Explaining the Islamic State phenomenon
By Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah
Much has been written about the Islamic State in Iraq and Sham (the Levant) — ISIS. Most of the analysts have looked at ISIS as another terrorist organization, an al-Qaeda off-shoot, waging a guerrilla war with cohorts of unorganized thugs. The Afghani-style gear, the pickup trucks, the all black or army fatigue uniforms that most ISIS fighters wear, the unshaven beards, the turbans, hoods and head "bandanas" with Arabic inscriptions have added to the confusion.
In fact, ISIS is much more than a terrorist organization; it is a terrorist state with almost all governing elements. Over the last four years, since the beginning of the civil war in Syria, the Islamic State developed from an extremist fringe and marginal faction participating in the civil war to become the strongest, most ferocious, best funded and armed militia in the religious and ethnic war that is waged today in Syria and Iraq.
ISIS rules today over 300,000 square kilometers, a swath of land roughly bigger than the United Kingdom with a population of almost 10 million citizens. In the course of its first year of expansion, ISIS has changed its name to the Islamic State, a choice made to illustrate that its goals are not limited to Iraq and the countries of the Fertile Crescent. Moreover, the IS caliphate now has 10 branches, following pledges of allegiance in the past few months from new fronts including Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Algeria, Afghanistan, Nigeria and, most recently, the Caucasian Emirates.
Factors behind the Establishment of the Islamic State
To understand the IS phenomenon, it is crucial to examine the factors that contributed to its emergence.
Since the fall of Muslim empires and supremacy, Muslim scholars and philosophers have tried to understand the reasons behind its collapse, its domination by Western Powers, its colonization and its incapacity to reproduce the genius that so much characterized the Muslim civilization following the conquests that stretched the Muslim lands from Spain to India, West Asia, and China. Most, if not all the scholars tried to analyze the characteristics behind the "Golden Age" of Islam and why at a certain point, the Muslim world stopped producing innovations in science, medicine, algebra, mathematics, military warfare machines and graphic arts. The conclusion of most was that Muslim civilization had drifted away from the teachings of the Koran and adopted foreign and heretical inputs that had destroyed its fabric. The remedy they proposed was to return to the "pure Islam" which would heal the wounds and respond to the West by first reconstructing the Muslim society according to their raw interpretation of the Koran and organizing to defeat Western power.
Indeed, since the fall of Muslim Spain in the fifteenth century and especially since the beginning of western colonization of Muslim territories, the Muslim world has witnessed the rise and fall of successive radical movements whose prime aim was to combat the West while regenerating the original Muslim society of Prophet Mohammad which was thought to be the cure for all ailments. Muslim thinkers like Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani (late 19th century), Muhammad ‘Abduh (19th century), Sayyed Qutub (20th century), Muhammad Iqbal (early 20th century), and the Muhammad Ahmad al-Mahdi in Sudan (19th century) are only a few examples of Muslim radicals who inspired upheavals against Western powers. ISIS is but another refined product of the radicalization of the Sunnis in West and Central Asia.
Since the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, foreign military intervention in the latter part of the 20th century, be it Soviet or American , was greatly responsible for the awakening of Sunni radicalism in West and Central Asia and to its expression today as a Holy War against the West, its allies and Israel. The perception that the West led by the United States are the new Crusaders trying to subdue Islam has nurtured extremists ideologies and created many militant organizations whose mission is to fight "the infidels." This perception should be considered to be at the root of the creation of Al-Qaeda whose raison d'être is to fight the West and to strive to re-create a Muslim ( Sunni ) caliphate in the areas extending from North Africa to "Ma wara al Nahr," meaning Central and Eastern Asia, the historical boundaries of the once Islamic empire.
The civil war in Syria transformed very quickly into a radical Sunni armed insurrection against the Alawite Iranian-backed Assad regime. The Muslim Brotherhood, which led the battle against the regime at the beginning of the conflict, was soon joined by radical organizations financed not only by Saudi Arabia and Qatar but also by other actors such as the United States, UK, France and Turkey. Qatar alone is said to have poured into the conflict more than $500 million. The Syrian scene provided all the ingredients for the radicalization of Sunni organizations. The Syrian civil war is an "all-in-one" situation in which all the previous factors are involved: foreign presence, Sunnis against Shiites, Iran and Hizbullah, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the United States, France and Turkey and an international coalition led by the United States fighting Islamic militants in the lands of Islam.
