Researching the Islamic State

Researching ISIS

I confess to not having kept up well with the so-called Islamic State. My focus has always been on Egypt, with peripheral attention given to the region. If Egypt has been difficult to understand – living here – the rest of the region seemed near impossible. And fortunately, the complicating factor of the Islamic State had stayed distant from Egypt, until recently.

I am afraid a partial reason for my inattention is a success of their strategy. The Islamic State has its roots in Iraq, where it was one of many groups blowing up lots of stuff. Amid the moral ambiguity of the US occupation, yet another suicide bombing had a numbing effect. Why read one more template of the same story?

As they expanded into Syria the tale changed slightly, but with the same effect. The Islamic State was just one of many groups with unclear origins and less clear funding sources. Whatever nobility the original uprising may have had, it was quickly lost in a devastating civil war and the international hand-wringing that talked much and did little – which may have been for the best except for all the accumulated ‘little’ done behind the scenes.

And late last summer when the Islamic State drove out the historic Christian community and enslaved other religious minorities, it just accelerated a pattern recently established but seemingly inevitable. Palpitations of horror stimulated some writing, but what could be done to stem the tide? For every sympathetic Arabic letter ن placed on a Facebook page in solidarity, the futility of a hashtag campaign just became more apparent.

Finally, the Islamic State became another tool in the tool belt of conspiracy theorists, so abundant in the Arab world. For some their leader was a Mosad operative. Others saw the dirty hand of America looking for an excuse to reoccupy the region. Turkey and Qatar were blamed. As the US-led coalition rained more bombs upon the region in an effort to ‘degrade’ their capabilities, sorting through the conspiracies was far too daunting to contemplate.

All this is said to my detriment, for as noted it fits well with Islamic State strategy. They wish to wear down the morale of their enemy and give the appearance of the inevitability of their victory. Conspiracies aside, this is a key reason why the Iraqi army fled before them. Though greatly outnumbered ISIS believed in their fight. And their fight included years of kidnapping, assassinations, and suicide bombings that convinced the American-trained military it just wasn’t worth it.

My responsibility is Egypt, so I don’t believe I have run from a fight. But allowing myself to fall behind in the scholarship on the Islamic State is a dereliction of duty all the same, for Egypt is part of the on-edge region. The emergence of the Islamic State is one of the most important developments in a long time. Far more than a radical insurgency or religious revolution, their gains are a direct challenge to the nation-state system. That they have been successful relates directly to the weakness of this system in the region.

In the past few days I have finally taken time to remedy my negligence. This has come through reading some of the journalism and research on where the Islamic State stands today, in addition to fabulous video obtained by a journalist given a unique tour of their operations. I hope this brief summary will serve to compensate any deficiency in your knowledge, with less time investment.

But if you have the time to view this 45 minute feature from Vice News, I would recommend it. Published on August 15, it predates the beheading of foreigners and represents a moment in time the Islamic State was more open to outside eyes. They have allegedly issued a set of guidelines for journalists more recently, but I suspect few would be willing to trust their hospitality, let alone agree to the stipulations therein.

The footage is from Raqqa, the 500,000 population city now known as the capital of the caliphate. Familiar with cities in the Arab world, it was surprising to witness the normalcy of the environment mixed with the normalcy of atrocity. Familiar looking desert landscapes were cut with unfamiliar trenches, filled by familiar looking men carrying unfamiliar weapons.

Far worse was the familiar looking city square filled with familiar Arab facial features severed from their bodies. The Islamic State shows no pangs of conscience in its displays of brutality, but as will be remarked later, it all fits into a code that allows, even facilitates the rule of law.

For familiar scenes abounded in roadside shops and government installations, where the Islamic State has assumed the responsibility for service provision and justice. But unfamiliar morality police roam the streets, curbing the unfortunately familiar practices of bribery and corruption. And whereas it is normal to watch fathers and sons playing in a depleted riverbed, it is less common to hear preteens spew the vilest hatred of infidels and eagerly anticipate killing them.

For as Mara Revkin has detailed in Syria Comment, the conventional wisdom about jihadists being agents of chaos is ill-founded. Supported by Sarah Birke in the New York Review of Books, she shows that the chaos inducing practices of insurgency are quickly replaced by law and order once territory is seized. Patterns of governance, she remarks, are actually quite similar to those practiced by Europeans in the dawn of their industrial nation-state building efforts.

