Australia has been part of America’s long war since it began in 2001 with the Al-Qaeda terrorist attacks on New York and Washington DC. Al-Qaeda framed the war as a religious conflict and this rationalization has continued to be used by the many violent jihadist groups that have arisen and fallen across the years. Today there are two major groupings, Al-Qaeda and Islamic State, both seeking to create through violence a global caliphate in which they alone enforce a brutal interpretation of the Salafist strand of the Sunni branch of Islam.
In response to this threat, America and its allies have employed a range of strategies. In the long war’s first stage (2001-2002), Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was badly mauled in a quick special forces and airpower campaign.
In the second stage (2003-2012), Al Qaeda’s leader Osama bin Laden was killed, the group’s core sharply reduced and its Iraq affiliate crushed using a heavy mix of special forces, large conventional land forces and airpower – to now include considerable use of unmanned aircraft.
In the third stage starting in 2013 the ISIS group unexpectedly emerged from the remnants of the defeated Al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq and captured large swathes of territory across Syria and Iraq.
Today, Al-Qaeda and ISIS are similar in having numerous associated affiliates and franchises across the greater Middle East but differ in embracing distinctly contrasting strategies and tactics.
A fourth stage in the long war is about to begin. ISIS is about to be deposed in Iraq and much of Syria as the urban centres it took in 2014 are recaptured. There are now some difficult choices to be made in determining the best strategy and tactics for the next stage. This decision is now more important given that the first 15 years of the long war have failed to achieve victory.
Worryingly, violent jihadist groups are continuing to emerge, and are seemingly becoming progressively more brutal and murderous, if ISIS is an indication. Some talk of a generational war lasting another 20-30 years. Australia can expect to be involved as long as it lasts.