The self-proclaimed ‹Islamic State› is the jihadi militia that tries to found a state in Syria and Iraq. But why could ISIS expand so rapidly?
Context: Sunni-Shia and al-Qaeda
Two contextual factors which will help you understand this briefing are the Sunni-Shia split and the origins of the al-Qaeda movement. Sunnis and Shias are two denominations of Islam which split over a disagreement about the line of succession from the prophet Mohammad over a thousand years ago. The importance of this split, however, is not only theological, but much more social. Because Middle Eastern societies are heavily organised along family and clan ties, what makes you Sunni or Shia is not primarily your individual theological views about Muhammad’s succession, but – quite simply – whether your family, or clan is Sunni or Shia. This distinction between theological views and social identity will be important in this briefing.
Secondly, al-Qaeda is a violent Islamist movement formed in the 1980s Afghan war against the Soviet occupation. There Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and later Ayman al-Zawahiri funnelled funding and recruits to jihadists in Afghanistan through the so-called Afghan Services Bureau (or Maktab al-Khidamat). After the war, bin Laden established his leadership and doctrine in the jihadi community. His brand of jihadism sees corrupt Middle Eastern dictatorships, particularly the House of Saud in Arabia, as the immediate, or ‹near enemy›; but he believed that the root cause, the real evil was the ‹far enemy›: Primarily the U.S. and Israel, and more broadly ‹the West›, collaborating in a ‹Crusader-Zionist conspiracy› against Muslims. Hence, his strategy was to disrupt international security and the global economy – to hurt the West.1
Finally, al-Qaeda is a Sunni-movement that is fiercely anti-Shia.
Political origins of ISIL
Though al-Qaeda was, and to an extent still is, based in the mountains between Afghanistan and Pakistan – which we refer to as al-Qaeda Central – its political influence had grown tremendously as a consequence of the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent US retaliation against the group. Al-Qaeda Central used this influence, and its technical and military expertise, to encourage the formation of local subsidiaries in many countries. Thus over the last 10 years, it proliferated from a fairly concrete and vertically integrated organization, to a more global and looser network of autonomous subsidiary cells pledging allegiance to al-Qaeda’s leadership.
Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) was one such subsidiary cell. However, it was as much a child of Osama bin Laden’s organization as it was of the US-led occupation, because of two reasons. The first one is a strategic mistake by the Americans. Let’s first understand that Iraq features three predominant ethnoreligious identities: Depending on the estimate, around half are Shia Arabs mostly to the south-east of Baghdad, around a quarter are Sunni Arabs mostly to the north-west of Baghdad, and 15-20% are Kurds in the north, which are also predominantly Sunni. Finally there are many sparsely inhabited and difficult-to-inhabit areas, like deserts. Saddam Hussein was a totalitarian dictator, who was theologically-speaking secular, but socially speaking a Sunni Arab. He rose in the military to ruling Iraq through the only party in Iraq: the state-socialist Baath party. He was also a patron to Sunni tribal leaders, providing them with funds from Iraq’s lucrative oil exports and access to government and military jobs. So Hussein’s power rested on 3 principal pillars: The military, the Baath party and the Sunni tribal leaders.2
After the invasion, the US-led coalition ran a strategy of ‹de-Baathification›. A little like denazification after the Second World War, the idea was to remove the influence of Hussein’s legacy from politics, first and foremost by barring high-ranking former Baath members from public sector jobs. But in Hussein’s totalitarian Iraq, almost all notable state personnel had to be part of the Baath party! To ban them from public sector employment effectively meant to throw out all bureaucratic know-how. Then they also disbanded the military, leaving hundreds of thousands of trained and at times even armed Sunni men without jobs and income.3
As a consequence of de-Baathification, a Sunni-dominated state was replaced not by a power sharing arrangement between Shias, Sunnis and Kurds, but by a state dominated by the long repressed Shia plurality in the south, for the most part under the government of Nouri al-Maliki. This strategic blunder obviously delighted the neighboring Iranians, who are also Shias, but it also played into AQI’s hands because it gave Sunnis little stake in the new Iraqi state.4
The second reason was that the invasion was a propaganda gift to al-Qaeda in its own right. Largely perceived as unjust and illegal, al-Qaeda could show western forces – its ‹far enemy› – killing and occupying (Sunni) Muslims. It fitted its narrative of a Muslim world suppressed by the west perfectly.
