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Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What Is ISIS? What Do They Want?

ISIS. Still here
So ISIS have really arrived with fanfare blaring. What was once interpreted as a very marginal threat has developed into a force that is giving the west a constant headache. Is it just me, or when you see footage of the President walking around the White House gardens does he appear as a man who wishes he could just forget it all? And well he might! For every night he has to go to sleep with the constant question of what to do. How many times has he asked himself:

"What do ISIS want"?

Well, what do they want? Well, how long is a piece of string? As long as the circumference of the world, it would appear. To begin with, ISIS want the elimination of the colonial borders drawn up following WWI, that still exist today. The leader of their organisation recently called for an attack on Rome, Europe and Spain by ISIS. Members appear to have been planning a public beheading in downtown Sydney. Reading between some pretty broad lines one can already see that we are heading towards a more global war. None of this is made any easier by Russia and Putin's stubborn behavior in everything from the Ukraine to Syria. But all in all, as people who read the Quran very literally, the ultimate aim for ISIS is an Islamic World.

The leader of ISIS, once known by his war-name of Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, was originally a cleric from Samarra, one of the Abbasid Period capital cities. His link to Samarra is evident in his real name, which is, deep breath, Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri al-Samarra. Today he prefers to be addressed simply as Caliph Ibrahim, or Caliph Abraham to westernize it. In Arabic a "Caliph" translates as "Successor" or "Deputy", and a "Caliphate" is a Successor-State", as in successor to the State of Islam as determined by Muhammed. We haven't had a Caliph in some centuries now, as far as I am aware.

Then: Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi

Now: Caliph Ibrahim in more appropriate attire befitting his station
The IS, or Islamic State, is the new name that Caliph Ibrahim has given to his region of influence. As always in these situations, it pays to go and look at the Arabic term that they use, which is ad-Dawlah l-ʾIslāmiyyah, which, and I could well be wrong, I always thought had overtones of being an Islamic "Mission". I think that in some ways this might be a more appropriate label.

And on the subject of terminology a final word. I still use the term ISIS, as it refers to their original objectives. To label the group IS only gives them credibility. The US government continues to use ISIL as it uses words that we dumb old westerners can understand, like "Levant", rather than an Arabic expression with a fascinating Aramaic origin (read previous blog). That being said, how many people these days are proficient with the use of "Levant"? Honestly, I wish they'd just call them ISIS and be done with it.

There is something else we need to emphasize in order to understand what they want. ISIS are usually referred to as Salafists, which, as I explained in my last blog means "ancestors", as in the ways and austere lifestyles of the earliest Muslims. Modern day Salafists emerged in the Muslim Brotherhood movement back in the 1920s. These Salafists are very strong in Egypt, the most populous Middle Eastern country with 85 million people, but also many of the other rebel groups fighting the Syrian Alawite Regime would adhere to Salafist doctrine. Salafis are not at all distantly related to the Wahhabis. They read the sacred texts literally, which explains their notoriously harsh record of persecution and punishment. 

There are reports of Christians being treated less harshly and still being able to avoid persecution by paying the jizya, the ancient tax levied on all dhimmi, or "people of the book". Admittedly, this would be in keeping with a literal interpretation of the Quran. Whether or not this is true I cannot say, but there is no doubt whatsoever that any group unfortunate enough to not be included in the dhimmi, such as the Yazidi, for example, or any Shiite, who is automatically branded a heretic, will suffer a terrible fate if captured. Even crucifixion is being used. 

Marching off to a certain fate
The lesser known term associated with ISIS is somewhat interesting one, with reference to them as "Kharijites". Now the Kharajites were an interesting bunch. Following the death of Uthman, the 3rd Rashidun Caliph, the Kharijites grew angry at Ali for not avenging Uthman. A Kharijite stabbed Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and the 4th Rashidun Caliph, as he prayed at a mosque in Kufa, his own capital city in southern Iraq, and was buried in Najaf. This event really marked the beginning of what has been a never-ending battle in the world of Islam between two major sects. Speaking of sects, Kharijite translates as "those who went out", meaning, they were the first sect to "head out on their own" from the Umma of Islam.

So ISIS want to see a strict Sharia State, with the ultimate aim aim of bringing all Muslims, the Umma, under the Sunni orthodox umbrella. The call for ISIS fighters to march on Rome may strike many westerners as a somewhat quaint and antiquated destination, but it is interesting because it says something about the mindset of the so-called Caliph Ibrahim, that is, he is very much influenced by his religious background in Samarra, one of the capitals of the long-running Sunni Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258 AD), often considered the "Golden Age" of Islam. Back then, the Muslims referred to the Byzantine Christians in Anatolia and to the west as "Rum", illustrating the long-lasting impact of Rome upon the Middle East. So the call to march on Rome plays to Jihadist sentiments on real historical levels.

