By Stanly Johny
July 8, 2015
A blend of military experience and jihadist ideological vigour is what makes IS the most formidable terror machinery of our time. Needless to say, the geopolitical situation in West Asia is clearly in its favour
On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, declared himself as the new “caliph” of the world’s Muslims. In his first public appearance, Baghdadi, standing on the balcony of Mosul’s Great Mosque, demanded the loyalty of Muslims and urged them to “obey” him and “make jihad” for the sake of Allah. It had already been controlling huge swathes of territories in eastern Syria and key cities in north-western Iraq, including Fallujah, Mosul and parts of Ramadi. The group was at war with Iraq and Syria. Two months later, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered air strikes against the group — which had by that time renamed itself as Islamic State (IS) — widening the front against the jihadists.
Still, over the past year, IS has steadily extended its influence across West Asia and North Africa. It now controls a territory the size of Great Britain extending from the outskirts of Baghdad to the suburbs of Damascus and comprising around six million people. It has branches in Afghanistan, Lebanon, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Since the declaration of the “Caliphate”, the group has attracted thousands of jihadists from faraway countries such as Australia, France and the United Kingdom. The recent bombing of a Shia mosque in Kuwait and the gun attack on tourists in Tunisia, both claimed by IS, and which killed at least 60 people, demonstrate the group’s capability to launch attacks even in countries outside its sphere of influence.
What makes IS so powerful? There are no simple, straightforward answers, as the group derives its strength from a complex set of factors that are deeply intertwined with the region’s politics, culture and ambitions. To understand the rise of IS, one has to look into the geopolitical conditions that made such a rise possible and the tools the group is using to expand its power.
Before the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011, Baghdadi was the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda, which had been pushed to the brink of collapse by U.S.-Iraqi forces as well as Sunni tribal fighters. When anti-government protests in neighbouring Syria turned violent and regional heavyweights took a strong position against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Baghdadi found an opportunity for the revival of his prospects. When the civil war intensified, he sent Abu Muhammad al-Joulani, one of his deputies in ISI, across the border to Syria in late 2011.
Joulani set up the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syria branch, to fight Mr. Assad’s soldiers. In an extremely complicated Syrian civil war theatre, where multiple opposition forces, often backed by Mr. Assad’s regional rivals, were fighting both the government troops and each other, Joulani’s group emerged as the most formidable anti-government rebels. Money and weapons pumped into the opposition camp by Mr. Assad’s enemies made the Nusra Front even more ferocious. But Joulani fell out with Baghdadi in 2013 after the latter announced a formal merger of the Nusra Front and his ISI. Both the Nusra Front and the leadership of al-Qaeda central opposed the move, following which a bitter war broke out between Baghdadi’s group, which came to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the Nusra Front. Powered by fighters from Iraq and foreign countries, ISIS drove the Nusra Front out of the territories it captured in Syria and established the base for the future caliphate. Baghdadi’s immediate goal was to carve out a sphere of influence straddling the Iraqi-Syrian border. In Iraq, there is widespread discontent among the Sunni minority against the Shia sectarian government in Baghdad. ISIS channelised this discontent with the new strength it earned from the Syrian battlefields and launched an ambitious military campaign against Iraq’s army in the Sunni belt of the country. The ease with which it defeated the Iraqi army in Fallujah and Mosul must have surprised even Baghdadi. With Mosul under control, he went ahead to declare the Caliphate, anointing himself as one of the key figures in Islamic history.
Though it can be identified as an Islamist organisation, IS is different from the popular political Islamic stream. While the likes of the Muslim Brotherhood represent a refined version of political Islam that accommodates Western political institutions such as parliamentary democracy and is tolerant of different forms of worship within Islam, the roots of IS lie in Wahhabism, a stricter, puritanical stream. Wahhabism, which is derived from the preaching of Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, an 18th century religious scholar, denounced as un-Islamic many of the popular beliefs and practices prevalent among the Arabs those days. Wahhab rejected Muslims worshipping the dead or having any saints and making pilgrimages to tombs or special mosques. He asked his followers to return to the “fundamentals” of Islam, condemned practices of Shia, Sufi and other Muslims as invalid interpretations of the religion, and emphasised that his version of Islam alone had validity. The modern-day Islamic State uses Wahhabi ideals to explain its barbarism. When it bombs a Shia mosque, its point is that it is “not Islamic”. When it destroys a tomb or an ancient statue, its argument is that such properties do not have a place in its form of Islam. Minorities are being targeted because they are “apostates”.
