The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (or ISIS) or simply the Islamic State (IS) is an extremist group of Islam. Unanimously considered across the western world as a terrorist group, it is one of the results of the atomization of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the region. Its current strength derives from its preeminence within the militia coalition of Syrian resistance in the Civil War that has devastated the country. Now, it has expanded its presence in Iraq and aims at creating a new caliphate in the Arab world.
During the last week of June this year, ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, made a loud appearance before the cameras and in the public eye around the world through its leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi and a flamboyant media display. Al-Baghdadi declared the movement he leads as a sovereign State.
The philosophy, goals and objectives of what is now known as the Islamic State do not involve only achieving control over Iraq and Syria, but aim rather, in the medium or long term (depending on the way conditions evolve), at restoring a great caliphate over the Arabian world and those territories that at some time in their history have been dominated by Muslim culture.
Considerably different from the caliphate model prevailing in the Middle Ages which was based on the development of art and science, this new model imposed by the Islamic State in the scattered regions it dominates is characterized by a strong fundamentalist and anti-modernistic vision. Isolating and subduing any inhabitant refusing to respect the strict interpretation of the rules of the Sharia (1) that it has imposed is a violation of the statute. Christians, Shiites Muslims, and any other type of individuals representing opposition or dissent are tortured or “put to the sword”.
This armed group, as well Boko Haram, Naqshbandi and others, is a part of the new Islamic Jihad generation which is characterized by a level of radicalism, complexity, ambition and fundamentalism even greater than that of Al-Qaeda. The factions confronting these groups – which range from entire countries to other extremist groups – are an eloquent signal in this respect. However, notwithstanding the hostile reactions to the development of their plans, they seem determined to go to any lengths to achieve their goals.
The difference marking this movement in comparison with other terrorist organizations is that, after the failures encountered in Iraq and Syria, they have opted for making use of new strategies and techniques. In the first place their leaders have chosen to turn the movement into a State. In other words, their aim is to behave like a state. This includes, but is not limited to, diversifying their activities, not restricting themselves solely to sowing terror and chaos, but also carrying out tasks aimed at providing supplies and achieving economic self-sufficiency, taking over oil wells and banks, conducting infrastructure reconstruction tasks while simultaneously carrying out social outreach work. (2)
The emergence of the Islamic State and other recently spawned groups is due to multiple causes: living conditions in the Middle East becoming increasingly worse, third party funding by US-allied powers in encounters with enemy groups, and alliances with power groups which have been displaced from power in several countries in the Muslim world (former militants and militaries in the Ba’ath Party led by Saddam Hussein in Iraq)
Origins and Evolution
The emergence of this fiercely ultra-conservative Islamic movement is akin to that of other organizations of similar nature. Living conditions characterized by extreme poverty, failure of government projects based on secular Islamic nationalism and the constant interference of foreign powers such as the United States and its allies have created a breeding ground for the strengthening of an anti-modernistic fundamentalist Islamic view.
Specifically, US intervention in Iraq has been decisive. The socioeconomic situation in Iraq has not improved, and has, instead, sunk even more deeply into generalized grinding poverty and indigence. Twelve years after the invasion headed by former President George W. Bush, Iraq is a country with a fragile State unable to control or draw the country together. The power void, and the subsequent struggle to achieve power between Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, is functional to the consolidation that the Islamic State organization is experiencing in vast regions of this country.
Islamic State has undergone numerous transformations since it was spawned in 2004, in the midst of a war scenario against the interference of the United States in Iraq following the swift debacle of the Saddam Hussein regime in 2003. It was first given the name of “Monotheism and Jihad Group”. That same year, the movement, led by Abu Musab Al Zarkhawi, openly aligned itself with Al Qaeda.
Towards 2006 the movement led by Al Zarkhawi became part of a coalition that grouped all the insurgent blocks in Iraqi territory: the Mujaheddin Shura (Council). The same year, Al-Zarkhawi was done away with. This event led to the creation of what became known as the “Islamic State of Iraq”, which originally had two leaders, Abdullah Al Rashid Al Baghdadi and Abu Ayyub Al Masri, who were eliminated by an operation conducted between Iraq and the U.S. Armed Forces in 2010.
