Dr. David Alpher
Conflict Analysis and Resolution for Prevention, Reconstruction, and Stabilization
8 November 2014
A Structural Analysis of Islamic State in the Levant
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also know as ISIS) is a jihadist, terrorist organization that grew out of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). It aims to establish an Islamic caliphate ruled by shariah law, is well-funded and well-resourced, recruits fighters through a sophisticated social media campaign, and has overrun much of eastern Syria and western Iraq. The following presents a structural analysis of the nature of this group. ISIL’s history, leadership, goals, media campaign, resources, and effects on the local population will be discussed.
Proximate History of ISIL: Off-shoot of AQI
ISIL began as Tawid wa al-Jihad, created by Jordanian-born Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 2002. Following the American-Allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, al-Zarqawi joined Al Qaeda (AQ) and renamed his movement Al Qaeda in Iraq (What is Islamic State?). In June of 2006, Zarqawi was killed in a US airstrike, and, in October of that year, his successor, Abu Ayyub al-Masri, announced the formation of Islamic State in Iraq (ISI). However, almost four years later, he and his chosen leader of ISI were killed and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi became leader in April 2010 (ISIS Fast Facts).
After being significantly weakened in Iraq following the Arab Awakening in Anbar province and the continued presence of US troops, al-Baghdadi moved ISI to Syria to join the fight against al-Assad. On 8 April 2013, ISI announced its incorporation of AQ-backed Syrian militant group Jabhat al-Nusra and created Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) (ISIS Fast Facts). Al-Nusra’s leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jawlani, opposed merging with ISI, but lost most of his followers to ISIL (ISIS Fast Facts). After years of rocky relations, Al Qaeda itself renounced ties with ISIL on 3 February 2014 on account of ISIL’s heavy-handed use of tactics like beheading videos that lost the “hearts and minds” of Muslims on a battlefield that heavily incorporated media (ISIS Fast Facts; Ensor). This withdrawal of support did not slow ISIL’s growth or flow of recruits, indicating the strength of this group’s vision and cause.
Following the formation of ISIL and before Al Qaeda withdrew support, al-Baghdadi moved ISIL’s territorial campaign from Syria into Iraq. In December 2013, he rode the Sunni wave of resentment against Maliki’s Shia-dominated government. By uniting with tribal leaders in the western province of Anbar, ISIL conquered large swaths of territory in western Iraq, including the city of Fallujah (What is Islamic State?; Viewpoint: ISIS). By June of 2014, ISIL had overrun Mosul in the north, Iraq’s second largest city, and advanced south to Tikrit, 180 km north of Baghdad. Later that month in Raqqa, Syria, on 29 June 2014, al-Baghdadi announced the transformation once again of ISIL into Islamic State (IS) and the formation of a caliphate (ISIS Fast Facts).
Since the official formation of ISIL, it has continued to advance its territory, lead an ingenious social media campaign, exploit oil and military resources, and shock Western media consumers with videos of beheading Western journalists and aid workers (ISIS Fast Facts). On 3 July 2014, ISIL took over Syria’s largest oil field, al-Omar, and now controls production of 75,000 barrels of oil per day (ISIS Fast Facts). Despite US air strikes on 8 August and 23 September, ISIL continues to advance and leave gruesome killings in its wake. On 3 November, the Iraqi government reported ISIL killing 322 members of the Albu Minr tribe in Anbar province (ISIS Fast Facts). They have also killed British aid worker David Haines and UK citizen Alan Henning for the UK’s “evil alliance” with the US (ISIS Fast Facts).
