Commentators Debate ISIS Legitimacy, Seziure of Chemical Weapons Facility

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As the first shock of the advances of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) begins to wear off, international attention has begun to turn toward the organization’s beliefs and practices, and how they are applied in the new “caliphate.” There is a general consensus among regional observers that al Baghdadi and his followers’ claims of following in the footsteps of the previous caliphs are illegitimate in a religious, historical and moral sense.

Not surprisingly, the recent seizure of a stock of Saddam-era chemical weapons by ISIS forces has also become a cause for serious concern in Iraq and beyond. The situation has become dire enough that there are those who are calling for a new Arab Sunni awakening aimed at reversing ISIS gains.

In a recent op-ed on the pages of The National (UAE), Zaid Belbagi is adamant that the track record of the Islamic State is evidence that the organization cannot lay claim on Islamic teachings and principles: “the Islamic State (the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Syria and the Levant, or ISIL) has hijacked the most coveted and respected ideal in Islamic governance….since its very inception the Islamic State has been synonymous with mass killings and gross abuses of power. Its behavior is far divorced from the lofty ideals and societal principles of Khilafah….Embedded in the Islamic concept of leadership is responsibility. Mr Al Baghdadi’s commands to slaughter those of different beliefs, to disregard the sanctity of life and most of all to continue to pursue a calculated policy of killing and sectarian violence during the holy month of Ramadan are blatant abuses of power that illustrate his detachment from Islam, a religion that means peace.”

A similar argument is proposed by Asharq Alawsat’s Camelia Entekhabi-Fard, who believes the violence characterizing the Islamic State’s action gives lie to such pious claims: “If these terrorists are so adamant about their Islamic faith and the justice of their acts, why don’t they hear those cries?… What prompts these fighters to go to Syria and Iraq, instead of going to Israel or Burma or all the other places where their brothers and sisters in the Islamic faith are oppressed?….In truth, what they say about fighting for Islam against infidels is merely a cover. Otherwise, they could use real issues facing Muslims around the world to display their true faith in Islam and their compassion for believers. We should be alarmed about how ISIS and other militant groups in the region threaten our religion under the pretext of the unification of Muslim lands. So long as such conflicts continue, repressive regimes can use them as a pretext to crush their opposition and the Muslim minorities in their countries.”

But recent news that elements of ISIS’s proto Islamic State had seized a former chemical weapons facility, has yielded less sanguine analysis, with many believing the possession of chemical weapons could change the calculations. For example, an editorial by the Saudi Gazette expresses serious concerns about such prospects: “Something is not quite right about the ISIS takeover of Saddam’s former chemical weapons facility at Muthanna. For a start the seizure took place almost a month ago, but it is only now that Iraq has written to the UN formally reporting that it is no longer able to fulfill its obligation to dispose of the remains of the lethal arsenal….it would appear that terrorists, whom even Al-Qaeda has rejected for their bloodthirsty violence, now have at their disposal quantities of the deadly nerve agent Sarin, to say nothing of mustard gas and other highly toxic chemical agents….if there are functional toxins there, it can be certain that ISIS will try to find a way to use them.”

Al Arabiya’s Theodore Karasik believes the chemical weapons cache might be useful as a tool of psychological warfare: “If ISIS incorporates these materials into its capabilities and can justify their use, it means Caliph Ibrihim and his lieutenants will find an important tool that can cause psychological panic….Overall, the events of the last weeks regarding ISIS’s growing holdings of toxic substances raises the question of how they will be used. The group clearly has extreme violence in its portfolio of weapons, and toxic warfare should not be ruled out. Chemical and radiation detection will be a necessity with clear civil defense procedures in place…. As a warning from ISIS, the first issue of the Caliphate’s English language magazine, Dabiq, said ‘tawahhush’ (mayhem) is necessary.”

There is a sense that the threat coming from the self-proclaimed Islamic State transcends the Sunni-Shia divide, which is why Tariq Alhomayed urges the Arab Sunnis to ‘confront ISIS’: “Putting aside the precise details of what is happening in the region—including the absurd establishment of an ‘Islamic State’ by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—it is clear that we are now facing a new stage in the ‘War on Terror.’ Whoever wins this war, will win the region….This new phase of the conflict is completely different from the initial phase that immediately followed 9/11. However, this war is one that must be led by Sunnis, not by Iran or its allies—or indeed its fatwas….Today, capable Arab states and actors in the region—most prominently Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE—must take the initiative to form a new regional alliance based on reviving the idea of ‘Sunni Awakening Councils’ (militias formed to fight Al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups) in Yemen, Iraq and Libya.”

Confronting ISIS should not necessary be done by military alone. At least that is the argument put forward by Jamsheed K. Choksy, who in a Daily Star (Lebanon) op-ed suggests cutting off the organization’s funding as an effective form of warfare against ISIS: “Strict regulation of capital and resource flows throughout the Muslim world must be put in place – similar to those imposed by the United States in the aftermath of 9/11 – to stanch funding and shrink recruitment. Centralizing records on terrorist backers, regulating every type of financial institution including those couriering cash across the Gulf region and through the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and limiting the value of cash transfers are vital….The Islamic State may appear robust. But external fiscal flow and internal revenue generation can be halted quickly, leaving it with few resources for capturing Baghdad and Damascus let alone sustaining a caliphate of nearly 1 million people.”

Is there any silver lining amidst such uncertainty and instability? Al Arabiya’s Abdulrahman al-Rashed seems to think so. In his view, “Isis is not [all] bad news,” so long as its arrival in the scene stirs the international community and the region into action: “The bad news is the emergence of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and the good news is also the emergence of ISIS. Look at the current ordeal from a different angle….The new organization, which is more extremist and brutal than al-Qaeda, came to save Muslims before the game ends. It faces everyone with their responsibilities and ends two dangerous states of contemporary thought in our region: indifference and political opportunism….ISIS has grown because many of the world’s governments went into a deep sleep after they thought they had won the war against terrorism…. If it hadn’t been for ISIS, we may have died like frogs who are cooked alive in a pot on a low heat and who don’t feel the temperature rising until they are about to die.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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