Sunday, August 17, 2014

ISIS's Strategic Threat: Ideology, Recruitment, Political Economy

Captives murdered by ISIS forces in northern Iraq
The establishment of  al-Qa'ida in Afghanistan was followed by a proliferation of terrorist organizations: al-Qa'ida in the Mesopotamian Valley and al-Qa'ida in Iraq (AQI), the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), al-Qa-ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), al-Shabab in Somalia and Boko Haram in Nigeria.  Now the global community faces the largest and most dangerous terrorist movement of all, the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS).

Renaming itself the Islamic State on June 29th, the first day of Ramadan, and establishing a so-called "caliphate" in large areas of northeastern Syria and northwestern Iraq, ISIS is no longer just a terrorist movement, but a full blown state.  It has established courts, "amirs" who rule local regions, and a full-blown bureaucracy that has enacted a system of tax collection, a "marriage office" that arranges for widows and young women to marry ISIS fighters, and even offices that issue passports and license plates. 

As ISIS continues its attacks in northern Iraq, including efforts to seize the Kurdish city of Arbil, and makes further progress around the Syrian city of Aleppo, the terrorist threat that it poses not only to Iraq and Syria, but to the world beyond, continues to grow.  How has ISIS become so powerful and been able to make so many successful military gains?

To begin to answer this question, we may start by asking: What is ISIS and what ideology does it espouse?  How does its ideology attract recruits?  Why are so many members ready to give their lives for what many would argue is an ill-defined cause?  Equally importantly, how does it fund itself?  What is the relationships between its ideological and military strategy and its sources of funding?  What is ISIS' ultimate goals and how can it be stopped?

Ideology  ISIS' ideological narrative is not well developed.  An offshoot of Wahhabism and Qutbism in its most violent form, its Manichean ideology postulates a world where evil has subordinated the good.  As with other extremist movements that claim to be Islamic, it argues that the core problem is that Muslims have been seduced and corrupted by the West and thus deviated from true Islam.

For all the efforts to legitimate its raison d'etre and goals in Islam, and its assertion of having established a new "caliphate," ISIS is quintessentially a  movement of the 21st century.  Unlike al-Qa'ida Central, the organization adopted the title the Islamic State of Iraq in 2004.  al-Qa'ida has never referred to itself as a state and its primarily focus has been attacking the West. 

Unlike many extremist movements, ISIS does not sees itself as an organization whose goal is a geographically ill-defined Umma Islamiya (Islamic community) to be established at some point in the future. Rather ISIS has pursued the creation of a modern nation-state, a concept obviously not in use at the time of the Arab-Islamic caliphates.  While ISIS does periodically issue threats against the United States and the West, that state is focused on gaining territory in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq.

Reviewing ISIS videos and declarations (e.g. al-'Abuwat Anja' or "Destructive IEDs"; , a core component of its ideology is the notion of a historically consistent Western aggression against Islam.  Certainly this aggression has deep historical roots since ISIS constantly refers to Westerners as "Crusaders" (al-Salibiyun). 

But in ISIS' historical memory, the more relevant aggression is to be found in the Sykes-Picot Treaty of 1916 that the British and the French concluded to divide the Middle East into states designed to serve their respective interests.  Hence ISIS' highly public display of the destruction of berms that demarcate the Syrian-Iraqi border as they went about establishing their "caliphate."

In that sense, ISIS' appeals to many Muslims who see the West as having neo-colonial ambitions in the Muslim world.  ISIS asserts that its goal is to eliminate the "artificial boundaries" that separate Muslims in the Middle East and throughout the world.

ISIS, unlike the subservient Muslim clergy who submit to Western dictates, is engaged in a defensive Jihad (al-jihad al-dafi'a) to protect Muslim countries from latter day Crusaders. As "proof" of this subservience, it posts photographs on its website of Muslim clerics in the Middle East meeting with Western officials.  This narrative is another example of how totalitarian movements use theories of conspiracy and victimization to mobilize and create solidarity among their members. 

Conspiracy and victimization suggest the implicit idea that Westernization is a form of disease, much like the current Ebola epidemic in Western Africa.  Diseases bring nothing but hardship and suffering and thus must be eradicated at all costs.  This mindset helps explain how those who implement Western interests in the Middle East can become so dehumanized that killing them becomes a form of cleansing and purification, namely through eradicating a disease.

ISIS' desire to unite all Muslims under a caliphate relates back to its Wahhabi roots that provide
the foundation for its ideology, particularly the notion of the Unity of God (al-tawhid).  Because only ISIS defends of Islam against the West, it is incumbent on Muslims everywhere to obey its orders and support it on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria to attack its enemies in their own countries..