All of this meant that the Americans weren’t greeted as liberators, but foreign occupiers – especially by Sunnis. And though many jihadis were foreigners too, Sunni tribes and Baathist groups cooperated more with them than the U. S. And as AQI gained prominence in the war ravaged region, it began replacing the interlinked Baath and tribal power structures, and started calling itself ‹Islamic State of Iraq› (ISI) under Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.5
ISI then lost strength because of three factors: First, some American generals, notably David Peatreus, were competent enough to see that they needed the Sunni tribes and embraced a policy of dolling out cash to Sunni leaders, to effectively buy — or, as it turned out, rent — their loyalty against ISI. Second, ISI partially spoiled the propaganda gift the invasion provided by using brutal and fanatically excessive violence against the civilian population – which led to a Sunni tribal resurgence against it. And third, American forces adopted sophisticated counter-insurgency tactics that all but decimated ISI.6 This confluence of factors led to the near defeat of ISI in Mosul in mid-2008.
The remaining jihadis fled to the western deserts of Iraq which later provided a springboard for operations in Iraq, but also in Syria. Neighboring Syria was unravelling in the aftermath of the Arab Spring because Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship clamped down on protesters and protesters began organizing in armed militias. Theologically-speaking the Assad regime is secular, and many important Sunni families supported it back in the 2000s. But socially-speaking, the Assads are Alawites, which is a somewhat controversial version of Shia Islam, whereas the majority of Syrians, around 65 percent, are Sunni Arabs. So a Sunni majority ruled by an Alawite dictatorship — again, ideal conditions for ISI to prosper.
In Middle Eastern politics the Assads are part of an important Shia alliance all the way from Iran, over the new Shia-dominated Iraq, to the Assads in Syria and the powerful militia Hezbollah in Lebanon. The rebels, in turn, receive support from major Sunni States, most importantly Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Globally, these two camps are backed by Russia and the US, respectively.
Beginning in March 2011, the regime clamped down on protests and some protesters began to arm and organize themselves in militias. One important such group was the theologically secular, but socially overwhelmingly Sunni Free Syrian Army, which was formed by defected military officers who refused to use violence against protesters. After initial hesitation, ISI’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also sent a delegation of ISI fighters under the command of a Syrian citizen, Abu Mohammad al-Joulani, to Syria to setup an al-Qaeda franchise to fight the Assad regime in July/August 2011 – this was to become Jabhat al-Nusra.7
This Nusra Front had clearly learnt from the mistakes of the Iraqi branch – its very name reflects that Joulani understood he had to market his franchise by distancing it from ISI. This was also reflected in the strategy. Unlike the Iraqi franchise, the Nusra Front took care to reduce the negative effects of fighting on the civilian population by predominantly targeting military targets and minimizing civilian casualties in its own attacks, and it downplayed its sectarian rhetoric somewhat.8
At the beginning, the Assad regime had partially lost control over three pockets: From Homs to Idlib, around Damascus and up the Euphrates to Deir al-Zor. By early 2013, these pockets had connected and the Assad regime had partially lost control over the big cities Aleppo and Homs in the West and almost the entire north. Al-Nusra had developed into the most effective fighting unit against the regime and it rose to considerable prominence, attracting money and foreign fighters across the Turkish border it could now use – with vocal support from al-Qaeda central’s al-Zawahiri. In short, it threatened to eclipse ISI.
