September 8, 2014
The following is the introduction to The Islamist Phoenix, a study of ISIS by Loretta Napoleoni, one of the world’s leading experts on money laundering and the financing of terror. Islamist Phoenix will be available as an ebook in early November, and as a trade paperback on December 2nd.
For the first time since World War One, an armed organization is redesigning the map of the Middle East drawn by the French and the British. Waging a war of conquest, the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al Sham), or ISIS, is erasing the borders that the Sykes-Picot Accord established in 1916. The region where the black and golden flag of IS flies already stretches from the Mediterranean shores of Syria well into the heart of Iraq, the Sunni tribal area. It is bigger than the United Kingdom or Texas and, since the end of June 2014, is known as the Islamic Caliphate. “Caliphate” is the name given to an Islamic state led by a supreme religious and political leader known as a caliph, or successor to the Prophet Muhammad – the most famous being the Ottoman Caliphate (or Empire), which began in 1453 and lasted until the dissolution of the Caliphate and expulsion of the last caliph, Abdulmecid, at the hands of Kemal Ataturk in 1924.
Many believe that the Islamic State, like al-Qaeda before it, wants to turn back the clock, and indeed in Western media Syrian and Iraqi refugees describe its rule in their countries as a sort of carbon copy of the Taliban regime. Posters forbid smoking and the use of cameras. Women are not allowed to travel without a male relative, must be covered up, and cannot wear trousers in public. The Islamic State seems also engaged in a sort of religious cleansing through proselytism: people must either join its creed, radical Salafism; flee; or face execution.
Paradoxically, to deem the IS essentially backward would be mistaken. Indeed, during the last few years the belief that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the group’s leader and the new Caliph, is a clone of Mullah Omar may well have led Western intelligence to undervalue him and his organization’s strength. While the world of the Taliban was limited to Koranic schools and knowledge based upon the writings of the Prophet, globalization and modern technology have been the cradle of the Islamic State.
What distinguishes the Islamic State from all other armed groups that predate it, including those active during the Cold War, and what accounts for its enormous successes, is its modernity and pragmatism. So far its leadership has understood the limitations that contemporary powers face in a globalized and multipolar world – for example, the inability to reach an agreement for foreign intervention in Syria, as happened in Libya and Iraq. Against this backdrop the Islamic State’s leadership has successfully exploited the Syrian conflict, the most recent version of the traditional war by proxy, to its own advantage almost unobserved, drawing funds from a variety of people: Kuwaitis, Qataris, Saudis, who, seeking a regime change in Syria, have been willing to bankroll several armed groups. However, instead of fighting the sponsors’ war by proxy, the Islamic State has used their money to establish its own territorial strongholds in financially strategic regions, for example in the rich oilfields of Eastern Syria. No previous Middle Eastern armed organization has been able to promote itself as the region’s new ruler with the money of its rich Gulf sponsors.
In sharp contrast with the Taliban’s rhetoric and despite the barbarous treatment of the enemy, the Islamic State is spreading a positive and powerful political message in the Muslim world: the return of the Caliphate associated with happier and richer times for Muslims. This message comes at a time of great destabilization in the Middle East, while Syria and Iraq are ablaze, Libya is on the verge of another tribal conflict, Egypt is restive, and Israel has been once again at war with Gaza. Hence, the rebirth of the Caliphate and of its Caliph, al-Baghdadi, appears to many Sunnis not as yet another armed group but somehow as a political entity that is rising from the ashes of decades of war and destruction.
The fact that this Islamist Phoenix materialized on the first day of Ramadan 2014, the holy month of fasting and prayer, should be regarded as a powerful omen of the challenge that the Islamic State poses to the legitimacy of all the 57 countries that follow the Islamic faith. As clearly stated by its spokesman, Abu Mohamed al-Adnani: “the legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliph’s authority and the arrival of his troops to their areas.” This is a challenge posed by a new political organization that, while claiming to trace its legitimacy all the way back to 7th-8th century Arabia and the first territorial manifestations of Islam, comprises a contemporary state and commands a modern army. As such it should not be underestimated, especially if the Islamic State consolidates its territorial conquests.
That the threat is real, and that it is particularly felt by those who share a border with Syria and Iraq, are facts: in July, 2014 the black and golden flag of the Islamic State appeared in Jordanian villages, and in August thousands of IS militants streamed into Lebanon from Syria and took Arsal. Even former sponsors fear the military power of the Caliphate: at the beginning of July, al-Arabiya broadcast that Saudi Arabia had deployed 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq after Iraqi soldiers withdrew from the area.
Under the religious veneer and the terrorist tactics, therefore, lays a political and military machine fully engaged in nation-building, seeking consensus after territorial conquest. Residents of the enclaves controlled by the Caliphate affirm that its arrival coincided with improvements in the day-to-day running of their villages, from fixing holes in the roads to organizing soup kitchens for those who had lost their homes to the daylong availability of electricty.