Unlike the Taliban, who were largely content to rule Afghanistan and Pashtun areas of neighboring Pakistan (al-Qa'ida being allowed to operate there notwithstanding), ISIS sees its ideology as tied to continuous expansion of territory.  Its immediate goal is to control Iraq and Syria and then move more deeply into Lebanon.

ISIS headquarters, Raqqa, Syria
At the same time, ISIS is eminently pragmatic. Like Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army (jaysh al-Mahdi), that has reemerged in various forms since being disbanded in 2008, or the pious sounding Shi'i militia, the League of the Righteous People (asa'ib ahl al-haqq), ISIS seduces its members into believing that, despite the brutality and criminality that are the movement's hallmarks, they are working for a noble cause.

While articulating a brutal and totalitarian ideology, it has also been able to accommodate a wide variety of Sunni regions and tribes that are under its control.  It will often make temporary ideological concessions to achieve military and financial success.  It even has allowed certain regions under its control to have relative autonomy.  ISIS' modus operandi is to gradually impose restrictions on areas it controls so as to not alienate the local populace.  This is the policy that it has followed in Mosul where only recently has its harsh rule begun to enforced.

Clearly articulated in ISIS' publications, visual media and public statements is the ideological goal of  eliminating all sects and ethnicities that is considers "apostates" or enemies of Islam.  Its hatred for the Shi'a, Christians, religious and ethnic minorities such as the Yazidis, Shabak and Turkmen, has been made tragically clear by recent events in northern Iraq.

Yet the attraction of ISIS' ideology should not be viewed solely on its own terms.  The ideological vacuum in Iraq and Syria, following the collapse of Pan-Arabism as a unifying and secular ideology, and the failure of moderate Islamist movements to make headway during the Arab Spring, such as the al-Nahda Party in Tunisia and the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt, has created an ideological space that ISIS seeks to fill.

Thus it needs to be realized that it is less the strength of ISIS' ideology than the vacuum of alternative ideologies, including a meaningful democratic Islamist ideology.  Pan-Arabism is associated with corrupt, dictatorial one party regimes known for their violation of human rights.

Recruitment  ISIS has gone through several stages in terms of recruiting members.  First, it tapped into the anger of Iraq's Sunni Arab community after the US invasion of Iraq  and the ill-conceived dissolution of Iraq's conscript army and the De-Ba'thification Law implemented by the Coalition Provisional Authority in May 2003.

The CPA's policy of "80%," namely winning over the Shi'a and Kurds but largely ignoring the 20% Arab Sunni population, created great fear among Iraq's Sunni Arabs that they would have no political role in post-2003 Iraq.  Thus many former Sunni army officers in the Republican Guards or in Iraq's conscript army, as well as Ba'th Party members, joined the insurgency.

A second source of recruitment has been Sunni Arab tribes.  ISIS has both played on their resentment of the Alawite dominated government in Syria, and the Shi'i dominated government in Baghdad after Saddam's toppling in 2003.  In Syria, tribes in the eastern portion of the country resented state policies that came to favor the Alawite and Sunni merchant elites in Damascus and Aleppo.  In Iraq, Sunni tribes resented no longer having privileged access to state resources as they had had under Saddam.

As Ahmed Hashim documents in his excellent study, Insurgency and Counter-Insurgency in Iraq, many officers of tribal backgrounds had begun to adopt an Islamist ideology during the 1990s. This ideological shift reflected the collapse of Pan-Arabism in Iraq after the Gulf War and Saddam's shift to an emphasis on "religion" with the creation of his so-called "Faith Campaign" that began in 1993 and was led by his second in command, 'Izzat al-Duri

A third and the most recent source of recruitment is youth from Chechnya, Turkey, the Arab world and Europe.  ISIS has a well developed social media network that it uses to lure young men to join the movement.  In the UK, it has tried to recruit boys as young as 15 to ISIS with the idea that "you're not too young to die." (

Youth abroad have multiple reasons to be attracted by ISIS.  In Europe, many find themselves without employment in countries with high standards of living that they can't enjoy.  Many live in slums that not only separate them from the majority population. They lack job opportunities and services and thus have little hope that the future will bring a better life.  Finally, many feel that they live in societies that are hostile to Islam and thus can't find a community with which to identify.

Joining ISIS offers a sense of belonging by joining a community of like-minded Muslims.  It also provide employment because ISIS fighters receive salaries of $400-$500 month (not to speak of what a fighter can steal from "infidels" such as Christians and Yazidis).  Joining ISIS gives meaning to the life of many youth because they are now fighting for a cause.

