Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

Battle against ISIL is about narratives

Removing the group’s leadership is one part of the fight. We must combat its ideology
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi addressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Al Furqan Media / AFP
Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi addressing Muslim worshippers at a mosque in the militant-held northern Iraqi city of Mosul. Al Furqan Media / AFP

The Iraqi air force claims to have hit the convoy of ISIL leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in an air raid near the Syrian border at the weekend. The extremist leader was reportedly travelling to a meeting of senior ISIL leaders and might be dead. The fate of Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, like the fate of deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar, is the subject of great controversy and conspiracy. Such speculation is natural. We have come to view the leaders of these extremist groups as the source of their legitimacy. Once the leader is gone, the organisation will crumble.

This was certainly true of Al Qaeda. The charisma of Osama bin Laden was far more important to the organisation than its many battle fronts scattered across the globe. But the same can’t actually be said about ISIL for a variety of reasons.

ISIL is the product of the destruction of Syria and Iraq. The fragmentation of these two countries gave extremists fertile ground to recruit militants and consolidate territory. While the organisation is trying to expand, ISIL doesn’t have the ability to relocate to remote corners of Sudan or Afghanistan if need be as Al Qaeda once did. They are forever tied to Syria and Iraq.

Furthermore, the nature of jihad is now a mutating concept without fixed leaders or specific goals. Contemporary jihad is not committed to the whims of one figurehead like Bin Laden. While Al Baghdadi might be the leader of ISIL, he is not the source of the group’s ideology, authority or narratives of destruction. Removing him from his position will only open a slot for a new leader, leaving the organisation’s structure unchallenged.

How can ISIL be defeated? The most constructive path lies in revealing the shallowness and inconsistency of ISIL’s murderous ideology. We are engaged in a battle of narratives. Military pressure such as the US-led coalition air strikes and the targeting of ISIL’s leadership are a critical part of any comprehensive attack plan against the extremists. But this is just one part of the solution. We must reveal the full extent of ISIL’s bankrupt philosophy, its twisted misinterpretation of Islam and its murderous intentions for the region’s future by reaffirming our commitment to the security and safety of all people in the Middle East. For only if we defeat ISIL’s ideology and reveal its narratives to be corrupt, will we defeat its menace.

Updated: October 12, 2015 04:00 AM

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