Wahhab’s interpretation actually stands in contrast with several Koranic verses. [There shall be no compulsion in (acceptance of) the religion (2:256); If Allah had so willed, He would have made you a single people, but (His plan is) to test you in what He hath given you: so strive as in a race in all virtues (5:48); Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship; Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship; For you is your religion, and for me is my religion. (109:1 to 6)] But Wahhabism gained prominence in Arabia after it became a tool to expand political power.
Savagery with Parallels
IS’s obscene savagery has several parallels in history. It was Muhammad Ibn Saud, a tribal chieftain in central Arabia, who first used Wahhab’s ideas to mobilise socio-political power in 18th century. His son, Abd al-Aziz Ibn Muhammad, used Takfir (the practice of declaring a fellow Muslim to be kafir, or unbeliever) as a weapon to silence resistance to his political ambitions. In the early 19th century, he attacked the Shia city of Karbala, in today’s Iraq, and slaughtered thousands of Shias. IS’s approach towards Shias today is not entirely different from the one adopted by Ibn Muhammad. During the First World War, when the Saudis started mobilising power under another Abd al-Aziz, Wahhabism gained political relevance again. His Bedouin army, known as the Ikhwan, was infamous for its brutality and orthodoxy. It used brute force in the war, routinely massacred “apostates” and often slit the throats of male captives. This savagery actually helped the al-Saud family to gain political power and eventually establish the kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is emulating the Ikhwan when his men behead hostages and prisoners and publicise such acts.
Brutality is a part of IS’s strategy. It is a method both to rule through fear the people it seeks to control and scare its opponents in the larger war it fights. Its conventional tactics may be coming from the former Baath party generals who reportedly joined hands with Baghdadi in the post-Saddam Iraq. When the Americans dissolved the Iraqi army, these generals and their units, mostly Sunnis, suddenly fell from grace and became jobless. The political rise of Shias in Baghdad only deepened their alienation. It is in the Sunni IS that these groups found a potential rival to the Iraqi government, which they perceive as a lackey of Shia Iran. These generals declared loyalty to the “Caliph”, may be in the same way they remained loyal to Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, and in return gained political power in the Caliphate. It is this blend of military experience and jihadist ideological vigour that makes IS the most formidable terror machinery of our time. Needless to say, the geopolitical situation in West Asia is clearly in its favour.
In the war, IS deploys both conventional and non-conventional tactics. It uses the humvees and advanced weapons it captured from Iraqi and Syrian troops against the enemies in direct battles. At the same time it sends suicide jihadists to the countries that are part of the international coalition to gain asymmetric superiority. It launches both surprise attacks, like the battle for Mosul, which is a classical non-conventional tactic, and well-prepared direct assaults like the battle for Ramadi. It won in both cities.
Can ISIS Be Defeated?
IS has many enemies, ranging from the U.S. to Albania. But in the battleground, it does not face many formidable challenges. It is worth noting that after losing Mosul in June 2014, the Iraqi army has not been able to launch a convincing counter-offensive against IS. The battle for Tikrit was driven by Iran-backed Shia militias, but IS retaliated by capturing Ramadi. The Syrian government has effectively withdrawn from IS territories and is now focussed on protecting the thin Mediterranean and Alawaite stretch it holds.
The international coalition’s response against the group is all about aerial bombing. If aerial bombing alone could defeat terrorists, there wouldn’t have been any Taliban now in the Af-Pak region. More important, millions of people live in IS-controlled territories. Massive air strikes risk killing civilians, which would help IS find more recruits without coercion. The U.S. itself is in a strategic dilemma as it backs the Iraqi government fighting IS, but wants the Syrian regime fighting the same group to step down. The Kurdish militias do well in the battle against Islamists, but are designated as terrorists by Turkey and the U.S., thereby rejecting the possibility of more collaboration. So, the question arises: where is the strategy against the Islamic State? And, without a cohesive strategy, how are the world powers going to defeat a monstrous outfit with advanced weapons, large territories under control and thousands of soldiers unified by a fanatic ideology under command? The answer lies within. Meanwhile, the Islamic State is here to stay, at least for now.