It has now become clear that Barack Obama is under enormous pressure to intensify the campaign against ISIS. Last week, as the White House held a summit on countering extremist violence in which Obama declared, “we are at war with people who have perverted Islam,” sources at the Pentagon told reporters that the retaking of Mosul, possibly with significant US military support, had been planned for as early as April. This followed the president’s recent announcement that he is seeking formal authorization from Congress for an all-out assault on ISIS in western Iraq and eastern Syria and that “our coalition is on the offensive” and the group “is going to lose.”
But the challenge of defeating the Islamic State is a huge one. The group is formidably armed, having captured large quantities and varieties of weaponry from Syrian and Iraqi forces. Its senior commanders include former officers of Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime in Iraq, a battle-hardened Chechen Islamist and former Georgian army sergeant, and veterans of the conflict in Libya. Above all, it has been able to attract unprecedented numbers of young recruits from the West itself—not least by drawing on apocalyptic currents in Islamic culture and thought in which the region of Greater Syria, known as Bilad al-Sham, is given paramount importance.
According to Europol, some five-thousand European nationals—mainly from the wealthier countries of northern Europe—have now joined the group, with around one thousand each from Britain and France. Among them are hundreds of young men and women still in their teens. Meanwhile, the caliphate’s tentacles now stretch from Afghanistan, to Yemen and to Libya, with Sunni affiliates and tribal groups making their allegiance (baya) to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph of ISIS. As Sarah Birke has recently written in The New York Review, US officials are wondering why “ISIS has attracted so many fighters—the most rapid mobilization of foreign fighters so far, outstripping recruitment in the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan and the war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.”