Transcript: Fawaz Gerges

  • 21/11/2015
Fawaz Gerges
Fawaz Gerges

Lisa Owen: Thanks for joining us this morning.

Fawaz Gerges: Pleasure.

Tell me, a week on from the attacks in Paris, are these terrorists just claiming that they were acting for Islamic State, on Islamic State authority, or do we have some proof that this was planned out of Syria?

Well, I mean, I think the question is not whether the so-called Islamic State, I mean, plotted these attacks. The question is the degree of coordination between these attacks and the Islamic State. So in a way, the attacks and the downing of the Russian jet, the attacks in Beirut, the attacks in Paris basically represent the kind of a new shift on the part of the Islamic State targeting the far enemy instead of just the near enemy, instead of Iraq and Syria. We are seeing now ISIS or Daesh or the so-called Islamic State devoted more resources, more to attacking foreign targets, whether the Russians, whether the French or whether the Lebanese. This tells me that it's a new shift. Still, the strategic priority of the Islamic State is still at home; it's the near enemy – Iraq and Syria. But I think the distinction between the near enemy – the Shia and the dominated regimes in Iraq and Syria – and the far enemy – the Westerners and the Russians – has been erased. Now it's all-out war by the Islamic State against both the near enemy and the far enemy.

Why the change in strategy, do you think?

I think, Lisa, what I'm going to say might sound a bit surprising to you, and I might be wrong. I think the so-called Islamic State, or ISIS, is losing – is losing big time in Syria and Iraq. It's on the defensive, it's besieged, it's been losing territories. It's not imploding yet. We have not seen a tipping point. And these attacks… I mean, the downing of the Russian plane, killing 224 Russians; the massive operation in Beirut – bloodbath; seven suicide bombers, or, actually, now eight, in Paris, killing and injuring hundreds. These are massive propaganda coups for the so-called Islamic State. They basically divert attention to losing…

These are shows of weakness rather than shows of strength, is what you're saying, isn't it? They're in trouble.

No, I would not go that far. I think they are in trouble in Syria and Iraq, and these attacks basically reinforce, Lisa, their narrative of invincibility. What ISIS is telling the base, 'We are not losing. We are avenging, basically, our people in Syria and Iraq. We are killing our enemies. We are winning.' So these attacks, basically, help the so-called Islamic State try to rechange the narrative and try also to convince its base, its supporters, plus they inspire many recruits, because these attacks are massive, massive – in particular, the downing of the Russian plane and the bloodbath in Beirut and Paris and now Mali. Mali is a different case, because Mali is another al-Qaida division or affiliate. It's not ISIS, but it tells you about the importance of soft targets. It tells you about the spreading. The attacks against foreign targets, soft targets, is spreading throughout the world.

So, does it tell us anything about one-upmanship? Because this attack in Mali seems to be a group affiliated with al-Qaida. Are these terrorist groups, in essence, competing for attention?

Naturally, because, remember, the so-called Islamic State now has won the battle. It's now the only state. Al-Qaida has been marginalised. The so-called Islamic State has been able to undermine the narrative of al-Qaida. The attacks now in Mali show that al-Qaida still exists. They are sending a message, 'We are here.' But remember, a few weeks ago the leader of Al-Qaida, Ayman al-Zawahiri, basically made a statement. He asked the so-called Islamic State, said, 'Look, we are willing to work together. Let's attack the far enemy. Let's attack Western targets, four targets – the enemies of Islam.' So the attacks in Mali could be seen as a kind of indirect coordination between ISIS or Daesh and al-Qaida Central. Instead of competition, both sides now are devoting more resources to spreading, basically, chaos and savagery worldwide.

Just last year I was reading one of your columns from last year where you were saying that they probably didn't have the resources, the capabilities – Islamic State – to attack offshore targets. So how have they got capable so quickly?

First of all, ISIS now, or the so-called Islamic State, is spreading beyond Syria and Iraq. So the most potent affiliate in Egypt is called Wilayat Egypt, or the Egyptian affiliate now, has tremendous capabilities. It's this affiliate that was responsible – allegedly responsible – for downing the Russian jet. In Paris, we know who did it. It was partly the Islamic State and radicalised individuals in both Belgium and France. So again, a coordinated ISIS has assets, has human radicalised assets in the heart of Europe. In Beirut, again, two Syrians carried out the attacks in the heart of Beirut. So the reason why ISIS has capacity, it has capacity because it has been able to recruit foreign fighters, it has been able to create networks and also because of coordination between the Islamic State, in particular in Syria. Raqqa is the de facto capital of the Islamic State and radicalised individuals either in Egypt or in Mali or even in Paris, as we have discovered in the last week or so.

