Perspectives on ISIS

Posted: July 28, 2014 in ISIS

How ISIS Shook Off al Qaeda And Became Even More Powerful In Iraq
By Matt Schiavenza
International Business Times | June 17 2014

Sometimes, even terrorist organizations need a divorce. On Feb. 3, 2014, al Qaeda formally severed its relationship with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a fellow terrorist organization. Problems between the two groups were numerous: al Qaeda felt that ISIS’s targeting of civilians alienated the local population, and that the group — Sunni hardliners — did not share al Qaeda’s mission to unite all Muslims.

In the months since, ISIS has emerged from al Qaeda’s shadow. In the past two weeks, ISIS has captured Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, and Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein. Videos that appear to show ISIS fighters executing Iraqi security forces — most of whom fled rather than fight — appeared on the Internet. The organization continues to maintain a major presence in neighboring Syria. Once just a branch of a declining al Qaeda, ISIS is now arguably stronger, more powerful — and more feared — than its fellow terror organization.

The splintering of al Qaeda and ISIS — and the deadly consequences for Iraq — demonstrate how, for the United States and its allies, the quest to eliminate Islamic terrorism has remained so elusive.

Radical Islamism, which has existed in Iraq for decades, flourished in the aftermath of the U.S. invasion in 2003, which removed the Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein from power. In the security vacuum that emerged during the American occupation, a Jordanian militant named Abu Musab al-Zarqawi conducted a series of violent attacks across the country, and in 2004 swore allegiance to al Qaeda and its founder, Osama bin Laden. Zarqawi’s group became known as al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).

Before long, the relationship between the two groups began to fray. Zarqawi’s sectarianism — he frequently targeted Iraqi Shias — ran afoul of al Qaeda’s mission to unite all Muslims in a single caliphate. Zarqawi’s indifference to civilian casualties also posed a problem. In an extraordinary letter written in 2005 and later surfaced in the media, Ayman al-Zawahiri (a Bin Laden deputy) warned Zarqawi to focus on the “media battle” by winning the “hearts and minds” of the local population.

Zawahiri’s words proved to be prophetic. Iraq’s Sunni population soon began to cooperate with the Shia government and American forces, providing valuable intelligence that led to successful, coordinated attacks against the terrorist organization. Zarqawi himself was taken out by a U.S. airstrike in 2006, and AQI’s influence sharply faded.

But in the ensuing five years, the Shia Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki reneged on a promise to integrate Sunnis into the Iraqi government. This development — combined with the complete withdrawal of American troops in 2011 — created a security vacuum in Sunni territories and made a population, shut out of legitimate government, amenable to sectarian politics. And when the Syrian uprising erupted in a full-scale civil war, with much of that country out of government control, the successor to AQI — ISIS — came in to fill the breach.

During its peak in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, al Qaeda was often described as a sort of “venture capital” organization, a decentralized force that financed and organized operations planned by others. ISIS, on the other hand, more closely resembles a conventional force.

“They’re ferociously well-organized … this isn’t a loosey-goosey network of guys who get together on the fly to do operations,” said Austin Long, an expert in Middle East politics at Columbia University.

“This isn’t just a terrorist organization, or an insurgent organization. It’s more of a military organization.”

ISIS’s hierarchy has allowed them to capture Syrian and Iraqi territory with systematic efficiency, withstanding large, well-equipped military forces of two separate sovereign states. That, combined with their brutality — ISIS fighters released propaganda videos Sunday announcing the execution of over 1,700 Iraqi security forces — make them a more formidable force in the region than al Qaeda has been.

Can ISIS be stopped? In 2006, when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi reached the height of his influence and power in Iraq, the Sunni population declared its allegiance to the Iraqi government and turned against al Qaeda. That — combined with American military power — enabled Iraq to push al Qaeda back.

The same scenario is unlikely to play out this time. The United States and its allies have shown little inclination to commit ground forces to the country, and, Long said, the utility of air strikes are likely to be minimal without local intelligence. Also, given that Maliki broke an earlier promise to the Sunnis, they’ll be less willing to compromise in the future. ISIS appears to have staying power.

