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.
The IS leadership appreciated that to capture territory and to hold ground against a modern state , it has to have enough resources to sustain a long drawn out battle, which is only possible if it can garner enough resources which will ensure its financial sustainability. Therefore, it created a wide network of its cadres for resource mobilisation. This included extortion, sale of petroleum products, levying taxes on people in captured territories and sale of antiques. At one time, it is estimated that the IS earned a whopping $ 3 million a day. Some estimates put their total foreign exchange reserves at $ 2 billion. This healthy financial state permitted the IS to run municipalities, schools, colleges, hospitals, besides providing subsidised food grains to the elderly.
At one time, it is estimated that the IS earned a whopping $ 3 million a day. Some estimates put their total foreign exchange reserves at $ 2 billion.
Needless to say, in all their conquered territories, the IS enforced strict Sharia’h. Another facet of the IS governance is its mastery of the web for use of social media like internet, face book, twitter, You Tube, etc. Their well-oiled propaganda machinery has enabled it to cast its net far and wide, in order to attract fresh recruits from across the continents. The IS also publishes an e-magazine, Dabiq ( it is named after a village in Syria where according to traditional Islamic belief the end- of- the- time battle will be fought).
Over the last one year, IS did not confine its activities to Iraq alone. It took advantage of the civil war that broke out in Syria in late 2011, consequent to the strong arm tactics adopted by its long term ruler, Bashar al Assad, against his political opponents. Free Syrian Army (Free Syrian Army) set up by various countries, with the active assistance of the U.S., however, did not live up to its promise of emerging as a unifying force against the Syrian state. This was mainly due to the fact that its main supporters, i.e., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar and the west, rather than fighting to achieve a common objective, had their individual agendas. This ensured that FSA remained a fractious coalition, posing little threat to Assad. Internecine conflict fuelled by big power rivalry, lasting over five years, created chaotic conditions inside Syria with no group either totally decimated or even remotely victorious. Outside interference, coupled with corrupt, inefficient, sectarian and authoritarian leadership within, has created a situation where it is literally ‘free for all’. Consequently, some foreign jihadis stepped into this cauldron that was already occupied by home grown terrorist groups. This provided an opportunity to IS to fish in the troubled waters.
The IS chief, Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, created a new Command to fight in Syria, called Jabhat Al Nusra. The command of this force was handed over to Abu Mohammad Al Jawlani, an experienced field commander of Syria. The force relied on old tactics of using suicide bombers, particularly in Damascus. However, soon thereafter, Abu Mohammad Al Jawlani fell out with his bosses in IS due to the differences in the tactics to be used in Syria. This compelled him to align with Al Qaeda, which resulted in his connections with the IS getting severed.
IS continues to remain a serious military threat to Bashar Al Assad because of its greater resources, superior network and regular flow of recruits that it continues to attract.
Consequently, while Al Jawlani continued to get fresh recruits, thanks to AL Qaeda, the supply of financial assistance from IS dried up completely, forcing him to resort to extortion, kidnapping and aligning with other jihadi groups. Over time, lack of financial resources adversely affected his field operations, forcing his cadres to desert him to rejoin IS. Thereafter, IS decided to, once again, carry out its operations directly and independently, under its own banner. Between end 2014 and early 2015, the momentum of operations maintained by the IS clearly indicated that the IS was on course to overrun not just the Nusra and Al Qaeda, but also the Kurdish territory.
However, later, because of some operational reverses suffered by it, its momentum broke and this resulted in a tactical stalemate. Nevertheless, the IS continues to remain a serious military threat to Bashar Al Assad because of its greater resources, superior network and regular flow of recruits that it continues to attract. Another strong point in favour of the IS is that it has consolidated its gains by holding on to the captured territory, including some governorates which help it to generate revenue.
IS has been wise enough to use the malignant effects of big power rivalry in the Middle East to its advantage. Syria, Iran and Saudi Arabia, in order to protect their strategic interests, did not think twice before getting involved in the sectarian strife that resulted in Iraq, post Saddam Hussein’s removal. IS took advantage of the internecine conflict among the Arabs.
