The Islamic State: Roots, Savagery, and Future

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Abdel Bari Atwan

 If we want to know how dangerous and important the Islamic State is, then we must take a quick look at its enemies and friends. If we start with the enemies, we see that they encompass more than a hundred countries including two super powers, the United States and Russia, middle states, such as France, Britain, and Germany, in addition to key regional states like Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.

As for the friends, they are scarce. Not one country has declared its support for this “State”, though some regional countries such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar see in it, for sectarian reasons, a “Sunni” card against the Shiite axis led by Iran, which comprises Syria, almost half of Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon. This is the first time since the Second World War where the two great powers, i.e. the Unites States and Russia, meet on the same ground against a common enemy, which is the Islamic State, or “ISIL” as some prefer to say, and both send fighter jets, drones, and helicopters, in addition to other jets from European and Arab countries. This Islamic State is different from other terrorist organizations, especially its parent “Al-Qaeda”, in several major aspects which I summarize in the following:

  • First of all, it enjoys financial self-sufficiency up to the time being. This is due to the takeover of more than 13 oil fields in eastern Syria and several natural gas fields, in addition to a phosphate field near Palmyra. It managed to get a daily income of nearly 3 million dollars from selling crude oil or oil refined in primitive refineries throughout 2014. However, this income declined in 2015 because of the airstrikes of these fields and the refineries associated with it in addition to the restrictions imposed on exports to neighboring countries, especially Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, Turkey, and the Syrian regime, with a network of mafia and middlemen who engage in this illegitimate business selling a barrel of oil for half its price in international market or even less. Of course we can’t fail to mention the Islamic State’s capture of Mosul in the summer of 2014, which led to it obtaining half a billion dollars from the reserves of the Iraqi Central Bank’s branch and other banks. Trade of Syrian and Iraqi museum antiquities was one of the major sources of income, in addition to taxes imposed by the state on its “citizens”, which are estimated to number 9 million citizens.

  • Secondly, the Islamic State enjoys self-sufficiency in armament and ammunition, as it had captured stocks of the Iraqi army in Mosul, Ramadi, Tikrit, and Biji which became under its control and which contained advanced American weapons, including artillery, rockets, ammunition, and more than 1,700 tanks and armored vehicles. It also took over Russian weapons from the stocks left behind by the Syrian army after the fall of several cities like Raqqa, Deir Azzor, Izaz, and parts of Aleppo and Homs.

  • Thirdly, the Islamic State is almost the only organization that resides on its land amongst its “citizens”, i.e. it’s not anybody’s guest like Al-Qaeda, which was Sudan’s guest when it was first established and then became the Taliban’s guest in Afghanistan. This means that it can be said that its decisions enjoy a great extent of autonomy and that it possesses a great extent of sovereignty over its land and flexible and open borders. Many argue that the Islamic State is neither a state nor Islamic. However, if we look at the international law’s definition of a state, we can see that it applies to it, for the most part. It has a flag, a government, administrations, an army of 100 thousand fighters, its own currency (the gold dinar), a TV station (Al-Tawheed), a radio station (Al-Bayan), an official magazine (Dabiq), an advanced media network (Al-Forqan, Al-Hayat, Al-Itisam), in addition to police, intelligence, and women police agencies. As for its Islamic identity, it adopts the Wahhabi doctrine as the official doctrine of the state. It’s sufficient to note that Mohammad Al-Tayyeb, the Sheik of Al-Azhar, recently acknowledged its Islamic nature and refused to consider it blasphemous, but still, there are those who consider it blasphemous and similar to the Kharijites movement. It can be said that it’s a “de facto state” that rules over an area of land which exceeds that of Britain; almost half of Syria and a third of Iraq. It represents a new phenomenon in the current world scene and the Middle East in particular with the “Emirate of Hamas” in the Gaza Strip, the “Emirate of Hezbollah” in southern Lebanon, Kurdistan region in Iraq, the Boko Haram Emirate in northern Nigeria, and numerous other examples. However, the Islamic State is distinguished by its absolute control over its borders, its immense area, the flow of two rivers in its land (Tigris and Euphrates), and the security it enjoys in comparison with its unsettled neighbors. There are seven key words that we need to look at closely if we want to understand this phenomenon in a scientific and objective manner because they summarize the establishment, rise, expansion, and the extent of strength and danger not just upon the Middle East but rather upon the whole world.