In pattern, that is, not necessarily in practice. The task of a state is win a monopoly on violence. To do so in contemporary Syria and Iraq requires quite a bit of violence at the outset. To secure an area the Islamic State uses a combination of fighting and buying loyalty. Upon submission of either kind they first demand repentance, and then disarmament. The Sheitat tribe in Deir Ezzor chose resistance, failed, and then had 700 men slaughtered, and 1,800 disappear. When none rose to their aid surrounding tribes learned a lesson. At the least they made common cause against a common enemy in Shia-led Baghdad. Several top leaders of the Islamic State are former ranking officers in the Baathist Iraqi military.

But once an area is in submission they work to restore functionality. Employees are left in their administrative positions. Zakat is collected and social service established for the poor. Police officers are well paid, enforcing a strict code based on sharia. This includes the cutting off of hands, whipping, and crucifixion. But it is not simply a code of deterrence. The Islamic State has punished, even executed its own members who transgress. This has been key to win at least the tacit acceptance of the population, who see a measure of justice at work. Used to the corruption of the previous regime, if people lie low and stay out of trouble it seems they can get on quite well.

In theory this applies even for Christians, some of whom have agreed to pay the dhimmi jizia tax. But most have fled when given the opportunity, leaving their churches behind which have been ransacked or converted to mosques. The video depicted one interior re-designer who took particular joy in destroying the crosses worshiped by the infidels.

But even in the far worse treatment for Shia and Yazidis, the Islamic State operates according to code. Guidelines have been issued for the treatment of enemy combatants and female slaves that horrify many modern Muslims. They meticulously draw from historic sources and practice, but the point is the importance of law. They are trying to build something that will last, and expand, in imitation of the earliest centuries of Islam.

But the question is, where do they get the money to do so? Long reports by Charles Lister in Brookings Doha, and Martin Chulov in the Guardian describe the history and funding sources of the Islamic State. And the conclusion is they largely earn it themselves. This flies in the face of the conspiracy theories, though it demands investigation of different ones altogether.

The original progenitor of the Islamic State is actually from Jordan, from whence Abu Musab al-Zarqawi hailed. But he made his name in Iraq, stoking sectarian tension to enflame the conflict against the Americans. After his death leadership of then-al-Qaeda in Iraq passed to Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, who led the incarnation of the first Islamic State effort from 2006-2008, defeated by the Sahwa tribal uprisings supported by the United States. But when Abu Omar was killed in 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi assumed leadership, and in 2014 he declared himself caliph. Intelligence sources say many of these jihadis passed through Syria first, given free conduct by President Assad.

Origins of this movement, however, trace all the way back to 2004 in a US prison in Iraq. Research indicates 17 of the top 25 Islamic State leaders spent time incarcerated, which actually helped their efforts. Outside of prison insurgents and jihadis operated independently; prison put them all in contact with one another. They even wrote contact information on the elastic lining in their underwear. When released or freed in jailbreak, they reconnected to put strategies in motion. Boxers helped us win the war, said one leader in an interview.

But the new leadership was at odds with their former worldwide partners in terrorism, and even their own disciples. Baghdadi sent his deputy to Syria when the Arab Spring began. Eventually he created Jabhat al-Nusra and chose not to submit, maintaining allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri of al-Qaeda. The two groups have clashed several times since, including in Raqqa before the Islamic State took control.

But once in control, and in expansion to other regions, revenues skyrocketed through the sale of smuggled oil. Additional sources included extortion money, ransom payments, and general taxation. At its height before the coalition bombing campaign, revenue equaled $2 million per day. No conspiratorial funding relationship with Saudi Arabia or Qatar is needed, but still conspiracies exist. Who purchases the oil, and from where? Who lets the foreign jihadists, now numbering 18,000 of the 31,000 fighting force, across the borders?

Indications point strongly to Turkey, though regime controlled areas in Syria also have a role. But all articles indicated the Islamic State is indeed becoming a state, though fully outside the nation-state system. What is to be done?

Going further than just this collection of articles, suggestions have included American reengagement on the ground, US support to Arab nation engagement on the ground, arming ‘moderate’ rebels against the Islamic State and the Assad government in some order, or supporting Assad in his position while negotiating a better political situation. Drying up revenue sources by pressuring regional allies to clamp down on the black markets has also been demanded, but with limited success.

