We cannot win against Islamic State without learning about its roots, discussing its rise, evaluating its power, inquiring into its philosophy and comprehending its members’ mentality and aspirations.
Shortly after the 1991 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and before the American invasion of Iraq, Saddam Hussein launched the “Faith Campaign,” whereby: 1) altering the Iraqi flag to include the words “Allah Akbar,” aiming at gaining the support of Iraqi Muslims, who are by and large religious; 2) marginalizing the longstanding “Secular State” he had aspired to establish; 3) establishing an official prohibition on importing alcohol; closing existing bars, pubs and casinos (belly dancing saloons); 4) calling upon his Republic Guard forces to return to Allah; and 5) establishing special forces called “Saddam’s Fedayeen” (Saddam’s Martyrs).
Following the second invasion of Iraq in 2003, the tear between Sunnis and Shi’ites widened. Shortly after the defeat of Saddam’s regime, the Fedayeen, the Republic Guard forces, the high- and the low-ranked commanders, common soldiers and other members of the security services found themselves, all of a sudden, unemployed, marginalized and hopeless. The Iraqis who joined the occupational authority of Iraq in 2003, led by Lewis Bremer, found themselves in a similar condition.
To muddy the water even more, Nouri al-Maliki, who served as prime minister of Iraq between 2006 and 2014, deliberately refused to recruit Sunnis to the new Iraqi army, due to their previous alliance with Saddam’s regime.
These are the authentic roots of Islamic State (IS). All the marginalized, unemployed, and desperate former military and security members turned to Islamic groups, including, but not only, al-Qaida, where they have been generously welcomed, mostly for their professional qualifications. They were adopted by Abu-Mosab al-Zarqawi, “al-Qaida’s envoy to Iraq.” Leading Islamic militant groups, Zarqawi established the organization for “al-Tawhid wal-Jihad” (Monotheism and Jihad), raising the black flag bearing the slogan: “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah.”
It was the then the killing of Zarqawi, and of course of Osama bin-Laden, that brought to our attention the rise of a new figure, called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who oversaw an overall change both in terms of aspirations and the scope and methods of terrorism. All of a sudden al-Qaida disappears from our conceptual scene, and Baghdadi aspired to resurrect the Islamic State, a notion that has long and strongly been rejected by al-Qaida, which believes conditions are not right for such a move.
But at this stage, the question becomes: Why are we so willing to eliminate IS? First, for Muslim countries, it is crucial to argue that IS is a group of barbarian criminals and terrorists who have no sense of understanding of Islam and Sharia. Second, for Arab and/or Muslim countries, IS threatens their territorial sovereignty. And, third, for Western countries, IS is another terrorist organization that should be fought.
To start with, IS is no more a group of people than it is an organization. It is indeed a state. If it was up to me, I would rather choose to call it the “Islamic State of Inferior Species.” According to international law, a sovereign state is that which has: 1) defined territory, 2) permanent population, 3) government, and 4) capacity to enter into relations with other states. Another approach of international law requires, in addition, a fifth condition which concerns with recognition by other states.
As for now, IS effectively controls half of Iraq and almost half of Syria, with complete territorial continuity. It effectively controls its borders, and is determined to fight for the sake of widening the extent of its borders. Unlike all the terrorist groups with which the recent century has provided us, it is the first time such a group has its own territory, fully controlled by its own members, and under whose control live around nine million people.
In addition, IS has established a complete and comprehensive system of governance, among which you have a head of state, ministers and other governmental clerks.
Furthermore, IS has a “constitution” and set of laws, which are enforced by its police forces and courts. While weighing the lesser evil, many of those who live under its control indeed prefer, despite its cruelty, to have IS rather than the chaos otherwise existed in the region, where thieves, sexual predators and vandals threatened their personal and family security and property.
Moreover, IS has a clear structure of treasury, including a taxation system. It is a very rich entity. IS controls natural resources, such as the two rivers of Iraq, and at least three major oil wells. It has all the money stolen from Iraqi and Syrian banks. It has the Gulf money that was granted to its groups in Syria, shortly after the uprising events in Syria – when no one knew, for instance, that “al-Nusra Front” was IS’s branch in Syria. And it has the taxes otherwise collected from the people within its controlled territories.
IS’s income is way higher than its expenses. Its leaders’ standard of living is very low. They do not aspire to have palaces, nor are they interested in luxurious vehicles. It is estimated that as of now IS has around seven billion dollars. You would indeed wonder whether IS hides this great amount of money under mattresses. I truly believe, though I do not have evidence, that the money is being invested in banks in Qatar and/or Kuwait. After all, IS has established a currency of its own, which is basically metal currency, namely, gold, silver and bronze. I do not see any reason why other states, especially already neighboring states trading with IS, would refrain from accepting these metals, which ultimately are valuable.