The French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, is saying that these groups, Islamic State, could get in the future chemical or biological weapons. And we know that they are threatening New York now and Washington. How credible is that claim that they could get biological weapons, and how credible is the threat to America?

First of all, Lisa, I am not a security official. The Prime Minister of France says very clearly that these militants, or extremists, could get their hands on biological weapons. The Americans don't seem to take it very seriously, point one. But you cannot dismiss this particular possibility. Because we can dismiss this fact at our own peril. Secondly, the Americans are very confident that the Islamic State has no access to America. The Americans are basically concerned about the so-called lone wolves: radicalised individuals who take action into their own hands. And they have arrested about 50 potential supporters of ISIS in the last few days. So so far ISIS, or Daesh, has no access to America. The reason why they have access to Europe, whether you're talking about France or whether you're talking about Belgium or the UK, you have radicalised individuals where I'm sitting here in Paris. Plus you have almost 4,000 Western European recruits who have been fighting with Isis. Imagine, Lisa, it has taken one recruit, Abaaoud, who was killed by the French authorities a few days ago. He fought with the Islamic State, he returned to Belgium and organised this network in Belgium and France that carried out this massive operation that resulted in hundreds of Frenchmen and foreign nationals killed and injured last Friday.

You have interviewed hundreds of radical Islamists in Europe and in the Middle East. When they see ordinary people killed, what do they think? Ordinary people, like the ones killed in Paris. What do they think of that?

First of all, Lisa, you are talking about different waves. Al-Qaida Central is another wave. ISIS really represents an entirely different wave. It's savage, it's vicious, no red lines, no limits. It's all-out war. And basically what Isis is trying to do is to convince its followers, its supporters, that it's winning. 'You must come and join the Islamic State because we are winning. Not only in Syria in Iraq, but we are also exacting vengeance against the crusaders.' What they call the crusaders are the Westerners. Think about it. The Islamic State now controls a state as big as the United Kingdom in Iraq and Syria. They control the lives between five and eight million people. They have an army between 30,000 and 100,000. They are expanding. They have affiliates in Egypt, in Libya and Somalia and other places, and they have been able to carry out massive operations outside of Iraq and Syria. And again, you asked earlier, really this represents a major shift in the modus operandi of Isis. Very alarming because it's very easy to kill civilians, in particular if you have fanatical people who have the will and the resources and the skills. The big question that we have learned in the last week – what would you do with returnees, fighters from Syria and Iraq? You have probably thousands of fighters. What if they return to their home? Because we know from Abaaoud, the one who organised the massive operations in France, it takes one person. What if hundreds of fighters return from Syria? You could imagine the consequences, not just for the Middle East but also for regional security and global security.

So what now, then? Is it right to be stepping up the bombings as we have seen with Russia and France in recent days, or are we just giving them what they want – victims to parade on television; more propaganda – or is that the way to go?

I think, Lisa, you are raising a very important question. The day before yesterday, there was a video released by ISIS about New York. It showed just some images of Central Park and New York. And the entire media was obsessed with this particular video. This is playing into ISIS' hands. It's basically taking its message. Basically, it's terrorising the public. Because remember, what they want to do is to basically instil fear. It's all about fear. They want to reinforce their narrative of invincibility: "We're coming to get you." So we should not exaggerate. Even though I'm not underestimating the danger. I'm here in Paris. I was in Paris last Friday when the attacks took place – bloody. I mean, traumatised Paris and France. But we must not over-exaggerate Isis' reach. And the reality is I look at them – they're criminal networks. They're dangerous, but they do not represent a strategic threat, either to France or the United States or New Zealand. They're part of the post-modernists.

Just briefly, because we're running out of time, you've said that you think that Islamic State is digging its own grave, is strangling itself. How?

Because it has mastered the art of making enemies. It has united the entire world against it. Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Russia and France. It has no friends. Isis, by alienating Turkey, the only neutral state, is digging its grave and it's alienating public opinion first and foremost. And the alienation of Muslim public opinion, I would argue, hopefully it would be the final nail in its coffin. Not in a few months or so; this is a long, complex fight. But ultimately, it will be defeated because it has really alienated the entire world, united the entire world against it.

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