While failing to blunt the Islamic State’s (IS) advances in Iraq and Syria, air strikes by the US and its Arab allies may instead be galvanising hundreds of western-born schoolgirls and young women to abandon their homes to “bear children for the Caliphate” — as fears of reprisal attacks by terrorists back home grow.
Islamic militants continued to gain on two separate fronts on 1 October: In Iraq, they were holding their ground on the highway from Fallujah, said to be about two miles from the Iraqi capital Baghdad and advancing on a key Kurdish town, Kobane, in Syria as Kurdish fighters scrambled to defend it.
US President Barack Obama, widely seen as allowing the rise of the IS by ignoring the Syrian civil war for more than three years, muddied waters on 28 September by shifting the blame to intelligence agencies in a television interview.
“I think our head of the intelligence community has acknowledged that I think they underestimated what had been taking place in Syria,” Obama said, calmly adding that the militants took “advantage of chaos” in remote areas of Syria. The claim stirred widespread outrage in the US, with most newspapers publishing detailed accounts of intelligence warnings — some given publicly at Congressional hearings over a year ago.
Copycat beheadings by lone killers claiming to be IS sympathisers stoked fears of terrorist attacks in western capitals from New York and Paris to London — and even in faraway Australia, where terrorist plotters with links to the IS were arrested.
Police in Australia shot dead an 18-year-old “known terror suspect” on 24 September after he allegedly stabbed two police officers. A few days before, police arrested 15 people whom they claimed were plotting to “abduct and behead” Australian citizens at random.
Southeast Asia, which has several localised Islamic movements, is also a fertile ground for Islamic fighters. In Malaysia, police recently arrested three young men at the Kuala Lumpur airport as they attempted to fly out to join the ‘Caliphate’. The trio — an architect, a technician and a shopkeeper — were recruited barely three months ago over Facebook by a senior Malaysian fighter, reports said.
There have also been reports of Indonesian recruits. In the Philippines, Abu Sayyaf terrorists have threatened to behead a captive German tourist in retaliation for the air strikes in Iraq and Syria. In China, a party newspaper claimed four suspected militants from Xinjiang were arrested in Indonesia with fake Turkish passports.
In western capitals, fears over reprisal attacks grew after Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, in New York for the recent UN summit, revealed a plot to bomb subways in New York and Paris, putting the US government on the defensive. A man dismissed from a store in Oklahoma beheaded a middle-aged woman inside the store and attempted to behead another before he was shot dead. The man claimed to be a convert to Islam.
Even under punishing air strikes, IS militants “escalated operations in the Baghdad zone on 18 September” noted the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War. It said the IS attack on the Adala Prison in the Kadhmiyah military intelligence headquarters complex was “the first ground force attack …since the fall of Mosul in June”.
The militants have weathered 280 air strikes, over 230 of them in Iraq alone, to advance to within a few miles of Baghdad, reportedly killing 1,000 Iraqi soldiers in a fierce battle on 26 September. About 300 other soldiers were also said to have been executed. On 1 October, British fighter planes joined in the bombing runs for the first time.
In Syria, militants seemed to rise phoenix-like from air assaults the day before on their positions around Kobane, a Kurdish town on the border with Turkey. They pushed to within two miles of its outskirts. Over the past eight days, IS fighters have ransacked 200 surrounding villages, leaving a trail of savage violence. An estimated 160,000 Syrian Kurds have flooded into Turkey in the preceding week alone.
Ineffectiveness of the air strikes, combined with widespread outrage over Obama’s attempt to deflect blame for what was clearly an administration failure in Syria, is likely to increase pressure for deploying American combat troops in the coming days.
Already, Americans seem resigned to a coming escalation of the war. A recent poll found that, despite Obama’s promises not to engage US combat troops, 72 percent of Americans believe the US will end up deploying them anyway.
According to the poll, about 37 percent were opposed to deploying American troops while 45 percent said they would back the move if military commanders deemed it necessary to defeat IS terrorists — another sign that ordinary Americans have either stopped believing Obama, or think he is weak and vacillating.
But far more worrying for the West than the military task of defeating the Islamic State is the almost Garden of Eden-like feel to life inside the so-called Caliphate, which seems to be driven by messianic zeal for “Islamic purity”. It is attracting hundreds of young women, some whom have taken up arms while others are content to bear children to become jihadist fighters.
A recent undercover video shot by a woman living inside militant-held territory shows young western women on webchats with their families inside an Internet cafe, as they refuse to go back home. “Television exaggerates everything. Don’t believe what you see. I am doing fine. I want to stay here,” a young woman fully cloaked in Islamic black dress tells her family in France.
France has the highest number of female jihadi recruits, with 63 of them already in the Islamic State. And 60 more may be considering the move, according to . Five people, including a sister and brother, were arrested in France in September suspected of recruiting young French women, the French interior minister told the paper. In the UK, about 50 British girls and women have joined the IS and at least 40 from Germany. Almost all of these teenagers and young adults are recruited through the social media.
Though political and ethnic sensitivities constrain western media from reporting this openly, most recruits are from ethnic minorities that feel alienated from the majority white populations in these countries.
However, there have also been occasional reports of mainstream white converts, like Shannon Conley, a white teenage girl from Colorado. The nursing aide was arrested as she attempted to board a plane to “join jihad”.
The striking, smiling images of two pretty Bosnian-Austrian girls, teenage friends who disappeared from Vienna in April to “serve Allah” and “die for him”, have become the most identifiable symbols of the phenomenon. One of them was later said to have posted pictures of herself brandishing an automatic weapon. And the other is said to be pregnant. Another woman jihadi was said to have posted a picture of herself holding a severed head.
The IS uploaded videos of charred buildings from the bombings, but the involvement of five Arab nations in the air campaign seemed to diffuse blame — keeping it from becoming an overtly West vs Islam issue. The ruler of Dubai, and a Turkish parliamentarian wrote separate columns in local newspapers building an intellectual framework for the military effort.
The UAE deployed a woman F-16 pilot, Major Mariam al-Mansouri, as part of the air campaign while the young Prince Khaled bin Salman, son of Crown Prince Salman bin Abdulaziz al Saud, flew a mission for Saudi Arabia.
In New York, over 100 Muslim scholars wrote an open letter to Abu bakr al Baghdadi, the leader of the ‘Caliphate’, questioning the legitimacy of the IS and the religious basis for wanton killings.
Relying heavily on the Quran, the Hadith — or the sayings of the Prophet Mohammad — as well as accepted Koranic scholarship, the 18-page letter released on 24 September challenged Baghdadi’s extremist interpretation of Islamic duties, sanctions and injunctions.
As a result of Obama’s claims of intelligence failure, there is growing scrutiny of how he gets his daily intelligence update, known as the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB). A new report by a group called the Government Accountability Institute revealed that
Obama had attended only 42.1 percent of the PDBs in the 2,079 days of his presidency until 30 September.
As former CIA director Leon Panetta once noted, Obama prefers reading the reports to getting them delivered to him verbally, eliminating the urgency of a live, in-person briefing. And nobody knows if the PDBs get read at all.