After 13 years of being in the international spotlight, al Qaeda is a shell of its former self — a fact frequently touted by President Obama. But a larger, more violent, better-organized organization has emerged, and already controls an area the size of Belgium.


‘Jihadistan’: Can Isis militants rule seized territory?
Frank Gardner, BBC security correspondent
8 July 2014

Can Isis – the small but fanatical jihadist army now controlling large tracts of Syria and Iraq – rule the lands it has conquered?

Since the beginning of June, Isis – which has recently rebranded itself as "Islamic State" – has burst out of its stronghold in eastern Syria to seize Mosul, Iraq’s second city, then advance down the length of the Euphrates Valley to threaten the edge of Baghdad itself.

Wherever it has taken over, its black-clad and balaclava’d fighters have imposed a draconian version of Sharia, or Islamic law, prompting thousands to flee as refugees.

Analysts point out that seizing territory is one thing, governing it is quite another.

But given the internal problems and weaknesses besetting both the Syrian and Iraqi states, there is no sign that Isis is about to be dislodged soon. So, are they actually in a position to rule?

That, of course, depends on many factors – local tribal support, economic viability, access to fuel and water, perceptions of their religious authority and that of their leader and self-appointed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and whether or not Isis overreach themselves.

‘Punching above its weight’

So far, Isis has enjoyed phenomenal short-term military success, largely through a combination of fear and firepower.

Even if they were crushed tomorrow, military historians are unlikely to forget the effect of their blitzkrieg "psyops" campaign, the Isis psychological operation to terrify their opponents by flooding social media on the internet with gruesome images and videos of what happens to their enemies.

The sight of beheadings, crucifixions and summary executions, all filmed with a ghoulish commentary, was enough to make Iraq’s poorly motivated security forces lay down their weapons and flee last month.

But Isis has effectively been "punching above its weight", to use a boxing analogy.

As the remnants and successors to a badly damaged "al-Qaeda in Iraq", the group had only about 10,000-15,000 fighters at most when it began taking over much of western Iraq in June.

Reportedly, Isis took over Mosul with no more than 800 fighters. But these were just the shock troops.

Isis’ fortunes were, and still are, heavily dependent on the support of local tribes and militias, without whom they could not hope to hold down a city of two million like Mosul.

"Isis’ ability to control lands has been based on deals with local militants willing to do the ‘ruling’ for them," says Mina al-Orabi, assistant editor of pan-Arab Ash-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper and originally from Mosul herself.

"Some of these deals are based on fear, others on a temporary meeting of interests, at times it is as crude as financial deals being struck between different gangs," she adds.

Maintaining power, order and loyalty in the longer term will mean keeping those interests onside and sufficiently "invested" in rule by Isis.

Learning from mistakes

The last time jihadists ruled a sizable chunk of Iraq for a sizable amount of time was when Isis’ predecessors held sway over much of Anbar province in 2006, and they blew it.

Under the crude, brutal, and sadistic leadership of the Jordanian ex-convict, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the jihadists managed to alienate most of the local population.

They cut off the heads of Sunni sheikhs who refused to pledge allegiance, they blew up Shia mosques, trying to start a sectarian civil war, and they cut off the fingers of people they caught smoking (a practice they deem as un-Islamic).

This did not exactly win them hearts and minds.

Stop persecuting your fellow Muslims, implored al-Qaida’s leadership back in Pakistan, but it was in vain – al-Zarqawi ignored his nominal masters.

In the end, Jordanian intelligence tracked him down, he died in a US airstrike and the jihadists were driven out by the local tribes backed by a "surge" of US troops.

Eight years on and the jihadists of Isis are firmly back in Anbar after a spectacular squandering of the advantage by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who sent troops to besiege a protest camp in Falluja late last year.

So has Isis learned from the mistakes of its antecedents?

Ask some of the residents of Raqqa in north-east Syria, where Isis has been in control since May 2013, and they would say "no".

Stories abound of harsh punishments imposed for the slightest of offences, women being confined to the home, public crucifixions, kidnappings and extortionate levies imposed on businesses.

Once again, al-Qaeda’s much diminished leadership scolded Isis or its excesses, and in February they formally disowned the whole organisation.

Oil and water

But others under Isis rule tell a different story.