  • First: Humiliation; for half a century, Arab peoples have been living a state of dual humiliation; from their rulers on the one hand and Western colonialism on the other, in addition to frequent defeats due to Israeli aggressions and the regimes’ repression which is characterized by dictatorship, tyranny, human rights violations, and the absence of political and democratic freedom and freedom of speech.

  • Second: Frustration; there are generations of Arab citizens who have been living in frustration, lack of hope, and despair. There are 100 million unemployed people, which make up almost a quarter of the population of the Arab world, be it partial or total unemployment. Even those who are employed have unproductive and routine jobs, i.e. disguised unemployment in the absence of work and production values in most sectors.

  • Third: Marginalization; with the secular and ethnic boom at the time being, marginalization has increased. Perhaps marginalization of Sunnis in Iraq after the American invasion, in the name of debathification, played the major role in providing public support for the Islamic State.

  • Fourth: Western Military Intervention; this intervention, which targeted several countries like Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan, and the current indirect intervention in Syria, led to the collapse of governments and institutions and created failed states plagued by bloody anarchy. This created a security vacuum that was filled by fundamental Islamic groups like “Al-Qaeda” and the Islamic State, in addition to other groups like Ansar Al-Sharia in Libya, Ansar Bait Al-Maqdis in Sinai, Youth and Islamic Courts in Somalia, and Taliban in Afghanistan, and more than a thousand Islamic factions in Syria.

  • Fifth: Absence of Good Governance; in most, if not all Middle Eastern countries. In addition to the spread of corruption, favoritism, and the minorities’ monopoly of both power and wealth; as well as the impediment of the vast majority to take part in decision making; in addition to the lack or prohibition of establishing state institutions, separation of powers, independent and fair judiciary, and political and financial accountability.

  • Sixth: Underestimation; there is complete ignorance of the concept of “estimating the situation” on most levels, be it political, security, social, or economic. Perhaps people’s surprise in the East and West from the growth of the Islamic State, the striking power it has reached, and the confusion in decision-making headquarters in the West and East is the most prominent example in this regard. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, Gulf states and other western countries focused their efforts on one goal which was to topple the regime, utilizing billions of dollars and thousands of fighters. They thought the fall would be quick and that this was the ideal method. Large portions of the money and weapons reached the Islamic State and its sibling Al-Nusra Front and other extremist groups. Many mujahedeen flocked into these groups via Turkish territory with the support and encouragement of the authorities there, who adopted a policy of deliberately turning a blind eye.

  • Seventh: Social Media; like Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, Skype, YouTube, and others. Although the Islamic State is fighting the West and aims at destroying its culture, it is the biggest beneficiary from these inventions, which provide services that are used to recruit thousands of jihadists and to spread its ideology and literature to more than a billion and a half Muslims around the world by using these media in recruitment and terrorizing enemies.

 The Islamic State possesses an advanced network, run by Ahmed Abu Samra, a Syrian born in Paris to a father who was a doctor. He later moved to the state of Massachusetts in the United States where he obtained his bachelor degree in Information Technology. He carried his expertise to his new headquarter in Raqqa, and was able to mobilize tens of his colleagues and other qualified people in this arena.

# There are units to produce documentaries and propaganda that are superior to those in Hollywood in regard to the technology being used. In addition to that, there is an electronic army made up of hundreds of people inside and outside the territory of the state.

 The organization has more than 50 thousand accounts on Twitter that tweet more than one hundred thousand tweets per day, in addition to tens of thousands of pages on Facebook and thousands of accounts of WhatsApp and the internet.

 Sheikh Osama bin Laden was less fortunate than his protégé Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, as he used to sit in a secret room in front of a camera for several hours to record a “video” of his sermons and guidance and then send it to an influential person at Al-Jazeera channel, which reduced it to a quarter of an hour, more or less. It then broadcasted what it chose, neglecting most of it, if not all. The Islamic State organization can cut short this operation to several minutes.

 With a click of a button, it can reach more than two hundred countries in the world. The United Stated didn’t establish the Islamic State, however, it did create the public support it has. It provided the fertile land for its first seed to grow when it besieged Iraq and starved 26 million of its citizens through brutal sanctions in retaliation for Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. An occupation that the future will show was a trap to destroy Iraq and a prelude to its occupation in 2003. Paul Bremer, the American military governor of Iraq, committed two major mistakes: the first was establishing the ruling council in Iraq based on quotas and sectarianism, and the second was dismantling the Iraqi army, security and civil institutions, and the Republican Guard.