Following the overthrow of these leaders the organization went through a time of change and restructuring until it adopted its current basic structure under the leadership of Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
There are variety of factors that have contributed to the growth and spread of this extremist movement. On the one hand, having been part of the Syrian resistance to the government of Asad has benefited them in that they received weaponry and financial support from both western countries and from the Arabian Salafi monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. On the other hand, they gained active support from former members of the Ba’ath party, the backbone of the Saddam Hussein regime which was overthrown in 2003 following the US invasion of Iraq.
The support the ISIS is gaining in this country is of key significance, since the Sunni population, which feels unprotected and excluded by the government of Al Maliki, a Shiite who until only a few days ago upheld policies aimed at sectarianism and the social prevalence of his own caste, is becoming partially inclined towards this group. However, during the last week some changes have been seen in the Iraqi government. Al Maliki has accepted to step down from his position as Prime Minister to allow the formation of a new body of ministers authorized by parliament under the leadership of Haidar Al Abadi, who is taking up a position which is more inclined to include the Sunnite population in government activities. This event could mean the emergence of a more consolidated political will aimed at recovering control over the entire territory of the country, establishing a boundary to the advance of the ISIS.
The Roots of their World View
The bedrock for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria corresponds to a vision of the world which is totally opposed to modern progress propounded both in the western world, and in a more restricted and incomplete manner, in many Arab countries which have been or are led by Islamic governments more closely linked to secularism. Following the line established in Egypt in the 1920’s by the Muslim Brotherhood, they share many ideas with Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups whose modus operandi is based on the Sharia, but which go even further. For they are seeking, almost unilaterally, or rather with the few allies they have managed to rally, to establish a new caliphate that will gather the whole of the Muslim world. The radical nature of the ISIS is such that Al-Qaeda and a large number of extremist groups have preferred to keep their distance from them.
Nevertheless, there is a significant difference, both philosophically speaking and in the kind of activities involved, between the caliphate the ISIS is so ambitiously seeking to extend over the Islamosphere and the great caliphate that spread across the Middle East and Spain during the Middle Ages. At that time, while the western world stagnated in a profound cultural, social and scientific phase, the epicenter of scientific, artistic and technological progress was the Arab world. ISIS follows an anti-occidental Salafist interpretation of Islamism, which it promotes by religious violence. Wiping out any type of dissent either from within Islam (“apostates” or reformists) or from without (Christians, etc.). (3)
The ISIL, unlike the relatively progressive model characterizing the caliphate in the Middle Ages, seeks to establish the same kind of power, but in the form of a reaction to western modernity as a response to what they consider a cultural defeat of the Arab world, and to the constant interference by the USA and other powers in the region. The only similarity with the caliphate of years gone by is their aim of uniting all the Muslim society into a single State.
Opaque Funding or Blow-Back
How is it that an organization like the IS, which abjures modernity and progress of any kind, has been able to attain its current outreach? It is at this point that a tangent emerges which is generally concealed by most of the mass media. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria is not a group that has taken the U.S. and its allies in the region by surprise. The reality is much more complex than that naive view.
The swift rise of the Islamic State is to a large extent due to a strategy with a lengthy history sustained by the United States and its allies in the region (the Arab Salafi monarchies) which involves secretly financing groups of this type to destabilize governments not aligned with the US economic and military establishment or that of its partners in connection with such prized and profitable natural resources as oil or gas.
This policy of “divide and conquer” proliferated in the mid-eastern and Maghreb regions during the time of what was known as the “Arab Spring”. The US, via NATO, as well as the monarchies in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and Turkey made use of the region like a chessboard, constantly interfering in the successive social outbursts that took place in Egypt, Libya, Syria. Iraq. Outside intervention has been indirect by means of funding for fundamentalist Jihadi groups with petrodollars. One of the groups involved is the IS. (4)
Monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar are of central significance in this scenario, carrying out a double standard game for their own benefit. They export fanatics to other countries to avoid them causing problems at home. These fanatics spread their Jihadi vision, which is compatible with the institutionalized Salafi beliefs of these absolutist nations, in countries in the region where this position does not prevail. And they also provide them with funding in the form of money, resources and weapons. (5)
What is happening with this system is that over the last decade it has got entirely out of US control. These groups are using the funding to further their own plans to reduce U.S. and Western influence in the region, though without touching the monarchies that are their mentors. It already happened with Al-Qaeda, and it happens now with the IS, which has broken the partnerships it had with a large number of the fundamentalist groups in the region as a result of divisions arising from ambivalent relations between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, who are continuing with their own power games in the region. The current position against the Saudis in the Islamic State is an eloquent signal pointing to the fact this group is opaquely financed by the Qatar monarchy.