Reports have filtered out of efficient municipal garbage collection, safer streets, generous distribution of fuel and food to the poor.

Sound familiar? This is exactly how the Taliban started out in Afghanistan in 1994, gradually increasing their territory until the 9/11 attacks on the US provoked the campaign that drove them from power in 2001.

One of the biggest advantages for a puritanical, religiously-cloaked militant organisation like Isis is the poor governance and perceived corruption of its secular alternative – the national government of Iraq.

To succeed as a viable state, let alone as a transnational "caliphate", Isis will need access to oil and water.

It has both. In Syria its forces control the oil-producing region around Deir Az-zour, including Syria’s largest oilfield at al-Omar, reportedly even selling oil to their enemies, the Assad regime itself.

They also control Syria’s largest dam, the Tabqa Dam at Lake Assad.

In Iraq they control the Falluja dam and have some, disputed, access to Iraq’s largest oil refinery at Baiji. In a part of the world where oil and water are the two key commodities, Isis finds itself in a powerful position.


Leaving aside for now whether or not the wider Muslim umma (community) will accept the recently proclaimed khilafa (caliphate) of Isis – and it has been swiftly denounced by many Muslim scholars – the fact remains that Isis controls a large area of the Middle East and it is not going away.

Neither the forces of President Assad in Syria, nor the forces of the Iraqi government alone can dislodge Isis from the ground it has taken, it is too well entrenched.

Syrian air strikes will have some impact, so will Iraq’s newly bought Sukhoi-25 jets and assistance from the US and Iran, but ultimately this is about holding onto territory on the ground.

The only force capable of permanently ejecting Isis will be the tribes in those regions, and they have little incentive to do so while the Syrian civil war rages on and a non-inclusive government sits in Baghdad, led by a Shia prime minister perceived as discriminating against Sunnis.

Which leaves the prospect of a violent, extremist, well-armed, well-funded and religiously intolerant militia becoming a permanent part of the Middle East landscape, a sort of de facto "jihadistan".

Would it stop there?

Unlikely. As far back as last year its adherents were proclaiming their ultimate aim of conquering territory as far away as Spain (ruled by Muslims for centuries as al-Andalus), Austria and China.

Even if Isis remained within the boundaries of the areas it has taken so far, it would likely be a springboard for attacks on neighbouring countries like Jordan and Lebanon, as well as attracting hundreds of young jihadists from the UK and the wider West.

Shiraz Maher, an expert on the Syrian jihad at King’s College London, says there is little appetite for concerted international action to dislodge them.

"The fact Isis has taken a large amount of territory is not unique. We’ve seen jihadist organisations achieve this in the past, for example, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and Mali most recently.

"In every one of those cases, Western-backed intervention tipped the balance against jihadist gains. That’s the key difference here. Both Iraq and Syria are failed states with ineffective armies, and there is no appetite in the West to intervene."

Isis, concludes Mr Maher, could therefore continue to hold their ground, ruling an area the size of Pennsylvania for the foreseeable future.

But Mina al-Orabi believes there are signs that Isis deals with local militants are already starting to unravel, meaning:

"Isis can only rule depending on brute violence or the threat of using it."


The jihadist governance dilemma
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Amichai Magen
The Washington Post | July 18, 2014

After making astounding territorial gains in its war against the Iraqi government, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria – which has refashioned itself “the Islamic State” – declared that it had reestablished the caliphate. The group’s gains put a spotlight on several questions related to Salafi jihadists’ efforts at building states. Can jihadists govern? Can they sustainably control and extract resources from territory and populations? As Ariel Ahram recently wrote for The Monkey Cage, insurgent groups face a “resource curse” that has a significant impact on their conflicts; this is true of Iraq, where the Islamic State has gained momentum in its efforts to control oil and water resources. But beyond these factors that confront any insurgency, jihadist groups face distinctive governance problems that they won’t be able to overcome in the near future, and will struggle mightily to address in the longer term.

