ISIS: Ambitions and Constrains
Since its inception, news of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS/Daesh) has splashed across the world’s media. The nascent entity emerged suddenly and expanded quickly. Its brutality has commanded widespread attention and generated mounting concern. A few months ago, Daesh entered its second year, demonstrating a unique ability to survive despite being targeted by joint international efforts and military campaigns. This article digs deep inside the life of Daesh, assesses important details such as its structure and formations and highlights facts that may be important to the general reader and decision-maker alike. These features reveal the complexity of the composition of Daesh which it has managed to build in record time.
Islamic movements have a deep rooted history in the Middle East. They took on a mature political form with the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928, five years after the collapse of the Ottoman caliphate. The failure of the Brotherhood to master challenges and fulfil the aspirations of its supporters led to the emergence of numerous other movements with an Islamic orientation. This trend escalated with the US occupation of Iraq in 2003, resulting in the birth of the Jama’at Al-Tawhidwal-Jihad (JTJ).
In 2004, led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, JTJ swore allegiance to the Al-Qaeda network, becoming Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Following Al-Zarqawi’s death in 2006, AQI became the Islamic State in Iraq, the forerunner of Daesh. History aside, ISIS (an acronym for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria”) or Daesh (an abbreviation of the group’s name in Arabic, Ad-Dawla Al-Islamiyyafil-Iraq wa-Sham) has become one of the most influential and controversial forces to penetrate the Middle East to-date. Dramatic victories and the control of Mosul in summer 2014 were stepping stones that ushered in and solidified Daesh rule, hence its declaration of a caliphate.
Daesh has managed to survive in spite of the participation of some 60 nations in the US-led coalition against it; recent attacks by Russian forces; fierce battles against the Syrian regime and the Iraqi army; and clashes with the Sunni tribes in Iraq, the popular Al-Hashd Al-Shabi’, the Kurdish Iraqi “Peshmerga”, Al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps and other mercenaries. Intriguingly, the group has succeeded not only to survive, but also to morph from a non-state actor into a quasi-state.
At this moment in time, Daesh controls more than half of Syria and one third of Iraq. Its territory consists of a decentralised system of 16 provinces, each one further divided into districts. Every province is controlled by an amir (a governor), who manages the amirs of his districts. These district amirs, in turn, micromanage their populations and maintain control of the oil fields.
According to the New York Times, Daesh has outpaced the Syrian and Iraqi regimes in administrating the cities it controls. After years of civil war, chaos and instability, things are now in order; streets are cleaner, businesses are more organised and, if you follow their dictates, you can live in safety.
The same conclusion was reached by other western sources who emphasise that Daesh runs life in the cities it controls as any other state would, issuing identity cards, driving licences and work permits. It develops infrastructure and fights corruption.
The Daesh caliphate has a Shura Council (parliament), but its role remains consultative. The final word rests with the so-called caliph, Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi. The caliphate has also developed several departments including media, justice and security, as well as its own education system (based on an austere interpretation of Islam).
The security apparatus is run differently to other departments, as it is only for those completely loyal to the group and not open to new recruits whose loyalty has not been tested. According to US security sources, the number of Daesh fighters ranged between 9,000 and 18,000 before the US-led campaign, and the same sources suggested that the number of the fighters is now the same.
The CIA said a year ago that the number of Daesh terrorists ranges between 20,000 and 31,500, while the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights thinks that the number in Syria alone exceeds 50,000. On his part, the chief of the Russian General Staff estimates the number of Daesh fighters at 70,000 and those numbers remain modest when compared with the Kurdish estimations which suggest that the number has reached 200,000.
Numbers aside, Daesh has employed tactics so brutal that even Al-Qaeda has denounced them. Their methods involve the destruction of property, torture and execution in the crudest fashion, all intended to terrorise and intimidate their enemies. Indeed, according to eyewitnesses, the battle of Basra would not have ended so swiftly without the horror that struck the Iraqi garrison after being subjected to a number of suicide attacks.
With regard to foreign operations, which include terrorist attacks and bombings in Western or Arab countries, Daesh utilises them as propaganda and as one of its accomplishments in order to attract new recruits who sympathise with its ideology. This takes us to the second administrative body upon which Daesh lavishes a lot of attention: media.
Daesh has demonstrated a powerful capacity to attract the support of ideological and real-world fighters (from more than 80 countries) and to cultivate terrorist cells around the world. Experts have highlighted the Daesh propaganda machine as the key to its recruitment success. With as many as 90,000 Twitter accounts globally, Daesh’s virtual online army has proven adept at the use of technology, especially social media platforms. The recent, flagrant call for Sudanese youth to join the group is a salient example of its ability to run a sophisticated propaganda campaign.
The movement’s swift occupation of a large swathe of Iraq and Syria and its ability to stretch its tentacles in ten countries through “either Daesh or affiliated groups” – in Nigeria, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Pakistan and Afghanistan – highlights the group’s ambition and its capacity to control and manage large territories.
According to security experts, the Daesh strategy is based on survival followed by expansion. After the initial survival phase, Daesh began to create provinces and districts. The group then started to expand its sphere of influence into other regions. In his book “Empire of Fear: Inside the Islamic State”, Andrew Hosken uncovers a five-year plan designed by Daesh. He outlines Daesh’s map of a new world order that includes Spain, Greece, the rest of the Balkans, India and the northern half of Africa in a greater, ultra-strict caliphate or “Islamic State”.
For almost two years now, Daesh has continued its campaign while regional and global powers lack a common vision on how to respond. Although the international community certainly dreads the prospect of any further Daesh expansion, it is distracted by other matters and continues to misjudge the menace posed by that “distant” region. In the same way, the undergoing proxy war in Syria is hindering any consensus on how to fight ISIS and regional powers are busy with their own domestic and regional conflicts; the Houthis in Yemen and PKK in Turkey, for example.
A lot of speculation surrounds a foreign role in the creation and success of Daesh, especially with the unprecedented accomplishments that it has achieved in very little time. Perhaps, though, the truth lies somewhere between the regional instability and the chaos which inspired a foreign decision to create Daesh so as to achieve specific goals.
In spite of the aforementioned gloomy scenario, I think that the circumstances that contributed to the emergence and continuation of Daesh will not last long. Thus, this group is doomed to failure and eventual demise, given that its only real success is that it has united people across the globe against terrorism.
A previous version was published on eastonline.eu on Tuesday 20th October 2015.
Appeared in: Middle East Monitor, Arab Media Network, Arab Democratic Centre, Middle East Online, the Daily Journalist, Iran Review, Political Science Academy, Pakistan Tribune, Turkish Weekly, MPC Journal, Journal of Turkish Weekly.