By Arnab Neil Sengupta
April 29, 2019
The group may have been ousted from Syria
and Iraq, but recent attacks in Sri Lanka prove their dangerous ideology and
methods have found new takers.
It was on December 19 that the US president
stunned the world with the tweet "We have defeated Daesh in Syria, my only
reason for being there during the Trump Presidency", adding in a video
that "our troops are coming home".
Would that Trump's confidence was founded
on facts. In the course of a week this month, Daesh proved with deadly attacks
in Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia that reports of its demise were greatly
exaggerated. If anything, the extremist group has signalled its intent to
continue its campaign of terror in true transnational style.
The decimation of the physical Caliphate
straddling Syria and Iraq by a US-backed coalition has been a humiliating blow,
but far from a fatal one. As long as there are impressionable people willing to
consume Daesh's propaganda online or be inspired to carry out attacks, it will
succeed in sowing dangerous ideas and death.
The contrast between the complacency of the
Trump administration and the battle-readiness of Daesh could not have been
sharper. Whereas the former has fixated on troop withdrawal from Syria since
the December Trump tweet, Daesh focused on transforming into a more lethal and
disruptive force than ever before.
Although pressure from fellow Republicans
and harsh criticism from the US foreign-policy establishment eventually
compelled Trump to back-pedal on his precipitous pullout plan, the very public
nature of the debate could only have energised Daesh and lifted its
Seen through the eyes of Daesh, the
altercation between Trump and his critics must have looked something like this:
"Here are the nationals of the Crusader alliance squabbling over how many
troops to keep in northeastern Syria when they should be planning for joint
counterterrorism operations worldwide and monitoring the activities of our
To be fair to Trump, he is not to blame for
the withdrawal of US combat troops from Iraq that partly laid the groundwork
for the emergence of Daesh. In fact, in a partial retreat, Trump has agreed to
allow 200 American soldiers to remain in Syria in response to the pushback from
his own party and key members of his cabinet.
That being said, it is clear that the
campaign against Daesh needs to be seen as part and parcel of the so-called
long war. Donald Rumsfeld, as US defence secretary, said in February 2006 that
"Western democracies must acknowledge they are locked in a life or death
struggle comparable to those against fascism and communism".
Showing far more prescience than his
political and media critics, Rumsfeld said: "A war has been declared on
all of our nations (whose) futures depend on determination and unity. As during
the Cold War, the struggle ahead promises to be a long war."
Today, branches of Al Qaeda continue to be
active in North Africa, Yemen, Syria and the Philippines among other places.
But Al Qaeda's terrifying track record of luring recruits and indoctrinating
them into carrying out mass-casualty attacks has been eclipsed by that of
More decentralised in its operation than Al
Qaeda, Daesh has been able to inspire lone-wolf attacks (Nice and Berlin) and
onslaught on an entire city (Marawi in the Philippines) with equal ease by
assigning responsibilities to franchises and affiliates.
The Easter Sunday carnage in Sri Lanka
potentially marks a new phase of exploitation by Daesh of systemic problems of
countries scarred by racial and ethnic violence and plagued by political
instability. As the fact that some of the attackers were scions of one of the country's
wealthiest families attests, Daesh's capacity for attracting supporters remains
undiminished by its territorial losses in the Middle East and the efforts to
thwart its social-media strategy.
Looking to the future, the Global Coalition
Against Daesh would be wise to keep the pressure on the group. Daesh is
carrying out ambushes of Kurdish civilians in the territories seized by Iraqi
army and Hash Al Shaabi fighters from Kurdish Peshmerga forces after the
Kurdish referendum of September 2017. Such a situation is untenable.
Elsewhere, fragile or failed states in
Africa offer Daesh potential spaces to regroup after tasting defeat at the
hands of the coalition in the bloody battles for Kobane, Mosul, Raqqa and
Baghouz. The US should take the lead in intelligence-gathering and monitoring
operations as part of a pro-active coalition strategy to keep Daesh perpetually
on the defensive.
For their part, European countries have
been preoccupied of late with their domestic problems but they should not
forget that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty. Just because the flow of
refugees from the Middle East has eased somewhat does not mean Europe can
afford to let its guard down. As for Trump, the attacks in Sri Lanka may seem
like a humiliating rebuttal of his premature crowing about the defeat of Daesh
in Syria. But the truth is, political boundaries have long been erased by
terrorist organisations in their quest for a transnational extremist empire.
What is at risk is not his personal prestige but the lives of innocent people.
Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on