Saudi Arabia and Qatar fund Islamic organizations all over the world, nurturing mainly the Salafi-Wahhabi schools at the expense of traditional and moderate Islam. Most of the Muslim states have been exposed for a long time to Wahhabi proselytism that is by essence opposed to the "moderate" Sufi Islam practiced in North Africa. No wonder after the revolution in Libya and the takeover of Mali by Islamic fundamentalists, the Muslim militants destroyed all religious shrines, an exact copy of the reality in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. However, it appears now that Saudi Arabia is apprehensive of what seems to be the result of its actions: One of the biggest contingents fighting in Syria and Iraq is Saudi (almost 2,500). As a consequence of the assessment that these Jihadist organizations could harm the monarchy, Saudi Arabia and all Gulf states have adopted a sort of "Patriot Act" and designated all those volunteers as terrorists.
The Islamic Republic of Iran has also played a major catalyst role in contributing to the polarization of the Muslim world into two rival camps, Shiites and Sunnites. Since the beginning of the Khomeini takeover in 1979, Iran has been preaching a pan-Islamist ideology while sealing alliances with Islamic movements in the Arab world, Africa, and Asia. Iran concealed its Shiite philosophy and succeeded in creating the illusion that it was transcending its origins and its identity as a Shiite entity. It was not until the beginning of the so-called "Arab Spring" that the Arab nations realized the Iranian scheme. The war in Syria and Iran's open alliance with the Assad regime and the Shiite regime in Baghdad, Iran's subversive activity in Lebanon through Hizbullah and the Houthis in Yemen, unveiled the implications of the Iranian contribution: the transformation of local conflicts in West Asia into a Shiite-Sunni open conflict over hegemony. Moreover, the Arab perception that the U.S. administration was looking to mend the fences with Iran at the expense of it historical clients in the Middle East accelerated the crisis between the Arab world and Iran and justified in the eyes of many the armed struggle waged by the Islamists against Iran and its allies in the region.
Another factor in the rise of the Islamic State is the so-called "Arab Spring" which was the expression of the failure of the Arab nation-states. The events in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Bahrain and Yemen were exploited by Islamic militant movements which found the right opportunity to rise from their clandestine activities after years of oppression and persecution by the different Arab regimes to the forefront of the political struggle for power. Years of military rule did not eradicate the Islamic political forces that had remained in the shadow and camouflaged themselves under the cover of charitable organizations, social assistance and non-profit entities. However, after a first round in which the Islamists seemingly won in Tunisia and Egypt, the secular forces backed by the military succeeded in overcoming the Islamists. The Muslim Brotherhood was dealt a heavy blow both in Syria and Egypt. However, the different regimes were unsuccessful in eradicating the plethora of militant terrorist Islamic organizations that are still conducting their deadly attacks against the different regimes. Some regimes survived – even though deeply shaken and destabilized – like Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco – while others like Libya deteriorated into failed states, and others are struggling for their survival such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen.
The second American war in Iraq in 2003 dealt a death blow to the Sunni minority that had ruled Iraq since its separation from the Ottoman Empire by British colonialism. The Americans, striving to establish a new world order with democratic regimes as a copy of the West, established an unprecedented Shiite regime which in turn discriminated against the Sunnites who found themselves out of jobs, positions, army command, and Baath party offices. Paul Bremer, then head of the U.S. occupational authority in Baghdad, disbanded the Iraqi army in May 2003. Thousands of well-trained Sunni officers were robbed of their livelihood with the stroke of a pen. In doing so, America created its most bitter and intelligent enemies. This was the fertile ground that welcomed Al-Qaeda and allowed the symbiosis between the Sunnite opposition to the Shiite regime and the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization. Until the schism with ISIS in 2013, Al-Qaeda was, in fact, the sole quasi-military opposition to the U.S.-led coalition campaign.
Amazingly, the Islamic State terrorists who have emerged in Iraq and Syria are not new to the U.S. and Western security agencies. Many of them spent years in detention centers in Iraq after 2003. "There were 26,000 detainees at the height of the war," the New York Times reported, "and over 100,000 individuals passed through the gates of Camps Bucca, Cropper, and Taji." The leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was incarcerated in Camp Bucca in southern Iraq. "A majority of the other top Islamic State leaders were also former prisoners, including Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Abu Louay, Abu Kassem, Abu Jurnas, Abu Shema and Abu Suja," the Times detailed. "Before their detention, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and others were violent radicals. Their time in prison deepened their extremism and gave them opportunities to broaden their following."
