Ahmed S. Hashim
Dr. Hashim is an associate professor of Strategic Studies at the Military Studies Program, RSIS, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. This paper is a summary of his forthcoming book on the Islamic State and its nation-building enterprise in Syria and Iraq.1
A century and a half ago, a brilliant political philosopher wrote some profound words:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. And just as they seem to be occupied with revolutionizing themselves and things, creating something that did not exist before, precisely in such epochs of revolutionary crisis they anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service, borrowing from them names, battle slogans, and costumes in order to present this new scene in world history in time-honored disguise and borrowed language.2
So wrote Karl Marx in The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon. Mercifully, the political and socioeconomic system that was his legacy has been consigned to the "dustbin" of history, but this does not detract from the incisiveness of his observations. History is very important despite the disdain with which policy makers and analysts view it. They want information on which they can base decisions. History is given short shrift, often leading to misjudgments. If Iraq's past had been better understood, some mistakes might have been avoided. But the Bush administration went into Iraq with a priori assumptions that ignored history.
My approach towards what is going on in Iraq lies within the French historical school of la longue durée, the study of long-term structural factors.3 Two long-term historical points should be kept in mind when considering the Islamic State (IS) within the context of Iraq and Syria: the emergence and manipulation of sectarianism, skewed state-formation and nation building.4
First, the Sunni-Shia schism is not a modern phenomenon, nor is the Sunni slander of Shias. Sectarianism has a very long pedigree — for example, the Islamic State's ideology (not al-Qaeda's; the leadership of that organization tried to tone down IS rhetoric against Shias) drew on some interesting anti-Shia rhetoric going back 900 years to Ibn Asakir al-Dimashqi and Ibn Taymiyyah.
Al-Dimashqi (1106-75) lived in the Fertile Crescent, when the Crusader kingdoms were seemingly ensconced in the region and myriad heterodox groups were challenging mainstream Islam. Looking for scapegoats, he blamed the Shia. A hundred years later, the much better known Ibn Taymiyyah was confronted with Crusaders and Mongols despoiling the land of Islam. However, the "internal enemy" bore as much culpability in his eyes, and he began a vituperative assault against the weakest and most despised heretical sects living within the umma and whose status as part of the faith was somewhat ambiguous, the Nusayris (today's Alawis) and the Druzes: [they] "...are not Muslims...Fighting them is therefore lawful ... and others like them who live in Muslim lands have aided the Mongols in their war against the Muslims."5 Much of his ire was reserved for mainstream Shias — the Rafidis, or rejectionists — because of their refusal to accept the legitimacy of the first three caliphs as successors to Mohammad:
They allied with the Mongols and with the Christians... When the Muslims defeat the Mongols, they mourn and are saddened, but when the Mongols defeat the Muslims, they celebrate and rejoice. They are the ones who advised the Mongols to kill the [last Abbasid] caliph and massacre the people of Baghdad.6
This sectarianism became an integral part of the Ottoman struggle with the Iranians after they were forcibly converted to the Shia faith. In the nineteenth century, when the Ottomans decided to reform the empire in order to stave off constant Western encroachments, reform in their Iraqi territories depended on the integration of Sunni Arabs into positions of authority and power in the army, administration and bureaucracy. The Ottomans retained their suspicions of the Shia and viewed with alarm the growth of the Shia faith among Bedouin Arab tribes in the Basra vilayet, or governorate. When the British seized Mesopotamia and created the Iraqi state, they inherited the Ottoman view that the Shias were untrustworthy, rebellious, backward and loyal to Iran.