Even today, Turkey is looking the other way when IS is making use of its logistic assistance, because Turkey feels it can use the IS to destroy the Kurds. Financial considerations too have played a part in IS being able to sell its oil to Turkey at far cheaper rates than those prevailing in the international market. This way, the IS has built up a substantial kitty of foreign exchange.
Al-Baghdadi announced that the lands his group had conquered were now part of the new Islamic State and announced himself as the ‘Caliph’. Under his leadership, IS has emerged as the biggest terrorist threat the world has seen.
Most countries thought nothing of the threat posed by the IS to their own regimes, as long as their support to IS meant that their narrowly defined national interests were being protected in the bargain. Creating and promoting terrorist groups like Taliban, LeT, Jaish-e-Mohammad, etc., in South Asia and now many other groups in Syria, by the U.S-Pakistan-Saudi Arabia- UAE combine, has spawned a network of international jihadis who have turned into a Frankenstein, posing a serious threat to their own benefactors. This is not the first time that the support rendered to such non-State actors by a State has proved counterproductive to such states, extracting a huge price in terms of human casualties and soaring expenses for ensuring protection against strikes by such groups. Be it the U.S. nurturing Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, or Pakistan mentoring Taliban, or Turkey assisting the IS, the result is more or less the same. The chickens do eventually come home to roost.
A few words about the brutal, but charismatic leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are in order. Bhagdadi was captured by American soldiers in 2004 during a raid aimed at arresting his friend, Nessayif Numan, in Fallujah in Iraq. On his arrest, Baghdadi, it is believed, registered under his real name, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim Al Badr. He was held for 10 months in a military prison in the south of the country, perhaps in Abu Graib. However, he was not considered an insurgent and was, accordingly, listed a ‘civilian detainee’. His occupation was given as ‘Administrative Work’. He registered himself as married, with one of his uncles listed as his ‘next of kin’. He is believed to be 45-years old and has a wife and a young son. Friends of al-Baghdadi considered him to be a talented footballer, with one former team-mate even describing him as the ‘Lionel Messi of our team’. His friends also remembered him as a shy and unassuming young man who was interested in religious studies, before his radicalisation into a dangerous extremist.
He was seen publicly in a slick propaganda video last July for the first time in years, sporting a long beard and black robes to deliver a sermon. Speaking in Mosul’s central Mosque, al-Baghdadi announced that the lands his group had conquered were now part of the new Islamic State and announced himself as the ‘Caliph’. Under his leadership, IS has emerged as the biggest terrorist threat the world has seen. It was rumoured that he was killed or wounded in a US airstrike last November, but the group quashed this by releasing an audio recording purporting to be him. In this recording he encourages militants to attack Saudi Arabia. A $ 10 million bounty has been announced on al-Baghdadi’s head after the US State Department listed him as a ‘Specially Designated Global Terrorist’.
…India cannot become complacent on this score, as jihadi terrorism is a fact of today’s world and jihadi organisations continue to leave no stone unturned to brain wash young people and attract Muslim youth to join the jihad.
On many social networks, Abu Bakr Al Bagdhadi’s picture appears as part of a group with many U.S. officials, including with U.S Presidential candidate against President Obama in 2008 elections, Mr John McCain. Even though Baghdadi does not appear to be the most prominent of the group of persons in the picture, the fact is that he was considered important enough to meet a high ranking U.S. visitor like Mcain.
One of the biggest strategic challenges that India faces today is to counter the propaganda of the IS to lure the home grown jihadi terrorist’s to align with or join the IS. While even small European countries with minuscule Muslim populations have contributed significant number of Jihadis to the IS, Muslim youth of India have not done so in any significant numbers. Be it in Kashmir, Afghanistan, Al Qaeda or IS, Muslim Indians have shunned these jihadi organisation till now. This is commendable and speaks volumes about the community’s desire/ability to stay away from these undesirable elements.
