For nearly two years now, the world has been dealing with a new and most brutal form of terrorism represented by ISIS; the acronym stands for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. However, during this period, the organization has undergone many changes in its religion-based nomenclatures. To start with, it was ISIL, or Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ancient name for Syria) and later, it preferred to call itself simply, IS, i.e., Islamic State. Prior to June 2014, the world’s attention was riveted on Al Qaeda, which though, reduced to a shadow of its past after the 9/11 attack on twin trade towers at New York, still retained the ability to strike at western interests in many places.
Through its own branches in Yemen and Iraq, called AQAP, AQI respectively, Al Qaeda continued to remain a factor in the violent and unstable conditions in Middle East.
The dreaded terrorist outfits like Al Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Kenya, which had declared their allegiance to Al Qaeda, ensured that the latter remained relevant in Africa. Through its own branches in Yemen and Iraq, called Al Qaeda in Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq) respectively, Al Qaeda continued to remain a factor in the violent and unstable conditions in Middle East. Some other radical Islamic organizations in Afghanistan, Indonesia and Bangladesh too had sworn its loyalty to Al Qaeda, thereby keeping its flag flying in Asia.
The IS history goes back to time of Soviet occupation Afghanistan when Jund al Sham (Army of Syria), under the Jordanian Jihadi, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, had opened a jihadi training camp in Herat province of Afghanistan. It was supported by both, Al Qaeda as well as by the Taliban. However, when the Americans invaded Afghanistan post 9/11, Abu Musab Al Zarqawi moved to Iran where he was sheltered under the patronage of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, an ISI protégé of long standing (his links with ISI date back to eighties when Soviet Union had occupied Afghanistan).
Subsequently in 2003, Zarqawi moved to Iraq where he created AQI (Al Qaeda in Iraq). In 2006, Al Zarqawi was killed in a U.S. drone attack. However, by then AQI had attracted a number of disenfranchised and dissatisfied soldiers of Saddam’s Baathist Army who were deserting their ranks in droves. It also attracted some other sundry Jihadi groups operating in Iraq during its American occupation.
In the meantime, situation in Iraq was getting no better. Sectarian divisions in a country which was dominated by narrow tribal loyalties became even more acute after Saddam Hussein, who had ruled the country with an iron hand, left the scene. Prime Minister Nour Al Maliki added fuel to the fire by making large scale changes in the army’s hierarchy with the sole aim of giving his loyalists plum appointments. This destroyed the Army’s cohesive strength, leading to large scale desertions and weakening of an important Iraqi institution. It also led to the carving up of regional fiefdoms by powerful ethnic, religious and sectarian mafias, where writ of the Iraqi government did not run. Rampant corruption prevailing in the government machinery resulted in the acute shortage of essential commodities, besides hampering the much-needed development in basic health care, education and infrastructure. Favouritism and nepotism further ensured that people’s expectations remained unfulfilled, resulting in political instability and social disharmony.
An important factor that helped the growth of ISIS during these formative years was the historical divide between the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq.
By this time, Al Qaeda’s ability to launch unhindered operations had been severely curtailed after the killing of its charismatic supreme leader, Osama Bin Laden and also because of the relentless campaign launched against it by the U.S and its western allies. Though Al Shabab and Boko Haram continued to pose grave threat to their respective countries, they were both considered to be operating autonomously, though continuing to draw inspiration from Al Qaeda. However, both these organisations lacked the capability/ capacity to pose a serious threat to western interests at the international level. Al Qaeda was also seen to be less radical by the new bunch of terrorists who were influenced by the Wahabi/Salafi/Takfeeri ideology, but who still operated as part of AQI.
One of the examples of diluted ideology of Al Qaeda can be traced to its inking a pact with the local tribal leaders after their capture of the Yemeni port city of Mukalla in April 2015. The pact permitted the tribals to organise music parties and the men wearing shorts; both against the principles of puritanical Islam. As the strength of these highly radicalised elements with AQI grew in numbers, they separated from their mother organization, adopting various names, till they finally settled on ISIS by 2006.
There were host of other contributory factors which allowed the IS to become a force to reckon with. An important factor that helped the growth of ISIS during these formative years was the historical divide between the Sunnis and Shias of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, who ruled Iraq through many ruthless purges, belonged to the minority Sunni sect. During his rule, the Shias were denied the loaves of political power that their 52 % population in Iraq rightfully deserved. After Saddam was dethroned by the Americans, the reins of political power came to rest in the hands of Shias.
Between 2006 and 2014, the IS continued to grow without facing much opposition from the Arab countries or even from the U.S. and its allies.
Consequently, the Sunnis, who had been wielding political power all through Saddam Hussein’s rule, felt politically disempowered. This led to the disenchantment among the Sunnis, which further widened the gulf separating them from Shias, now the ruling class. Another peripheral issue that further added to this Sunni disenchantment was the events of Anbar Province in Iraq, known as Anbar Awakening. The Americans, faced with many challenges, and having to confront the violent terrorism of AQI during their occupation of Iraq, used every stratagem to bring the chaotic country under control. In Anbar Province they handed over this task of dealing with the AQI to Sunni tribesmen who formed the Anbar Militia to take on the AQI.
In the long drawn out conflict in the province, the Anbar Militia prevailed and a great degree of stability was restored to their province. However, after the Americans left, Nour Al Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister, disowned the Militias. Further, to add salt to the Sunni wounds, he went after the Sunni vice president, Tariq Al Hashimi and his Finance Minister, Al Rishwi; going to the extent of sentencing the former to death in absentia (he had already fled to Britain). These events turned the Sunnis against the Shia government completely and ensured that ISIS jihadis, Sunni tribes and even secular Baathists joined hands to fight their common enemy.