Saddam Hussein could not use the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict during the first two decades of his rule. He was secular, his country was 60 percent Shia, and he needed the support of the Iraqi Shia Arabs against Shia Iran.7 Indeed, he promoted the idea — sacrilegious to Islamists — that the Arabs were at the forefront of the emergence of Islam, not the Persians or anybody else, and that Iraqi Shia Islam was very different from that practiced in Iran.8 As he put it in a scurrilous pamphlet: "The Iranian concept of Shiism is totally different from the Arab mentality... and that no non-Arab Moslem, no matter how proficient and well-intentioned he is, can understand the essence of religion as Arab Muslim (sic) can."9 This narrative dominated during the long and bloody Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). However, the Baathist regime began to view the Iraqi Shias with suspicion when they rose up in rebellion in 1991 following Iraq's catastrophic defeat in Desert Storm at the hands of a U.S.-led coalition. As Iraqi society broke down under the crushing burden of international sanctions, Saddam Hussein promoted the Return to Faith Campaign. The regime thought it could capitalize on and control the rise in religious sentiments among an exhausted Iraqi people, and began to promote Islam within society and among its militia groups like the Fedayin Saddam. It built mosques and religious training centers, and curtailed "impious" social and cultural activities.
Unintended consequences were rife. First, the regime was unable to control Islamism's contours and shape. In Mosul, the Islamists of the Iraqi Islamic Party, the Iraqi branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, slowly began to emerge from underground and to secretly recruit among the army and government officials.10 In Saddam City, the Shia slum of Baghdad, renamed Sadr City following the fall of Saddam Hussein, anti-Baathist religious sentiment increased in the last few years of the regime under the indifferent eye of low-ranking Shia Baathist officials. Second, the rise in political Islam among both the Sunnis and Shias was not conducive to inter-confessional harmony or collaboration against the incumbent regime, particularly because of the emergence of Salafism within the ranks of the Sunnis.
It is important to recognize that the discussion is not intended to suggest that what is occuring in this hapless region has been caused by sectarianism. Reality is too complex for simplistic cause and effect. What cannot be denied, however, is the manipulation by various groups and states involved in the violence in Iraq and Syria of the sectarian chasm, which has also included the mobilization of negative images from the past to shape contemporary narratives about the enemy "Other." The entrenchment of sectarianism within the body politic in Iraq (and Syria) by foreign and local rulers has had a deleterious impact on state-formation and nation building. State-formation refers to the creation of effective institutions of the state, which are viewed as legitimate and are able to provide security, stability and services to the people. Nation building refers to the creation of a cohesive Iraqi nation out of its various communities.
STATE AND NATION
Second, modern state-formation and nation-building efforts by both foreigners and Iraqis themselves have failed dismally. Neither the Ottomans nor the British were in Iraq to create an independent and self-sustaining Iraqi state and nation. The raison d'être of empires has never been to create states or nations out of peripheral areas they control. The Iraqis themselves have also made a mess of it under their various independent rulers. The American state-building enterprise of 2003-11 in Iraq produced a fragile and unstable country. Now comes IS to proffer its own alternative.
Contrary to popular perceptions, the extremist predecessor of IS, the Islamic State of Iraq, had not been convincingly defeated either by the tribal revolt against the excesses of the Sunni extremists (the Sahwa, or Awakening) or by the surge of U.S. troops. Nor had the central government in Baghdad integrated the Sunni community into the body politic. In addition, there was the calamitous failure of the Iraqi military and security forces in the wake of IS advances in 2014. This was not a mere event, but another example of a structural failure in Iraqi state-formation. Iraqis of all stripes bear much of the blame for what has transpired since 2011.
The inexorably weakening Iraqi state, now dominated by the Shia, has little power to establish ideological hegemony over the other communities, and even fewer instruments of domination or coercion. The structural weaknesses of its security forces were evident long before their hapless collapse in the face of IS the advance of 2014.11 What can this state offer the Sunni Arabs and Kurds now?
