For too long now in the “war on terror” the United States has turned a blind eye to its enemies’ grievances. Either it dismisses them as unfounded or ignores them altogether. A lot of the problem is that it’s taken to observing its enemies through a drone’s sight. No matter that you can’t see into someone’s head from 10,000 feet. Nor has it rethought pigeonholing your enemies as “terrorists,” overlooking the fact that terror is an economy of force, not an end game strategy.
America’s blinkered view of its enemies has caused it to gravely miscalculate them, as well as the terrain of battle. It was certainly true of Vietnam. But now, perhaps more consequentially, it completely misses the phenomenon of Sunni dispossession – that steep loss of privilege and power of a group formerly on top. Likewise, it’s caused it to miss that Al Qaeda and the Islamic State are basically symptoms of the despair of dispossession. Evidence enough for it is that both groups have tried to turn back the clock to when pure, orthodox Islam (read Sunni Islam) governed the faithful and legitimized the conquest of a great empire. It’s also why both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State groups treat outsiders as existential threats, heretics who possess the power to corrupt and destroy. These two groups’ lashing out with seemingly random violence may not be to most Sunnis’ taste, but for the dispossessed extreme, cruel violence is their only armor. Keep in mind it’s not important whether or not these grievances are legitimate, but rather what the dispossessed perceive and act on.
Whether we like it or not, Sunni zealots do have legitimate fears
Over the last three decades Sunnis have effectively lost three traditionally Sunni capitals to their arch enemy Iran: Beirut, Baghdad, and Damascus. Throw in Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and that makes four. (Granted, Jerusalem wasn’t lost to Iran, but still it’s another painful reminder of Sunni dispossession.)
The sense of loss is all the more acute because it comes in the wake of grave, spiritual crisis that dropped out of the sky with Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Khomeini’s claim on the Prophet’s mantle shook Sunnis to the core, leaving them with a vague and formless premonition that some sort of new Persian hegemony, with deep belief in its sails, was about to gather force and crush them. It was all the more earth-shattering because orthodox Sunnis view Khomeini and the Shi’a as apostates and usurpers.
It was the Iranian Shia nightmare that drove Saudi militants to seize the Mecca mosque in November 1979 – an attempt to unseat the failed and corrupted Saudi royal family and save Islam. They failed of course, but there’s a good argument that every subsequent militant Sunni insurrection, including 9/11, was a replay of the take-over. One of Osama bin Laden’s principle objectives was to overthrow the Saudi royal family and replace it with rulers capable of restoring Sunni Islam to its rightful throne. He failed too, but it did not signal the defeat of Sunni militancy.
Now with Iran’s machtpolitik in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, Sunni premonitions about a Persian hegemony are looking a lot less vague and formless. What that means for the “war on terror” is that Sunni violent jihadism isn’t about to go away. Remnants of the Islamic State will continue to fight on in Syria and Iraq, as will its franchises in Afghanistan and sub-Saharan Africa. But even if the Islamic State were completely destroyed as an organization, some iteration of it will re-emerge. New recruits fighting under new flags will continue the jihad to halt Sunni decline. They, like the others, will count on anger and belief winning wars, not arms.
As for Sunni state actors, they aren’t going to overcome anytime soon their own fear and humiliation at the hands of Iran, which in turn will cause them to miscalculate and overreact. It’s why Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman took the seemingly foolhardy risk of wading into the Yemeni quagmire. Or had the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi murdered. This isn’t to excuse MBS, but considering an Iran-tied guerrilla movement on his southern border hasn’t been defeated and Iran’s holding effective suzerainty over Iraq, Syria and Lebanon – the so-called “Shia crescent” – he has every reason to be afraid, and frankly paranoid. Not to mention that Yemen is a bridgehead to seizing Mecca, a loss that would amount to the end of Al Sa’ud’s legitimacy and the last pretension of Sunni ascendency.
If in the “war on terror” the United States continues to dismiss its enemies, as well as its allies’ fears, it will continue to spread turmoil in the Middle East. The Islamic State may be about to go underground but it remains undefeated as an ideology, if for no other reason than people governed by fear want to be governed by faith.