The rise of ISIS

by Rebecca Macfie / 21 February, 2015
Rebecca Macfie looks at the rise of Islamic State and whether the jihadists’ violent ideology can ever be defeated.
The aftermath of an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobani, under siege by Islamic State. Image/Getty
The aftermath of an explosion in the Syrian town of Kobani, under siege by Islamic State. Image/Getty

This article was first published in the February 21, 2015 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Since mid-2014, the global branding of Islamic State has become brutally familiar. Clad in a Guantánamo Bay-style orange jumpsuit, a hostage kneels in the desert, flanked by a hooded, knife-wielding executioner.

The shackled hostage waits for death while the head-lopper issues a hate-filled sermon – often in a British accent – to the “satanic” coalition of Western enemies and asserts the authority of the self-proclaimed Islamic State caliphate. The knife is put to the throat and the video fades to black, before revealing a severed head positioned on the victim’s corpse.

From the beheading of American journalist James Foley in August last year to decapitations of Japanese nationals Kenji Goto and Haruna Yukawa and more recently the horrific burning alive of Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasasbeh, each atrocity seems designed to shock, goad and confound the US and its allies.

That IS’s many victims include committed humanitarian aid workers such as 26-year-old American Kayla Mueller – held hostage for 18 months and allegedly killed in a retaliatory Jordanian airstrike – serves to deepen the sense of international outrage.

As international terrorism expert Loretta Napoleoni says, the constant newsfeed of IS’s handiwork also reveals something of the slick sophistication of the group that has now dislodged Al Qaeda as the world’s most feared jihadist group.

“Islamic State appreciates that extreme violence sells the news,” writes Napoleoni in The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East, written last year as Western nations belatedly woke up to the nature and extent of IS’s influence. “In a world overloaded with information, the 24-hour news cycle seeks ever more graphic images – thus the surfeit of photos and videos of brutal punishments and tortures uploaded in formats that can be easily watched on mobile phones.”

The propaganda of fear operates on two fronts: as a recruitment tool to reach disenfranchised Muslim youth in the Middle East, Europe and beyond; and to lure America’s allies deeper into a military response. “They want us to attack,” Napoleoni told the Listener. “Then they can embed their power – they can say that we are the invaders, that we are the colonisers.”

Dismissed only a year ago by President Barack Obama as the equivalent of a “jayvee [junior varsity] squad”, IS now controls a swathe of Syria and Iraq larger than the United Kingdom. With the takeover of the Iraq city of Mosul last June, it declared itself to be a modern caliphate – an Islamic nation state led by a supreme religious leader known as a caliph.

The “jayvee” squad has drawn a US-led coalition of 62 nations, including Germany, the UK, France and Australia, into a campaign of air strikes that commentators say is failing to undermine IS’s influence.


So what is Islamic State, what does it want and is there any prospect that its violent ideology can be defeated?

Although it seemed to burst suddenly onto the world stage only last year, the jihadist group has been in operation under different guises for over a decade. Variously known over the years as Tawhid wal-Jihad, Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), Al Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant/Syria (ISIL/ISIS), it took on its current appellation of Islamic State last June.

Its founder was Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a school dropout who fell into a life of crime and was imprisoned for drug possession and sexual assault. He later embraced radical Salafism – a puritanical creed that seeks to cleanse Islam of any Western influence – and travelled twice to Afghanistan, operating an Al Qaeda-funded terrorist training camp there.

He became embroiled in the conflict in Iraq after the US invasion of 2003, bringing with him jihadists whom he had trained in Afghanistan. His group adopted a strategy of extreme violence, including televised beheadings and suicide bombings. One of Zarqawi’s first acts of aggression in Iraq was an attack on the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad, followed soon after by an attack on the city’s UN headquarters.

Zarqawi sought to exploit the ancient schism between Sunni and Shia, attacking Shia targets and helping to trigger years of sectarian violence. He accused the Shia of colluding with the US to invade Iraq and topple Saddam Hussein, who had operated a system of patronage for years that favoured the minority Sunni, and of conspiring to prevent Sunnis having influence. Zarqawi’s organisation also attracted former Iraqi soldiers made jobless when the Americans disbanded the country’s army, as well as affiliates of Saddam’s Ba’ath Party, who were barred from government employment by the controversial policy of de-Ba’athification. Commentators say former Saddam loyalists continue to make up the rump of Islamic State’s leadership.

