As the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) increases its attacks in Syria, Iraq and beyond, the Syrian war claims victims everywhere from the Levant and the Gulf to Europe. The recent acts of terrorism in Tunisia, Kuwait and Kobani, Syria, all claimed by ISIS and killing Muslims and non-Muslims alike, show the extent to which ISIS is willing to go to create the maximum impact of shock and awe.
While ISIS gains popularity among terrorist groups, its center of gravity and support remains Iraq and Syria. This underlines again the one fact we all have to reckon with: as long as the Assad regime is allowed to stay in power and the security architecture in Iraq is not rebuilt, ISIS will remain a deadly terrorist force, taking innocent lives and destroying peace and stability on a global scale.
ISIS derives its sustenance from two sources. The first is an ideological battle that sees the world in black and white and recognizes no truth other than its own. It subverts Islam's essential message to carve up a place for itself in the modern world of violence. ISIS claims to establish a "state" in the name of Islam but does so by killing more Muslims than others. Its methods are barbaric but seen by its followers as justified with a reference to the horrors of modern warfare. But the key here is not so much ideology or religion as it is an unrestrained quest for power. The weak state of security in various Muslim countries contributes to the rise of terrorist groups and warlords.
This brings us to the second source, which is the fact of failed states and weak governments. A failed state is usually defined as one that is unable to provide security and basic services to its citizens.
ISIS is making full use of the civil war in Syria, internecine fighting in Yemen and Libya, weak government and security structure in Iraq, lack of central authority in places such as Afghanistan, Nigeria and Mali. Without addressing the problem of failed states and weak governments, no amount of air bombs, anti-ISIS statements or religious fatwas will be enough to degrade and destroy ISIS.
In Syria, the Assad regime facilitates ISIS advances to weaken and divide the opposition forces including the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Unfortunately, it has been successful so far. The regime uses ISIS as a pretext to invite foreign fighters, through Iran and Hezbollah, to fight on its side. The failure of the international community to provide substantive assistance to the FSA plays to the hands of the Assad regime on the one hand, and ISIS on the other.
The abominable attacks on a beach resort in Tunisia and a Shiite mosque in Kuwait, killing dozens of people, are indicative of ISIS's global ambitions. In places like Libya, Nigeria and Mali where there is a vacuum of central authority and security, ISIS receives new followers and expands its sphere of influence. The main reason for this is not ISIS's ideological appeal, though it certainly plays a role, but its operational successes and claims of victory in Iraq and Syria.
Given this "profitable warfare," ISIS may turn to Western targets, as it did in France, to stage new acts of terrorism and recruit more militants. But if ISIS is to be stopped and destroyed, it has to start where it began: Iraq and Syria. The cost of the Syrian war is already well beyond the borders of Syria and the unbearable burden of millions of refugees.
Muslims themselves have been the primary victims of ISIS terrorism at two levels. First, ISIS has killed more Muslims, Sunni and Shiite alike, than non-Muslims and destroyed historical heritage in Muslim cities more so than anywhere else. From a Jordanian pilot and Kurds in Kobani to Shiite Muslims in a Kuwayti mosque, it has killed indiscriminately. It has also killed Americans, French or Japanese. It looks like the ISIS killing-machine recognizes no boundaries.
Secondly, ISIS terrorism has fueled the anti-Muslim bigotry and hatred in the West, thus feeding the Islamophobia industry. This leads to a vicious circle: ISIS and its likes commit terrible acts of terrorism in the name of religion and revenging injustice (when in fact they just kill to have their own state). The Islamophobes take these attacks as confirming their self-fulfilling prophecies about Islam, Muslims, extremism and violence. Despite the fact that the vast majority of the 1.5 billion Muslims of the world reject ISIS and give them no religious credence and/or cultural legitimacy, they are made twice victims of a violent extremism that harms them more than others. The Islamophobia industry conveniently ignores the pain and agony that ISIS terrorists inflict upon Muslims everywhere from Iraq, Syria and Tunisia to Europe and the U.S.
As long as the Syrian war continues and the Assad regime is allowed to commit war crimes before the eyes of the world, ISIS will find a convenient home for itself. When the next act of barbarism comes, we will have only ourselves to blame.