It should be stated that I have heard Islamic State-type rhetoric the Arab world over, long before this current emergency. Rarely have I encountered an inclination to mete out such violence in implementation, but the goals of the new caliphate resonate with many a Muslim. It connects to their glorious past, claiming fidelity to the honored scriptures and righteous ancestors. And psychologically it allows non-introspection about current woes, finding refuge in the simpler hope of ‘if only we were more faithful Muslims, God would honor us.’

Of course, Muslims the world over have condemned the Islamic State, though in various fashion. The modern world is far different than the Ottoman Empire, or any other caliphate before it. Islam can get on very reasonably as a spiritual faith, disembodied from political power. Many Muslims are quite happy here.

But there is that something in Islam that clamors for power. It is not enough to live righteously and call others also to do so. Living righteously calls for stopping evil. Stopping evil requires power. Power resides best in governance. But, oh so unfortunately, power in governance tends to corrupt.

The Islamic State is doing its best to root out corruption. They are not after personal gain (presumably), but divine principle. Their horrors are obvious, but not random. They enact a code as they understand it. But at the same time, they issue contracts of sale for their black market partners who purchase the smuggled oil. The Arab world has suffered much evil, and they are fighting back. But so easily are compromises made.

And so wretched when moral horrors find justification in religious texts, rightly or wrongly. Sharia law has a place detailing the legal uses of spoils of war. It is from this heritage the Islamic State draws its regulations on proper conduct toward female slaves.

But war is human, as is power and governance. Muslims have long defended this aspect of their revelation as divine elevation of primal realities. Many state the norms of the past must be updated with the times, but they see it as a credit to their faith that it details all aspects of human existence, even unseemly ones.

So then, what to do with this catch up reading on the Islamic State? I hope this essay is at least partial fruit, that you as well may be better informed. But what good is information in the light of atrocities? Is not more demanded?

I confess I am not well placed to offer policy analysis on what to do in Syria and Iraq. With respect to all those placed in positions of influence, I wish them wisdom, discernment, and a pure heart. The current troubles are built upon compounded errors stretching back decades, from local and foreigner alike. It is far easier to criticize than find solution, especially from the outside. I tend to wish we would leave bad enough alone, and give up policing the world. But then so much would fall apart. It is hard to be on top, responsible to defend the stability of a world order upon which one’s prosperity depends. It is also hard to stomach the interventions at times necessary to maintain it.

But these are idealistic wishes of justice and responsible economy, not the workings of realpolitik. I would like to trust American leadership cares for our prosperity in good conscience with the prosperity of others. Alas, I fear this is not always so. Interest often trumps principle, especially when in power.

I have more confidence, perhaps, in weighing religious response in interaction with the rhetoric of the Islamic State. I see how their conduct is drawn from religion, and I see how rebuttal is drawn from the same. Islam is not monolithic, it is a flexible heritage. It must be, to have been so influential across time and geography.

Therefore, on this front, both groups must be challenged from their own sources. Jihadists and those of similar thought must realize Islam has torn itself apart in history, and created mechanisms to prevent reoccurrence. One many not call a Muslim an infidel, no matter how much he sins. And preventing evil has a rich heritage of interpretation, so that a zealot in his effort to forbid wrong does not wind up creating even more. These are basic lessons of civilization, and they have a religious root.

But for those who are quick to condemn the Islamic State and demonstrate Islam is a religion of peace, this is fine rhetoric but poor research. This group also, both Muslim and non-, must struggle with sources that mirror the practices witnessed today. Many Muslims try, and their efforts have been controversial. Some have looked to find modern ethics in their own heritage, rightly reinterpreted. Others have relegated the heritage to a bygone era, however superior it was to the ethics of the time. This effort is ongoing, but few will dare to condemn, for example, the early wars of Islamic expansion.

In both instances, though, care must be taken to win people and not arguments. The goal is a better vision for peace in this world, and for those who believe, also in the next. The goal is not to demonstrate the superiority of one faith or civilization over another. It is not to tear down a beloved heritage or corrupt sincerely held doctrine. It is to challenge each and every person to live up to higher ideals of truth and love, even as these ideals are debated. It goes without saying one must subject him or herself to the same process.

This will do little to change the Islamic State, but it may do well in conversation about it.

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