The 21st century has seen massive improvements in information technology. The world has truly become a global village, and it has become a smaller place thanks to improvements in travel and communication technology. The same technology has allowed terrorist organizations to spread their reach further than ever before. The Islamic State has gained notoriety for its ability to attract foreign fighters and finance. It has also been noted for using technology to spread its message and encourage attacks by individuals thousands of miles away from its territory. “The group operates under an understanding of the world reflective of nation-states and national boundaries, yet takes advantage of aspects of global inter-connectivity” (Fordham, 2014).
The Islamic State, or the Islamic state in Iraq and Syria, or the Islamic state in Iraq and Levant (an archaic Arabic term for Syria), or Daesh, the organization has been known for changing its name with relative frequency. For clarity’s sake, the organization will be addressed as the Islamic State. The organizations origins can be traced back to Jamāʻat al-Tawḥīd wa-al-Jihād (“The Organization of Monotheism and Jihad”), which was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in 1999. Zarqawi was a Jordanian national. He travelled to Afghanistan but failed to impressed Osama Bin Laden, he was former gangster and reformed alcoholic with tattoos. After the US invasion of Iraq he changed the name of his Organization to Tanẓīm Qāʻidat al-Jihād fī Bilād al-Rāfidayn (“The organization of Jihad’s Base in Mesopotamia”) and pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda(The Base). Hence forth his organization was commonly referred to as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (Weaver, 2006).
Al-Qaeda in Iraq had fought in the insurgency in the Iraq war against coalition troops. The group gained notoriety for using suicide bombings against both coalition troops and Shia civilians. In 2006 AL-Qaeda in Iraq merged with the Mujahedeen Shura Council and other groups to establish ad-Dawlah al-ʻIrāq al-Islāmiyah (Islamic State of Iraq) (Startfor, 2014). On 7 June 2006 al-Zarqawi was killed in an United States air strike. In April 2010 a joint United States and Iraqi operation killed the main leaders of the organization. After which Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi the present head of the Islamic State took over. At the beginning of the Syrian Civil war, the Islamic State sent a team to Syria which became Al-Nusra Front. IS expanded into Syria itself and tried to absorb the Al-Nusra Front in a move rejected by both Al-Nusra front and Al-Qaeda leadership. Al Baghdadi responded by cutting of ties with AL-Qaeda and declaring his organization independent. The Islamic State declared itself a Caliphate after seizing territories inside Iraq and Syria and declared Al-Baghdadi the Calif. Since then it has called all Muslims to submit to its rule and migrate to its territory. The call has attracted thousands of people from Canada to Denmark to Georgia and the Philippines. The members come from diverse backgrounds. From a Christian convert in Georgia to second generation Muslims from Europe.
The Islamic State receives its inspiration from the so called “Four Caliphs”. The four Caliphs were the immediate successor to Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Their era and rule is viewed in an idealized way in most Sunni Muslim societies. They represent to them the ideal period of Islam. In Islam there has always been Caliphs, sometimes more than one at the same time but this tradition was ended when the last Caliph was disbanded in the early 20th century. The last caliph himself was a remnant of the Ottoman Empire; the post was abolished by the Mustapha Kamal Ataturk, the founder of modern republic of Turkey. They have always existed as an ideal among Islamists and certain Muslims who desired for a return to rule under the caliph. The Islamic State sees itself as the revival of the old Caliph and its leader Baghdadi has gone to great lengths to prove himself the true. He has even claimed to be the descendant of Muhammad and himself as the rightful heir to the title of caliph (Zelin, 2014). Through this claim it desires to legitimize itself in the eyes of Muslims as their rightful ruler and state.
The Islamic State also draws its inspiration from Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and in fact the Saudi State. When the first Saudi State it also expanded through Jihad and violence upon Shias. The Islamic State has carried out a number of attacks within Saudi Arabia to create an uprising. This has made the Islamic state a sworn enemy of the Saudi Sate. The Islamic State see itself as the true Wahhabi state. There are many similarities between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic State. “The early Wahhabis advanced an exclusivist version of Sunni Islam that was universally seen as a heresy, founded a state that waged expansionary jihad against fellow Sunni Muslims, and killed Shia Muslims because they were seen as hopeless idolaters. The Islamic State has done the same on all three counts”(Brunzel, 2016). Saudi Arabia has been so far able to slow down the Islamic States attacks within its boundaries. Still many in Saudi Arabia support the Islamic State. Despite the threats, Saudi Arabia remains unmoved, viewing the Islamic State perhaps merely as a nuisance. Saudi Arabia has been spending billions of dollars every year on defense purchases, building one of the most well equipped army in the Middle East. As such it would shape their views on the threat from the Islamic State.