Iraq as a Shia State
Following the departure of the Americans, Iraq was led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who fancied himself a revolutionary because he had spent much of his life as part of the outlawed Dawa party, hiding from the merciless Baathist regime. Maliki did not transform himself into a statesman; he was incapable of rising above sectarianism. However, there is a growing Shia sentiment that this is not necessarily a catastrophe as long as some parts of Iraq are safe: the Shia heartland encompassing Baghdad; some of the lands as far north as Samarra, which contains two Shia shrines of considerable significance; the Shia areas of the heavily contested Diyala province to the northeast of Baghdad; and, of course, the entire Shia south. This sentiment is expressed in the Shia reluctance to fight effectively beyond the Shia areas, the indifference to the loss of Sunni lands to the Kurds, and the desire to build fortifications that would wall off "Shiastan" from the chaos and fanaticism they see in the Sunni areas. It is also reflected in the sentiment expressed by many Shia that if they cannot dominate the narrative of the new post-Saddam Iraq — as the Sunnis did from 1923 to 2003 — nothing can be gained by fighting to maintain the Sunni areas.
The Rise of Kurdistan
The Kurds have been seriously thinking about going their own way for some time, though there were structural constraints in their path. However, the sentiment has steadily grown, particularly since the events of 2014, when ISIS seized Mosul and large swaths of Iraqi territory. For the Kurds, this highlighted the dysfunctional nature of the Iraqi state and the collapse of Iraqi military power under Maliki's catastrophic rule, providing the opportunity to expand and seize lands they regarded as part of Kurdistan, including oil-rich Kirkuk. They are unlikely to give it back; as for the other territories, they have stated they are willing to negotiate with Baghdad, undoubtedly with tough demands. Saddam Hussein's fall in 2003 brought the Kurdish region a significant measure of self-rule, building on its precarious post-1991 autonomy. The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) has steadily expanded its political and economic clout over the past decade. Now the apparent collapse of central authority in Iraq has given the biggest boost yet to the independence movement. The Kurds make up 20 percent of Iraq's population and must tread carefully. The territory they control, though enlarged by the opportunistic seizure of Kirkuk, is landlocked and economically fragile. Its infrastructure remains rudimentary. Its march toward independence has traditionally been opposed by powerful neighbors such as Turkey, Iran and Syria, which also have large Kurdish minorities, and by the United States, which favors a unified Iraq and fears the possible consequences of secession.
Nonetheless, in recent months, Kurdish caution has given way to greater assertiveness as Baghdad's divided political elite stumble before the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. Masoud Barzani, the KRG president, has claimed that Kurdistan's moment has finally arrived: "Everything that's happened recently shows that it's the right of Kurdistan to achieve independence. From now on, we won't hide that that's our goal. Iraq is effectively partitioned now. We'll hold a referendum, and it's a matter of months."12 Kurdish leaders maintain that the KRG has become an island of stability in a sea of trouble. Baghdad's warring Shia and Sunni factions, having failed to reach a modus vivendi, have brought the crisis down on their own heads, in the view of many Kurds.
Kurdistan controls valuable energy reserves on which most of its income depends, but oil exports depend largely on a pipeline through Turkey that opened in 2015. Faced with annoying political developments in Irbil, Ankara would find it easy to turn off the tap. Turkey has been fighting Kurdish insurgents in its southeast region for decades, and it has always been assumed it would oppose Iraqi Kurdish independence. That perception has gradually changed since 2003 amid heavy Turkish commercial investment in northern Iraq and the deepening of political links. High-level political contacts with the KRG are now routine, while Ankara's relations with Baghdad have soured. Set against this prospect is the likelihood that Bashar al-Assad, assuming he survives the civil war, will revert to his traditional suspicion of Kurdish aspirations in Syria. Iran, similarly fearful of domestic unrest and autonomist or separatist movements within its peripheral territories, remains deeply hostile to Kurdish independence.13
Israel's prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, without irony, has endorsed Kurdish independence. He claims to want to rally the region's so-called moderate forces against extremism. But for many Arabs, Israel has traditionally backed Iraqi Kurdish independence as a means to fractionalize Arab countries. Arabs often dredge up the little-known Israeli author Oded Yinon, who intimated three decades ago that the fracture of Arab states would be to Israel's benefit.14 The prospect of gaining an ally against the Arabs must surely have entered into Israeli calculations, although the Kurds know that as an independent nation they would be dependent for political and economic stability on the goodwill of the Arab world, Turkey and Iran. They will need to tread carefully. An independent Kurdistan would ironically benefit significantly from the adoption of a posture similar to Ataturk's for Turkey: friendship toward all and enmity toward none, insofar as that is possible. Washington's attitude will ultimately be the decisive factor. Undeniably, the prospects of a federal Iraq are fading fast, though Kurdistan still faces a long and unsteady road to independence. However, many Kurdish officials recognize that an independent Kurdistan may, paradoxically, face more instability and insecurity than one that is making mileage out of existing comfortably as a de facto state that is neither independent nor under Baghdad's control.