ISIS's ideology of establishing a "caliphate" links its members, young and old alike, to a distorted Golden Age during the rise and spread of Islam. Their efforts on the battlefield, or engaging in terrorist acts, will help resurrect the glories of the Arab-Islamic caliphates.  ISIS' rejection of national boundaries resonates with the feelings of youth from abroad of not belonging to a specific nation-state.  We might use the term "post-nationalist" to refer to foreign youth, who are often trans-national migrants, or rural to urban migrants within the Middle East who do not identify with the nation-state in which they live

ISIS provides youth, and its members generally, with a (false) sense of empowerment.  Access to weaponry and the ability to intimidate represent an antidote to the feelings of marginalization, alienation and powerlessness that young men felt in their former environment, whether a slum in a European or Middle Eastern city, or in a village as a peasant trying to help his family make ends meet.

Recruitment is further aided by ISIS' extreme patriarchy and its condoning of rape, sexual slavery and "sexual jihad."  The lack of respect for women and their degradation embodied in ISIS' extremist interpretations of Islam are exacerbated by young males feelings of impotence in the face of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Africa, or inability to become part of European societies, economically or culturally. Subordinating women becomes another way of achieving a (false) sense of empowerment.

Political Economy  One of the under emphasized aspects of ISIS' success is its ability to amass an enormous amount of funds.  From a political economy perspective, there is no need to reference ISIS ideology.  Many of the tribes that have pledged loyalty to ISIS have done so for financial exigencies.  In Syria, many tribes were hurt by the Syrian regime's economic liberalization policies, while in Iraq, tribes aligned with Saddam Husayn's regime lost their "sugar daddy" in 2003.

The Iraqi insurgency that began in late 2003 in the so-called Sunni Arab Triangle of Iraq received large contributions from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as from wealthy private citizens in these countries.  In Syria, radical "Islamist" groups received significant funding from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.  However, currently ISIS has moved far beyond the need to rely on such funding.

With the initial funds it received, ISIS was able to purchase weapons and engage in kidnappings for ransom, extortion and multiple bank robberies. In Mosul, it is said to have stolen $429 million dollars from local banks after it seized the city on June 10, 2014.  Although its brutal policies in Syria led other Islamist groups such as the Jabhat al-Nusra to attack it and almost defeat it in 2013, it was able to use its base in Iraq's al-Anbar Province and its underground network in Mosul to mount a counter-offensive.

After winning back the territory that it had lost in 2013, ISIS used its access to Syrian oil and dams that generate electricity to bring in large amounts of funds.  In fact, there are reports that ISIS has sold oil and electricity to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad.

Oil wealth has thus been one of ISIS' key resources. The terrorist group has created a network of tribes who receive shipments of oil and crudely refined gasoline that they can subsequently sell on the black market.  ISIS has created a network of plastic pipes that go under the Syrian-Turkish border where they supply a large group of smugglers who buy Syrian oil at deeply discounted prices.

While the Turkish military has tried to destroy this pipeline network, it has only been partially successful.  Turkey, an early supporter of ISIS and other radical groups in Syria, now confronts a large underground smuggling ring of bootlegged oil and gasoline.  This smuggling of oil and gasoline across the Syrian border into Turkey has created financial interests that will be very hard to uproot.

In addition to kidnappings, extortion, theft and the sale of oil, gasoline and electricity, ISIS has used the computer skills of a sub-group of its members who live in Britain to hack into the credit card and bank accounts of the wealthy in the UK (

Combining all the income derived from all its economic activities, ISIS is by far the richest terrorist organization (or should we say state) in the world with an estimated wealth of $2 billion (

Looking to the future  ISIS poses a much greater threat than that posed by the Taliban or any other terrorist organization.  It controls  considerable territory in one of the world's largest oil producing country, and threatens not only Iraq and Syria, but Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and the Arab Gulf states. 

ISIS is not only flush with funds but counts among its membership a cadre of technologically and social media savvy professionals, including those who possess the ability to hack into computer systems around the world.  ISIS' slick advertising continues to attract youth from all over the world, as far away as India, China and even the United States.
ISIS fighter Abu Ayyub al-Maghribi explaining why he seeks martyrdom
In my next post, I will present the case for why the United States needs to mobilize an international effort to destroy ISIS and its "caliphate" before this social and political cancer morphs into something much more dangerous.  That ISIS' members feel no compunction about beheading children, raping women and killing innocent civilians who happen to be in their way, and revel in dying rather than living, are deeply disturbing phenomena.  Stopping ISIS and the growing terrorist threat in the Middle East and elsewhere will require an international effort, involving military, political and public diplomacy efforts.  As a New York Times columnist recently out it, the Obama administration needs to do more than just treat the ISIS threat as a "humanitarian driveby."

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