Academics have grown increasingly interested in non-state actors’ attempts at governance. In Inside Rebellion, Jeremy Weinstein finds that a violent non-state actor’s discipline is central to determining whether it will build governance structures and protect populations from violence or kill indiscriminately. Weinstein concludes that richer organizations have a harder time maintaining discipline because they attract opportunists obsessed with immediate gain, and thus predisposed to violence, while resource-poor organizations instead attract committed individuals with a shared sense of purpose. Thus, Weinstein believes resource-poor organizations are more likely to establish governance and provide services. In Rebel Rulers, Zachariah Cherian Mampilly examines the variance in governing strategies among insurgent groups, focusing on the groups’ initial leadership decisions and subsequent interactions with various actors. Among other things, he argues insurgent groups are more likely to establish governance if the state had significant penetration prior to insurgent takeover of a region.

Jihadists have now had several experiences with governance: In Iraq (2006-08), Somalia (2007-12), Yemen (2011-12), North Mali (2012-13), and again in Iraq (2014-??). There have been some efforts by scholars to examine jihadist governance, but given how important governance is to jihadists, this is an area ripe for more detailed examination.

Jihadists are afflicted by a fundamental dilemma: They cannot attain their goals if they don’t govern, yet the record shows them repeatedly failing at governance efforts. Paradoxically, when these groups appear strongest – when they gain control of state-like assets – their greatest weaknesses are exposed.

One well-established Salafi jihadist goal is the forcible imposition of sharia (Islamic law). The late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden said in 1998 that al-Qaeda’s struggle should continue until “the Islamic sharia is enforced on the land of God.” This goal has remained constant, as a militant’s notebook that Reuters journalists recently unearthed near the Yemeni town of al-Mahfad memorializes similar goals: “Establishing an Islamic state that rules by Islamic sharia law.”

Jihadist groups’ rigid religious outlook drives their belief that sharia must be imposed and also the shape that sharia takes for them. Washington Institute for Near East Policy scholar Aaron Y. Zelin notes that the Islamic State’s city charter after the group captured Mosul on June 10 provided for amputation of thieves’ hands, required timely performance of all required prayers, and forbade drugs and alcohol. Further, “all shrines and graves will be destroyed, since they are considered polytheistic.”

This charter has much in common with previous jihadist governance efforts: They tend to have a legalistic and all-encompassing interpretation of sharia, insisting upon even obscure rules. In a previous period of jihadist rule over Mosul – when the Islamic State’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), controlled the city until May 2008 – citizens were required to follow intricate and bizarre rules. AQI banned the side-by-side display of tomatoes and cucumbers by food vendors because the group viewed the arrangement as sexually provocative, in addition to banning a local bread known as sammoun, the use of ice, and barbers’ use of electric razors. These restrictions might be Monty Python-esque, but the punch line was grim: Iraqis were killed for violating them.

Jihadist groups’ rigid understanding of Islamic law and brutal methods of coercing populations give rise to the governance challenges they confront: Those of legitimacy, effectiveness and sustainability.

Jihadist groups face a double test with respect to the legitimacy of their rule. The first test relates to the degree of acceptance by the subject population. Sociologist and political economist Max Weber defines legitimacy as a relationship of authority between ruler and ruled that both sides perceive as binding. Jihadist groups will be legitimate in the eyes of the population if that population comes to see these groups as having the right to dictate behavior, and views the groups’ rules as worthy of being obeyed.

Jihadist groups’ alienation of the population caused them deep problems during the Iraq war, when AQI was the dominant actor in Anbar province and ruthlessly imposed its will, torturing, slaughtering and even beheading citizens to eliminate dissent. This sparked a backlash among Sunni Anbari tribes, and in September 2006 a number of sheikhs publicly announced their plan to fight al-Qaeda, calling their movement the Sahwa, or “Awakening.” The turning of tribes and former insurgents made a significant difference in Anbar, and the program was expanded beyond that province. Though it later made a comeback, al-Qaeda’s Iraqi affiliate had been largely defanged by early 2009 – a victim of its excesses and the surge in U.S. troops.

Al-Qaeda eventually tried to ameliorate this vulnerability. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emir Abdelmalek Droukdel wrote to his fighters in North Mali when they controlled territory there warned of “the extreme speed with which you applied sharia, not taking into consideration the gradual evolution that should be applied in an environment that is ignorant of religion.”