The Rise of Sunnistan?
Until 2003, the Sunni Arabs, or, more accurately, key elements of the community from among the Dulaim, Ubaid and Jubur tribes, were at the center of power along with the cronies of Saddam Hussein from Tikrit and Samarra. Saddam ensured that Sunnis watched other Sunnis in a byzantine web of competing security and intelligence services. His particular worry was that disgruntled Sunnis would use the military to shoot their way into power, and he made sure that he would not be overthrown by the army. Being at the center of power meant that the Sunnis had no alternative power centers. The Islamic parties had been weakened and the tribes strengthened at the local level, but they were not national players. The Shias and Kurds had alternatives. Their alienation from power and the exile of many of them allowed them to develop parties, either in the West or in Iran, free from Saddam's surveillance. The Kurds, in particular, had their sanctuary, which gave them the opportunity to build political machines.
The post-Saddam Sunni community was good at expressing frustration and rejection; less so at deciding what it wanted.15 Indeed, the Sunnis have progressed from confusion to revanchism and finally to victimhood, a process I witnessed firsthand during my multiple advisory deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2008. The Sunnis had the insurgency, a dismal and cacophonous affair, between 2003 and 2007. Its fractious groups did not have separate political and military wings, were wedded to a "restorationist" agenda, and were invariably defined by the barbaric al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) of the Jordanian Abu Musaab al-Zarqawi (AMZ) and his successors. AQI's war in Iraq was characterized by extreme violence, precipitating a short but vicious Sunni-Shia civil conflict. By June 2006, shortly before the death of AMZ at the hands of U.S. forces, several factions of the Iraqi insurgency apparently tried to warn the Jordanian about his activities through the use of Hudayfah Azzam, the son of the famed Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian responsible for creating the justification for fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan and recruiting foreign fighters to help the mujahidin. AMZ had declared his admiration for Abdullah Azzam. The younger Azzam, who visited Iraq in May 2006, seemed to have understood where the Iraqi insurgents were coming from: "Zarqawi is now playing a harmful role in Iraq. Zarqawi is only a guest in its struggle for independence and he should understand that he must not interfere in the domestic affairs of the country by presenting himself to the world as the spokesman for the Iraqi resistance."16
Even when many groups, including the clearly Salafist Islamic Army of Iraq (IAI), and tribes turned on AQI for its excesses and allied with the United States and the Iraqi government, the Sunnis were unable to rise above their internal strife to present a united front. The groups that turned against AQI — the Sahwa — did not find themselves heroes of the entire community.17 Other insurgent groups accused them of treason and a betrayal of the insurgent cause. A group of largely Salafist insurgents known as the Jihad and Change Front posted on the Salafist website Ana al-Muslim.net a statement entitled "Answers of the Jihad and Change Front." It included a vitriolic attack on the Sahwa as a betrayal and a weakening of the Sunni position vis-à-vis the occupiers and the Iraqi government. For this group, the rise of the Sahwa was a classic case of the time-honored imperial practice of divide and conquer, a strategy that also benefited from the weaknesses, rivalries and lack of discipline within the insurgent ranks. In its words,
Some political parties were promoting the idea that the U.S. occupation is not the most serious enemy, and that resistance will only inflict calamities, which is, indisputably, their own view in their quest for personal interests, and to conciliate their masters. They deceived the common people.