After maintaining a passive role of indirect support for the fundamentalist groups that took over power in Libya and made up the resistance in Syria, the U.S. government has again sent its military personnel into Iraq following the progress of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria over strategic resources that threaten U.S. interests in the country.
Appropriation of a Post-Modernistic Aesthetic and Communicational Logic by an Anti-Modernistic Movement
The success of the Islamic State offensive in Iraqi territory is due largely to a clever strategy both in the media and in regard to aesthetics. Communication tactics used are both unconventional and post-modernistic in nature, presenting a challenge for Iraqi authorities.
The IS makes use both of the media and of sophisticated techniques to achieve visibility and attract followers to their ranks. This phenomenon can to a large extent be explained because a good many of their militants come from Arab communities in the Western world, mainly from countries in the European Union. The techniques, procedures and aesthetics they use follow post-modernist patterns which have strong impact and visual quality. It is also worth noting the use of social networks, with messages percolating amongst news of outstanding global affairs such as the latest soccer World Cup held in Brazil. This use of creativity and modern media has managed to rally a large number of youngsters under their Jihadi flag. (6)
All this is one more paradigm change added to the many implemented by this organization both at social and economical levels to achieve their self-sufficiency beyond any type of conditioning by major powers such as those represented by Salafi Arab monarchies. While taking over strategic resources (oil fields, banks, etc.) and spreading a network of socioeconomic aid and reconstruction in places where the Syrian and Iraqi States are absent, they are simultaneously deploying a series of media and propaganda resources innovative in form, though the content is basically the same message of backwardness and fundamentalism.
Theological and moral arguments are no longer enough to recruit supporters. The image of martyrs making sacrifices for their movement and taking refuge in scrub-lands where they feed on dry herbs does not appeal to a new generation of young people, who do, after all, have some type of connection, however minimal, with the rest of the world. This is the reason why the core of the message is disguised with layers of postmodernism showing the life of a new Islamic fundamentalist as being full of adrenalin, money and glory. No longer is the stamp of austerity used; it is acceptable, in addition to killing, and sacking and usurping properties, to seize luxury cars and consume elite foodstuffs. (7)
The importance of graphic media is not played down, and ISIS also has its own publication, Dabiq, the aesthetic quality of which is every much as high as that of top Western magazines. (8)
However abnormal its activity on the web may seem, the IS publishes an annual report which, instead of discussing sales or profits for the financial year, describes the results of their terrorist activities. Thus, in their 2013 report, ISIS lists the number and type of attacks made: 537 car bombs, 160 suicide attacks, 4465 roadway bombs, 336 armed attacks, 1083 murders using silenced or bladed weapons, 607 attacks using mortars, 1015 houses and temples burnt down or blown to bits, 1047 killings by snipers, 8 cities taken over and freed from infidels, over 100 Shiites driven out, over 100 prisoners freed. Intolerance and religious madness under the guise of management. (9)
Background Resources as the Cause of Territorial Advance
It is clear that the increasing tension, as the IS continues to take over territories, villages, oil fields in addition to banks and water reserves, is reaching a temporary climax following the active entry of the U.S. armed forces into the conflict in Iraqi territory.
As mentioned earlier, ISIS continues to receive funding from Qatar. Yet the group continues in its quest for valuable resources. This way it is achieving its main objective, self-sufficiency. With the sacking of the Mosul bank, in the midst of the takeover of this Iraqi northern city, which led to the mass exodus of the Kurdish population residing there, ISIS has become one of the wealthiest terrorist entities in the world.
The worst that could happen for Iraqi authorities and countries whose governments are opposed to this organization is that the group continues consolidating its para-state structure, by satisfying the social and economic needs of the peoples absorbed under its aegis.
On top of the social and economical aid provided in the areas appropriated by ISIS, there is also the likelihood of their expanding the humanitarian crisis in the region, given that those not aligning automatically and entirely to the Sharia they preach are subdued and treated as inferior beings subject to torture and isolation. In the worst cases, they are put to death.
