that ISIS is the creation of Saudi Arabia.

“And on the other side, you have people saying no, this is the classic game of Iran and the Syrian regime playing arsonist and offering to be the firefighter.”

Z.E. agreed with Shahbander’s view that in Syria, ISIS is allied with President Bashar al-Assad’s government and not, as it might appear, his most dangerous foe.

“The ISIS base in Raqqa was not bombed once,” she recalled, adding that activists used to head there when firing began. “It was the only place where the regime wouldn’t shell us.”

In a vivid description of the war-torn city, she said she was living in the only remaining civilian neighbourhood in Aleppo. People had become so used to the “barrel bombs” dropped by the regime that they now simply tried to go into an inner room to avoid shrapnel if they heard helicopters flying above.

But the crude weapons still exact an awful toll. Z.E. said that last month, one scored a direct hit on a building whose basement had been turned into a school, killing 25 people.

Despite the huge dangers, she said, “There are still people surviving here. I am even invited to four weddings. Life goes on, in an awkward way.”

Describing her work to empower women, including running writing workshops and supporting training programmes, Z.E. said, “As a woman it’s easier for me to work with women under ISIS, even if I have to wear black and cover up.… Working with women is still valid whatever the situation.”

Looking into the future, she spoke of the need to document the contribution made by women.

“The history of this war is going to be written by men, and these women are going to be forgotten if we don’t write about them,” she said.

Guests at the briefing event welcomed the opportunity to get unique insights from actors on the ground.

“It was very good to have first-hand witnesses from Baghdad and Aleppo,” veteran Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn said afterwards. “Aleppo, in particular, is a city on which it not easy to get up-to-the-minute eyewitness accounts of the situation such as we received.”

Daniella Peled  is IWPR Editor in London.

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