In that period, due to the presence of such overlaps and the occupation force's need for a plan to save its involvement in Iraq, attempts to contact ill-hearted [sic] people among tribal figures began looming on the horizon, taking advantage of the confusion caused by upsetting acts of some factions [presumably the excesses of al-Qaeda in Iraq].... However, the truth is that the fate of those forces [the Sahwa] and their actions are connected to acts and goals of the occupation forces. They carry out tasks handed over by the occupation forces, including striking the resistance forces, and tightening the grip on the entrance to cities and on the movement of the mujahidin, and to secure U.S. convoys and preserve their movement and security.
The creation of the Awakening councils is a plan of the occupation forces, established mainly to serve and line up with the occupation forces, and give power to their plans.18
The Sahwa of Sunni insurgents and tribes against AQI not only caused dissension with the insurgency, it did nothing to strengthen the Sunni political community and give it a strong hand vis-à-vis its supposed new allies, the United States and the Iraqi government. As the extremists of AQI were being steadily defeated, the tribally dominated Anbar Awakening competed with the Iraqi Islamic Party for promoting Sunni influence at the center of power in Baghdad.19 The United States left the Sahwa fighters to the tender mercies of the Shia government of Nuri al-Maliki, who saw the anti-AQI Sunni fighters as either Baathist revanchists or closet Salafists.20 The situation did not improve for the Sunni community after the overrated defeat of AQI/ISI in 2009; the organization came back again and has taken advantage of the Sunni community's weaknesses from 2012 to the present.
Fifty years ago, the American economist Albert Hirschman wrote a book that has become a minor classic: Exit, Voice and Loyalty. Its basic premise is that members of an organization, business or state have two possible responses when they perceive that the entity to which they belong is performing below par: they can exit (withdraw from the relationship); or, they can voice (attempt to repair or improve the relationship through communication of the complaint, grievance and calls for change). If things get better, they would then demonstrate their loyalty anew. Iraq as a state is performing below par. The Kurds have been thinking of exit and may go down the path of formal separation. While not a monolithic bloc, the Shias have finally captured the state and are not about to exit. They realize it has performed below par and they have complained about cronyism, corruption, and the growing gap between haves and have-nots. Affirming loyalty to the post-Saddam Hussein Iraq has not resonated either with the Kurds or the Sunnis. The Islamic State has taken advantage of this with respect to the Sunni community. It does not want to exit from Iraq or Syria. It wants to seize both of them and more: it is entering into the arena of state-formation and nation building by seeking to destroy the existing Western-created states and build a new entity on their decaying carcasses.
The goals of the Islamic State have been remarkably consistent over the past decade, since Zarqawi stated in an interview that the political platform of his organization was "clarified" by the saying of the Prophet: "...I was sent to the world with a sword in my hand until all worship would be devoted to Allah alone." This principle, he told the interviewer, "determines our political program."21 AMZ made clear that he did not ascribe to "politics in the customary sense"; he would not compromise on the insistence that God's law, the sharia, be implemented in its entirety. "We will fight in the cause of God until His shariah prevails."22 On numerous occasions from 2003 till his death in 2006, Zarqawi defined the group's political program and provided justifications for its way of doing things. He posted an extended statement in the organization's first issue of the online magazine Dhurwat al-Sanam in the jihadist Al-Ikhlas forum. What is the Al-Qaeda of Jihad organization in the Land of the Two Rivers? It is a group of Muslims "who seek God's gratification by implementing God's absolute authority for themselves and others in harmony with the principle that says, Nothing is dearer to me than man's adherence to my commandments." The group focuses on major interrelated and thorough objectives:
• Renewal of pure tawhid, including propagation of "there is no god but God alone" in countries Islam did not reach.
