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Iraq and Syria: Not the Only Battleground Against IS

Feb 26 , 2015

On January 22, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced at the counter-ISIL coalition meeting in London that, during the five-month long air campaign, the U.S. and its allies launched almost 2,000 strikes, reclaimed 700 square kilometers of land, eliminated over 50% of the IS top command and cut off IS access to over 20 oil facilities in Iraq, inflicting heavy losses on IS fighters, weapons, training camps and funding. The campaign, however, has prompted the specter of IS terrorism to scatter beyond Iraq, Syria and the Middle East, making its way into Africa, Europe and Asia.

Africa became the first victim. Last August, the extremist group Boko Haram, like IS, declared the establishment of a so-called “Islamic state” in Borno State, northern Nigeria, where the group controls nearly 40% of the territory. Three months later, the Islamic militant group Abu Slim Martyrs Brigade, which captured Libya’s seaside town Darnah, joined the IS “caliphate” 1,600 kilometers away by vowing allegiance to IS leader al-Baghdadi. This year, as Nigeria approaches its general elections, Boko Haram has carried out more terrorist attacks, killing 2,000 civilians in the northern Nigerian town Baga, and sending 10-year old girls on suicide bomb missions. At the end of January, the Sinai Peninsula also witnessed several terrorist attacks on military facilities, leaving at least 26 dead and 105 wounded. The organization that claimed responsibility for these attacks was no other than the IS Sinai branch.

Developed countries in Europe and North America did not escape the scourge either. The attack on Charlie Hebdo headquarters in Paris took 12 lives, and similar terrorist threats in the U.S., Britain and Belgium are evidence that the frontline of the West’s anti-terrorism campaign has been pushed to the very doorstep of many western countries. According to U.S. intelligence, the majority of the 12,000 foreign IS militants in Iraq and Syria are young people from the UK, France, the U.S., Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other western countries. Terrorism on home soil not only makes the battle more difficult to win, but also aggravates religious confrontation and social division within these western countries.

Even in Asia, a region long considered distant from the frontline of the war on terror, the threat of terrorism is looming large. A rising number of voluntary IS fighters in Iraq and Syria have been identified as natives of countries with a large Muslim population, including Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. Recently, two Japanese hostages were executed by IS. Even China, where terrorist activities are rare, is facing signs of collusion between separatists and international terrorist groups.

In order to defeat IS, action needs to be taken well beyond Iraq and Syria and to include more than just air strikes. The entire campaign will not be measured in months. It needs to be a global, multi-pronged and long-term battle and requires global input and cooperation to extirpate this universal scourge.

In light of Africa’s geographical proximity to the Middle East and Europe and its vulnerability to terrorism, the world needs to recognize Africa’s critical position in the global war on terror. Around the same time the Kouachi brothers were shooting down the 12 editors at Charlie Hebdo, Boko Haram was killing 2,000 unarmed and innocent villagers in Nigeria. However, the former made headlines almost instantly around the world and was followed by an unprecedented “solidarity march” by world leaders walking hand-in-hand, whereas the latter gained little attention. The three major African Islamic radical organizations, namely the Somali Al-Shabab, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in North Africa and Boko Haram, have formed an “arc of instability” stretching from the northeastern part to the northern and western parts of Africa with strengthened ties with IS. Such ties are further intertwined with anti-government forces and political struggles within individual African countries. The international community must provide African countries with concrete and effective counter-terrorism assistance, including intelligence sharing, as well as financial support, technical guidance, equipment and training programs.

Moreover, it is crucial that the U.S.-led counter-terrorism coalition abandon its “double standards”, an issue of particular concern to African and Asian countries. Shouting “we are avenging the prophet Muhammad!” does not change the terrorist nature of the Kouachi brothers’ attack. Likewise, the knife attack on innocent passengers at Kunming train station by ETIM, a terrorist, extremist and separatist group in China, was a terrorist attack in every sense. The international community must be united around one line of thought. In the fight against terrorism, no country can ever stay unscathed.

Last but not least, efforts to fight terrorism and pursue development must go hand-in-hand. Poverty and marginalized groups provide the most convenient breeding ground for extremist mentality and terrorism. Therefore, only by promoting development and ending poverty can the root cause of terrorism be forever eliminated.

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