While territorially the Islamic State’s master plan is to recreate the ancient Caliphate of Baghdad — an entity that the Mongols destroyed in 1261 and that stretched from the Iraqi capital all the way into modern Israel — its political goal seems to be the shaping of a twenty-first century incarnation. In his first speech as Caliph, al-Baghdadi pledged to return to Muslims the “dignity, might, rights, and leadership” of the past, and at the same time called for doctors, engineers, judges, and experts in Islamic jurisprudence to join him. As he spoke, a team of translators across the world worked almost in real time to release the text of his speech on jihadist websites, facebook and twitter accounts in several languages including English, French, and German.
The Islamic State wants to be for Muslims what Israel is for Jews, a state in their ancient land that they have reclaimed in modern times, a religious and powerful state that protects them wherever they are, something to be proud of. This is a potent message for the disenfranchised Muslim youth who live in the political vacuum created by disturbing factors, such as the corruption and inefficacy of the Free Syrian and Iraqi Army, the Maliki government’s refusal to integrate Sunnis into the fabric of political life, the absence of proper socio-economic infrastructures destroyed during the war, and a high rate of unemployment. It is a powerful message also for those living abroad, the disenfranchised Muslim youth of Europe. No other armed organization has shown such insight and political intuition into the domestic politics of the Middle East and Muslim immigrants’ frustration all over the world, and no other armed organization has adapted to contingent factors, such as the provision of basic socio-economic infrastructures in the territory it controls to succeed at nation-building.
Its leadership has also studied the tactical and structural mistakes of past armed groups as well as their successes, and has put these lessons into a modern context. Like the European armed organizations of the 1960s and 1970s, the Islamic State understands the power of propaganda, of fear at home and abroad, and has been skilfully used social media to propagate sleek videos and images of its barbarous actions. Fear is a much more powerful weapon of conquest than religious lectures, something that al-Qaeda has never understood. Equally, the Islamic State knows that the 24-hour media seeks ever more brutal images, because in a world overloaded with information, extreme violence sells the news: thus the plentiful supply of photos and videos of brutal punishments and tortures uploaded in formats that can be easily watched on mobile phones. Shockingly, in a voyeuristic society, sadism, when appealingly packaged, becomes a major attraction.
The Islamic State has closely analysed the propaganda machine that the US and UK administration employed to justify the preventive strike in Iraq in 2003, in particular the creation of the myth of al Zarqawi which US Secretary of State Colin Powell used on in his speech to the UN Security Council on February 5, 2003 to justify the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to an extensive and highly professional use of social media, the Islamic State has propagated equally false mythologies to proselytize, recruit, and raise funds across the Muslim world.
Crucial for the successes of this strategy have been the secrecy and mythology carefully woven around the Islamic State’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Bagdhadi. Again, in a world overloaded with information, mystery plays a major role in stimulating the collective imagination. The less people know, the more they want to know, and the more they imagine. Give people a few clips and they will complete the picture as they like it. Islam is premised on a certain nostalgia rooted in the return of the Prophet, while the West still fears Islam. Hence the IS is leading Muslims to believe that the Prophet has returned wearing the clothes of al-Baghdadi and at the same time it terrorizes Westerners with shockingly barbarous killings. Modern advertising has constructed a trillion-dollar industry atop these simple concepts. Now the Islamic State propaganda machine is using them to manufacture the myth of al-Baghdadi and his new Caliphate. What’s surprising is our surprise.
Finally, unlike al-Qaeda, the Islamic State is showing pragmatism. It seems to understand that, in the twenty-first century, new nations cannot be built and held together with terror and violence alone. To blossom, they require popular consensus. Hence the IS uses violence and Sharia law together with propaganda distributed over social media and a variety of popular social programmes aimed at improving the living conditions of the Sunni population trapped inside the Caliphate.
If this strategy succeeds, the world will be forced to turn a new leaf in the history of terrorism and nation-building, because the Islamic State will have provided a workable solution to the dilemma of terrorism. This, in a nutshell, is the true challenge that any armed organization poses to the modern state: whether to consider acts of terrorism as a threat to national security or to law and order. This dilemma springs from the ambiguous nature of terrorism: it has military aims – for example, among the goals of the Islamic State are freeing the territories of the old Caliphate of Baghdad from the tyrannical rule of the Shiites and the annexation of Jordan and Israel to recreate its ancient borders – but it employs criminal and barbarous methods like suicide bombings, the crucifixion of its opponents, and the beheading of hostages. Terrorism, therefore, could be defined as a crime with the aims of war. This ambiguity has allowed states to deny members of armed organizations the status of soldiers and enemies, relegating them to the ranks of outlaws even while using armies against them.
If the Islamic State succeeds in building a modern state, one that the world will not be able to ignore, using terrorism to gain territorial control and social and political reforms to secure internal popular consensus, it will prove what all armed organizations have affirmed: that they are not terrorists but enemies engaged in an asymmetrical war to overthrow illegitimate, tyrannical, and corrupted regimes. No matter how barbarous their actions are or have been, their status as threats to national security, as warriors, will be beyond doubt.
As the Islamic State’s war of conquest progresses, it is becoming clear that since 9/11 the business of Islamist terrorism has been getting stronger instead of weaker — to the extent that now it has morphed into a state — by simply keeping abreast with a fast-changing world in which propaganda and technology play an increasingly vital role. The same cannot be said for the forces engaged in stopping it from spreading.