ISIS — Roots, Trunk, Branches (June 19, 2014)

The Islamic State in Iraq (and Syria) (ISI or ISIS) has arrived late into the media consciousness in an explosion of bloody reprisal and violent rhetoric. It is a group that is experienced, brutal and coordinated but its history leaves it isolated in the Islamist world and provides those who oppose it opportunities to halt it and then eradicate it.

ISIS formed in early 2004 as ama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, “The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad” (JTJ) before merging with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (a name you may remember from his death in 2006 following which the US government published a photo of his corpse as part of its press pack and which some outlets decided to publish under headlines such as “Smoked”. See The Nation reviewing events in 2011 following the death of Osama Bin-Laden. Such celebration and desecration of death is infantile and degrading.)

This marriage of destruction was based not on a shared ideology (few are in radical Islam) but rather a mutual respect, with AQI bringing the infrastructure and respectability and JTJ the sheer brutality. Through until Zarqawi’s death the relationship between the groups was constructive but in the years that followed, AQI increasingly lost control over its “bad son who forsook the family’s authority” (Hisham Hashim via WSJ). (The marriage/son incest implication was accidental but is intentionally retained.)

This unwinding of the power structure was accelerated in 2010 when Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi took the reins of AQI at a time when the US and its allies were withdrawing from Iraq and the country had to endure a divisive election and its aftermath. In this vacuum of uncertainty, Baghdadi expanded initially the brutality of the group’s attacks and then their geographic range with AQI forces taking part in the violence in Syria and being involved in attacks in a number of other states. This expansion turned AQI into Al-Qaeda’s leading franchise both in terms of land mass and fighting power.

Yet there were limits to the size of the vacuum in which AQI could operate. Other Islamist group both in Iraq, and more importantly in Syria, were bringing their own fight; sometimes under the banner of Al-Qaeda Central (AQC), and other times independently. To Baghdadi these other groups were pawns in his game whose purpose was to be put to his work. The other groups disagreed. Not only did the command and control structure of AQC place ISIS at the same level as these groups but only AQC could corral this disparate band of ideologies and relationships under one banner. Baghdadi was unrelenting, issuing orders to local units and seizing land held by other groups. When met with resistance, ISIS brought the death it had waged against the kafir to bear against its recent allies.

Both sides appealed to AQC to adjudicate but the only communiques on the matter were withering and ambiguous doing nothing to reduce the bloodshed. It took almost a month for AQC to realize that Baghdadi could not be brought into line and earlier this year ISIS was exorcised from AQC.

This divorce left both ISIS and AQC with mirrored challenges and opportunities. For whilst AQC once again became more palatable to moderates it had lost its group whose fighting style attracted youthful fighters from around the world. And whilst ISIS could now operate on its own terms and push forward its violent agenda, it lost the claims to religious legitimacy that its alliance to AQC provided, severly limiting ISIS’s power to recruit and to finance its operations within the Muslim world.

To combat this risk ISIS began a PR offensive as far back as February, including developing a Twitter smartphone app that allows it disseminate information to its users and also to post on their behalf. Such embracing of technology allows the group to coordinate the promotion of its hashtags and images, often to amazing effect (see The Atlantic) See also the group’s turning of the #bringbackourgirls into #bringbackourhumvee (via Washington Post).

This outreach allows ISIS to appear more powerful and broad than it truly is. It has a social footprint almost four times that of similarly sized Islamist groups (who do not shy away from social media either) and allows the group to be the focal point for young Islamists wishing to fight in Iraq and Syria. Through such recruitment and dissemination of information, ISIS can hope to temporarily maintain the recruitment power it enjoyed whilst affiliated to AQC, however, unlike divine inspiration, such tactics do not offer the access to the same financial and political fire power. Similarly, the boost that ISIS will receive from the success it has enjoyed over the past two weeks will only be short-lived. It is easy for young recruits to flock to a winning cause but once the fanfare quietens, and battles become drawn out, the allure of war fades.

ISIS’s next steps are crucial. Following its seizure of Mosul there are a number of immediate targets including the al-Askari shrine (one of the holiest mosques in Sh’ite Islam, and even venerated by the Sunnis such is its holiness) and Baghdad that lay open to ISIS. Both pose major issues not solely in terms of taking them but also in terms of holding them and the ideological fall out an attack on al-Askari in particular would cause.

ISIS may therefore seek instead to lock down and maintain. For more important in the long run to ISIS is its ability to establish its own legitimacy and religious authority such that its gains become self-sustaining. This will require it not only to win over the local population (not an easy task when you are killing their fathers, brothers and sons by the score) and ISIS must have achieved sufficiently that its gains become self-sustaining. This will require it not only to win over the local population (not an easy task when you are killing their fathers, brothers and sons by the score) but also to resist the combined efforts of those Iraqi forces both civilian and militia who are being bonded together by that same violence. If ISIS fails to achieve these things, it will wither and die.

For the people of Iraq who lie in the shadow of ISIS the first issue is simply halting their advance. This they should be able to do. There are sufficient men at arms and political will from non-ISIS groups within Iraq and governments in other states to stop them in combat. They may also rely upon US support which can be provided under the auspices of preventing war crimes; although the US will be aware to the legitimacy US use of force against ISIS would grant the group. [Ed: I got this badly wrong]

Victory in combat will though not be sufficient to stop ISIS permanently. For all parties concerned the goal must be to dismantle, or prevent the assembly of, structures that would allow the group to maintain itself in the long term. This means ensuring that its partial isolation in the Islamist world is made total through political and economic means, and it means offering hope to those that have fallen under ISIS’ rule. These tasks should be begun rapidly as such structures will only harden with time.

ISIS is the premier Islamist fighting force and has proved adept at surviving and growing in its 10-year life. However it is now, for the first time in a long time, out of the nest and what follows will be key in not only Iraq’s but also the entire region’s history. There are clear opportunities to halt this groups advance, the first step is winning the fight on the streets but alongside that, victories will have to be won in the occupied villages, in the mosques and in beds of support around the world.