In a way, it is a tribute to India’s democratic and truly secular traditions which have permitted Muslims in India to enjoy religious freedom and power to exercise political choice through universal suffrage. However, India cannot become complacent on this score, as jihadi terrorism is a fact of today’s world and jihadi organisations continue to leave no stone unturned to brain wash young people and attract Muslim youth to join the jihad. Besides, one cannot forget the resources being spent by those pushing Wahabi and Salafi ideologies, particularly in India, where millions of Muslims belong to the tolerant Hanafi school of Muslim theology. The phenomenon of adopting practices based on exclusivity, gender inequality and increased sense of victimhood are quite visible and must remain a matter of concern. Nearly 7 million Indians in the Middle East are also an easy prey for those wanting to expand their recruitment base among the Indian expatriates.
Close cooperation between the Gulf countries, where Indian Diaspora exists in large numbers, and the Indian Government, will go a long way in keeping a tag of those who have been radicalized and are only a step away from actually joining these well known jihadi organizations.
Muslim youth today is best placed to make use of the numerous opportunities that an emerging super power like India offers. But it must be ensured that they develop a stake in it rather than being sidelined due to various reasons.
Monitoring of cyber space, disrupting recruitment networks, identifying and drying up funding channels with international assistance, are some of the other means through which India can prevent its youth from falling a prey to the vigorous drive launched by IS to recruit fresh material for replacing its casualties. It is essential for the State to encourage those sections of Muslim society whose traditional belief and practice of folk Islam are in keeping with the age- old Indian tradition.
Unfortunately, post independence, Indian political parties, in order to create Muslim vote banks, have pandered to the radical Muslim Mullahs, thereby sidelining the moderate and forward-looking Muslims. As noted Muslim scholar, Sultan Shaheen says, “The India establishment only engages with the bearded mullahs even if they are obscurantist.” Muslim youth today is best placed to make use of the numerous opportunities that an emerging super power like India offers. But it must be ensured that they develop a stake in it rather than being sidelined due to various reasons.
An important contributory factor towards the building of the sense of victimhood among the Muslims is the unscientific methodology adopted by the police while investigating terrorist violence in India. It is a fact that sometimes innocent youth will be picked up for questioning by the police in the aftermath of a terrorist act. However, police must immediately release those who are innocent and proceed against those against whom they have sufficient proof. This is necessary to infuse confidence in the fair play of our police forces.
Under no circumstances must the State be seen to be discriminating in the name of religion or anything else. Muslim theologians, political leaders, scholars and intellectuals need to give serious thought to issues like emphasising the grievances of perceived victimhood, make concerted efforts to enter into serious discourse on issues troubling the Uma, both within itself (inter-sectarian) and with other religions (inter-religious).
Muslim theologians, scholars, religious leaders and community elders must appreciate that glory of Islam in the modern world can no longer be achieved through sword but through education, that helps develop scientific temper.
In the end, it will be disastrous to miss the trees for the woods. It is an established fact that Islamic terrorism traces its historical roots to the development of Wahabism, which is sectarian, exclusivist and supremacist in its core beliefs. After their capture of power in Saudi Arabia, enormous effort and resources have been spent by the House of Saud to unleash the process of redefining Islam as an ideology.
Every Islamic movement since 18th century has had the sole objective of capturing, or at best, sharing state political power to further Wahabi-Salafi sectarian view of Islam. It is these Islamic movements which have finally culminated into the IS declaring territory under its control as a Caliphate. It must be added that every Islamic movement since the beginning of last century has tried to re-establish a Caliphate, the last of which was abolished by Turkish leader Kemal Attaturk in 1920-21, to usher in a modern secular state.
Modern Islam is presently grappling with an inner conflict, i.e., on the one hand it wants to embrace technology and take advantage of its associated advantages, and on the other, it wants to embrace the practices of Islam that prevailed in seventh century. Muslim theologians, scholars, religious leaders and community elders must appreciate that glory of Islam in the modern world can no longer be achieved through sword but through education, that helps develop scientific temper. It needs to be emphasised that Islam’s syncretic traditions (unique to Indian subcontinent) alone has the power to stand up to the ill conceived philosophy of Islamic radicalism and the force of conviction to reverse the use of terrorism as a policy of discourse.