Napoleoni says the Americans also used Zarqawi as part of their justification for invading Iraq in 2003, creating a myth that the terrorist was the link between Saddam and Al Qaeda.

Zarqawi was killed in an American air strike in 2006, and by 2010 his group was close to extinction – a result of the so-called “surge” of US troops from 2007, and the Sunni Awakening, in which tribal leaders were supported by the US to rise up against jihadist groups such Al Qaeda in Iraq, as IS’s forerunner was then called.

IS mass murders
IS mass murders


But under the current leadership of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, an Iraqi with a doctorate in Islamic studies who claims to have a bloodline to the prophet Muhammad, the group has rebuilt and achieved frightening success.

Napoleoni says Baghdadi’s strategy was to exploit the civil war in neighbouring Syria from 2011 – not by fighting the brutal regime of Bashar al-Assad, but by attacking rebel groups and conquering their territory. The organisation was readily able to shop around for funding from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, which had their own interests in destabilising the regime in Syria but then took little notice of what Baghdadi’s outfit was doing, she says.

By early 2013, it was self-funding, with revenue from oil refineries, smuggling, taxes levied on businesses and citizens under its control, and income from joint ventures set up with local Sunni tribes.

IS has also benefited from a “devil’s compact” with the Assad regime itself, according to US analyst and writer Michael Weiss, co-author of Isis: Inside the Army of Terror, a detailed investigation that draws on extensive interviews with IS supporters and victims, as well as US intelligence and military and diplomatic sources.

Weiss says there is irrefutable evidence that the Syrian despot had for years kept Zarqawi’s group afloat and facilitated the movement of jihadist fighters from Syria into Iraq. Indeed, a US federal court civil judgment in 2008 sought by the families of two Americans beheaded by IS’s forerunner, Al Qaeda in Iraq, found the Syrian Government liable for the murders by providing assistance to the jihadist group.

He and co-author Hassan Hassan write that Assad’s use of extreme brutality against the majority Sunni population – including rape, torture and mass murder – was “designed to radicalise them and push them into acts of extremism”, enabling him to paint the rebel uprising against his rule as the work of terrorists.

Communities under IS control have also benefited from a tacit alliance between the group and Assad’s Government, Weiss told the Listener. “The Assad regime doesn’t like to pick a fight with ISIS. ISIS is great PR for them because from day one they have said this entire revolution, this entire protest movement, is just Al Qaeda … So if you are in a territory controlled by ISIS, it more or less guarantees the regime won’t drop barrel bombs on you,” says Weiss. And the Syrian territory taken by IS is mostly sparsely populated desert – “so it’s not a big deal [to Assad]. It’s not like Aleppo or Damascus.”



IS victim Kayla Mueller. Image/Google+
IS victim Kayla Mueller. Image/Google+

Weiss and Hassan, a Syrian-born analyst, describe how IS maintains command of the towns and cities it conquers through a combination of “soft power” and extreme violence. Once it controls an area, it establishes a semblance of order, disarming local communities and resolving local disputes – even those that date back years. For communities that have been under the thumb of a corrupt government and then unruly rebels, IS control brings a degree of improvement in security and a decline in the shootings, kidnappings and extortion suffered by citizens.

For example, Weiss cites the city of Minbij, where the people had suffered three years of “attritional warfare, ruled by rebel forces that had resorted to brigandry; they were deeply corrupt, they kidnapped people for ransom, they stole, they raped women. Then here come the big bad terrorists and they say, ‘If you pledge allegiance to us and pay your tax, if you are a good citizen and submit to Sharia law, then you will have nothing to fear. The garbage will be taken out, the roads will be repaired and you can carry on with your life.’ It’s a very tempting offer.”

As one elderly person told the authors: “We never felt this safe for 20 years. We no longer hear shooting. We no longer hear so-and-so killed so-and-so. We can travel with no problems.”

Typically, when IS takes over a town, the first facility to be established is a Hudud Square, to carry out Sharia punishments such as crucifixions, beheadings, lashings and the lopping off of hands, write Weiss and Hassan. It establishes a Sharia court and police force, regulates markets and allows locals to run day-to-day administrative affairs.