This threw more than a million Iraqi officers and soldiers into the streets. They were humiliated, marginalized, and without salaries, jobs, or pensions. They became the kernel of the Islamic State. The sectarian policies of Nuri Al-Maliki, the former Iraqi prime minister, came to complete the task. The late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein realized that the United States had come to topple and change his regime.

 This conviction was strengthened when two no-fly zones were enforced in north and south Iraq. He started preparation to resist and launched the “Faith Campaign” by closing night clubs, prohibiting alcohol, and writing “Allah Akbar” (Allah is the greatest) on the Iraqi flag in his blood. The true establishment of the Islamic State was in Abu Ghraib prison, where torture of Iraqi resistance fighters occurred.

 This included officers and soldiers of the army, the Republican Guard, and Iraqi security forces. The tortures were committed by the American occupation and its tormentors; then after that in Buka prison near Basra. In the latter, a meeting between Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and an elite group of those officers and soldiers took place. Mr. Baghdadi was giving religious lectures at night as he holds a PhD in Islamic Sharia. He spent more than a year in a cell on the charge of extremism and incitement of resisting the occupation. Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi joined the Tawhid and Jihad movement, which were established by Abu Mosab Al-Zirqawi and which were engaged in resisting the American occupation as a branch of Al-Qaeda. He later became a member then the head of the Mujahideen Shura Council and after that the head of the Islamic State in Anbar. He chose to declare the Islamic caliphate in Ramadan two years ago from the platform of the Great Mosque of Al-Nouri in Mosul because he realizes the significance of this to millions of Muslims. Symbolism is a crucial part of his strategy and long term aspiration. It was no accident that he added the two words “Al-Husni” and “Al-Qorashi” to his name to emphasize that he belongs to “Al Al-Bait”, i.e. a descendant of Prophet Mohammad, because the caliph should be a Sunni Arab who is a descendant of the prophet according to his convictions. Symbolism also played a role in choosing Raqqa as a temporary capital for the Islamic state, as it was the summer capital for the Abbasid Caliph Harun Al-Rashid. One of the most prominent manifestations of the misconception of the Islamic State is the common belief that it consists of “amateur” fighters, with shabby beards and loose slacks, who know nothing except murder and slaughter. Despite the fact that this state relied on savagery, gruesome executions, beheadings, and stoning adulterers, however, they come within the framework of terrorizing the enemies and forcing them to flee the savagery.

 This policy was a huge success, as more than 30 thousand Iraqi soldiers, stationed in Mosul, fled in civilian clothes, leaving behind their weapons once the word spread that the state’s fighters were approaching the city. Fact of the matter is that the hard kernel of the Islamic State comprises colonels and major generals from the Iraqi army and Republican Guard who are leading from behind. If not so, then how did the State manage to take over cities through well-done military plans?

How was it able to establish government institutions and administer them in a modern manner, providing services for at least 9 millions of its citizens? The Islamic State is distinguished from other fundamentalist jihadist movements like “Al-Qaeda” by its public adoption of the Wahhabi doctrine and its strict implication of Islamic Sharia law and fatwas, advisory opinions, of sheikh Ibn Taimiah, who is the religious reference for all those who follow Islamic jihadist approach.

 Therefore, it attracted tens of thousands of youth from all parts of the world who were looking forward to jihad under the banner of a “true” Islamic state according to its literature. This explains why 92% of Saudi youth sympathize with it and its ideology, and why more than 6 thousand Saudis have joined its lines forming the majority of the battalion of suicide bombers, which is considered the strongest and the most influential, as they drive car and truck bombs that target military checkpoints and bases of enemies. The United States formed a coalition of 60 countries to fight the Islamic State.

 The coalition’s fighter jets have made more than 6 thousand sorties so far, while Russian fighter jets made around 2 thousand sorties and airstrikes in a matter of a few weeks. However, the Islamic State is still strong, as these airstrikes have achieved limited success because most of the fighters of the state are underground as they don’t have fixed bases. There are doubts about the credibility of American surveys which indicate that these airstrikes have killed tens of thousands of the state’s fighters since they were first launched a year ago.

 There are no numbers regarding the civilian casualties from these airstrikes; they are estimated to be in the thousands. The terrorist attacks that struck Paris last November may reflect an indication of change of strategy by the Islamic State by mating the strategy of “consolidation”, i.e. capturing land and reinforcing control over it in order to capture new land, with the strategy of revenge from Western powers, i.e. the “distant enemy”.

