After having a heavy meal cooked by a Muslim friend with whom I had the privilege to share the joy that Eid-al-Fitr brings with it, and while walking around the old city of Jaffa, where streets and restaurants were full of families dining together in a deeply cheerful and almost magical atmosphere, I could not but look back at the week that has just passed and at its painful events.
From Bangladesh, to Iraq, to Saudi Arabia – in fact – the Muslim world has gone over the past days through a series of attacks that have hit its heart, its people, and its symbols.
After suicide attacks in Dhaka on Friday and in Baghdad on Sunday, Monday was the turn of the Sauds’ Kingdom: starting from early in the morning, suicide bombers conducted attacks in Jeddah near the American consulate; in Qatif against a Shia mosque; and in Medina outside the Prophet’s mosque – which is Islam’s second holiest site and that during the month of Ramadan attracts thousands of pilgrims.
Despite thus far no official claim for the attacks has been made by any group, all fingers pointed to the Islamic State, considered to be the responsible for the escalation of violence that has tinted with blood the last days of the Muslims’ holiest month.
Such attacks, in fact, fully reflect what has been emerging over the past months as the new tactics employed by ISIS. As already underlined at the time of the latest attacks in Paris and Brussels, the group is changing strategy in order to deal with a changing scenario and with declining capabilities.
While in 2011 the group led by al-Baghdadi emerged on the Iraqi and Syrian scene and distinguished itself for its unparalleled capacity to conquest territory and to attract recruits worldwide in a way that no previous jihadist group had been able to do, over the past few months the situation has begun to change. The group, indeed, is continuously losing ground in both Iraq and Syria (where it is hit by regional and international enemies), and the more it loses ground the more the number of recruits decreases. To deal with a balance of force that is no longer leaning in its favour, ISIS is thus exploring new strategies.
On the one hand, the group is trying to expand its presence in those territories where the absence of credible and strong state institutions can be exploited to establish a local presence and gain new ground and support. This is what the group is now doing in countries such as Yemen, Libya and Afghanistan, where the state institutions are either absent or so weak that it is possible for al-Baghdadi’s group to take advantage of the deteriorating political and security situation to occupy areas and try to win the support of a tired and hopeless local population.
On the other hand, the group is trying to compensate its territorial losses with a new al-Qaeda-like tactics. Rather than focusing exclusively on the project of creating an Islamic State in the area known as al-Sham, the group led by al-Baghdadi is now hitting foreign targets as well (the so-called “far enemy” of the 1990s al-Qaeda’s strategy). The aim of this new tactics is to expand the group’s global presence so as to retain the credibility it had gained in the jihadist universe, strengthen its image of success abroad, and obtain the visibility it needs to avoid the number of recruits to drop even more.
The attacks perpetrated in Saudi Arabia are fully coherent with this strategy. Through those attacks, in fact, the group tried to obtain visibility; to question the credibility of the Saudis as protectors of Islam’s holy sites; and to undermine the Kingdom’s relations with foreign allies and with its own Shia population.
However, the violence disseminated by the group rather than dividing the Muslim world has encouraged Muslims from all countries and all sects of faith to get together in condemning it. The hashtag #PrayforMedina has invaded the Internet, and public figures and groups from the whole Muslim world (Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif, the Lebanese Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, the Jordanian government…) have voiced their outrage.
This unity between Sunnis and Shias in condemning the acts of violence perpetrated by what is nothing more than a group of extremists shows how terrorism is the product of given social, political and historical contexts and occurrences and not –as many would like to make us believe – of given religious faiths.
Confronted with extremists such as ISIS-affiliates that threaten many countries’ security and stability, as well as Islam’s legitimacy and image, the challenge for Muslim states and Muslim people (both religious leaders and simple believers) all over the world is to stick united in condemning violence. Only in this way, in fact, it will be possible to use the power of information to spread religious awareness and thus counter the distortions that fanatics promote and prevent youngsters from falling victim of their heinous message.
And no day is better than Eid-al-Fitr to start a new year of inter-sect unity and cooperation against extremism.