The emergence and progress of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or simply Islamic State represent a turning point in the long path of fundamentalist movements and organizations within the Muslim world.
On the one hand, it is an unequivocal sign of a generational change within a constellation of structures of this nature, characterized by a greater complexity in its activities. For they are not only dedicated to implementing techniques aimed at causing terror or chaos but also place particular stress on the attribution of powers which only a State can have: building social and structural reconstruction networks, seeking economic self-sufficiency, implementing sophisticated propagandistic techniques and creating their own information media. The change can also be seen in the manner of communication, making use of post-modern forms of exercising this action by means of a profound knowledge of the new media that have emerged this century.
On the other hand, the prevalence this organization is achieving is one of the results of the significantly worsened living conditions in the Middle East, in particular in Iraq, a country whose fragile state cannot cover the entire spread of its territory following the devastating US intervention throughout a decade, that left a disastrous balance marked by the proliferation of groups with similar tendencies to ISIS, power groups with rivalry arising among them and which are unable to reach a consensus to give a final format to the state structure of a disfigured nation.
The situation in Iraq, at the mercy of Islamic State is, however, similar to that of countries like Syria, Libya and Egypt, which are still in a condition of conflagration. The regimes overcome by popular uprisings due to the failure of the projects they were spearheading left a favorable scenario for the proliferation and power consolidation by groups with characteristics similar to those of ISIS, supported by wealthy Middle Eastern countries in their search to eliminate any vestiges of Arab nationalistic secularism in these countries in favor of the expansion of the ultraconservative Salafi vision they indirectly sponsor.
The truth is the advance of the Islamic State may only be stopped if the political forces making up the political State of Iraq set up a National Unity Government to include all the sectors of their society: Shiites and Sunnites, Kurds and Christians. It is an objective which will be difficult to achieve since this would not be exempt from the intervention of external powers such as the U.S., Iran, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other countries in the region seeking to develop their power game in Iraq. It is a pragmatic alternative which would again empower a united, corrupt caste, but which provides, relatively and on the basis of a larger amount of secularism, greater guarantees as regards rights and freedoms than an extremist organization. In the meantime, ISIS continues to take over territories and resources, alerting both the region and the world as to its philosophy and the vision they have of what the world should be.
(1) Sharia is the body of Islamic Law. It embodies a detailed code of behavior which also includes rules concerning form of worship, moral and living standards, what is allowed or forbidden, the rules dividing right from wrong. In western media it is identified as Muslim Law or Islamic Law. However, its identification with religion remains a moot point: even though it is in the Islam, it is not a dogma or something indisputable (as the words of the Koran might be), but rather subject to interpretation.
(2), (7), (8) and (9) LARRAYOZ David Barranco; LOS COMMUNITY MANAGERS DEL TERROR: LA PROPAGANDA ONLINE DE ISIS Y SU OFENSIVA SOBRE IRAK; Instituto Español de Estudios Estratégicos [COMMUNITY MANAGERS OF TERROR: ISIS ONLINE PROPAGANDA AND ITS OFFENSIVE AGAINST IRAG; Spanish Institute of Strategic Studies]; http://www.ieee.es/Galerias/fichero/docs_opinion/2014/DIEEEO82bis-2014_ISS_DavidBarrancos.pdf
(2) FISCHER Max; “9 questions about the ISIS Caliphate you were too embarrassed to ask”, http://www.vox.com/2014/7/10/5884593/9-questions-about-the-caliphate-you-were-too-embarrassed-to-ask
(3) BRECHER Gary; The War Nerd: Saudis, Syria, and “Blowback”, http://pando.com/2013/12/19/the-war-nerd-saudis-syria-and-blowback/
Postureo en el Califato: El Estado Islámico y su propaganda online [Posturing in the Caliphate: the Islamic State and its online propaganda] http://www.passim.eu/postureo-en-el-califato-el-estado-islamico-y-su-propaganda-online/
Maximiliano Javier Lopez has a degree in Science and Technology Communication from Universidad Veracruzana (Mexico.) Based in Argentina, he writes opinion editorials on local, national and international politics as well as economy, culture and social issues.