ISIL’s lightning advancement and ruthless tactics are tied to its leadership and goals. ISIL is led by a self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Al-Baghdadi was kept in US custody for four years during the Iraq War but has kept a very low media profile until recently (ISIS Fast Facts). According to Aaron Y. Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, we know al-Baghdadi holds a Ph.D. from the Islamic University of Baghdad, with emphasis on Islamic culture, history, Sharia law, and jurisprudence (Zelin). He also holds credentials from al-Azhar University in Cairo and the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia, both revered Sunni institutions in the Islamic world (Zelin). This increases his legitimacy as a religious leader and now-caliph among his followers. Neither Bin Laden nor al-Zawahiri held religious degrees and cannot attain to that same status in the eyes of some adherents (What adds more to his legitimacy as a caliph is claim to lineage from the Prophet Muhammad. In a biography recently written by a Bahraini ideologue, Turki al-Binali, al-Baghdadi claims descent from the Prophet’s Quraysh tribe through the al-Bu Badri tribe from Samarra and Diyala, who were historically descendants of the Prophet (Zelin). This adds credence to his claims as a political and religious leader over Islamic State and helps cement legitimacy in the minds of his followers and potential recruits.
In addition to his religious training, al-Baghdadi has significant experience mustering organized militant groups. In 2003, he and a few colleagues formed Jamaat Jaysh Ahl al-Sunnah wa-I-Jamaah (JJASJ) which operated within Baghdad, Samarra, and Diyala (Zelin). He assumed the position of head of the Sharia committee. His group later joined the umbrella of AQI in 2006 and Baghdadi became the general supervisor for all Sharia committees in the provinces the group controlled (Zelin). When the Zarqawi’s successor was killed in a US operation in 2010, al-Baghdadi became the leader of AQI (Zelin).
Since al-Baghdadi’s succession to leadership in AQI, he has led a deft campaign based on this Al Qaeda splinter group’s goals. The primary goal is restoring a caliphate, which is installing a caliph, a religious and political leader, in a government based on Sharia law (Johnson).
Al-Baghdadi inaugurated this caliphate on 29 June 2014 in Raqqa, Syria. The choice of Raqqa as the birthplace of a modern caliphate is significant for historical reasons. Raqqa was the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th and 9th centuries (Johnson). This was a golden era in the history of the Arab world where an Islamic state, ruled by Islamic religious scholars and a supreme political and religious leader, a caliph, fostered a flowering in the arts, sciences, mathematics, and the classics (Johnson). Raqqa and the Abbasid history of prosperity for Islam was seemingly chosen, in part, to lend legitimacy and confidence in a contemporary Islamic state. As a side note, it is ironic that the Abbasid empire, and particularly its capital, were also known for what was perceived as gross excesses that ISIL today would abhor.
A defected ISIL fighter stated that ISIL’s long term goals include expanding the caliphate to all Islamic lands and eventually the world (Damon). However, it is unclear how they will accomplish this goal once expanded beyond its current base of support in western and northern Iraq and eastern and northern Syria. ISIL carved out territory for itself, in large measure, because it took advantage of a power vacuum and repressed populations in two failed or failing states. The besieged Sunni Arabs of eastern Syria and the marginalized, repressed Sunni Arabs of western Iraq both bore demographic and cultural similarities to the political Islam ISIL identifies with and the cultural and ethnic background of many of its fighters. ISIL took advantage of the poor governance and disintegrated security situation for Sunni Arabs in these regions. Conquering territory further south in Baghdad and beyond, where there are few sympathizers and stronger government hold would require different tactics on ISIL’s part. Invasion south means threatening not only a wide Shia base, but also Iraq’s most productive oil fields. In order to protect oil interests, countries in the Gulf region, especially Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the UAE, may unite against ISIL. Further, threatening oil interests means threatening Iran, who will also likely push back on incursions into important oil production zones. In addition to formidable geopolitical deterrence in the south and east, ISIL’s forces are kept at bay by Kurds to the north. With an unsympathetic population and a formidable Peshmerga fighting force, the Kurds are so far repulsing and hedging in ISIL fighters. ISIL continues in the west of its territory to battle elements of al-Nusra that did not join ISIL, as well as other rebel groups. It is also opposed to President al-Assad’s Iranian-backed and Hezbollah-backed forces, from which ISIL has not made significant territorial gains (Viewpoint: ISIS). To its north, invasion into Turkey would prove unwise and unlikely. The Turks, Kurds, and Syrian refugees are largely unsupportive of ISIL, Turkey is a stable country and able to retaliate in unison, and as a NATO member, undoubtedly the international community would aid in its defense. Additionally, the Gulf, Levant, Iran, and the West will likely never recognize an ISIL government as a state (Viewpoint: ISIS). The future political situation of ISIL appears to remain limited and alienated. The current danger lies in an entrenched state forming that continues to spread its ideology, inspire homegrown terrorists, and continue to gain strength and sophistication until it is ready to expand again.
