This piece was first published on King’s College London’s Kings Of War blog.
On September 10, US President Barack Obama delivered a speech on the threat represented by the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria. A lot has already been said and written about Obama’s four-point strategy to tackle the IS.
In this blog post, I would like to draw your attention on two aspects that have received less coverage but that I believe to be quite important nonetheless.
First, Obama said: “Now let’s make two things clear: IS is not “Islamic.” No religion condones the killing of innocents, and the vast majority of IS’s victims have been Muslim. And IS is certainly not a state. It was formerly al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq, and has taken advantage of sectarian strife and Syria’s civil war to gain territory on both sides of the Iraq-Syrian border. It is recognized by no government, nor the people it subjugates. IS is a terrorist organization, pure and simple. And it has no vision other than the slaughter of all who stand in its way.”
For President Obama, the Islamic State is “a terrorist organization, pure and simple”. This is a clear oversimplification of a much more complex phenomenon. As we know, the IS includes former Iraqi Baath party members and Iraqi Sunni tribesmen that do not squarely fit Obama’s definition of terrorists and are not simply fighting or supporting the IS for the sake of slaughtering all who stand in their way. My concern is that by narrowly defining the IS threat as a terrorist threat, the US response will be inadequate to solve the crisis in the long term. The United States, in fact, may be tempted to focus too heavily on military means while discounting the importance of addressing the political, economic, and social grievances that enabled the rise of the IS in the first place.
Second, Obama said: “This counter-terrorism campaign will be waged through a steady, relentless effort to take out IS wherever they exist, using our air power and our support for partner forces on the ground. This strategy of taking out terrorists who threaten us, while supporting partners on the front lines, is one that we have successfully pursued in Yemen and Somalia for years.”
Here, I am skeptical about President Obama’s description of the US counterterrorism strategy in Yemen and Somalia as “successful”. This point is also discussed in an interesting article by Hayes Brown.
As for Yemen, years of US counterterrorism have failed to eradicate the local branch of Al-Qaeda. On the contrary, National Counterterrorism Center Deputy Director Nicholas Rasmussen recently stated that “We [the United States] continue to assess that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [which is based in Yemen] remains the Al-Qaeda affiliate most likely to attempt transnational attacks against the United State.”
As for Somalia, the United States has been fighting the US-designated terrorist group al-Shabaab at least since 2008. In his speech, President Obama singled out the killing of Ahmed Godane, the top commander of the group, as evidence of the effectiveness of US counterterrorism strategy in the country. However, as noted by Brown, rather than discouraging the remaining members, the killing of Godane has led al-Shabaab to quickly name a new leader and to renew its allegiance to al Qaeda.
Given the persistent threats represented by AQAP in Yemen and Al-Shabaab in Somalia, it is not straightforward to understand President Obama’s choice of these two countries as successful examples of the US strategy of counterterrorism.
These are my thoughts. Now, I would like to hear from you. What is your take on these two issues?