According to the Lebanese journalist Radwan Mortada, in early 2013 “the Nusra Front still reported to Baghdadi as the general commander” until Baghdadi instructed Joulani to bomb a Turkish hotel during a meeting of the Syrian opposition. “Joulani advised against this, saying the attack would force Turkey to seal off its crossings to the Nusra Front and block the flow of money and weapons to the group.”9 Now that would have meant al-Nusra would have had to again rely on Baghdadi for funding and weapons. Given the power contest between the two leaders, it seems probable that that’s exactly what Baghdadi was after.
Joulani, however, disobeyed Baghdadi’s command, repeatedly. Then, in April 2013, Baghdadi unilaterally announced the merger between ISI and al-Nusra into a group ‹Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant› (ISIL10) and began moving into Syria. Joulani sought arbitration from al-Qaeda Central’s al-Zawahiri, who ruled that Baghdadi should remain in Iraq and Joulani in Syria. But Baghdadi disobeyed, moved further into Syria and openly took on Joulani’s Nusra Front militarily from January 2014. After an eight-month power struggle, in February 2014 al-Qaeda disavowed any relations with ISIL.11
But this gamble worked out for Baghdadi and most of Joulani’s foreign fighters defected to ISIL,12 in what is known as the inter-rebel conflict.13 The rupture between al-Qaeda and ISIL extends to the ideological: Unlike the traditional al-Qaeda leadership, Zarqawi and now Baghdadi concentrated on establishing what they consider an ‹Islamic State› in the here and now. So once ISIL secured territory, it focused on governance and consolidation, whereas other rebel groups spent their resources on fighting the regime and failed to institute effective governance projects.
And while all of this was going on in Syria, in Iraq the important change was the withdrawal of the Americans under Obama – from 150,000 troops at the beginning of 2009, then 50,000 troops in mid-2010, to almost none by the end of 2011.14
And with them went the state’s patronage to the Sunni tribes. The Shia dominated government under Nouri al-Maliki, instead, started employing a heavy handed, sectarian approach to politics which enflamed Sunni insecurities again. Sunni political leaders were arrested and protests were violently putdown.15 So ISI and later ISIL could slowly spread back into the areas it has been banished from; reconciling, coercing and eliminating its former tribal opponents, cumulating in the conquest of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, and the collapse of the Iraqi army stationed in Anbar. At this point the group declared itself an ‹Islamic State›, with Baghdadi as its caliph. In the jihadi community, this is an open bid for leadership against al-Qaeda. This should worry primarily Americans and Israelis, but the west in general, because one way to win jihadis loyalty is to attack the Crusader-Zionist homeland.16
Internationally, much of the blame for Iraq’s sectarian politics, and the consequent rise of ISIL, has been directed at the then Prime Minister al-Maliki. However, this is to simplify and underestimate the problem. The Shia and Sunni populations of Iraq have never shared power, let alone harmoniously partaken in a liberal democracy. When Maliki cracked down on Sunni protesters, his popularity among the Shias — his constituents — increased.17 The Sunnis, for their part, have a hard time accepting that the Shias, as the bigger group, now legitimately get most of the profits from oil exports. The rise, and potential defeat, of ISIL greatly depends on how sectarian politics remains, which is far more intractable a problem than commonly assumed in western capitals.
ISIL› economic policies
The key to ISIL’s strategic success, in contrast to other rebel factions, has been its economic policies as part of its aim to establish a viable state. The group functions like a well-managed cooperation. It prioritizes objectives that benefit it economically and excels at exploiting them.
ISIL was the group that started targeting oil infrastructure. Now it controls a dozen oil fields and several refineries. To keep the oil flowing, it retains the facilities› technical workers, but changes the top management with its own people. The oil is transferred to the black market in Turkey, and probably other neighboring states, through a network of smugglers and money launderers.18 Demonstrating a financial pragmatism not typical of extremist organizations, the group even sells oil to the hated Assad government in Damascus.19 The US military estimates that ISIL sells about five hundred barrels per day, worth around two million dollars.20 In spite of the US-led campaign of airstrikes, ISIL is expected to bring in 200 million dollars this year.21 It should be noted that upon the insistence of the Iraqi government, the coalition has refrained from targeting oil installations held by the group in Iraq.