Despite ISIL’s xenophobic behavior and disregard for international legitimacy, its brilliant social media campaign is capturing human capital beyond Iraq and Syria in dozens of countries around the world. As of September 2014, the CIA estimated that the number of ISIL fighters within Iraq and Syria are between 20,000 and 31,500 (ISIS Fast Facts). Iraq expert Hisham al-Hashimi estimates that around 30% are “ideologues” and the rest are coerced into joining, sometimes out of fear (What is Islamic State?). Additionally, the Soufan Group estimated that around 12,000 ISIL fighters are foreign fighters drawn from up to 81 countries, with 2,500 coming from Western States (What is Islamic State?). These foreign fighters are persuaded to join, in part, through an extensive and well-managed social media campaign.
Through engaging content and expert use of Twitter, ISIL is able to make in-roads with potential recruits all over the world. Twitter is the most utilized platform in terms of volume of communication between ISIL fighters and their sympathizers. A recent article in the Atlantic reported on ISIL’s expert use of Twitter (Berger). A recent app called “Dawn of Glad Tidings” or Dawn allows users to keep up on the latest news of ISIL (Berger). After giving extensive personal information, users receive tweets including hashtags, images, and links that are then retweeted automatically by the user’s account at regular intervals in order to avoid triggering Twitter’s spam detection software (Berger). ISIL has sent up to 40,000 tweets in a single day, which inundate the twittersphere when retweeted constantly by followers (Berger).
Another way ISIL uses Twitter is by organizing activists to tweet out the same hashtags at the same time. This creates a trending topic which will then be viewed by regular Twitter users (Berger). Once ISIL gets on @ActiveHashtags stream, it is retweeted out at an average of 72 retweets per tweet (Berger). To put this into perspective, in February 2014, ISIL averaged over 10,000 mentions of its hashtag daily while al-Nursa averaged only 2,500-3,000 (Berger).
ISIL funnels the exposure it gains through Twitter into its Facebook campaign. There, potential recruits can speak with current fighters and understand what their experience is like (Simon). They can also connect with “facilitators” who can help recruits learn how to come join the fight in Syria and Iraq (Simon). Content that is fairly relatable, including comments about a meal or even pictures posing with a pet cat, are posted alongside beheadings or mass shootings (Simon). Pairing relatable, likable images with horrific acts, for some, can create a personable bridge that can help viewers first get to know and identify with the fighter and then be exposed to their horrific acts and ideology. Some potential recruits drop off after these gruesome acts are posted, but others who feel they know the fighter, rationalize the actions. Those that do not stop following these fighters continue to be exposed to an ever increasingly familiar and rationalized tableau of violence and ideology. These followers can eventually turn into recruits and join ISIL.
ISIL works especially hard to reach Western Muslims. One of the more insidious threats from ISIL may not be its territorial gains nor its brutal tactics, but their seductive sale of violent jihadist ideals to foreign nationals. When these nationals radicalize and remain in their countries of origin, there is a valid concern some radicals may be inspired by ISIL and decide to carry out their own attacks on home turf. As of 29 August 2014, the UK raised its terror threat level for home attack from international terrorism from substantial to severe, after ISIL’s media campaign was shown to affect UK citizens (UK’s terror threat level raised). ISIL also translates many of its media products into, “English, Turkish, Dutch, French, German, Indonesian, and Russian,” through various international media providers, such as Al-Hayat Media Center and Fursan al-Balagh Media (Ajbaili). This ensures that its message reaches citizens of governments hostile to Islamic State and projects its threat abroad through home grown terrorism.