Unfortunately, the phenomenon went unnoticed for most American decision makers. "The prisons became virtual terrorist universities," the Times reporters Andrew Thompson and Jeremi Suri wrote. "Policies changed in 2007… Where possible, the military tried to separate hardline terrorists from moderates." But after the American withdrawal these prisoners were placed in Iraqi custody. The Islamic State freed these extremists as they swept across parts of Iraq. "With a new lease on life," the New York Times reported, "these former prisoners are now some of the Islamic States' most dedicated fighters."2
Never in the modern history of the Muslim world has a conflict drawn so many jihadists as is the case with the Syrian and Iraqi civil wars, surpassing wars in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Since the outburst of the conflict in Syria in 2011 and the 2014 takeover of Mosul by the IS (the Islamic State), Syria and Iraq have become the epicenter of the global Jihad. Thousands of jihadists originating from more than 90 different nationalities have flocked to Syria and Iraq to be part of the battle against the Assad regime and the Shiite regime in Iraq. The latter two are reinforced by Hizbullah and Iran.
The jihadists seek to participate in the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate to rule the world after the defeat in battle of the Western powers and their local Arab allies. The attraction the Islamic State is exercising on Sunni Muslims around the globe and jihadists in the Arab and Muslim world is tremendous. The Islamic State has become the beacon to rally thousands of militants in Iraq, Syria and around the globe.
The attraction is not limited in space or time. The movement is in Europe, the United States, Australia, Xinyang and also in the Arab world and Africa. As a matter of fact, most of North Africa's jihadist groups were hesitant to associate themselves with the Islamic State until the United States commenced its military intervention in Iraq and Syria in August 2014.
Profiling the Jihadist
Almost all of those who join the armed Jihad, Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State fall into two primary categories:
Religion doesn't have much to do with the jihadists' actions. Most know nothing about Islam and mindlessly repeat some verses that have been hammered into them by radical imams, less stupid than them, but much more dangerous. Those who are outside these profiles are only a tiny minority – exceptions that confirm the rule. Jihadist university graduates, for instance, are often frustrated individuals who have failed to integrate into society through work, study, socialization, marriage, etc. There again, radical imams succeed to convince them that their failures are not of their making but that of the environment that dismisses them. They teach them the idea that it is legitimate that they restore the situation to their benefit and by acting with force.
In fact, all jihadists have a psychiatric pathology, characteristics of obsessive-compulsive, even depressive disorders, as well as an inability to be socialized. The study of their past reveals that they had left homes and families voluntarily, that many had been the witnesses of family crises, and that they were often unemployed. Some have even made use of drugs when they were not directly involved in its trafficking.
The Islamic State has an undeniable power of attraction over these individuals. Indeed, it controls a territory on which it can implement the life principles that guide its action. Thus, young men leaving to join the IS receive on the spot what they have lacked in their previous homeland: On the one hand, they receive a reason that spares them the need to reflect, to earn a salary, to court women, while on the other hand they are offered warlike activities that become an outlet for their frustrations.
For many, aspects of life – physical, sexual and sentimental – in the Islamic State are better than in their country of origin. This is particularly the case for Chechen fighters who flock to the IS because the conditions of combat in Iraq and Syria are less harsh than against the Russians. Many young jihadists in the Arab world believe the Islamic State offers them greater social justice. No doubt they hear of the permission to murder, torture, rape, and entering into forced marriage of non-Muslims, or even of Muslims when they are not quite as radical. And, of course, there is the extermination of the Shiites.5
Why North Africans?
Out of the thousands who volunteered for jihad, about 5,000 fighters, originating from North African countries, have joined the ranks of IS and the Jabhat al-Nusra fundamentalist organizations active in Syria and Iraq. The biggest contingent is composed of Tunisians (3,000), followed by Moroccans (1,500) and Algerians (500-800) representing roughly 50 percent of the foreign fighters. These numbers exclude the European fighters of North African origin (mostly from France, 1,800, and Belgium, 400-600).
Ironically, most of North Africa's jihadist groups were hesitant to associate themselves with the Islamic State until the United States commenced its military intervention in Iraq and Syria in August 2014. Jihadists such as Abdel Malek Droukdel from AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb), Mohammed Zahawi , from Libya's Ansar al-Sharia, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar from al-Mourabitoun, who fought alongside Bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, had refused, sometimes openly, to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State — even after it captured swathes of territory in Iraq in June 2014 and declared a caliphate. Recently, however, North Africa's younger jihadist generation has become emboldened to break away from al Qaeda, seeking instead to join Baghdadi's IS caliphate to benefit from its success and wealth. Rather than deterring these groups, the U.S.-led coalition's sporadic airstrikes in Iraq and Syria seem to have afforded the Islamic State even more legitimacy in the eyes of North Africa's jihadists.
