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What is the Islamic state and its prospects?

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By James Gelvin


ISIS—now just the “Islamic State” (IS)–is the latest incarnation of the jihadi movement in Iraq. The first incarnation of that movement, Tawhid wal-Jihad, was founded in 2003-4 by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Al-Zarqawi was not an Iraqi: as his name denotes, he came from Zarqa in Jordan. He was responsible for establishing a group affiliated with al-Qaeda in response to the American invasion of Iraq. Over time, this particular group began to evolve as it took on alliances with other jihadi groups, with non-jihadi groups, and as it separated from groups with which it had been aligned. Tawhid wal-Jihad thus evolved into al-Qaeda in Iraq, which had strained relations with “al-Qaeda central.” These strains were caused by the same factors that have created strains between IS and al-Qaeda central. Zarqawi had adopted the tactic of sparking a sectarian war in Iraq by blowing up the Golden Mosque in Samarra, thus instigating Shi’i retaliations against Iraq’s Sunni community, which, in turn, would get mobilized, radicalized, and strike back, joining al-Qaeda’s jihad

What this demonstrates is a long term problem al-Qaeda central has had with its affiliates. Al-Qaeda has always been extraordinarily weak on organization and extraordinarily strong on ideology, which is the glue that holds the organization together.

The ideology of al-Qaeda can be broken down into two parts: First, the Islamic world is at war with a transnational Crusader-Zionist alliance and it is that alliance–the “far enemy”–and not the individual despots who rule the Muslim world–the “near enemy”–which is Islam’s true enemy and which should be the target of al-Qaeda’s jihad. Second, al-Qaeda believes that the state system that has been imposed on the Muslim world was part of a conspiracy hatched by the Crusader-Zionist alliance to keep the Muslim world weak and divided. Therefore, state boundaries are to be ignored.

These two points, then, are the foundation for the al-Qaeda philosophy. It is the philosophy in which Zarqawi believed and it is also the philosophy in which the current head of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, believes as well.

Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Islamic states (dark green), states where Islam is the official religion (light green), secular states (blue) and other (orange), among countries with Muslim majority. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

We don’t know much about al-Baghdadi. We know his name is a lie–he was not born in Baghdad, as his name denotes, but rather in Samarra. We know he was born in 1971 and has some sort of degree from Baghdad University. We also know he was imprisoned by the Americans in Camp Bucca in Iraq. It may have been there that he was radicalized, or perhaps upon making the acquaintance of al-Zarqawi.

Over time, al-Qaeda in Iraq evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq which, in turn, evolved into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. This took place in 2012 when Baghdadi claimed that an already existing al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, was, in fact, part of his organization. This was unacceptable to the head of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. Al-Jawlani took the dispute to Ayman al-Zawahiri who ruled in his favor. Zawahiri declared Jabhat al-Nusra to be the true al-Qaeda affiliate in Syria, ordered al-Baghdadi to return to Iraq, and when al-Baghdadi refused al-Zawahiri severed ties with him and his organization.

There is a certain irony in this, inasmuch as Jabhat al-Nusra does not adhere to the al-Qaeda ideology, which is the only thing that holds the organization together. On the other hand, IS, for the most part does, although al-Qaeda purists believe al-Baghdadi jumped the gun when he declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq with himself as caliph—a move that is as likely to split the al-Qaeda/jihadi movement as it is to unify it under a single leader. Whereas al-Baghdadi believes there should be no national boundaries dividing Syria and Iraq, al-Jawlani restricts his group’s activities to Syria. Whereas the goals of al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) are much broader than bringing down an individual despot, Jabhat al-Nusra’s goal is the removal of Bashar al-Assad. And whereas al-Baghdadi (and al-Qaeda) believe in a strict, salafist interpretation of Islamic law, Jabhat al-Nusra has taken a much more temperate position in the territories it controls. The enforcement of a strict interpretation of Islamic law–from the veiling of women to the prohibition of alcohol and cigarettes to the use of hudud punishments and even crucifixions—has made IS extremely unpopular wherever it has established itself in Syria.

The recent strategy of IS has been to reestablish a caliphate, starting with the (oil-rich) territory stretching from Raqqa to as far south in Iraq as they can go. This is a strategy evolved out of al-Qaeda first articulated by Abu Musab al-Suri. For al-Suri (who believed 9/11 was a mistake), al-Qaeda’s next step was to create “emirates” in un-policed frontier areas of the Muslim world from which an al-Qaeda affiliate might “vex and exhaust” the enemy. For al-Qaeda, this would be the intermediate step that will eventually lead to a unification of the entire Muslim world. What would happen next was never made clear—Al-Qaeda has always been more definitive about what it is against rather than what it is for.

IS has demonstrated in the recent period that it is capable of dramatic military moves, particularly when it is assisted by professional military officers, such as the former Baathist officers who planned the attack on Mosul. This represents a potential problem for IS: After all, the jailors are unlikely to remain in a coalition with those they jailed after they accomplish an immediate goal. But this is not the limit of IS’s problems. Mao Zedong once wrote that in order to have an effective guerrilla organization you have to “swim like the fish in the sea”–in other words, you have to make yourself popular with the local inhabitants of an area who you wish to control and who are necessary to feed and protect you. Wherever it has taken over, IS has proved itself to be extraordinarily unpopular. The only reason IS was able to move as rapidly as it did was because the Iraqi army simply melted away rather than risking their lives for the immensely unpopular government of Nouri al-Maliki.

However it scored its victory, it should be remembered that taking territory is very different from holding territory. It should also be remembered that by taking and attempting to hold territory in Iraq, ISIS has concentrated itself and set itself up as a target.

IS has other problems as well. It is fighting on multiple fronts. In Syria, it is battling most of the rest of the opposition movement. It is also a surprisingly small organization–8,000-10,000 fighters (although recent victories might enable it to attract new recruits). The Americans used 80,000 troops in its initial invasion of Iraq in 2003 and was still unable to control the country. In addition, we should not forget the ease with which the French ousted similar groups from Timbuktu and other areas in northern Mali last year. As battle-hardened as the press claims them to be, groups like IS are no match for a professional army.

Portions of this article ran in a translated interview on Tasnim News.

James L. Gelvin is a Professor of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. He is the author of The Arab Uprisings: What Everyone Needs to Know, The Modern Middle East: A History and The Israel-Palestine Conflict: One Hundred Years of War.

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  1. […] literally and figuratively, in the degradation and destruction of the criminal militancy of the so-called Islamic State [ISIL or ISIL]. Despite concerns that the 2003-2011 US war in Iraq itself may have led to the […]

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