Hydrocarbons are not the only source of ISIL’s revenue. It runs sophisticated extortion rackets in the territories it has captured, which include economically significant towns and cities. It taxes everything from the use of roads to the functioning of telephone towers and the presence of non-Muslim communities.22 Moreover, bank robberies, kidnapping for ransom, smuggling antiques, and outright plundering have added significantly to its coffers. It has reportedly amassed assets worth two billion dollars, and has been declared the richest extremist group in history. 23
Another source of ISIL’s economic robustness is its careful bookkeeping, as documents captured by Iraqi forces revealed.24 The money was spent on military necessities such as equipment, weapons and facilities. ISIL will also need to be financially rigorous in the governance projects it has increasingly undertaken. In some areas it has succeeded in providing reliable electricity, access to clean water, and serviceable infrastructure.25 However, in most places it controls, it cannot reliably provide such services. Given that the towns and cities it administers are significantly war-torn, attempting to provide them will be a significant burden on the group’s resources, even if well managed. ISIL is much better at providing less technical and resource intensive services, such as maintain law and order, and regulating the prices of basic commodities.26 These undoubtedly contribute to its popularity.
Résumé and Outlook
So in summary: From near defeat until around late 2011, ISIL could expand so rapidly because of the unfolding war in Syria and the rising sectarianism of the Maliki government in Iraq after the US withdrawal. In Syria, it fell into its former ally’s – the Nusra Front’s – back in early 2013 and took over territory from the rebel factions already busy fighting the Assad regime. Then, partially from Syrian territory, it exploited the Second Sunni insurgency and Sunni resentment against the Maliki government in Iraq throughout 2013 and 2014. Additionally, because it aims at establishing a viable state, ISIL has been much better than other rebel factions at creating sustainable finances. Now, what about the future?
Given ISIL’s eschatological outlook, just like with al-Qaeda, there is little reason to assume the movement as a whole can be pacified short of achieving Armageddon. So far the only negotiations it has undertaken – selling oil to the Assad regime – were out of economic self-interest. This is something to work with, because of its state-building project, and unlike al-Qaeda, ISIL does have strong economic self-interests.
Because – like the US before it had to learn the hard way – an occupation force vastly depends on political support of the population: ISIL has an estimated 30,000 fighters administering an area with 6 million people.27 That means compared to the US occupation of Iraq, ISIL has slightlymore fighters per population than the US had. But just like the US, it can’t simply suppress the entire population. For all its brutality, ISIL still has to buy off tribal leaders, hire civilian administrators, ‹win hearts and minds›, and so on. It therefore has an ‹economic interest› because it needs to sustain its occupation.
And this economic interest can be undermined. Such policies are already under way and include pressuring the Turks to clamp down on the illicit selling of oil, and on the use of its borders to smuggle goods and people. Also, to cut funding to ISIL requires a concerted effort among Gulf states.
Another pillar of power we mentioned was Sunni resentment and the animosity between the Sunni and Shia communities. In Iraq, this means that the Sunni population in general, but Sunni tribal leaders in particularly must be given a real stake in the Iraqi state and the Iraqi Armed Forces. In Syria, and we may talk about this in another briefing, the only sustainable solution will be some kind of negotiated settlement between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Assad Regime. Because while the government probably won’t fall, it also can’t win – meaning the chaos in which ISIL thrives will go on. And even if the government did fall, the FSA would probably not be able to stand up to ISIL in the aftermath. So a Sunni victory, so to say, would likely turn into an ISIL victory.
Militarily ISIL’s expansion may be slowed, or frustrated (like in the Battle for Kobane) through Obama’s anti-ISIL coalition, notably the Kurds, and supporting airstrikes. But airstrikes by western powers are a double edged sword because they will cause civilian casualties – particularly among Sunnis. And this, again, nurtures resentment and ideologically plays into ISIL’s hands.
If many of these proposals seem unrealistic, that’s revealing in its own right. Because the truth of the matter is that many actors in this drama have chosen over the available alternatives to let ISIL prosper.