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The Islamic extremist threat

by Hugh Cortazzi

When Osama bin Laden was killed in May 2011, the hope was that the elimination of its leader would greatly reduce the threat to peace posed by al-Qaida. That was wishful thinking.

The threats have multiplied and jihadist organizations have attracted fanatical followers not only in the Middle East and parts of Africa, but also among European converts to Islam. There are widespread fears that some of the latter will attempt to return to European countries and commit terrorist acts in the hope of establishing an Islamic caliphate incorporating European countries.

The main focus of attention is currently the Islamic State (IS), whose forces now control much of northern Iraq including the oil center of Mosul as well as significant parts of Syria. IS forces have behaved with ruthless brutality and made life impossible for Christians and members of the Yazidi sect in northern Iraq, many of whom have escaped via Mount Sinjar either to Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq or to Syria.

IS forces have managed to capture sophisticated weaponry from the demoralized Iraqi Army, which put up little resistance to their advance and pose a threat to Bagdad. U.S. President Barack Obama has reluctantly used air and drone strikes to stem the IS offensive.

The Sunni minority in Iraq, following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, suffered discrimination at the hands of the Shiite majority government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and have given at least tacit support to IS. Under pressure from the Americans and the Iranians, as well as from rivals within Iraq, al-Maliki has finally resigned. Al-Abadi, another member of the same party, has been mandated to form a new government. If this includes Sunni leaders, some of the appeal of IS to Sunnis may be reduced, and IS at least may be held back from further advances toward Bagdad and the Shiite south.

It is doubtful, however, whether Iraq can survive as a unitary sovereign state within its present borders. The Kurds, who are in a majority in the north and who have been neglected by the Iraqi government, have been pushed back by IS forces. The United States, France and now Britain have agreed to supply weapons to shore up Kurdish resistance.

The Kurds have long sought an independent Kurdistan and this could be achievable unless the Iraqi government manages to bring all minorities into a government of national unity.

There are also significant Kurdish minorities in Turkey and Iran, and neither country wants an independent Kurdistan, which would seek to incorporate parts of Turkey and Iran.

Sunni jihadists, who want to establish a universal Islamic caliphate, are reported to be receiving support from Saudi Arabia and the wealthy Gulf state of Qatar. The Saudis and Qataris are playing with fire.

Meanwhile, the Syrian conflict continues, casualties rise, and many are forced to flee their homes seeking refuge within Syria or in Turkey and Jordan. Opposition forces are split, but the Syrian government seems unable to reassert control in large parts of the country. There is no sign of the conflict ending.

The Israeli confrontation with Hamas militants in the Gaza strip has caused much controversy. Brief cease-fires have been brokered as a result of mediation efforts in Egypt, but have been quickly broken. Israel seeks a cessation of rocket attacks and raids by Hamas militants into Israel through tunnels.

Hamas demands an end to the Israeli blockade, which is stifling life in the strip. Israel has been criticized for reacting disproportionately to Hamas attacks and inflicting casualties and misery on civilians by air and artillery attacks in Gaza. Hamas cannot escape blame for deliberately provoking Israeli counter- attacks and using women and children as human shields. Hamas may have won the propaganda war, but its intransigence has only exacerbated the animosity from Israel. The needed state solution looks as far away as ever.

Iraq, Syria and Palestine are not the only threats to peace. In Afghanistan a new president has yet to take office, and an agreement with the Americans allowing some foreign forces to remain in the country for training purposes has yet to be signed. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has forced the two presidential candidates to accept a review of the election, but the Taliban seem likely to reassert its claims and pose a continuing threat to stable government in Afghanistan. Over the border in Pakistan, the efforts to defeat the Taliban in the tribal areas of Waziristan continue while the Pakistan political situation looks at best fragile. In Yemen, al-Qaida infiltrators pose a continuing threat.

Egypt may look more stable, but President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi seems little different from ousted President Hosni Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood, which was close to Hamas, has been suppressed and its leaders arrested, but it has not been eliminated. The economy of Egypt is fragile. Radical reforms are needed, but it is doubtful whether the new Egyptian autocracy is capable of undertaking radical measures.

Libya is so unsafe that most foreign missions have been withdrawn from Tripoli while the different factions and tribal groups fight for supremacy. It remains to be seen whether Libya can continue as a unitary state.

In Africa, al-Qaida lookalikes can be found in the east and the west. In East Africa, al-Shabaab constitutes the main threat. It controls much of Somalia and has posed a significant threat to Kenya. Recant incidents at Kenyan coastal resorts have added to fears following the massacre in a Nairobi shopping mall by Islamic jihadists. There is no sign that the threat from al-Shabaab has been effectively countered.

In West Africa, especially in northern Nigeria, one al-Qaida lookalike called Boko Haram has murdered opponents and kidnapped hundreds of girls who were being educated. Boko Haram seeks to enforce an extremist interpretation of the Quran. In Mali, the French were forced this year to intervene in support of the Malian government, which seemed about to succumb to Islamic extremists from Algeria and the Sahara.

There is great reluctance in the U.S. and Britain and other European countries to get sucked into another Mideast war, particularly one involving Sunnis against Shiites, but can we stand back and watch the IS carry out genocide?

Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980-1984.