 Perhaps this change is a reaction to the military pressure and airstrikes it has been exposed to, which led to it losing some territories in the recent months like Tikrit, Biji, and Sinjar Mountain. The expansion theory that is adopted by the Islamic State is primarily based on expanding in neighboring Iraq and Syria, and then reaching Saudi Arabia and the two cities of Mecca and Medina in particular. However, the build-ups and coalitions formed to face it and prevent it from expanding, forced it to expand regionally by opening branches in many places like “Sinai Mandate” in Egypt, Darna, Sirt, and Jafra Mandate in Libya, other mandates in Somalia, Afghanistan and Pakistan, in addition to Boko Haram Mandate in North-Eastern Nigeria.

 After the escalation of the Islamic State’s danger and the failure of the airstrikes to destroy it, Western countries started to change their policies and move closer to the Russian position that calls for Assad to stay in power and to use his army, which has become experienced in urban and guerilla warfare after fighting the armed opposition, and use this army as ground forces to confront the Islamic State on the ground.

 Secretary of State John Kerry’s statements were notable in this regard, as well as France’s renouncement of its policy that had insisted that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad must step down. The lagging of regional and Western countries to send ground troops to fight the Islamic State in order to avoid human casualties and repeat the Iraqi occupation experience is the strongest card that this state and the Syrian regime are playing. Although it is true that the United States is heavily relying on Kurdish fighters, whether under the banner of Peshmerga forces or the Protection of the Kurdish People forces in order to carry out ground operation with the protection of Western fighter jets, however, this option has grave risks for it possesses ethnic indications and may increase the sympathy of Iraqi and Syrian Sunnis towards the Islamic State.

 It is difficult to predict the fate of the Islamic State and its ability to survive and persist under congestion of fighter jets in the skies of the region. However, it can be said that eliminating it will be uneasy and dangerous because the military solution by itself cannot achieve this goal if it’s not part of a strategy of complex objectives.

 One of the most important of these objectives is to dismantle the public support which provides strength and continuity, through well thought out political solutions that meet the needs of this public in justice, equality, and partnership in governance; away from sectarian quotas and by building up a unifying identity that is based on true cohabitation, cancelling all manifestations of exclusion and marginalization and stopping all forms of Western military intervention. Fighters of the Islamic State may be defeated on this front or that and their sources of funding may be cut off, however, the forests of cement that are formed by major cities they control, like Mosul, Raqqa, Ramadi, and Deir Azzor may provide them with protection and shelter and enable them to fight for months if not years. The Islamic State’s possession of chemical weapons cannot be ruled out because it has experts from the former Iraqi army who have the expertise to produce these weapons. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they were able to obtain it from the warehouses they captured from the Syrian army, or perhaps they might have been smuggled from Libya which has been living a state anarchy since the fall of the regime of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had huge stocks of it. The greatest danger lies in the Islamic State’s ability to use these weapons, in case it is confirmed that they do possess them, when the grip it tightened around their throats and under the pretext of self-defense. These people, or majority of them, do not fear death. A defect in its ranks is possible and the possibility of assassinating its leader cannot be ruled out. However, it is not a “one-man-organization”, like Al-Qaeda, to shrink due to the assassination of its leader.

 It is a decentralized organization. Al-Baghdadi does not like media coverage, issuing videos, or taking the platform. There is an integrated leadership structure, away from the lights and in total self-sacrifice. Enemies of the Islamic State make up an international force which is politically, militarily and economically the greatest. Its defeat is feasible. However, what are the alternatives for the people of this region after this defeat is achieved and this state with its danger is eliminated? Western powers are experts in destroying not in building.

 What happened in Libya, Iraq, Yemen, in addition to what’s happening now in Syria are explicit examples. There is always a Plan A to change regimes, but there is never a Plan B for what comes after this change. For that reason, danger persists and Islamic groups propagate as an extension to groups that have disappeared or establish new organizations with new names.

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  1. I do not leave mаny remarks, hоwever Ι browsed a few оf the remarks hеre The Islamic State:
    Roots, Savagery, аnd Future | رأي اليوم.
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    Could іt be ϳust mе or do a feԝ of these comments look ⅼike they aгe written by brain dead visitors?
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  2. All I can say is wow! This is a piece of fine journalistic and analytical work! The facts and figures included in the essay are quite comprehensive, and the story line and analysis are impressive and convincing. I will keep a copy of this article on file for future reference and to share the perspective with others who are not familiar with the origins and trajectory of the so-called “Islamic State”, I prefer to call it the Iblees State, as well as the larger story of the modern Arab, Middle Eastern and Muslim peoples and states. Thank you once again dear brother Abdel Bari Atwan for your service to our peoples and noble causes.

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