In a video released last August, an Islamic State jihadi declared: “Listen, Putin, we will come to Russia and will kill you at your homes ... Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them.” The video also showed Islamic State jihadis, according to a subtitle, “breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat [Anbar province, Iraq].”
“Rejectionists” are Shi’ites, who in the view of Sunnis are guilty of rejecting the legitimate authority of the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman. The Russians in Syria are backing the Alawite regime of Bashar Assad, which is aligned with the Shi’ites of Iran (and the Alawite religion is itself an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam), and fighting the Islamic State. Hence the rage of the Islamic State against Russia – although Western analysts would do well to avoid the pitfall of thinking that if Russia were not involved in Syria, the Islamic State would not have struck in St. Petersburg.
In reality, the Islamic State’s enmity toward Russia goes much deeper than anger at its presence in Syria. On July 1, 2014, just after the Islamic State had declared itself the new caliphate – that is, the sole legitimate government for all Muslims anywhere on earth – its new caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, issued a declaration entitled, “A Message to the Mujahedin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan.” In it, he said:
O ummah of Islam, indeed the world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present: The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy – the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the jews.” – Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s caliph Ibrahim, in his message upon being named caliph, “A Message to the Mujahedin and the Muslim Ummah in the Month of Ramadan,” July 1, 2014 (capitalization as in the original).The self-styled caliph couldn’t have been clearer: as far as he is concerned, the greatest enemies of the Muslims are the Jews, as he knows from his Qur’an (5:82). This sinister enemy of the Muslims has mobilized the United States and Russia to lead “the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy” against “the camp of Islam and faith.” As far as the Islamic State is concerned, this is an eschatological struggle, the apocalyptic showdown between good and evil.
And given the exultant brutality of the Islamic State, they may very well have a point. But Western analysts would do well to realize that no adjustment of foreign (or domestic) policy is going to prevent attacks such as the one in St. Petersburg Monday, or the recent Islamic State jihad attack in London, or any of the others. Nor will the destruction of the Islamic State itself end this conflict: not only will its jihadis in Iraq and Syria be dispersed throughout the world to wage jihad in new countries, but other Muslims will also take up this cause, and enlist in the war between Islam and unbelief.
This is not just one way that the Islamic State and other like-minded Muslims look at the world. It is the only way. It is the prism through which they view all political events and issues. It is, likewise, the one aspect of this broad and spreading conflict that Western analysts continue to minimize, downplay, or ignore outright. And so as long as we fail to heed Sun Tzu’s adage that one must know one’s enemy in order to defeat him, we will continue to fail to defeat him.