• Jihad in the cause of God to exalt God's word, liberate the entire Muslim territories from infidels, and establish God's sharia in these territories.
• Support for Muslims everywhere and reinstatement of their dignity, which the invaders and traitors have desecrated; reestablishment of Muslims' usurped rights; and exertion of effort to improve the situation of Muslims.
• Reestablishment of a wise caliphate similar to the theocracy established by the Prophet; a person will die a pre-Islamic death if he has not sworn allegiance to a caliph.
The statement poses a question: Why do we carry out operations against the Americans and their agents, including the army and the police?
• To gratify God,... save Muslims, their honor and property from assailants, and expel the aggressor from the Land of the Two Rivers.
• To salvage the honor of our fraternal brothers, the chastity of our sisters, and the innocence of the Muslim children who are killed by the Americans and their agents.
• To re-establish an Islamic caliphate in Baghdad... that shines with the brightness of justice and prosperity reminiscent of the days of caliph Harun al-Rashid.
• To kill everyone whose soul is debased and who assists infidels in their war against Muslims in the territory of Iraq...: army personnel, policemen, agents, and spies who help the Americans to commit crimes.23
The centrality of these goals was reiterated in October 2005 in the booklet, Why Do We Fight? And Whom Do We Fight? written by Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi, senior member of the Sharia Council, and put out by the Legal Committee of al-Qaeda in Iraq: "This group seeks to restore the rightly-guided caliph in accordance with the prophet's policy and method. It believes that this is an obligation laid on its shoulders by shariah, in accordance with God's words: 'Behold,' thy Lord said to the angels, 'I will create a viceregent on earth."24 Many things have changed since AMZ's death in 2006, but the Islamist State still clings to his ideological legacy and his goals. In April 2007, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, who was proclaimed the emir of the Islamic State of Iraq after AMZ's death, posted an audiotape that was released by Al-Furqan Media Production. Entitled "The Harvest of the Years in the Land of the Monotheists," Abu Umar al-Baghdadi declares unequivocally: "Let everyone know that our aim is clear: the establishment of God's law, and the path to that is jihad in its wider sense."25 It was, however, on June 29, 2014, that Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, the official spokesman of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, declared the re-establishment of the caliphate under the Caliph Ibrahim, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, in a 34-minute audiotape:
We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of khilafah, it is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah Ibrahim and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organizations, becomes null by the expansion of the khilafah's authority and arrival of its troops to their areas. Imam Ahmad (may Allah have mercy upon him) said, as reported by Abdus Ibn Malik al-Attar, "It is not permissible for anyone who believes in Allah to sleep without considering as his leader whoever conquers them by the sword until he becomes khalifah and is called Amirul-Muminin (the leader of the believers), whether this leader is righteous or sinful.26
EMERGENCE OF IS
Setting up a clandestine organization is no easy matter. First, a group of like-minded individuals with similar goals has to come together. Second, they have to develop a division of labor based on skills and expertise. Third, the leadership has to manage the organization internally. Fourth, the organization has to protect itself from enemies, both internal and external. Fifth, the organization has to be ready to fight its enemies. Sixth, the organization has to create a structure of governance and administration. The Islamic State has gone through all of these processes.
