WASHINGTON – The Pentagon admits it does not have a military strategy to blunt the spread of ISIS beyond its self-proclaimed caliphate in portions of Syria and Iraq.
The jihadist movement now has pledges of allegiance from groups with a presence in 12 countries, from the Middle East, to North Africa to Central and Southeast Asia.
In response to a question from WND at an off-camera news conference Wednesday, U.S. Army Col. Steve Warren, director of the Pentagon’s press office, said the U.S. Defense Department’s strategy regarding the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, is focused only on Iraq.
“That is where our military strategy is focused,” Warren said. “And the strategy, to put it simply, is to attack ISIL in Iraq using air power supported by Iraqi security forces on the ground to drive ISIL out of Iraq while simultaneously striking ISIL from the air in Syria in an effort to deny them safe haven. So, choke them in Syria, kill them in Iraq.”
As for ISIS’ spread to the other 12 countries, Warren conceded it is a concern to the Defense Department but added that “claims of allegiance” from Sunni jihadist groups in the 12 non-contiguous countries are “largely terrorist organizations which already were in existence which we already were tracking and knew about and are really what I would call embryonic-level associations with ISIL proper.”
“They are often little more than rebranding in an effort to try to increase their own internal recruiting capabilities or an effort to increase their own prestige,” Warren said. “So we continue to fight terror around the world as we have all along but our ISIL strategy is focused in Iraq and Syria.”
Asked if he was downplaying the two dozen groups in 12 countries that have sworn allegiance or pledged support to ISIS, Warren said there is “no clear evidence of direct linkages.”
“These are terror organizations that are already in existence, and we’re already tracking on those that have now rebranded themselves or renamed themselves or claimed some sort of allegiance,” Warren said. “But our ISIL focus – again they’re still terrorists, they’re still terrorists we’re tracking them, they’re still terrorists that when necessary we will hunt.
“But our ISIL focus, which is your question, remains Iraq and Syria,” Warren said.
Gulf state funding
Meanwhile, the Sunni jihadist groups that have sworn allegiance or pledged support to ISIS continue to be substantially financed by prominent supporters in the same Gulf Arab countries whose leaders now see ISIS as a threat to their own existence.
Many of the donors come from the Sunni Gulf Arab countries of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Qatar, which, along with Jordan, comprise the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS.
However, their priority is to overthrow the government of Iranian-backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and not to eliminate the threat from ISIS.
Consequently, they are unwilling to commit any of their ground forces, which together outnumber the ISIS jihadist fighters in Iraq, Syria and the other non-contiguous countries.
While the Central Intelligence Agency says ISIS comprises only some 31,500 fighters, Middle East sources say the financial backing principally from private donors helps pay for the salaries of more than 100,000 ISIS fighters.
Some estimate ISIS has as many as 200,000 members.
Fuad Hussien, chief of staff for Kurdish President Massoud Barzani, told the Independent newspaper of London that there is sympathy for ISIS in many Arab countries, “and this has translated into money – and that is a disaster.”
Middle East sources say there’s another reason the Gulf countries pay ISIS.
“Gulf countries give money to ISIS so that it promises not to carry out operations on their territory,” said Mahmoud Othman, a member of the Iraqi Kurdish leadership.
The ISIS presence in portions of Syria and Iraq amounts to territory a little larger than the size of Britain. The territory influenced by the groups allied with ISIS now approximates the size of the Turkish Ottoman caliphate at its height in the 15th century.
Pledges of allegiance and offers of support have come from groups in Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Algeria, Iraq, Libya, Nigeria and Somalia.
While many are relatively unknown, some recently have received international attention. They include Ansar al-Islam in Iraq, elements of Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula headquartered in Yemen, Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines and elements of Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb in the Sahara.
In addition, other groups that have pledged allegiance or support to ISIS include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in portions of Afghanistan and Pakistan; the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP; Jemaah Islamiyah in Indonesia; Boko Haaram in Nigeria and elements of Al-Shabaab in Somalia; Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Libya; and Ansar al-Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt.
“This cancerous growth of ISIS should trigger alarm and, perhaps more importantly, a demand for a substantive plan of action from our leaders,” said Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence Group, the Maryland-based company that tracks the Internet activity of jihadist organizations and white supremacist groups.
“The U.S.-led coalition’s airstrikes on the ISIS bases in Iraq and Syria have failed to ‘dismantle’ the group,” Katz said. “Since the coalition’s initiation, ISIS was able to spread its infrastructure, recruit, conduct military operations and terrorist attacks and inspire lone-wolf attacks and attempts throughout the West.”
Katz said President Obama’s recent comments regarding his proposal for authorization of military force against ISIS indicate a narrow geographical focus, mostly on Iraq and Syria.
The attraction to ISIS in these countries appears to be the ideology ISIS espouses, a fundamentalist interpretation of the Quran known as Wahhabism. It advocates violence in the establishment and maintenance of a strict form of Islamic law, or Shariah, that calls for beheadings, crucifixions, amputations and even live burning of “apostates,” or those who are believed to have abandoned Islam.
Wahhabism arose in Saudi Arabia two centuries ago and is the form of Sunni Islam that the kingdom follows.
Now, ISIS threatens the status, wealth and authority over the cradle of Islam, Mecca and Medina.
“The irony here is that those Muslims that Saudi Arabia is trying to keep out are the very same Muslims most nurtured and influenced by a Saudi – or ‘Wahhabi,’ or ‘Salafi’ – worldview,” according to Middle East expert Raymond Ibrahim, who holds the title of fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center and at the Middle East Forum.
“Put differently,” Ibrahim said, “Saudi Arabia is again appreciating how jihad is a volatile instrument of war that can easily backfire on those who support it.
“Holy war is hardly limited to fighting and subjugating ‘infidels’ – whether the West in general, Israel in particular, or the millions of non-Muslim minorities under Islam – but also justifies fighting ‘apostates,’ that is, Muslims accused of not being Islamic enough,” he said.
Ibrahim said, however, that such radicalism by Muslims isn’t anything new.
He noted the first “grand jihad” against Muslim “apostates,” called the Ridda (Apostate) Wars, occurred just after Muhammad died in A.D. 632. Ibrahim said that while many Arab tribes were willing to remain Muslim, they didn’t want to pay the Zakat, a form of extortion, he said, to the first caliph, who was Abu Bakr.
“That was enough to declare jihad on them as apostates, tens of thousands of Arabs were burned, beheaded, dismembered or crucified,” he said, according to Islamic history.
When ISIS formed its caliphate last year, declaring itself to be the Islamic State, it initially had the backing of Saudi leadership. But then ISIS announced the kingdom itself would become a prime target.
As did al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has declared the Saudi kingdom isn’t Islamic enough, arguing it relied on the “great American infidel” during the first Gulf war.
“Saudi Arabia is not only a chief disseminator and supporter of the Salafi ideology most associated with jihad, but the Arabian kingdom itself was forged in large measure by articulating and calling for holy war in the 19th and 20th centuries, including against Turks and fellow Arab tribes, (both of which are) Muslim,” Ibrahim said.
Even back then, he said, the Saudis argued that the Ottoman Turks who ruled over Islam’s holiest mosques in that period weren’t “Islamic enough.”
Ibrahim said that if uncontained, an expanding ISIS will become like “an all-consuming fire indiscriminately scorching all in its path.”