The rise of ISIS

In the last month ISIS terror attacks have left 130 dead in Paris, 43 dead in Beirut and 224 people dead in after they downed a Russian airliner over Egypt. That makes 400 victims in under a month. But those who have been living under ISIS rule since 2014 have already experienced the terror of their rule. It was on June 10 2014 that the group showed its intentions. After a mere four days of fighting, 1,300 Isis fighters captured Iraq’s northern capital Mosul defeating the Iraqi forces which were said to number 60,000. They then set about killing their enemies, demolishing historic shrines ad generally spreading terror. On June 29 its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, proclaimed himself caliph (successor to the Prophet Mohammed and rightful leader of all Muslims). Islamic State now controls an area roughly the size of Britain, with a population of at least six million.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t follow the news as much as I should do and the whole ISIS thing passed me by until their macabre videos started appearing on the internet. I won’t make any excuses for my ignorance but what is more surprising is that Barack Obama admitted that the U.S. defence and intelligence establishment had underestimated the threat posed by the terror group until they took over large swathes of Syria and Iraq. Given the events of the last fifteen years or so, with the rise of Islamist insurgencies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and Yemen, this is a surprising admission. In order to remedy my own ignorance I decided to read a couple of books, The Rise of ISIS by Patrick Cockburn and Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS by Joby Warrick.

Warrick’s book focuses a lot on the origins of the group in Iraq after the Second Gulf War. The key figure, the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, actually died before ISIS came into existence. He was the leader of the Al Qaida “franchise” in Iraq. This high school dropout was a man of the street, who had hit the bottle, experimented with drug use, been in fights and had his body covered in tattoos. He was not the kind of person you would imagine leading a radical religious group. He was not a significant player but then the Bush administration had the brilliant idea of naming Zarqawi as the connection between al-Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Much has been made of the lack of weapons of mass destruction, but a far more egregious lie was that of the connection between Al Qaida and Saddam Hussein. Zarqawi, just like most of these jihadists, detested Saddam Hussein and his government, which systemically persecuted them. America’s intelligence experts knew there was no truth to that connection and yet, we it was made anyway.

Alas, this was not the only mistake that the Americans would make. The worst thing that they did was to disband the Iraqi army and outlaw the Ba’ath Party, creating a natural constituency of rebellion. This played into Zarqawi’s strategy to create chaos in Iraq. There was the deadly vacuum that was left after the war. They then went on the attack against the Shia majority to provoke retaliation. By maximizing chaos they could push Iraq into civil war. Zarqawi was eventually killed in 2006 by an American bomb dropped from an F-16. But the template was in place.

His eventual successor, the man who would declare the Islamic State in June 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was very different to Zarqawi. Had it not been for the invasion of Iraq, he may well have spent his career teaching Sharia law in an Iraqi university.  Instead, he ended up rising through the ranks. And in 2010, when a number of the other leaders of the Islamic State were killed, he suddenly found himself at the top of the organization.

The Syrian civil war, which began in March 2011, provided the perfect scenario for the organisation. There was a perfect storm. The Assad regime overreacted to the demonstrations. Governments, such as those in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar were sending large amounts of money to the jihadist militants in Syria. This support is another important factor. This obsession with promoting Sunni organisations is driving a lot of violence. Apart from the money there is the exporting of Wahhabism, the fundamentalist, eighteenth-century version of Islam. This is an ultraconservative movement within Islam that seeks the imposition of sharia law, and treats women as second-class citizens. It considers Shia and Sufi Muslims as non-Muslims, meaning that they should be persecuted along with Christians, Jews and any other apostates.  There are many elements to ISIS but to claim that it has nothing to do with Islam is bizarre. Voltaire famously quipped that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire. But Islamic State is both Islamic and at the moment it controls a state.

In late 2013 and early 2014 the ISIS leaders in Syria saw an opportunity in Iraq. Huge caravans of ISIS fighters began pouring across the border and were very quickly able to overcome much the larger divisions of US-trained and supplied Iraqi troops.  Mosul, the second-largest city in Iraq, fell in just two days. The Iraqi army just fell apart.

ISIS took Zarqawi’s strategy and built on it, thanks to the new social media – Twitter, Facebook and Instagram; they are very media-savvy. Not only were the videos of the beheadings, crucifixions etc. a way of intimidating potential adversaries, they also proved to be a vital recruiting tool. What is particularly frightening about ISIS is that they now have a state apparatus at their disposal. According to Warrick this is unique in the history of modern terrorism. Their access to funding, especially the oil, in the areas they control is a significant factor. I mentioned the resource curse in previous posts:

Having a large supply of oil enables autocrats to pay off their supporters and accumulate enormous personal wealth. It is tragic that while oil revenues provide the resources to deal with these countries’ problems, they actually create the political incentives to make the situation worse

Not having to collect so much from the local population, ISIS has few incentives to win their hearts and minds.

What are my conclusions? I am a little bit sceptical about the utility of bombing Iraq. And putting 100.000 troops on the ground is a complicated enterprise. Another lesson I have learned is that things can always get worse. Come back Taliban all is forgiven! When the Taliban were running Afghanistan, I couldn’t imagine anything worse. But ISIS almost makes them look good. It really is a vile ideology. But it is not a death cult. There is method in their terror. And so far it has proved horribly effective.

Regimes like those of Saddam, Gadaffi and Assad may appear terrible, but leaving a power vacuum can be worse. The project of the US and its Western allies allying with the theocratic Sunni absolute monarchies of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf to spread democracy and enhance human rights in Iraq, Libya and Syria was always rather delusional. The fact that ISIS has a state could make it easier to attack. But it is not easy to form a coalition with all the disparate interests. Something will have to be done at the very least to contain the threat. Let’s just hope that whatever the intervention, it is better thought out than the last few.

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