Why the Salafist-Takfiris Should Worry Us

These groups did not just suddenly appear in the past three years of the war in Syria; rather, they have been incubating slowly for a much longer period of time because of the slow deterioration in conditions in various Arab countries during the past quarter century or so.

Several months ago when I wrote about the looming danger of the growing strength of Salafist-takfiri groups in Iraq and Syria, I was focused mostly on the threats that thousands of their fighters, bombers and terrorists posed to those countries and also to other lands where they would travel in due course. Both the scale and threat of the Salafist-takfiri enterprise in this region are now much more significant, because they control more territory, they assault many foes across Syria-Lebanon-Iraq as a single operational theater, they have expanded to comprise tens of thousands of adherents, the conditions for their thriving persist, and they have yet to face an enemy that seems willing or able to eradicate them.

I wondered months ago whether we would soon see some coordinated action by regional and foreign powers to redress the danger posed by such groups as Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Ahrar esh-Sham and many others that are both locally anchored and also pursue pan-Islamic aims like Al-Qaeda. Some focus on fighting the Assad regime, Hizbullah and the Maliki government in Iraq, while others are content to carve out territory that they can transform into their imagined pure Islamic society. This is an ever-changing universe of identities and allegiances of Salafist-takfiri groups that evolve over time, as some merge or group into larger umbrella coalitions. More recently, some have also fought each other, especially as Syria-based groups push back the aggressive expansion of ISIS.

The really frightening thing about the growth of these groups is what they tell us about the condition of the societies of the Levant and other Arab regions. Beyond the immediate and real security threat these groups pose to everyone in the region, we should also see them as a frightening symptom of erratic modern Arab statehood. These groups did not just suddenly appear in the past three years of the war in Syria; rather, they have been incubating slowly for a much longer period of time because of the slow deterioration in conditions in various Arab countries during the past quarter century or so.

The gradual fraying of state authority in some Arab countries has created zones of non-governability or even chaos, which provide the ideal environment for such groups, whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen, or in Iraq, Somalia, Syria and northern Sinai. As the state retreats from parts of society, the gap is filled by either strong non-state actors like Hizbullah, Hamas, Sadrists in Iraq, Houthis in Yemen and other groups of that sort, or by Salafist-takfiris who take advantage of the chaos and impose their own brand of security and order.

The combination of these two phenomena leads to the third glaring development of recent decades, which is the steady deterioration in the significance of official borders between countries. In the Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Iran region, people, money, goods, arms, refugees and ideologies cross frontiers with almost total abandon. Artillery fire across borders, by state armies and non-state armed groups, is now routine. The slow erasure of the reality of state frontiers reflects the wider problem of the dilution of state sovereignty.

In some countries non-state groups are stronger than the state itself in some sectors, such as Hizbullah’s military capabilities in Lebanon. This weakness of the central state authority in any country means that other governments and foreign non-state organizations both can enter into the country at will, as we see happening across the Levant region. Iran, Syria, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Hizbullah, and Salafists in northern Lebanon all actively engage in the war inside Syria, either directly with fighters and arms or indirectly by supporting those doing the fighting. Many of these actors also try to use their soft power to shape the culture, identity and political ideology of third countries in the Levant, as is happening in Lebanon, Syria, Palestine and Iraq. Global powers similarly penetrate these countries, and the result is the kind of protracted tensions we have witnessed in Lebanon since the 1970s, or in Syria and Iraq in recent years. This sort of thing does not happen in strong states with credible government.

The Salafist-takfiri groups are only the most recent players in this sad process of weak and contested statehood. They are also among the most dangerous because they perform beyond the usual domain of state-to-state or state-to-insurgency relations, where conflicts can be mitigated and cease-fires negotiated. You would think that the tens of thousands of battle-hardened Salafist-takfiri militants, extremists and terrorists who are steadily expanding their realms across Syria-Lebanon-Iraq would prompt some kind of serious coordinated response by local and foreign governments, all of whom are targets of these groups. The absence of any such coordinated response is a further cause for concern. We should genuinely worry about the Salafist-takfiri phenomenon—not only for what they do, but also for what they tell us about ourselves.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. You can follow him @ramikhouri.

Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global