The ancient minaret at Samarra
The call to take Spain as well may also seem fanciful, yet not if you are a Salafist holding true to views commonly accepted 1000 years ago. Early in the Islamic Period Spain represented part of the Umayyad conquest. In one of those countless asides of Arabic history it is of interest to note that back when the Ummayad dynasty was tottering, the Kharajites - the very same that murdered Ali - had cut Spain off from the rest of the Empire. After the Umayyads fell and the Abbasids seized power, a separate Umayyad dynasty continued in Spain for some time.

So the leadership of ISIS has made a stated claim for Spain and other parts of Europe and a war on Rome, all living under the most strict form of Sharia law. Ideally, in a perfect world if you belong to ISIS, then everyone else also adheres to the same interpretation of Islam, and lives accordingly. That, in a nutshell, is what ISIS wants.

Of course, there is a big difference between what ISIS wants and what ISIS has. Let's take a look at where ISIS actually are. Here are two different maps outlining their presence on the ground in Iraq and Syria. What is immediately noticeable is how similar these maps are, even though they are from different sources:

ISIS have a heavy presence in western and northern Iraq and in northern Syria, particularly around Raqqa, Aleppo and Idlib, and Mosul, and in the region north of Baghdad. They have made some attempted incursions into the mountains that border Iran but will never make any headway there because there are 30 million Kurds, who are a race of people as tough as nails, who will be more than willing to stand up and fight them. The Kurds have their own grander ideas and there is no way ISIS, a mere handful of fanatics is going to stand in the way of them.

A single line marks the area of ISIS activity, snaking up to Raqqa and Aleppo. This line is the path of the Euphrates River Valley, the only good habitable land. The open spaces on either side are largely desert. A similar line follows the path of the Tigris River up to Mosul. So these ISIS areas are determined by geography. The similar lines that dart across the desert mark the lonely roads that cross sandy oblivion, linking Baghdad to the likes of Damascus and Amman. ISIS have simply taken control of these roads up to the borders.

Now a large, broad swathe connects Mosul, on the Iraqi Tigris, with Raqqa, on the Syrian Euphrates. The environment is fairly open, rolling grassland, semi-arid, and the region is known as the Jerzirah, or "island". There are different meanings applied to the use of this toponym, but I think the most logical is drawn from the plethora of ancient, abandoned tells, many of them dating back 5000 years or more, that dot the landscape, and appear much like islands.

This particular path explains rather well how easy it was for ISIS to leave Raqqa earlier this year, when they were pushed back by opposing forces, and cross over to Mosul in a surprise attack. As the crow flies it's all a quick trip. And this also explains how easily ISIS have since returned, for they consider Raqqa to be the capital of their State. So, the extent of ISIS activity, without by any means trying to trivialize it, is limited in scope to some fairly predictable regions. Although it is important to note, on a subject that could be a blog in itself, that ISIS have recently been bolstered by patching things up with al-Qaeda, and have been fighting in conjunction with them against the Shiite Hezbollah, as far away as Lebanon.

A quick dash to Mosul
I think that when ISIS first appeared on the scene they were sorely underestimated. They were a very small force of mostly foreign Jihadists, probably no more than 5000 to 10000 fighters. But they have shown themselves to be remarkably adept at running their operation. Their key in controlling the population is to seize all of the fuel and food and thus hold the people at their bequest. The people rely on them for survival. Young men are forced to join up and their families are held for ransom, so claims of their numbers are ballooning, albeit by perverse means, are not so necessarily so far-fetched.

When ISIS first appeared I didn't think they had a chance. But other factors have played in their favor. For example, after ISIS took Mosul a big hoo-haa was made by Maliki and the Shiites in Baghdad that they were going to march on up to Mosul and wipe them out. At the time I thought, this will take a week. Just think, there are 20 million Shiites in Iraq and only 10000 ISIS fighters. The Iraq Army has been armed to the teeth by the US with the latest of everything. How could this be a problem?

But then nothing happened! Maliki flicked the bird to the US and promptly resigned. No army moved north. ISIS continued on. One of two things must have happened. First, the US pressured the Shiites to calm down as they work out a more comprehensive plan with Nato and the Kurds and so on. Second, the Shiites were only making a big show but deliberately holding off and waiting for someone, meaning the US, to do the dirty work. Not the first time that kid of thing has happened!

One thing is for sure, as long as the west dithers over what to do, ISIS becomes stronger, becomes more entrenched, and spins a more treacherous web. Today, the US launched the first air-strikes against ISIS in Syria. This is a ground-breaking moment. Previously, ISIS had been safe from such an attack in Syria. The US has struck at Mosul about 200 times but ISIS aren't stupid, would have seen that coming, and headed back west over the border.

Carrying out these air-strikes in Syria is a bold move by the US. Not only the government of the Syrian Alawite Regime, but also Russia, have come out and said that such strikes would be an attack on sovereign territory. Of course, the hypocrisy of Russia saying such things in the light of current events in the Ukraine is immediately apparent. Yet it goes to show how this is a global, not a localized problem.

How to address this problem, or more accurately how we have failed to address this problem, comes in the next installment.

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