Internal legitimacy problems don’t mean hard-line jihadist rule will automatically trigger a successful “awakening”-style movement. AQI might have wiped out the Anbari Sahwa, as it did to previous uprisings, had it not been for the U.S. military’s ability to defend the movement. Jihadists have been able to suppress resistance in places like the Syrian city of Raqqa, where the Islamic State has dealt with dissent by imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents.

In addition to this internal legitimacy challenge, jihadists face external challenges to their legitimacy because neighboring states, global powers and major NGOs view jihadist rule as illegitimate. Jihadist groups’ adversaries mobilize as these groups begin to govern because the urgency of the jihadist threat is heightened once these groups seize territory. Further, taking on state-like qualities makes them more vulnerable to military operations.

Jihadist groups additionally face the challenge of effectiveness. One aspect of a political actor’s effectiveness is determined by whether it can assume basic functions of government, including delivery of services (such as trash collection, water and electricity, and road maintenance). Commentators have noted jihadist groups’ increasing provision of social services, but actually governing territory is a different matter.

Jihadist groups have trouble replacing the state as the primary service provider because they lack experience in service delivery and the will to refocus on more mundane aspects of governance, and also because their rule is vulnerable. A letter that Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) leader Nasir al-Wuhayshi wrote recently acknowledged these problems. In explaining AQAP’s decision not to declare an emirate in southern Yemen, Wuhayshi stated that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership advised against it because “we wouldn’t be able to treat people on the basis of a state since we would not be able to provide for all their needs, mainly because our state is vulnerable.”

Governments also frequently cut revenue to areas under jihadist control, forcing jihadists to pay civil servants or lose a valuable portion of the workforce. While jihadists frequently lose the support of the population because of brutal coercive measures, there is also a more gradual process of disillusionment when the groups fail to effectively provide goods and services.

A final governance challenge that jihadists face is sustainability – the ability to govern over significant periods. Sustainable governance generally requires reaching some modus vivendi with other actors, domestic and international, and at least minimal capacity to control borders, territory and populations. The Islamic State’s failure to achieve such a modus vivendi is apparent in Syria, where it has spent more time locked in combat with other rebel groups than with President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Further, jihadist groups’ aforementioned inability to provide services effectively undermines the sustainability of their governance efforts. Jihadist groups’ lack of capacity generally forces them to try to capture preexisting institutions or work with others who are able to provide these services. Regardless of their success, sustaining the population’s support becomes more difficult for jihadist groups as time passes.

Governance will continue to be a challenge for jihadist groups. These actors have grown more competent at what may be described as “pre-governance” efforts – such as undertaking sophisticated dawa (proselytism) efforts or providing limited social services. Yet legitimate, effective, and sustainable governance has eluded them.

Can jihadist groups become more “legitimate” in the eyes of the international community? For now the answer is no, in part due to their inflexibility. Most Salafi jihadists are uninterested in acquiring legitimacy because they view the international system as illegitimate. But this may change: Jihadists may develop strategic principles that seek to ameliorate their governance disadvantages. Another factor that may help make jihadist rule more lasting is the increasing number of places where jihadist groups are locked in a cycle of governing territory, retreating as their enemies advance, and then regrouping. Even when major jihadist groups seem to have been defeated – as AQI and Nigeria’s Boko Haram did in 2009 – they prove resilient. As the number of these destructive cycles grows, jihadist groups could find themselves maintaining power for extended periods as the international system is overwhelmed.

This risk makes it important for Western countries to exploit the jihadists’ governance dilemma. Given the brutality of jihadist rule, this is an area ripe for sophisticated information-operations campaigns that starkly illustrate life under their dictates. Western countries should also carefully examine lessons learned from localized resistance to jihadists, by groups like the Sahwa or Ahlu Sunna wal Jamaa in Somalia, and develop new ways to support them. Local resistance depends on opportunities for success: If groups agitate against jihadists but are crushed, they might serve only as a cautionary tale. Any examination of these uprisings should focus on effective points of intervention. For example, during the Islamic State’s recent advance, it relied on an awkward coalition of ex-Baathists, tribesmen and other groups whose goals clashed with the jihadists’. Is such a coalition more likely to fall apart early, or after jihadists have established their rule? When will the United States attempting to support local resistance groups have the opposite effect from that intended, and delegitimize rather than bolster them?