Some of the Moroccan militants are filling senior positions in the Islamic State as are "emirs," ministers (Justice, Finance, Interior), as well as a Military Emir (Military Chief) and even the head of a geographical region (the Turkman Mountain). However, 75 percent of the North Africans are "Inghimasiyyine," an Islamic State terminology for an undercover operative responsible for protecting convoys and serving as the second wave of attack when an offensive mission or targeted attack is carried out.
During the first days of the civil war in Syria, the North Africans were organized in brigades, one of which was named "Sham al-Islam" and headed by a Moroccan, Ibrahim Benchekroun, alias Abu Ahmad EL-Maghrebi. Some even nicknamed the brigade as the "Liwa al Infransiyyoun" (the French Brigade) since the combatants communicated among themselves in French; some of its members were French nationals, mostly of North African origins, who were integrated into the North African French-speaking brigade. The ill-fated brigade that was active in the Latakia region of Syria was almost annihilated by the Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad. The remaining members were scattered in different units created since then by the Islamic State.
Considered by the Islamic state as "Muhajirun" (immigrants), the North African fighters receive a monthly salary of $2,000-3,000 (compared to $500 paid to the local fighters). If married, the volunteer receives an additional $200 and $50 more for each of his children. A new born child will automatically generate a "bonus."
Multiple Motives for North African Jihadists
Why are so many North Africans keen to join the Jihadist effort? What stands behind this massive mobilization and readiness of young people to leave everything behind, cut their ties with family, disappear from their milieu without any announcement, smuggle themselves to the Syrian or Iraqi arenas (at great risk from their respective countries and under the constant watch of the security and intelligence agencies that monitor movements to and from the Middle East), and of course ready to sacrifice their lives in Syria, Iraq or in Europe for a cause fought thousands of kilometers away from their native North African country?
The explanation may be found in the following:
What Are the Ultimate Objectives of the Islamic State?
The answer is simple, and it lies in the publications of the Islamic State: establish an Islamic Caliphate that would restore Islam's historical splendor. According to the maps published by the Islamic State, the Islamic State will include Andalus in the West (Spain) and stretch from North Africa — the Maghreb — (and the whole of West Africa including Nigeria) through Libya and Egypt (considered one geographical unit – Ard Al-Kinana), include what is called in Islamic state terminology, Ard el Habasha (from Cameroon in the west, Central Africa, the Lake Victoria states, Ethiopia and Somalia), the Hijaz (Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States), Yemen until Khurasan in the east – defined as the Central Asian Muslim Republics beginning with Azerbaijan and including Pakistan and the southwest part of China, land of the Muslims of Turkish origin, the Uyghurs. The Islamic State also includes Iran and Turkey (named Anatol) in their entirety and parts of Europe (mainly the Balkans, more or less conforming to the borders of the defunct Ottoman Empire with the Austro-Hungarian territories).
Caliph Abu Bakar Ibrahim Al Baghdadi
The Islamic State has made no secret who is its enemy: In an audio-taped message, Al-Baghdadi announced following his self-proclaimed caliphate that the Islamic State would march on "Rome" in its resolve to establish an Islamic State from the Middle East across Europe. He said that he would conquer both Rome and Spain in this endeavor and urged Muslims across the world to immigrate to the new Islamic State.
On November 13, 2014, exactly a year before the Paris terrorist attacks, a voice message attributed to Al-Baghdadi vowed that IS fighters would never cease fighting "even if only one soldier remains." The speaker urged supporters of the Islamic State to "erupt volcanoes of jihad" across the world. He called for attacks to be mounted in Saudi Arabia—describing Saudi leaders as "the head of the snake" – and said that the U.S.-led military campaign in Syria and Iraq was failing. He also said that ISIL would keep on marching and would "break the borders" of Jordan and Lebanon and "free Palestine." Al-Baghdadi also claimed in 2014 that Islamic jihadists would never hesitate to eliminate Israel just because it has the United States support.
The distillation of these warlike declarations could only mean a continuation of the IS war effort directed at:
Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, a special analyst for the Middle East at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, was formerly Foreign Policy Advisor to Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Deputy Head for Assessment of Israeli Military Intelligence.