Baghdadi reorganized the group leadership after taking over. He replaced many foreign terror groups form top leadership positions with local Iraqis. He recruited extensively from the members of former Iraqi Military and Intelligence forces under Saddam Hussein (Hashim, 2014). After the United States invasion of Iraq, the coalition administration disbanded the former security establishment of Iraq. This left many trained military personal without jobs, the vast majority of whom were Sunnis. They would go on to form the backbone of the Islamic State. They used their military and intelligence training to strengthen the Islamic State. In 2012 IS started a campaign called “Breaking the Walls” which aimed to free imprisoned personals form Iraq jails (Hashim, 2014). This provided valuable recruits for the organization. The benefit of having local commanders was that they could attract more local recruits and operate more efficiently with local knowledge.
The groundwork of the Islamic State lay in the balance that existed in the Middle East. Iran, a Shia nation, was contained pre-9/11 by two Sunni groups on both sides of its borders. In Iraq, it had an enemy in the Sunni dominated Baathist government of Saddam Hussein, and in Afghanistan it had an enemy in the Taliban, which was allied with other Sunni extremist groups like Al-Qaeda. It borders were freed after the United States invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent invasion of Iraq. Iraq’s population is majority Shia and with Saddam removed, a Shiite majority government took over. The new government of Iraq started to discriminate against the Sunni minority of Iraq. Many of the politicians in the new government were Shias who had found shelter in Iran during the regime of Saddam and had allies and friends in the Iranian government. This created a fear among Iraq’s Sunni neighbors, like Qatar and Saudi Arabia that Iraq would become a Shia puppet state of Iran. They also feared a formation of Shia nations that could threaten them. This led to some of those states financing Sunni groups in in Iraq and Syria. In Syria, the Baathist government is controlled by a minority Alawites (a sect of Shia Islam) despite Syria being a Sunni majority country. Both Iraq and Syria had Sunni population who felt disfranchised and oppressed by their Shia governments. So when anti-government protests started in Syria during the Arab spring, the Sunnis found willing allies in the neighboring Sunni Arab states, and the government of Bashar al-Assad found allies in Shia Iran and Hezbollah in Iran. When the civil war started in Syria both the government and protestors had strong support of allies outside the country. The allies support was divided along sectarian lines. This had the effect of prolonging the war. Parts of Syria fell into anarchy; which created a power vacuum and the Islamic State was able to fill that vacuum by feeding into the Sunni resentment in those areas.
As the Islamic State advanced through Iraq, it destroyed large portion of the newly raised Iraqi army. The soldiers were underequipped, undersupplied and suffering from low morale. Most of the soldiers simply deserted their posts and units including top Generals (Sherlock, 2014). In their initial advance the Islamic State was able to gather 1500 armored Humvees and a number of M198 howitzers from the Iraqi army (Hashim, 2014). Its strength lay in its management of logistics. It was able to transfer captured equipment and supplies to the frontline rapidly.
The Islamic State uses propaganda to promote its message and legitimize its claim to be a state. Propaganda is also used to attract supports, and funds for its operations. The Islamic state has been able to spread its propaganda through sleek online magazines published in multiple languages. It also produces a number of sleek propaganda video targeting specific countries and using spokesperson from the targeted countries to make the videos relatable for their audience. It publishes a glossy English Language Magazine called “Dabiq”. The first issue was published on July 5, 2014. This is similar to the magazine “Inspire” published by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, there are different in that while “Inspire” tries to encourage lone wolf attacks; Dabiq propagate the legitimacy of the Islamic State as an actual state. Dabiq is the center piece of their massive propaganda network. Charlie Winter, author and an associate at The Hague’s International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, says “The Islamic State considers the media and information sphere as one of its key battlegrounds, they have spoken about it often and I’ve come across it in official documents where they say it is as much as 50 per cent of its war” (Shephard,2016).
