ISIS an Initial Overview by Vasco Da Cruz Amador – CEO Global Risk Awareness
The Islamic State´s founding goes back to 2006. It was founded by, for the most part, Al Qaeda in Iraq. Al Qaeda in Iraq started early in 2004 when a group headed by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi joined Al-Qaeda Central and renamed his organization Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It was actually Ayman al-Zawahiri, the number two in Al-Qaeda, who first suggested to Zarqawi, the head of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, that he should think about establishing an entity called the Islamic State.
However, he advised that entity not be established until the American troops had withdrawn from Iraq and until he had gotten enough popular support in Iraq for such a state. Soon after the death of Zarqawi, however, Al-Qaeda in Iraq decided to go ahead and declare the Islamic State in 2006.
They did this without the knowledge of Al-Qaeda central, including Bin Laden and Zawahiri were very surprised by this development. But it was a fait accomplished by that point and they had to go along with it. So Zawahiri soon after issued a statement saying he welcomed the new entity and they tried to paper over the differences between the two organizations.
Since that point, there has been a lot of bad feeling between the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda would issue directives to the Islamic State. The Islamic State would either ignore them or may be they didn´t even get the directive. This kind of infighting between them continued until the last year, 2013, when they finally split from one another mainly over an issue of power – who controlled Al-Qaeda´s branch inside of Syria.
For a long time, Al-Qaeda in Iraq has had ties to people in Syria. Many of the foreign fighters who came to fight for Al-Qaeda in Iraq back in the 2000´s came through Syria. So a lot of its logistics went through there. But they didn´t really have a strong presence as an organization until 2012 when the Syrian uprising began to turn violent and the decision was made in Al-Qaeda Central but also in Al-Qaeda in Iraq, then the Islamic State, to go into Syria and to establish a new group called Nusra, which initially Al-Qaeda did not claim as its own, but was, in fact, an Al-Qaeda organization.
Nusra Organization and its relation with the Islamic State! As I referred there was a formal split. What does this mean for the jihadist movement in the region and in the world for that matter?
This is the first time that Al-Qaeda affiliate has broken, publicly broken, with the leadership in Al-Qaeda Central. And it has created a fissure in the larger jihadi, global jihadi movement. Until this point, it´s been Al-Qaeda that´s really led that movement. They don´t control all the organizations in the movement. But they were the ideological and spiritual leaders of the movement.
With this fissure, the jihadis in this movement are now choosing sides. You have team Nusra that´s aligned with Al-Qaeda. And you have team Islamic State, which is now its own entity. The Islamic State is the one with the upper hand. And they´ve really in many ways surpassed Al-Qaeda for leadership of the global jihad because they´ve captured the imagination of the jihadis around the world.
When the Islamic State calls itself an Islamic State and says that it´s declaring a caliphate, what does this mean to the group? And what does it mean to more ordinary Muslims around the world?
The Caliphate is an old Islamic institution. For all intents and purposes, it really passed from existence back in the 13th century AD. When it first began, the caliph, who ruled at the head of the Islamic empire, was both the political and the spiritual leader of the empire. Over time, the caliph´s power eroded until the institution really disappeared with the Mongol invasions in the 13th century. The name of the caliphate was claimed by subsequent rulers, particularly the Ottoman sultan. When the Ottoman empire was overthrown in the early 20th century, Ataruk, who founded the modern state of Turkey, did away with the institution of the caliphate.
For many jihadis, for all jihadis, they want a restoration of the caliphate, not just because they believe it is going to bring back justice and Islamic rule to the world, but also this is part of the prophecies about the end times in Islam that the caliphate will be a precursor to the appearance of the Muslim saviour that is supposed to come back at the end of times and spread Islam throughout the entire world and lead the final battle against the West. So the reestablishment of the caliphate is really heady stuff for a lot of jihadis and is the main source of the Islamic State´s appeal.
Why didn´t Al-Qaeda do the same thing?
Al-Qaeda probably wishes it had in hindsight. But Al-Qaeda was founded as a vanguardist – type organization. They saw themselves as a small, elite group that was leading a revolution, but was designed, sort of a special forces group, to go around the world and assist oppressed Sunni Muslims in fighting against local rulers and against the United States and its allies in the West.
As said, Zawahiri envisioned the eventual establishment of the caliphate. But he saw it as something that was going to happen far off. And that you needed a very slow processes of establishing smaller Islamic emirates, or states, before you reach that point. And even then, he didn´t want to see that happen unless there was popular support for it. That´s usually where Zawahiri´s mind is. He is focused on the population as the center of gravity in any conflict. That is not the focus of the Islamic State leadership.
What´s the appeal for all the foreign fighters?
One main source of the appeal for a lot of the foreigners fighting in Syria is the sense that the regional governments and the West all abandoned the Sunnis in Syria to the Assad regime. And so there is a sense of needing to protect the Syrian people, particularly the Sunnis that are driving a lot of these young men to go.
Also, Syria is viewed as the main theater for the final battle against the anti-Christ and the final victory over the infidels, which will usher in the dominance of Islam throughout the world and lead to the final hour in the Judgment Day. So you have a combination then of this sense of sympathy for the oppressed in Syria coupled with an apocalyptic fervor that is driving a lot of these recruits to go. It also has to be said that it´s just easier for a lot of Europeans to get to Syria then it would be say to Pakistan of Afghanistan. We also have social media that is helping people in the West linking up with facilitators who are able to get them across the border in Turkey. So, in some ways it´s easier for them to go now than in previous conflicts.
What´s the terrorism risk from this group?
It´s right to think of the group right now as an insurgency with a capability to carry out attacks overseas. But that´s not where its operational strength is yet. We have reasons to believe this is more of a long-term threat. According to us, it´s really more of a problem for Europe than it is for the United States nowadays.
However, the leader of the IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi had given express orders that they could not attack the US or its allies without his explicit orders to do so. This situation changed on 22 Sep 14 when the ISIS spokesperson, Abu Muhammed al-Adnani, made a statement urging its followers to target citizens from the US, France, Australia, Canada and other countries which joined the coalition to destroy the militant group. Since this statement was issued there has been an increasing number of attacks against nationals from many of these countries.
The incredible brutality of the Islamic State that even compared to Al-Qaeda, this is a group that seems to embrace atrocities. Why does it do that? And what´s the impact of using such a bloody strategy?
It´s right to see this group as going beyond Al-Qaeda in terms of its tactics. This is something that goes back to Zarqawi, the founder of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. He had a disagreement with Zawahiri over the brutality of the tactics he was using – things like beheadings, attacking Shia civilians. Zawahiri asked him to stop because he felt it was bad for the public image of the cause. The people that are leading the Islamic State today are what we call unreconstructed Zarqawists. They believe in Zarqawi´s methods. And they are primarily designed to intimidate. Before they went into Mosul, they released a video them executing, or threatening to execute Iraqi servicemen. They use those kinds of tactics to intimidate their enemies and also to demonstrate to the people that they conquer that, they will be willing to fight for them tooth and nail.
But they also have a softer image they try to put out there of them providing public goods and services in the places that they take over. But that is kind of belied by the fact that they are quite brutal in carrying out Islamic forms of punishment, even for things that are not Islamically deemed to be punishable. As an example their approach to smoking is much more strict then other Islamically oriented militias in Syria or Iraq.
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