What should we expect from ISIS after Charlie Hebdo? An interview with S. Hesam Houryaband.
Interview by Philippe Labrecque
S. Hesam Houryaband has an extensive background in international, political, and diplomatic affairs with experience working for the Iranian Strategic Council on Foreign Relations, Mission of Iran to the UN, and Embassy of Iran to France. S. Hesam holds a Ph.D. in International Relations and Diplomacy.
Philippe Labrecque: Following the Charlie Hebdo attacks, Andrew Parker, Director General of the British intelligence MI5, stated that ISIS is planning « mass casualty attacks » against the West. Do you agree and what objectives is ISIS pursuing in doing so? What is the link between the Islamic State and the current civil was in Syria and the current wave of terrorism in the West?
S. Hesam Houryaband: The Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket terrorist attacks in Paris were certainly only the beginning and a warning to the West, especially Europe, which is more accessible to ISIS and Al-Qaeda operatives. It seems as if the lessons from Afghanistan and Iraq were not enough, and the same mistakes were committed in Syria and to a lesser extent Libya. We saw how the fall of the Iraqi dictatorship and the mismanagement of the consecutive occupation resulted in the mushrooming of many Al-Qaeda affiliated groups in Iraq, which stretched and brought in radical elements as close and far as Jordan and Algeria. The same errors were repeated in Syria as well, where there was already a strong presence and activity by Al-Qaeda and radical Sunni groups. Except this time, certain Western countries ended up collaborating with these radical groups, only to overthrow the Bashar dictatorship. Most of these groups had received some sort of funding or logistical support from the West and Sunni Arab countries in their fight to overthrow Bashar, and that policy created a double-edged sword where now you have some of these individuals turning their attentions on their previous paymasters. Ironically, we saw how one of the terrorist collaborators of the kosher supermarket attack, Hayat Boumeddiene, made her way to Syria to rejoin the “Jihad.” Most of the ISIS ranks were drawn from the Syrian extremist rebels, who strategically based themselves in between Syria and Iraq to carve out an “Islamic Caliphate.” The extremist Sunni Wahhabi and Salafist ideologies are all too evident in the thinking and modus operandi of ISIS and its leadership. In fact, the group has taken Wahhabism and Salfism even further and radicalized the already radical schools of thought in its indoctrination and approach. This became evident when one of the group’s leaders, Abu Turab Al Mugaddasi, stated the group’s intention to destroy Mecca, because it represents “stone idolatry.” Not even the most radical Wahhabists had dared to pronounce such ideas.
Philippe Labrecque: What sort of attacks can we expect in the future in the West and who are the perpetrators likely to be? Converts (Ottawa, Saint-Jean), radicalized nationals (Paris), returning ISIS fighters?
S. Hesam Houryaband: It is interesting to take a look at the makeup and followers of ISIS to understand the group’s ideology, and whom it is that Western security organizations need to watch out for. ISIS rank is divided into two main groups: a) already radicalized Muslims in Wahhabi/Salafi societies such as Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Egypt, etc., and b) the newly radicalized Muslims and converts to Islam in mainly Western societies. What should be of concern to Western societies is the latter group. These are individuals who live in Western societies and are fed up with what they see as “decadent” Western values and cultures. They either represent second or third generation Sunni Muslim immigrants who had never lived in their parents’ countries of origin, never experienced radical Islamic societies, or new converts to Islam who tend to show more radicalism to be accepted more by their newfound brethren, and wish to turn their impending environments into their backyard Caliphate! It is much easier for security organizations to identify and track returning jihadis than to identify homegrown extremists, and this is exactly where the challenge will arise.
Philippe Labrecque: The attacks against Charlie Hebdo has been claimed by Al-Qaeda Yemen, not ISIS. What is the relationship between al-Qaeda and ISIS, if any?
S. Hesam Houryaband: At this point in time it is futile to differentiate between Al-Qaeda and ISIS. The general ideology of both groups is the same, they both share common enemies in the West and non Sunni Muslims, and at times, both receive funding and logistical support from the same usual suspects. Also, it should be kept in mind that ISIS drew many of its members from ex Al-Qaeda operatives. So there is a lot of overlap and interchange between the two groups. Also, as the recent Paris attacks show, there were possible collaborations and exchanges between the two brothers who assaulted the Charlie Hebdo offices, Cherif and Said Kouachi, and the kosher supermarket terrorists, Amedy Coulibaly and Hayat Boumeddiene. Even within Al-Qaeda itself there are many splinter groups. Eventually, it is only the name which changes, whereas the general framework and aim is the same.
Philippe Labrecque: How or who if funding ISIS and for what purpose?
S. Hesam Houryaband: Certainly several Arab countries in the Persian Gulf have been supporting ISIS financially and logistically, specifically Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and UAE. Their main aim is two-fold: to bring down the Bashar regime in Syria, as well as create a buffer against Iran and Hezbollah. And as was pointed out earlier, certain Western countries’ inadvertent ignorance and involvement at the beginning of the Syrian civil war, and whom they were dealing with, resulted in a lot of material support and arms falling in the wrong hands.
Saudi Arabia’s role should certainly not be overlooked, especially in its strategy to pit ISIS against the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah alliance. The Saudis know that the three parties in this alliance are indistinguishable, and therefore they initially aimed to create a force which could take on the Bashar army, knowing it would draw in Iran and Hezbollah, and at the same time, weaken the Shia government of Iraq. Except, sooner or later, ISIS will eventually turn its attention to south of Iraq in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. And with the death of the Saudi king, there will confusion in the kingdom, which could prove advantageous to ISIS.