The Group has found resonance in migrant communities in western countries. The Migrant communities who came over for various reasons from different parts of the world found themselves alienated in both their new home and their ancestral countries. Young Muslims look for an identity and purpose and for a few of them, the Islamic State provided that. Muslims are the second largest religious group of France; making up an estimated 7 percent of the population. It is difficult to estimate the precise percentage of the French population who identify themselves as Muslim because French law prohibits census based on religion. The majority of Muslims in France came from the former colonies of France; most notably from North Africa. This is also true for other countries in Europe where recent migration has taken place from their respective colonies. In many places in Europe the new arrivals have found it difficult to integrate into the local population. Through a mixture of preference for living near migrants from their native country and housing discrimination, migrants in Europe have formed migrant enclaves. Many of which have high unemployment and high crime rate. There is some difference in how Islam exists in Europe and in the United States. Kastoryano wrote Islam would be the “religion of a minority” among other ethnic groups in the United States, in Europe Islam emerges as a “minority religion” (Kastoryano, 2004). In France itself opposition has grown to Islam specifically rather than to migrants. The idea thrown around is whether Islam is compatible with the traditions and culture of the West. This is a question that has been raised throughout Europe. France has the Largest Muslim population in Europe and also the largest source of European recruits in the Islamic State (Hartcher, 2015).
Though the Islamic State has their origin in Iraq and Syria, which is its stronghold. It has ambitions to spread further beyond that region. It has successfully carried out terror attacks in France, Belgium, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Indonesia among other countries. It has expanded into Libya and has active “provinces” in Nigeria, Somalia and Afghanistan. Most of these are somewhat akin to franchises. They are formed through the pledge of allegiance from militant groups active in those countries. For Instance in Nigeria the terrorist organization, Boko Haram, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and declared themselves a province of the state. In Afghanistan it was a fraction of the Taliban who had switched to the Islamic State, they are currently fighting against the Afghan government troops, the coalition forces and the Afghan Taliban. The November 2015 Paris attacks sticks out among the other attacks. “What distinguishes the Paris attacks is the complexity of the attack, which appears to have involved extensive planning and preparation and suggests they were directed from the group’s central leadership” (Jim,2015). This made the Paris attack unique because some of the attackers were recent returners from the conflict in Syria and had trained there. The nationalities of the attackers also made the case unique with seven out of nine attackers having French and Belgian citizenships (Parlapiano, 2015). For all intents and purposes it could be described as a homegrown cell. Thus the Islamic State has shown its ability to spread its message through the internet. It has also shown its ability to create, direct and finance terror cells outside its territories through the utilization of information communication technology.
The Islamic states advance in Iraq was stopped by US aerial bombing, while both the Iraqi and Syrian government troops were bolstered through the infusion of highly trained soldiers and Special Forces from Iran who managed to slow down its territorial growth and reduce its territory. Syria is home to a Russian Naval base that is strategically vital as a warm water port. Russia was also worried that with the Fall of Syria it would lose its last major ally in the Middle East. That combined with growing desire for military adventurism in Russia created the perfect pretext for Russia to get involved. It had done so with foot soldiers, Special Forces, equipment for the Syrian government forces and aerial bombing. The United States government supported various rebel groups in Syria with the aim of overthrowing the Syrian government. The rebels were also supported and aided by various Sunni governments in the gulf countries and Turkey. Turkey was particularly suspicious of the Kurds. Turkey has been fighting a Kurdish separatist movement in its southern borders. The Syrian civil war has evolved into a very complex war with multiple fronts and a war in which multiple foreign nations have competing interests.
Today the Islamic State is both playing the role of a terrorist and state, its leaders hide from enemies and airstrikes while trying maintain control over their territory. “They order executions and craft military campaigns, but also issue traffic tickets, regulate the price of foodstuffs and consider whether cigarettes and motorbike racing are acceptable to their brand of Islam” (Childress, 2014). It manages that through encrypted communications and rapid utilization of technology. They are able to promote their ideology based on old beliefs through new technology.
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