Moreover, since a dominant path by which jihadist groups can enjoy long-term rule is widening circles of instability, Western countries should be reluctant to take actions likely to produce regional chaos. A quintessential example is NATO’s war in Libya, which was partly designed to speed up the Arab Spring, but has proved advantageous to jihadists: It left behind a country beset by instability, whose chaos had a destabilizing effect on such neighbors as Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.

Though the jihadist impulse to brutal excess presents opportunities, this vulnerability will not automatically result in setbacks for the groups responsible. As jihadist groups gain power, their weaknesses are exposed – and Western states’ goal as jihadists gain strength should be more ambitious than just pushing them back. The goal should be to deliver a killing blow.

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Amichai Magen is the head of the Governance & Political Violence Program and the Marc & Anita Abramowitz Senior Researcher at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, IDC, Herzliya, and a visiting fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.


A Point of View: Isis and what it means to be modern
BBC | 11 July 2014

Although it claims to be reviving a traditional Islamic system of government, the jihadist group Isis is a very modern proposition, writes John Gray.


When you see the leader of Isis, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, in Mosul announcing the creation of a caliphate – an Islamic state ruled by a religious leader – it’s easy to think that what you’re watching is a march back into the past. The horrifying savagery with which the jihadist organisation treats anyone that stands in its way seems to come from a bygone era. The fact that Isis – the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, which has now changed its name to the Islamic State – claims that it wants to restore an early type of Islam, leads many of us to see it as trying to bring about a reversion to mediaeval values.

To my mind, this gives too much credence to the way Isis views itself. There’s actually little in common between the horribly repressive regime it has established in parts of Iraq and Syria and the subtle Islamic states of mediaeval times, which in Spain, for example, exercised a degree of tolerance at a time when the rest of Europe was wracked by persecution. Destroying ancient shrines and mosques, Isis is trying to eradicate every trace of Islamic tradition. It’s probably even more oppressive than the Taliban were in Afghanistan. In power, Isis resembles a 20th Century totalitarian state more than any type of traditional rule.

Surprising as it may sound, Isis is in many respects thoroughly modern. Like al-Qaeda before them, these jihadists have organised themselves as a highly efficient company. Initially funded by donations from wealthy supporters, they’ve rapidly expanded into a self-financing business. Through kidnapping and extortion, looting and selling antiquities, siphoning off oil in territories they conquer, seizing gold bullion and other assets from banks and acquiring large quantities of American military hardware in the course of their advance, Isis has become the wealthiest jihadist organisation in the world. According to some estimates, it’s worth well over $2bn.

Isis uses this wealth to expand its popular base, providing public services and repairing damaged infrastructure in the areas it controls. Its use of social media is highly professional. On its websites it issues annual reports containing detailed accounts of its acquisitions and operations, including breakdowns of the bombings, assassinations and suicide missions it has carried out.

Isis makes effective use of the internet to broadcast the brutal manner with which it deals with anyone judged to be an enemy. Isis’s savagery isn’t impulsive. Everything suggests it’s a strategy developed over a number of years. When it posts videos of people being beheaded or shot, Isis advances several of its goals – simultaneously inspiring dread in its enemies, teaching the communities it controls the dire consequences of departing from an exceptionally extreme interpretation of Islam and sowing chaos in the population as a whole. There’s nothing mediaeval about this mix of ruthless business enterprise, well-publicised savagery and transnational organised crime. Dedicated to building a new society from scratch, Isis has more in common with modern revolutionary movements.

Though al-Baghdadi constantly invokes the early history of Islam, the society he envisions has no precedent in history. It’s much more like the impossible state of utopian harmony that western revolutionaries have projected into the future. Some of the thinkers who developed radical Islamist ideas are known to have been influenced by European anarchism and communism, especially by the idea that society can be reshaped by a merciless revolutionary vanguard using systematic violence. The French Jacobins and Lenin’s Bolsheviks, the Khmer Rouge and the Red Guards all used terror as a way of cleansing humanity of what they regarded as moral corruption.