Insofar as power is concerned, IS has around 100,000 regular soldiers in its army, which includes a clear chain of command, whereby decisions are not made arbitrarily. Trained under Saddam’s regime, some 30,000 IS soldiers, the high- and low-ranked commanders, are professionally trained, and there are also a large number of professionally trained soldiers, formerly the Iraqi “al-Sahawat Forces,” trained under US General David Petraeus prior to the American withdrawal from Iraq, in IS’s army. Therefore it is not by chance that they know how to drive military vehicles, take control over aircrafts, and seek to establish an airport.
As for military weapons and equipment, not only does IS have enough money to buy equipment through smugglers, but it also took advantage of the chaos in Syria and received weapons from Gulf and Western states, long before the it was realized that the al-Nusra Front was a branch of IS. In addition, following the withdrawal of American forces from Iraq, IS got its hands on weapons left behind by the Americans. This has been also the case with Russian weapons found in the Syrian areas conquered by IS.
Moreover, IS has adopted a flag and an official stamp of its own. Its border guards insist on sealing the passports of anyone who seeks to enter IS’s territories with the official stamp of the Islamic State. IS has further issued an official passport, granted to a large number of its “citizens.” In addition, it has already been engaging in official and non-official trade relationships. Turkey and Kurdistan-Iraq officially buy oil from IS, while Syria does so through smugglers. This is not to say that the latter countries support or are reconciled with the existence of IS, but rather have no real choice, especially when IS’s oil is significantly cheaper.
As I have already elaborated, IS and al-Qaida share some common ground. Already in 2004, Abu-Bakr Naji, an Islamist strategist, published an online book, entitled Management of Savagery, aiming at providing a jihadist strategy whereby jihadists could create a new Islamic caliphate. In his essay, Naji suggests carrying out a campaign of savagery, thus creating chaos in Muslim states. His argument is that the jihadists, as a result of this savagery and chaos, can win popular support by providing security, social services and imposing Sharia. Such a strategy must be put into practice in geographically important Muslim states, where there is weak military presence, strong jihadist presence, and easy accessibility to weapons. Naji was inspired by the 14th century influential Islamic scholar and theologian Ibn Taymiyaa.
It is thus not surprising then to know that this has been the leading principle of governance for IS, given that Baghdadi, IS’s leader, is a graduate of Baghdad University, where he received his PhD in Islamic Sharia. Bearing this in mind, together with the fact that he is a “graduate” of al-Qaida – a political militant Islamic movement, and in fact a terrorist movement – then it is wrong, in my modest view, to argue that IS has nothing to do with Islam.
I am ready to agree that IS does not represent the golden age of Islam, that which took place during the time of Prophet Muhammad, but it still perfectly mirrors other periods of Islam, such as the Abbasi Caliphate in Iraq, during which nasty crimes against the preceding members of the Umayya Caliphate in Syria were perpetrated. Moreover, the Salafi-Wahhabi movement, established nowadays in Saudi Arabia and thus remaining that country’s official school of Islamic understanding, adhered to the same methods nowadays exerted by IS for the sake of establishing Saudi Arabia, and based on the same strand of Salafist religious thought.
To that extent, it is no coincidence that IS has chosen the black color for its flag. This color used to be the color for the Abbasi Caliphate and even for the Salafi-Wahhabi movement. Not only that, but by showing up with his black dress and black beard, Baghdadi meant to state that he perceives himself to belong to the dynasty of Prophet Mohammed, who used to cover himself with a black robe and even dye his beard black during times of war.
I have no doubt that had Prophet Mohammed been among us today, he would have despised IS’s barbaric conduct and perverted leadership. However, Mohammed is not among us today, and it is therefore only for Muslims to change the world’s perception of Islam, and all the more so to lead the battle against IS. For this to happen, it is not enough to speak up; Muslim countries in particular must desert Salafi Islamic governance. If IS does not represent true Islam, then Muslims bear the burden of proof.
Having said that, IS is not solely the problem of Muslim countries. It rather threatens the peace and security of the world. For this reason, Chapter VII of the UN Charter provides the international community with the right to recourse to collective force to meet such a threat.
Besides, other means must be taken against IS. First, the world must prevent any trade with IS, by securing cheap oil to the neighboring countries. Second, IS should be prevented from spreading extreme fear among innocent people, by blocking its accounts in the social media, shutting down its Internet sites and above all blocking the broadcast of IS’s hideous propaganda videos. Third, a comprehensive educational system must be created, with the aim of defusing IS’s brainwashing campaign. Fourth, the international community must show its massive infantry presence on the ground. Fifth, the world must organize a more comprehensive, organized and massive air and sea campaign.
Now is the time for the world to act. It is time to act before it is too late. It is time to act before we cry over spilled blood. We do not need another book, be as good as it might be, about the march of folly.The author is a visiting assistant professor at the University of California at Irvine, Department of Political Science.