Baghdadi’s defiant message could cut both ways

Arnab Neil Sengupta
Tags: ISIS Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi Sri Lanka
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The release of a video by the propaganda arm of the Islamic State (ISIS) group purportedly featuring its self-declared caliph has understandably fueled speculation over possible motives. A tacit acknowledgment of the group’s defeat in Syria in March by the man said to be Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was offset, so to say, by his claim that the April 21 Easter bloodbath in Sri Lanka was “vengeance for their brothers in Baghouz”.

Whatever the real motive behind the recording’s release, it is significant on at least two separate counts.

For one, Baghdadi has succeeded in convincing ISIS supporters, indeed the world at large, that he has survived the multi-pronged military assault on the physical caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria without any apparent physical impairment. For another, his threat of a “long battle ... against the Crusaders and their followers” comes as a survey suggests jihadist and sectarian violence may have something to do with changing attitudes to religion and its role in society among young adults across the Middle East and North Africa.

Even before ISIS claimed responsibility for the Sri Lanka attacks via its propaganda outlets, the targeting of churches and luxury hotels on the Indian Ocean island had all the hallmarks of a transnational terrorist operation. To his credit, the man said to be Baghdadi did not assert that the slaughter of more than 250 innocent people, most of them Christians, was in reprisal for the March 15 New Zealand mosque shootings or the 2014 anti-Muslim riots fomented by Sinhalese Buddhist chauvinists.

From the perspective of ISIS, the Sri Lanka assault and the April 21 attack on a state security building in Al Zulfi, Saudi Arabia was a timely morale booster for the fighters who have survived the combined blitz on their enclaves in the Middle East by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Syrian government forces backed by the Russians and Iranians.

Now that they have proof of life from none other than (presumably) Baghdadi himself, these ISIS fighters, sleeper cells, and lone wolves radicalized online could well be inspired to carry out his threats in the coming days in countries whose security apparatus and threat-intelligence infrastructure are not up to the mark.

At the same time, the world-view and vocabulary of ISIS, encapsulated in Baghdadi’s incendiary messages, does not sit comfortably with the modern values and sensibilities of young Muslims from Sudan to Saudi Arabia. For hard evidence, one need look no further than the findings of the 11th Arab Youth Survey, commissioned by the Dubai-based communications agency Asda’a Burson Cohn & Wolfe and released last month.

The conclusions of the study, which involved 3,300 face-to-face surveys conducted in January across 15 countries and territories, confirm what has been evident to political observers for quite some time now: a more secular approach is becoming increasingly attractive to 18 to 24-year-olds across the Middle East and North Africa.

According to the report, young people who said religion plays too big a role in the Middle East has risen as a proportion from 50 percent in 2015 to 66 percent, with half saying the “Arab world’s religious values are holding the Arab world back” compared to 42 percent who disagree.

It is not clear from the survey whether the havoc caused by jihadist groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda has resulted in the apparent disenchantment with the prominent role played by religion in the Arab world. Likewise, the report does not reveal whether young Arabs blame Islamists, be it the Sunni Muslim Brotherhood or Iran’s Shiite theocracy and its proxies, for the region’s sectarian and political polarization.

Still, it should not be too difficult to wrap one’s head around the finding that 49 percent of young Arabs (excluding Syrians and Qataris) believe religion is losing influence in the Middle East compared with 29 percent who believe the opposite.

“This generation of Arabs grew up in the midst of a far-reaching civilizational upheaval with access to increasingly advanced technologies,” Mohammad Shahrour, an academic at the University of Damascus and an Islamic scholar, writes in an essay accompanying the Arab Youth Survey report. “This allowed them to keep pace with worldwide developments, opening their minds to virtually all cultures and civilizations.”  

With the latest attacks, ISIS has undoubtedly demonstrated its organizational capacity to recruit, indoctrinate and inspire gullible men and women to spill innocent blood as part of what Baghdadi calls “a long battle”. And in a world with no shortage of fragile, multi-sectarian states or expressions of anti-Muslim prejudice, jihadist organizations will probably continue to have a natural advantage over government counter-radicalization initiatives.

Nevertheless, given the widening intellectual gap between a connected, open-minded generation and bigoted preachers of transnational ideologies, the hope is that the deluded Baghdadi’s latest call to arms will prove another nail in the ISIS coffin.

Arnab Neil Sengupta is an independent journalist and commentator on the Middle East.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Rudaw.


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