The laws imposed by IS are also applied to its own members and commanders – Weiss and Hassan note that “scores” of the organisation’s own have been executed for unlawfully profiteering or abusing power. They were told of one instance in which 10 IS members were executed because they sold tobacco seized from smugglers.

Fear of IS’s extreme brutality also helps cement its control and reduce the likelihood of organised local resistance. “A central pillar of ISIS’s propaganda of fear is to stop another Sunni Awakening,” Weiss told the Listener. “So they counter-impose images of ISIS militants or spies dressed in Iraqi security force uniforms going house to house and arresting Awakening council members, interrogating them on camera, making them dig their own graves and then beheading them and their children on camera and dumping them in mass graves.

“That is juxtaposed with images of what they call mass repentance rallies. So in a mosque in [Iraqi city] Fallujah or Mosul, in one video we analysed they invited all the former sheiks from the Awakening and said, ‘We don’t care what you did in the past – all is forgiven if you lay down your weapons and rip up the ID cards given to you by the central government. Pledge allegiance to Baghdadi and IS and we will forget the past. But make sure you come to us before we get to you.’”

The combination of divide and rule tactics, extreme brutality and effective governance means local Sunni populations have little motivation and a huge deterrent to rising up against IS, “particularly in the absence of a viable and acceptable alternative,” says Weiss.

“Put yourself in the shoes of a Sunni tribesman – you’ve been working previously with the [former Iraq leader] Nouri al-Maliki Government, who had an awful reputation for being deeply sectarian and thuggish. Why would you align with [the Iraqi Government] when you are faced with this stark choice of surrender or die? So long as IS can tap into that mixture of political grievance and pragmatism, you won’t see another Sunni Awakening occur.”


IS mass murders
IS mass murders

Despite its barbarism, Napoleoni argues that IS under Baghdadi has deliberately sought to build consensus among the local populations it controls. Key to this is the provision of social programmes – it operates bread factories, distributes fruit and vegetables to families, runs soup kitchens, matches orphans with families, fixes infrastructure and even runs polio vaccination programmes.

And although the impact of IS’s violence is amplified by its ability to broadcast its executions through social media, “the caliphate is no more violent and barbarous than any armed organisation in recent memory”, she argues. “In Kosovo in the 1990s, similar atrocities were committed, including cutting off children’s heads to play football with them in front of their parents.” State sanctioned beheadings are also part of the justice system of Saudi Arabia, the US’s key ally in the Middle East.

In the wake of international outrage over the burning alive of Jordanian pilot Kasasbeh, Weiss points out that the Assad regime has been “setting people alight … for years”.

And he argues that IS’s target audience for such brutality is not the West, but rather potential new jihadist recruits. “They wanted to treat the Jordanian as a spectacle because [IS] has been at war with Jordan before it was at war with the US in Iraq – that was Zarqawi’s primary target. Al Qaeda in Iraq was initially a heavily Jordanian franchise, which is why one of its first quarries, apart from the UN, was the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad.

“For them to have captured a Jordanian airman was second in propaganda value to them capturing an American. So while we watch these images or videos with horror, jihadis around the world see it as a great triumph against an ‘apostate’ Arab regime that is in bed with both the ‘crusader’ West and the ‘Jews’ – ie, Israel. It is very powerful.”


Despite its barbarous methods, Napoleoni argues that IS is also “spreading a powerful, in part positive, political message in the Muslim world. The return of the caliphate, a new Golden Age of Islam … appears to many Sunnis not as the emergence of yet another armed group but as the rise of a promising new political entity from the ashes of decades of war and destruction.”

In his first speech as Caliph in June last year, Baghdadi pledged to return to Muslims the “dignity, might, rights and leadership” of the past and called for doctors, engineers, judges and experts in Islamic jurisprudence to join him.

“To many, the Islamic State’s main aim is to be for Sunni Muslims what Israel is for Jews: a state in their ancient land reclaimed in modern times,” argues Napoleoni. She describes this as a “potent message” to disenfranchised Muslim youth who live with rampant corruption, inequality and injustice in many Middle Eastern and North African states, as well as to Muslim youth in Western cities who struggle to integrate into adopted countries that offer them few opportunities.

As part of their research, Weiss and Hassan interviewed IS fighters and associates to discover their motivations and found they ranged from “godless opportunists to war profiteers to pragmatic tribesmen to committed takfiris [Muslims who accuse others of apostasy]”.