Between 2006 and 2014, the IS continued to grow without facing much opposition from the Arab countries or even from the U.S. and its allies. The failure of the uprising in the Arab world, called the Arab Spring, created a sense of despondency in the Arab/Muslim world, of which IS took full advantage. The unstable conditions in Iraq, the inability of the Iraqi government to restore order in the country and the inability of various terrorist groups to emerge unchallenged in these conditions, created a vacuum which was filled in by the IS.
Besides, in its initial phase, before it assumed its monstrous proportions, America itself turned a blind eye to its growth in the hope that being a Sunni outfit, sworn to kill apostates like the Shias, Yezdis, Kurds, etc., it could serve as a foil to stymie the increasing Iranian influence in both Iraq and Syria. In this enterprise, the U.S. received more than adequate support from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey; the last, perceiving the added opportunity of IS taking on the Kurds, which turkey saw as a threat to its State. As long as the IS confined its activities to achieving such objectives, which suited them, these countries turned a blind eye to their growing might and influence. However, later, when IS declared itself a Caliphate, the Islamic Gulf monarchies perceived it as an existential threat. Even the U.S. now saw its ever increasing influence as a serious development, threatening its vital strategic interests in the volatile Middle East.
Ideologically, the IS did not move too far away from the Wahabi – Salafi narrative which formed the ideological basis of Al Qaeda; in fact, it embraced the ideology in its most stringent interpretation.
Actually, the history was only repeating itself; these developments were akin to what had happened earlier in the region, when Saudi Arabia initially rendered support to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, against post-Nasser regimes there. However, when Muslim Brotherhood came to power through a democratically -conducted election, the Saudis and other Gulf States saw in their victory a threat to their own regimes. In a barely hidden volte face, these countries now supported Al Sisi in over throwing the Muslim Brotherhood, and subsequently turning a blind eye to his decimating the Brotherhood through strong arm methods. As the history of the region tells us, a similar thing happened to Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria in 190-91.
The world took notice of this phenomenon, the ISIS, when it suddenly burst on the international scene by capturing Mosul on 10 Jun 2014, in a swift and daring operation that saw a motivated bunch of 300 terrorists capturing a city held by 3000 well armed Iraqi soldiers, in an operation that lasted just one day. It was the first time in the history of warfare that a terrorist group did not follow the classical steps of gradually stepping up its insurgency to reach a stalemate with opposing forces, and finally going in for conventional battle to gain territory and hold it subsequently. The success achieved in this operation and the resources captured by it in this spectacular victory, induced so much confidence in the IS that it declared its leader, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, as the Caliph ( Khalifa) of the Uma (entire Muslim community of the world) and called upon all Jihadi groups to owe immediate allegiance (bay’a) to him. Its initial spectacular success, coupled with its maintaining an uninterrupted supply of captured girls and women as sex slaves to its mercenaries, kept its cadres entertained. This also helped the IS to attract jihadis from across the world.
Ideologically, the IS did not move too far away from the Wahabi – Salafi narrative which formed the ideological basis of Al Qaeda; in fact, it embraced the ideology in its most stringent interpretation. However, in its execution, the IS and Al Qaeda differed significantly. The later believed that the anti-Islamic and tyrant Muslim regimes in Middle East (near enemy) were sustained by the U.S. and its allies (far enemy). Therefore, according to Al Qaeda, the first target of their Jihad should be the far enemy. IS agreed with the basic postulate of this theory, but differed from Al Qaeda in their priority of targeting their enemies; in that, the IS decreed that the near enemy will be targeted on priority as opposed to targeting the far enemy, which will be their subsequent priority.
As a result of this re-orientation in their tactics, the IS concentrated its might on defeating/ displacing the near enemy and ignoring the far enemy for the time being. Whereas Al Qaeda was all about taking revenge through spectacular strikes, the IS is determined to replace the regimes of its near enemies by gaining military victories over them. The other fundamental difference between the two is that whereas Al Qaeda was not sectarian, IS considers all Shias and other non-Sunni sects as apostates and deals with them ruthlessly in order to destroy them.
…from its inception, IS has not conducted its operations as a terrorist group or as insurgents, but has carried out military strikes just like any other state, possessing an Army.
Another ideological plank that IS embraces and which has attracted many Muslim youth to join its forces in Syria/Iraq from across the world, is its belief in and propagation of ‘Hejira’ (the sacred duty of all Muslims to emigrate to Muslim lands; in this case the Islamic State), where they would be able to live as pure Muslims, strictly as laid down in Sharia’. This clever ploy also ensured that more recruits were available to the IS to capture more lands.
There are other important facets of its operational functioning that set it apart from previous terrorist organisations.
First; it uses extreme violence and brutality as enshrined in the ‘Quranic concept of warfare’, according to its (IS) interpretation. This is done to instil fear in its enemies. Some of the methods it has used to deal with its captured enemies are, public beheading, throwing a person from high rise buildings or cliffs, burning alive, drowning, stoning to death, burying alive, etc. Recently, it did not hesitate from shooting dead a 7 year old child for swearing!
Second; from its inception, IS has not conducted its operations as a terrorist group or as insurgents, but has carried out military strikes just like any other state, possessing an Army. For example, its capture of Mosul included a thorough preparation of over a year, involving, gaining of intelligence, carrying out targeted killings of the Iraqi Army Commanders, attacking isolated check points, kidnappings, etc. The aim of these tactics was to demoralize the Iraqi Army in Mosul and subvert its command structure from within.