Isis shares more with this modern revolutionary tradition than any ancient form of Islamic rule. Though they’d hate to hear it, these violent jihadists owe the way they organise themselves and their utopian goals to the modern West. And it’s not just ideas and methods that Isis has taken from the West. Western military intervention gave Isis its chance of power. While Saddam was in charge, there were no jihadist movements operating in Iraq – none at all. With all the crimes Saddam’s dictatorship committed, it was a regime that applied secular law and had made some steps towards emancipating women.

Islamist fighters in the Syrian province of Raqqa celebrate the declaration of the caliphate

In my view, toppling Saddam was bound to unravel this secular state and the Iraqi state itself. Even if the American-led occupiers hadn’t made the mistake of disbanding the army and dissolving the ruling party, the country would eventually have broken up. Iraq was constructed from provinces of the former Ottoman Empire by the British in the 1920s, with the Sunni minority being the ruling group. The Sunnis had ruled since 1638, when the Ottomans took Baghdad from the Persians. The Kurds, who were included in the new state because the British prized the oil resources in the north of the country, were sure to take any opportunity to seize independence. Whatever the failings of the Maliki government, the idea that a stable federal system could develop in these circumstances has always been far-fetched. As some of those who opposed the war from the start foresaw, regime change created many of the conditions for a failed state. These are the same conditions that have allowed Isis to emerge and thrive.

It’s sometimes suggested that ideology played no real part in the invasion of Iraq – grabbing the country’s oil was what it was all about. No doubt geopolitical calculation played a part, but I think an idea of what it means to be modern was more important. The politicians and opinion-formers who clamoured for the invasion believed that all modern societies are evolving towards a single form of government – the type that exists in western countries. If only tyranny was swept away in Iraq, the country would move towards democracy and the rest of the Middle East would follow. Until just a few months ago, some were convinced that a similar process could take place in Syria.

As I see it, this has never been more than an ideological fantasy. The modern world isn’t evolving in any single direction. Liberal democracy is only one of several possible destinations. With its delusional ambitions (which, if we are to believe recent statements, include reconquering Spain) Isis illustrates a darker aspect of the modern world – the practice of using terror and violence in an attempt to achieve impossible goals.

Isis may have already over-reached itself. It’s facing determined opposition from many sides – not just from Shia militias but also rival Sunni jihadists such as Al Qaeda, from which it’s an offshoot. There are conflicting interests among the disparate elements Isis has recently recruited, and it’s not clear that it can govern a state on any long-term basis. Moreover, Baghdadi’s claim to speak for all Muslims is dismissed by Islamic scholars and rejected as absurd by practically the entire Muslim world. Even so, Isis poses a real danger – and not just in the Middle East.


Statue of Suleiman the Magnificent, Istanbul

  • Name given to Islamic state led by supreme religious and political leader known as caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad
  • Succession of Muslim empires described as "caliphates"; most famous is Ottoman caliphate or empire (1453-1924)
  • Centring on power of Turkish sultans, Ottoman Caliphate expanded to cover the Balkans and Hungary under Suleiman the Magnicient in 16th Century, and reached gates of Vienna
  • Turkish leader Kemal Ataturk abolished Ottoman Caliphate in 1924 and exiled the last caliph, Abdulmecid

It’s hard for anyone to estimate in precise terms the scale of the threat Isis poses to countries such as Britain. Its main targets are in the Middle East. Still, there must be a danger that Western citizens who have gone to Syria and Iraq as Isis fighters will return battle-hardened and with new bomb-making skills. Also, Isis has now declared war not only on the west but also on al-Qaeda. In these circumstances there may be an increased risk that one or other of these groups will be tempted to stage a spectacular act of terror in order to secure a position of leadership in the global jihadist struggle.

Through their policies of regime change, Western governments have pursued an ideological vision that leaves out the dark side of the modern world. In doing so, they’ve unwittingly let loose a particularly nasty version of modern savagery. Whatever happens to the self-styled caliphate, the forces it embodies aren’t going to fade away. Isis is a part of the revolutionary turmoil of modern times, and until we grasp that uncomfortable fact we won’t be able to deal with the dangers we face.


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