A lazy media narrative that lumps every two-bit terror group together is not helping defeat the group’s associates
by ANHVINH DOANVO
The global string of attacks linked to the Islamic State has broadened the counter-terrorism debate over the past two years. To hear one side tell it, fighting the terrorist group not only means attacking its “core” in Iraq and Syria, but also supporting military operations in Libya, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and wherever else the Islamic State is claiming attacks.
The reality isn’t so straightforward.
Though the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the deaths of more than 1,200 people in attacks in 21 countries outside of Iraq and Syria, larger terrorist organizations have carried out only a fraction of the attacks — and most of the groups are small, local outfits. Furthermore, branches with strong links to the Islamic State’s core in Iraq and Syria have claimed even fewer attacks.
In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Islamic State has formed an alliance with the self-declared ISIS-Khorasan Province, announcing the pledge in Dabiq magazine, the group’s main propaganda publication.
American media widely cited the pledge as evidence of a link between the affiliate and the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. However, according to the Pentagon, “command and control and funding from core ISIL is limited.”
Though the BBC named ISIS-K’s first leader, Mullah Abdul Rauf, as an Islamic State commander, Rauf founded ISIS-K as an offshoot from the Taliban. Commanders had called for the split when they began losing faith in the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Muhammad Omar, with his long absences. (Mullah Omar died in 2013.)
The media was even more careless with the July attack in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The New York Times labeled it as an attack directed, and not merely inspired, by the Islamic State. The Times seems to have taken the group’s claim of responsibility at face value, even though Bangladeshi intelligence has pinned the blame on Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh.
JMB has been “involved in 11 recent attacks” according to the Hindustan Times.
Though JMB has pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, it has existed for nearly two decades, and its attackers are focused specifically on Bangladesh and draws recruits from within the country. Ending JMB is likely to have little impact on the Islamic State, and vice versa.
This does not mean that the Islamic State lacks substantial international connections. Abu Nabil Al Anbari — the first leader of the group’s Libya branch — spent time in Abu Ghraib prison for his support of the Islamic State in Iraq after the 2003 U.S. invasion.
But the group’s branches around the world present a bewildering array of various alliances, rather than a plot with a single source in Iraq and Syria.
The Islamic State-Sinai Province (ISIS-IP), which took down a Russian passenger jet in late 2015, presents the epitome of this puzzle. Though it may have received funding from the Islamic State’s core, individual ISIS-IP cells remain loyal to Al Qaeda.
The media is misleading the public when it claims that the Islamic State now operates in “18 countries.” By imagining an expanded influence, journalists are consistently overlooking the challenges unique to each nation that faces threats from radical Islamist groups.
The implication from these media accounts is that the Islamic State’s presence is the root cause of a region’s troubles. Thus, more war is the solution — not the corruption and human rights violations that push people toward extremist groups in the first place.
Ending the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria will not end its supposed branches or solve the problems within the countries that have proven to be hotbeds for extremist messages to proliferate.
Likewise, targeting the terrorists’ supporters outside of Iraq and Syria will not contribute to Iraqi or Syrian stability.
If anything, this misleading narrative is merely playing into the Islamic State’s propaganda, making all bombings relevant to the group’s global cause, regardless of whether they would have occurred without the Islamic State even existing.
This narrative even undermines peace efforts outside of the Middle East as warfare takes the center stage over the real origins of terrorism — corruption, human rights violations and horrific discrimination against minorities.
So long as the media refuses to recognize Jamaat ul-Mujahideen, Boko Haram, ISIS-Khorasan, and dozens of other groups as separate and distinct groups, the legacy of the media’s simplifications will contribute to endless war, not public accountability.