“Now let’s make two things clear,” said US President Barack Obama, in an address to the nation on September 10, 2014, “ISIL is not ‘Islamic’ …and ISIL is certainly not a state.”
Depending on how one defines “Islamic” and “state” he may be right, but what is certain is that Islamic State (IS) – or “Daesh” as many now prefer to dub it – aspires to be both.
As for the Islamic element, the organization’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, claims to be “the caliph and leader for Muslims everywhere”. The caliph is historically supposed to be a descendant of the Prophet Muhammad’s Quraysh tribe in Arabia. Since becoming leader, Baghdadi has been claiming precisely that lineage – a claim widely disputed. His definition of “Muslim” is also open to question – he defines any person who does not subscribe to his own extreme version of Sunni Islam as an infidel, and as such worthy of an ignominious death – but all the beheadings, crucifixions, amputations, mass killings and terror attacks that have characterised the rise of IS, unjustified though they undoubtedly are, have been carried out in the name of Islam.
The caliphate that he professes to be recreating harks back to the idea of an Islamic republic led by one leader, regardless of national boundaries. The caliphate concept persisted within the Ottoman empire until 1924, when Kemal Ataturk abolished it, but Muslim extremists have long dreamed of recreating the Islamic state that, at various times during the course of Islam’s 1,400-year history, ruled over the Middle East, much of North Africa and large parts of Europe.
As regards IS’s intention to do just that, it was as recent as December 7 that the UK’s Guardian newspaper revealed the contents of a leaked internal IS manual showing how the terrorist group had been setting about building a state in Iraq and Syria complete with government departments, a treasury and an economic programme for self-sufficiency.
The 24-page document, entitled “Principles in the administration of the Islamic State”, sets out a blueprint for establishing foreign relations, a fully-fledged propaganda operation, and centralised control over oil, gas and the other vital parts of the economy. It builds up a picture of a group, according to the Guardian that, “although sworn to a founding principle of brutal violence, is equally set on more mundane matters such as health, education, commerce, communications and jobs. In short, it is building a state.”
Charlie Winter, a senior researcher for Georgia State University, believes that “IS is a deeply calculating political organisation with an extremely complex, well-planned infrastructure behind it.”
How have IS’s fortunes fluctuated in the past year or so?
There have been four major areas of territorial change: IS losses near Baghdad, in the Kurdish areas of Iraq, and along the Turkish border with Syria, and IS gains in and around Palmyra.
According to John Ford of the US Army’s Judge Advocate General Corps, a clear pattern explains these changes. IS has been able to thrive in areas with a majority Arab Sunni population, but has failed to take hold in areas where Sunni Arabs are the minority or where effective rival ground forces oppose them.
In northern Iraq and Syria, IS was pushed back by Kurdish militias who had the advantage of fighting on their home turf. IS was not able to take Baghdad, home to the largest Shi’ite population of any Iraqi city. Iranian-backed Shi’ite militias came to the government’s rescue in its defence.
By contrast, in the area around Palmyra, IS expanded – central Syria is predominately Sunni and lacks militant groups that can rival IS. Now, though, IS positions around Palmyra are coming under heavy fire from Russian airstrikes, and it is far from certain that IS will be able to maintain its stranglehold on that ancient city and continue its wanton destruction of some of the world’s most valued antiquities.
At its peak in 2014, IS had seized about a third of Iraqi territory. It has subsequently lost a good proportion of that. After more than a year of hard fighting, October 2015 saw pro-government forces wrest control of the oil refinery of Baiji. In Ramadi, Iraqi security forces have steadily progressed in recent months and, according to Iraqi commanders, have encircled the city.
Across the border, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are preparing for an attack on the town of al-Hawl, while a US-led coalition air operation, dubbed Tidal Wave II, has targeted the Islamic State’s oil infrastructure, disrupting the group’s ability to fund its operations.
General Ismail, commander of Special Forces in Al Anbar province, believes that IS mounted its terrorist attack in Paris on November 13 “in order to keep up the morale of their fighters and distract from their losses in Syria and Iraq.” If so, it may well be that, on this occasion, IS miscalculated badly and actually shot itself in the foot. It is unlikely that IS’s strategic planners could have foreseen the extent to which Paris acted as a wake-up call to the global community, nor the consequent degree of co-ordinated determination, matched by action, to see an end to IS.
Evidence of this was forthcoming on December 15, when Saudi Arabia unexpectedly announced the formation of a 34-state Islamic military coalition to combat terrorism, with a joint operations centre based in Riyadh to coordinate and support military operations. The countries involved include not only Arab states such as Egypt, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, but other Islamic countries like Turkey, Malaysia and Pakistan.
The announcement cited “a duty to protect the Islamic nation from the evils of all terrorist groups and organizations whatever their sect and name which wreak death and corruption on earth and aim to terrorize the innocent.”
Significantly Sunni Saudi Arabia’s arch rival for influence in the Arab world, Shi’ite Iran, is not included in the alliance, and by implication is lumped together with Islamic State as among the “terrorist groups and organizations.”
Saudi’s deputy crown prince and defence minister, Mohammed bin Salman, said that the campaign would coordinate efforts to fight terrorism in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and Afghanistan. “There will be international coordination with major powers,” he said.
On December 2 the UK’s House of Commons voted decisively to extend its anti-IS air strikes from Iraq to Syria. When it emerged that Conservative Muslim MP, Nusrat Ghani, had voted in favor of doing so, she received a torrent of abuse and threats. In response, she declared that military success was a key factor in enabling IS to recruit more people to their evil cause,
“Daesh are an embryonic state,” she said, “and their power comes from taking territory. Their ideology is based on them having territory. To be able to challenge and remove Daesh we have to take back territory.”
She spoke for the consensus of the civilized world’s opinion.