IT has taken a long time, but good news is finally coming out of Syria. Raqqa, which the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria had proclaimed the “capital” of its self-declared caliphate when it overran swathes of Iraq and Syria, was liberated by Syrian Defence Forces on Tuesday, with the backing of an international coalition led by the United States. It was a vicious war for the soul of Raqqa, but the SDF took full control of the city and installed a council of local officials to administer it in the interim. Coming after the coalition-led militia liberated Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, from the clutches of ISIS in July, the battle-weary people can now begin the long, tentative journey to restoration.
After conquering Raqqa in 2014, ISIS – described by a US General as “the most evil entity I have encountered in my lifetime” – occupied the city’s stadium and other infrastructure, and from there foisted a repressive rule. It had planned and launched major jihadist operations against European and Middle East countries from the town. Therefore, the liberation is symbolic, and a major blow to ISIS. The jihadists had ruled Raqqa with unimaginable brutality. “They did not hide their atrocities,” Stephen Townsend, the US General, said. “They tortured, beheaded and burned those that did not agree with them. They posted the evidence of their atrocities for the world to see on social media. They enslaved millions under their twisted ideology.”
Minor offences such as smoking were punished with crucifixion. Executions took place at the National Raqqa Hospital, the stadium and Paradise Square in the centre of the city. Therefore, it is understandable that the city erupted in celebrations when ISIS’s black flag – or symbol – of evil was pulled down at the stadium. However, troops are still clearing the town of landmines and booby traps. About 1,100 SDF were killed in the fighting, though 300 ISIS rebels surrendered on Sunday.
As expected, the humanitarian crisis is escalating. The Save the Children charity says 270,000 residents of Raqqa, who fled, are now in refugee camps that are “bursting at the seams.” They will need all sorts of aid. On its part, a coalition of journalists who chose to remain in Raqqa throughout the fighting stated that forces carried out 3,829 airstrikes on the city. The air strikes flattened a lot of physical infrastructure. It will be a difficult rebuilding process for the Bashar al-Assad-led government.
Yet, cheery as the defeat of ISIS in the town – and in Mosul earlier – is, it is certainly not the end of Islamist terrorism. The dislodged rump of its fighters is still in control of a small stretch of territory along the Euphrates River in northern Syria. With this scenario, ISIS still possesses the financial and technological capacity to commit acts of terror in several parts of the world through its affiliates.
Al-Shabbab demonstrated this last Saturday when its operatives detonated a truck bomb in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, which killed 300 people and rendered 200 others injured. Attacks by the Taliban claimed more than 70 lives in multiple suicide and gun attacks in the Ghazni and Pakta provinces on Tuesday in Afghanistan. Andrew Parker, the Director-General of MI5, the British domestic security service, warned on Tuesday that a growing pool of ISIS fighters returning from the war in the Middle East posed a serious threat to the country. “Islamist terrorism is an acute and enduring challenge that requires a sustained and comprehensive approach,” he stated. This is irrefutable.
This means the world cannot afford to relax. Youths from several parts of the world are still attracted to the Salafist ideology which is at the core of the ISIS terror. Analysts blame this on the division in Islam between the Sunnis (based in Saudi Arabia) and the Shiites minority in Iran. This inspires the jihadists to seek to conquer the world through violence, they argue. Therefore, world leaders (like President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt), multilateral organisations and other stakeholders, who understand the workings of these Islamists, should join forces to defeat the ideology through a war of the minds, tighten the noose on sources of ISIS funding and degrade its strategy for recruiting young fighters.
At home, ISIS’s present misfortune is a wake-up call to the Muhammadu Buhari administration. With it, there is hope that Nigeria can also crush Boko Haram in the North-East. Boko Haram’s jihadist campaign has caused untold atrocities, with at least 20,000 killed since the Abubakar Shekau-led extremist organisation began its revolt against the Nigerian state in 2009. Although the Buhari administration retooled the war against Boko Haram when it assumed power in May 2015, the Islamists are still relentless in their acts of terror.
A critical takeaway for Nigeria in the Raqqa episode is the role played by the international coalition. The US-led coalition supported the war with military equipment, hardware, technology and intelligence gathering and sharing. Apart from equipping the SDF, the coalition trained the local military forces. “To date, more than 110,000 Iraqi security forces have been trained and equipped by the coalition to defeat ISIS in Iraq,” Townsend stated. This is crucial, as the forces liberated Tikrit, Ramadi, Fallujah, Qayyrah, Sharkot and other smaller villages. The Nigerian security forces might find it difficult to defeat Boko Haram alone, but by attracting international support, it will also be brought to ground zero.
With hindsight, the celebration by the military when they took over the Sambisa Forest from Boko Haram in December 2016 now seems hasty, a fact underpinned by the jihadists’ escalation of their bloody campaign, especially in Adamawa, Borno and Yobe states. The military should, therefore, step up the campaign against Boko Haram on all fronts, using intelligence, technology and superior firepower.