“A lot have no religious background or immersion at all,” Weiss told the Listener. “They can’t even tell you one hadith [Islamic text] or memorise the Koran. And ISIS breaks them down. They encourage you to engage with them, to debate with them, to be sceptical. And they have all the time in the world. They break you down by getting you to slowly submit to their world view. And they are very skilful at this.”

He says some join IS as committed jihadists who see the organisation as the most successful team to join, with extensive territory, the best plan and the most weapons. Some join simply because they are “adrenalin junkies” and adventurers.

Some are motivated to join out of a deep sense of injustice at the treatment of Sunnis in Syria and Iraq. “They see Sunnis being bled white, Sunni women raped … and they see their own kin being slaughtered on an industrial scale and they are driven mad. This is holy war for them,” says Weiss.

“If you look at what they are trying to do and if you strip away the jihadi ideology – and ISIS is not just a terrorist organisation, it’s a mafia, it’s an army, and it has these pretensions of governance – the fundamental selling point of this organisation is Sunni revengism. The US knocked out the Saddam regime, which was minority Sunni rule over a majority Shia country, thereby eliminating the patronage system that had been there for decades through which Sunnis had enriched themselves and lived high on the hog. Bagdhadi is tapping into the wellspring of that feeling.”

Remains of Yazidis killed by IS
Remains of Yazidis killed by IS


In the book, Weiss and Hassan detail the alarming story of Abdelaziz Kuwan, a quiet 16-year-old of Syrian descent living in Bahrain, who in 2011 defied his family to go to join the rebellion against Assad. At first he fought for moderate rebel groups, before deeming them corrupt and ineffective and migrating to an Al Qaeda-affiliated group. Under pressure from family, he returned to Bahrain, where his mother confiscated his passport. But he connected via Skype with IS, which was becoming prominent as the most disciplined and organised of the jihadist groups in Syria.

Heading back to Syria, Kuwan joined the IS ranks, rising to positions of responsibility and discovering “new things about himself”, write Weiss and Hassan. “He learned that he was violent, brutal and determined. He beheaded enemies. He kept a Yazidi girl in his house as a sex slave.” He quoted the Koran and called his relatives in the Bahraini army “apostates”. He told the authors “I came here seeking martyrdom, and I have chased it everywhere.” He found it when he was shot by a Syrian regime sniper in October last year.

US intelligence officials estimate 20,000 foreign fighters like Kuwan have streamed into Syria and Iraq to join IS. “The media have sensationalised and put too much focus on the guys that come from Belgium or London,” says Weiss. “Not to say that’s not a problem, but they number in the hundreds. But look at countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia – then you get into the thousands.”


The US-led coalition against IS has been conducting airstrikes in Iraq since August last year and in Syria since September. Weiss takes a bleak view of the campaign’s prospects. Although it has deprived IS of much of its oil-related revenue, destroyed many of its weapons warehouses and killed many of its leaders, IS has still managed to “advance in places where it has either a natural constituency or can dominate a Sunni population too fearful or indifferent to rise up against it”.

“The bombardment is not going to achieve the goals that the US-led coalition have set out. Fundamentally there has to be a policy of regime change in Syria, but not one where you just batter down the doors of the presidential palace. I would call it regime isolation – so create safe spaces for moderate mainstream opposition to thrive. That means keeping the Syrian airforce away from these areas … and creating no-fly zones or buffer zones to keep both ISIS and the Syrian regime at bay.

“In Iraq, my assessment is that ISIS won’t be defeated unless and until American forces are back waging at least a limited counter-insurgency campaign … Every military official we interviewed for the book agreed there will be US boots on the ground probably both in Syria and Iraq.

“I have a very pessimistic view of where this is headed. America and the world is not going to get fully involved until something is set off in a major American city. I don’t think that’s going to be that far into the future, because what we are seeing now, especially since the split between Al Qaeda and ISIS [in early 2014], is competition for centre stage. Look at France: Charlie Hebdo was Al Qaeda; the attack on the kosher supermarket was ISIS-inspired. So the game of one upmanship and rivalry is going to be played out in the streets of Europe, the United States and the Middle East.” And, given this week’s arrest of two men in Sydney on suspicion of planning an IS-inspired attack, potentially much closer to home.

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