Two new “Islamic States”

Same black flags, same fanaticism and cruelty, even the same ski masks. (It's a fashion statement.)

Gwynne Dyer

A coalition of imams and organisations representing British Muslims has written Prime Minister David Cameron asking him to stop using the phrase “Islamic State”when talking about the new country carved out of Iraq and Syria by Islamist terrorists. That’s what Abu Baqr al Baghdadi, who has proclaimed himself “the caliph of all Muslims and the prince of the believers,” calls his newly conquered territory, but it’s giving ordinary Muslims a bad name.

The British Muslim leaders declared that “the media, civic society and governments should refuse to legitimise these ludicrous caliphate fantasies by accepting or propagating this name. We propose that “UnIslamic State” (UIS) could be an accurate and fair alternate name to describe this group and its agenda — and we will begin to call it that.”

Good luck with that. But meanwhile two more “UnIslamic States” are being created right now, on Libyan and Nigerian territory: same black flags, same fanaticism and cruelty, even the same ski masks. (It’s a fashion statement.)

The city of Maiduguri, the capital of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria, has more than two million people. It is surrounded by the forces of Boko Haram — the name roughly translates as “Western education is forbidden” — and most of the rest of Borno has already fallen under their rule. In fact, the whole north-eastern corner of Nigeria is passing out of the government’s control.

Boko Haram’s ultimate goal was the imposition of an Islamic state in Nigeria ever since it began active operations in 2009. It was in touch with al-Qaeda from the start, and later with the jihadi groups in Syria that subsequently turned into ISIS (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) and finally into the “Islamic State” that now spans those two countries.

Only the northern half of Nigeria’s population is Muslim, so that was where Boko Haram’s murders and abductions were concentrated, although it also carried out terrorist bombings in the Christian parts of the country. 3,600 people were killed in these attacks in the four years to 2013, but then there was a major acceleration: 2,000 more people have been killed in just the first half of this year.

From about mid-July, Boko Haram’s leader Abubakar Shekau also changed tactics: instead of hit-and-run raids, he started to take and hold territory. In August, after his fighters captured the town of Gwoza in Borno, he released a video declaring that the area was “now part of the Islamic Caliphate.” He now rules over about three million people in northeastern Nigeria and neighbouring Cameroon.

The Nigerian army rarely stands up to Boko Haram’s fighters. Like the Iraqi army, which ran from far smaller numbers of ISIS troops, it is corrupt and badly equipped, but it is also deeply penetrated by Boko Haram sympathisers: last June fifteen senior military officers were found guilty by court martial of passing arms and information to Boko Haram. So Abubakar Shekau may end up ruling much of northern Nigeria.

Libya is considerably further down the same track. A civil war broke out between the various militias left over from the 2011 campaign to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi, the former dictator, shortly after the June election that might — just might — have produced a government that would try to disarm those militias. It has got so bad that almost a third of the Libya’s population, 1.8 million people, has fled the country, mostly seeking shelter in Tunisia.

The real divisions between these warring militias are regional and tribal, but a number of them have adopted extreme Islamist ideologies, partly because it guarantees a flow of arms and money from certain governments in the Gulf. These Islamist militias have emerged as the winners both in the savage fighting in western Libya around the capital, Tripoli, and also in the other major city, Benghazi, in the east.

In fact, Islamist militias with ISIS-style ideologies now control every city along the Libyan coast except Tobruk, a short distance from the Egyptian border. That is where the new parliament elected in June has taken refuge, and the parliament’s members are living on a hired Greek car ferry that is serving as a floating hotel. The front line starts just west of town – and the next town along the coast, Derna, has been declared an Islamic caliphate.

A lot of this is just ideological fashion, of course. The various “caliphates” are in touch with one another, after a fashion, but there is no master plan. However, the results are truly nasty both in Nigeria and in Libya – and the risk of over-reaction by those who feel threatened by these developments, especially in the West, is quite large.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist based in London

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