It is clear that ISIL is well-established in not only social media, but also financially, militarily, and possibly economically. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel commented that ISIL was, “beyond anything we have seen” in terms of sophistication and funding (Coll). Its fighters are well-trained, some able to fly helicopters and knowledgeable in battle tactics (Coll). The group is compared to the Hezbollah model as, “part terrorist network, part guerrilla army, part proto-state” (Coll).
ISIL originally made money through various means, including protection rackets, carjacking, ransoms, kidnapping, and even donations (Johnson). However, after taking oil fields in both Syria and Iraq, it is ranked the wealthiest terror group worldwide (Johnson). This money is hard to hold onto with the cost of administration to a large swath of territory, somewhere between the size of Belgium and Jordan by most estimates (Johnson; What is Islamic State?).
Impact on Native Populations
While comparatively rich and fervently engaged in winning hearts and minds in its social media campaign, ISIL fighters have only made modest successes in winning the hearts and minds of locals in Iraq and Syria. Though accounts from inside ISIL territory is incomplete and somewhat difficult to attain, we have some idea of what ISIL’s Islamic State looks like for denizens on the inside.
ISIL has opportunistically expanded its territory in regions of insecurity, low or no governance, and sectarian resentment and has upset or ended civilian life in the process. ISIL re-entered western Iraq and quickly gained territory through exploiting simmering resentment between Sunni tribes and the Shia government in Baghdad (Viewpoint: ISIS). While ISIL aided the Syrian opposition in the early days of the Syrian civil war, they have since fallen out of favor with some native militant groups, including the rest of al-Nusra Front and the Free Syrian Army (ISIS Fast Facts). Over half of Anbar province’s 1.5 million, predominantly Sunni residents have fled ISIL (Cockburn). ISIL is responsible for massacres of Christian and Yezidi minorities and has engaged in the sale of Yezidi women into forced marriages and rape (Coll; Buchanan). ISIL has also perpetrated mass executions and fierce battles in Anbar and elsewhere, is known for public beheadings in fulfillment of their interpretation of Sharia law, crucifixions, requiring the full niqab covering for women, and has recently reformed education curriculum to exclude philosophy, music, and sports (Damon). These changes are not likely to persist in at least two instances: one, if ISIL significantly expands its territory, especially into oil rich regions, or two, if ISIL’s tactics are so repugnant to the base population, that support wanes and in-fighting begins. It is yet unclear how ISIL plans to consolidate its power and stabilize in the future.
In summary, ISIL is beyond anything the international community has ever seen from a terrorist group in terms of funding, military prowess, territory, and media manipulation. ISIL started as an Al Qaeda offshoot, recuperated in the Syrian civil war after being reduced in Iraq, and then fought its way to control many Sunni dominated regions in Syria and Iraq. A significant proportion of their adherents are ideologues, working toward the goal of establishing a caliphate where a religious and political caliph administers a strict interpretation of Sharia law. A larger portion of their organization is estimated to be coerced into fighting out of fear. ISIL’s control of major oil fields in Syria and Iraq, as well as other sources, continue to fund this would-be state. ISIL is expected to be facing increasingly difficult opposition if it pushes to significantly expand its territory. While its territorial expansion does not necessarily pose a direct threat on Western or other governments, its social media campaign and virulent spread of violent ideals to media consumers in Western nations may threaten homegrown terrorist activities. Finally, local minority or oppositional populations under ISIL control have been reported to be brutalized, killed, or raped. There is a great deal we do not know about locals who are at least outwardly complicit with ISIL rule. In all, ISIL’s expansion and media campaign present a dynamic and tireless challenge for US and other nations in dealing with this new threat.
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