Paul Rogers: IS feeding on harvest of hate from air war

Tributes were paid at St Ann's Square, Manchester, to remember the victims of the terror attack at the Manchester Arena last year. The attack shocked people and showed the threat level in Britain is still high. (PA)
Tributes were paid at St Ann's Square, Manchester, to remember the victims of the terror attack at the Manchester Arena last year. The attack shocked people and showed the threat level in Britain is still high. (PA)
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following the Westminster Bridge attack, which took place a year ago on Thursday, we had attacks on London Bridge, and at the Finsbury Park mosque and the Manchester Arena. More recently there was the Parsons Green bombing, which fortunately did not achieve its main aim.

The director-general of MI5 has said that threat of attacks remains very high, and remains at “severe”, yet we also are also told by President Trump that Islamic State has been defeated, Mosul and Raqqa have been liberated and we should now be much more concerned about Russia.

What is really happening? To get some idea of where we really are we have to go back to the development of al-Qaida and then examine its more recent off-shoot, IS.

When al-Qaida was evolving in the Middle East and South Asia in the 1990s its aim was to overthrow regimes in countries such as Saudi Arabia in order to establish its rigid and brutal version of an Islamic State.

Al-Qaida was also in the business of attacking the “far enemy” of Western states and Western interests and did its best to encourage and help organise attacks in the early 2000s. They included 7/7 in London, the Madrid rail terminus attack and the bombing of the British consulate and HSBC bank in Istanbul and Marriot hotels in Islamabad and Djakarta.

Al-Qaida’s more recent version, IS, grew out of an offshoot in Iraq nearly 10 years ago but its aim was different. Rather than overthrowing governments, it set out to create a new state in northern Syria and Iraq out of the chaos of the Syrian civil war and a thoroughly dysfunctional Iraq.

It was not initially in the business of encouraging attacks overseas.

By 2014 it had been hugely successful in northern Syria and Iraq, declared an Islamic State or Caliphate controlling six million people and by July 2014 was 
even threatening the whole Iraqi state.

Having withdrawn almost all US forces from Iraq by 2011 in the belief that the war had wound down, President Barack Obama now moved rapidly to prevent further advances by IS.

Britain and some other states joined a coalition which started in August 2014 but it did not involve putting tens of thousands of “boots on the ground” as before in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Both of these approaches led to long and bitter wars with at least 200,000 people killed. Instead the coalition embarked on an extraordinarily intensive and prolonged air war using aircraft and armed drones.

This lasted for three years though some air strikes are continuing even now. It was essentially a “shadow war” and scarcely reported in the western media although more than 29,000 air and drone strikes were carried out and 106,000 missiles and guided bombs were used.

It appeared eventually to succeed in that it enabled Iraqi and Kurdish ground forces to free towns and cities across Iraq and Syria from IS control.

In the process, though, Pentagon sources have stated that at least 60,000 IS supporters were killed and independent monitors put the civilian deaths due to the Western air strikes at 6,200. That last figure is almost certainly an underestimate, since there are reported to be many hundreds of bodies still lying under the rubble of western Mosul and Raqqa, many of them civilians who were caught up in the carnage.

The military result of the air campaign has certainly meant that IS has lost almost all its territory but its leaders saw this coming as soon as the air war started back in 2014.

They therefore planned ahead for what would seem to be defeat, deciding on four strategies.

One would be to go back underground in Iraq and Syria and mount a guerrilla war, and this is already happening.

The second would be to establish closer connections with like-minded groups elsewhere including in Libya, Egypt and as far afield as the southern Philippines, and a third would be to form their own offshoots overseas.

Already there are reported to be several thousand IS fighters in Afghanistan and only last Tuesday they claimed responsibility for a suicide attack near the Sakhi shrine in Kabul where 29 were killed and 52 injured as people gathered to celebrate the Persian New Year.

The final part of the plan, which has been under way for nearly three years, was to follow the earlier al-Qaida policy from 15 years ago and encourage attacks in western states, as we have seen in Nice, Barcelona, Pairs, Brussels, Berlin, New York and, of course, Britain.

Just because IS has been suppressed in Iraq and Syria does not mean that the threat of attacks in the UK will diminish. Indeed the reverse may be more likely.

The air war worked on its own merits but killing over 60,000 people including 6,000 civilians also means hundreds of thousands of friends and family directly affected.

Many of them will be bitter and angry at what they see as the West attacking them and we should expect some to be sufficiently incensed to seek revenge.

For that reason alone, this war is far from over.

Paul Rogers is Professor of Peace Studies at Bradford University and author of Irregular War: the New Threat from the Margins.