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Crisis in the Middle East: The end of a country, and the start of a new dark age

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This book focuses on several critical short- and long-term developments in the Middle East that are affecting or will soon affect the rest of the world. The most important of these is the resurgence of the al-Qa'ida-type movements that today rule a vast area in north and west Iraq and eastern and northern Syria. The area under their sway is several hundred times larger than any territory ever controlled by Osama bin Laden, the killing of whom in 2011 was supposed to be a major blow to world terrorism. 
In fact, it is since bin Laden's death that al-Qa'ida affiliates or clones have had their greatest successes, including the capture of Raqqa in the eastern part of Syria, the only provincial capital in that country to fall to the rebels, in March 2013. In January 2014, Isis took over Fallujah just 40 miles west of Baghdad, a city famously besieged and stormed by US marines 10 years earlier. Within a few months they had also captured Mosul and Tikrit. 
The battle lines may continue to change, but the overall expansion of their power appears permanent. With their swift and multi-pronged assault across central and northern Iraq in June 2014, the Isis militants had superceded al-Qa'ida as the most powerful and effective jihadi group in the world.
These developments came as a shock to many in the West, including politicians and specialists whose view of what was happening often seemed outpaced by events. One reason for this was that it was too risky for journalists and outside observers to visit the areas where Isis was operating because of the extreme danger of being kidnapped or murdered. "Those who used to protect the foreign media can no longer protect themselves," one intrepid correspondent told me, explaining why he would not be returning to rebel-held Syria. 
The triumph of Isis in Iraq in 2013-14 came as a particular surprise because the western media had largely stopped reporting the country. This lack of coverage had been convenient for the US and other Western governments because it enabled them to play down the extent to which "the war on terror" had failed so catastrophically in the years since 9/11.
This failure is masked by deceptions and self-deceptions on the part of governments. Speaking at West Point on America's role in the world on 28 May 28 2014, President Barack Obama said that the main threat to the United States no longer came from al-Qa'ida central but from "decentralised al-Qa'ida affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused on the countries where they operate." He added that "as the Syrian civil war spills across borders, the capacity of battle-hardened extremist groups to come after us only increases". 
This was true enough, but Obama's solution to the danger was, as he put it, "to ramp up support for those in the Syrian opposition who offer the best alternative to terrorists." By June he was asking Congress for $500m to train and equip "appropriately vetted" members of the Syrian opposition. It is here that self-deception reigns, because the Syrian military opposition is dominated by Isis and by Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), the official al-Qa'ida representative, in addition to other extreme jihadi groups. In reality, there is no dividing wall between them and America's supposedly moderate opposition allies.
An intelligence officer from a Middle East country neighbouring Syria told me that Isis members "say they are always pleased when sophisticated weapons are sent to anti-Assad groups of any kind because they can always get the arms off them by threats of force or cash payments." Western support for the Syrian opposition may have failed to overthrow Assad, but it was successfully destabilising Iraq, as Iraqi politicians had long predicted.
The importance of Saudi Arabia in the rise and return of al-Qa'ida is often misunderstood and understated. Saudi Arabia is influential because its oil and vast wealth make it powerful in the Middle East and beyond. But it is not financial resources alone that make it such an important player. Another factor is its propagating of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist 18th-century version of Islam that imposes sharia law, relegates women to second-class citizens, and regards Shia and Sufi Muslims as heretics and apostates to be persecuted along with Christians and Jews. 
This religious intolerance and political authoritarianism, which in its readiness to use violence has many similarities with European fascism in the 1930s, is getting worse rather than better. A Saudi who set up a liberal website on which clerics could be criticised was recently sentenced to a thousand lashes and seven years in prison.Iraqi soldiers in civilian clothes flee Kirkuk on the back of a truck The ideology of al-Qa'ida and Isis draws a great deal from Wahhabism. Critics of this new trend in Islam from elsewhere in the Muslim world do not survive long; they are forced to flee or murdered. Denouncing jihadi leaders in Kabul in 2003, an Afghan editor described them as "holy fascists", who were misusing Islam as "an instrument to take over power". Unsurprisingly, he was accused of insulting Islam and had to leave the country.
A striking development in the Islamic world in recent decades is the way in which Wahhabism is taking over mainstream Sunni Islam. In one country after another Saudi Arabia is putting up the money for the training of preachers and the building of mosques. A result of this is the spread of sectarian strife between Sunni and Shia. The latter find themselves targeted with unprecedented viciousness from Tunisia to Indonesia. Such sectarianism is not confined to country villages outside Aleppo or in the Punjab, it is poisoning relations between the two sects in every Islamic grouping. A Muslim friend in London told me: "Go through the address books of any Sunni or Shia in Britain and you will find very few names belonging to people outside their own community."
The resurgence of al-Qa'ida-type groups is not a threat confined to Syria, Iraq, and their near neighbours. What is happening in these countries, combined with the increasing dominance of intolerant and exclusive Wahhabite beliefs within the worldwide Sunni community, means that all 1.6 billion Muslims, almost a quarter of the world's people, will be increasingly affected. Furthermore, it seems unlikely that non-Muslim populations, including many in the West, will be untouched by the conflict. Today's resurgent jihadism, which has shifted the political terrain in Iraq and Syria, is already having far-reaching effects on global politics with dire consequences for us all.