The Islamic State is vastly more developed than its predecessors, though paradoxically this makes it more susceptible to destruction. The man responsible for its emergence is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, born Ahmad Fadel Nazzal al-Khalayleh in the gritty industrial city of Zarqa, Jordan. He endured a long learning process involving two trips to Afghanistan. In 1989, at the age of 23 and newly married, he made his way to Peshawar with a group of other novices. AMZ was quite clear that during the first sojourn in Afghanistan he and his group did not gain much experience in organizational matters. They were highly motivated, but had few capabilities. Moreover, given the end of the war with the Soviet invaders and the falling out among various mujahidin groups, there was nobody able or willing to provide training, development or organizational structure:
The various factions began to fight against each other after the fall of Kabul. We witnessed things that contradicted the right path of Islam so we decided to leave Afghanistan and try to do something in the Greater Syria region, especially Palestine and Jordan. When we returned to Jordan, we were excessively zealous...We also lacked sufficient experience. Our experience was military and involved learning the arts of combat. There was no emphasis on organizational matters and no attention was paid to what one could do and could not do in accordance with Islamic shariah...: There were no organized programs to provide us with a jihadist training that would include shariah rules and organizational affairs.... There were camps in which you got military training and then you went off to the front to fight. That was all.
We tried to establish jihad with whatever resources we had, and we might have been hasty in certain matters. We suffered from some security gaps as a result of our lack of experience in organizational matters and our lack of jihadist experience.27
During the second trip, which took place in 1999 and included individuals from the first group, things improved. Zarqawi started with an organizational structure that was not based on a rational system of management and functional specialization, but more on a circle of family and friends, particularly of those who came from the Fertile Crescent: Jordanians, Lebanese (very few), Syrians and Palestinians. Some of them had been with him in Afghanistan in their own camp in Herat and had followed him into Iraq. AMZ had established the Herat camp in 1999, and its nucleus was composed primarily of people from Zarqa. It included Abd al-Hadi Daghlas, the Palestinian Khalid al-Aruri, and Yassin Jarrad, the father of AMZ's second wife.
When they arrived in Iraq in 2002 in expectation of the American invasion, they realized they were not prepared for war. By its own admission, Jamiat al-Tawhid initially lacked a solid base of operations and popular support. A rather revealing report by Abu Anas al-Shami stated,
We have discovered that after one year of jihad we have not accomplished anything on the ground. None of us could find a piece of land [the size of the palm of the hand] to use as a shelter or a place to retire to safety among some members of [his] group.... We would hide at daylight and sneak like a cat at night....Homes were raided and the heroes were chased. It was a dark picture and everyone felt a sense of terrible failure.28
The exigencies of war in Iraq forced Zarqawi to develop a more formal structure. This group of like-minded individuals had to organize to organize: provide themselves with specific tasks and missions. It had to then establish a leadership that managed the organization as it set about the deadly business of sowing mayhem in Iraq.
First, such an organization needed to manage relations with the local population, the Iraqis and particularly the myriad local insurgent groups. Relations with the Iraqis were not always smooth. Zarqawi was suspicious of the Sunni Arabs seeing them as apathetic and indifferent, closet Baathists, or — worse — collaborators with the enemy. Nonetheless, he began cooperating with insurgent groups like the Iraqi Salafist fighters in Fallujah led by Omar Hadid and "Abu Rashid," whose headquarters was the neighborhood of al-Jolan in the heavily contested city.
Second, AMZ's organization recognized the value of recruiting the many Arab volunteers who had been caught flat-footed by the downfall of the regime. Some chose to return home; others joined Zarqawi, as the Iraqis did not want them in their organizations. Many were Egyptians who had arrived prior to the American invasion or had been recruited by the defunct regime. AMZ's organization also set up recruitment offices in both Europe and the Middle East.
Third, the organization was going to be involved in serious fighting for the first time. It needed to become functionally specialized at distinct expertise and skill levels. Later, Zarqawi's successors sought to further build up the organization and were deluded into thinking that the time was ripe for an Islamic state under Abu Umar al-Baghdadi at the very moment the organization was being hollowed out by relentless U.S. operations and a major assault by the thoroughly disgruntled Sunni insurgents. However, in light of what has transpired in the last three years, it is clear that AQI had not been decisively defeated by the Sunni revolt against it or the U.S. military surge. When the Americans withdrew, the Islamic State of Iraq began reassessing its position, learning from its mistakes and rebuilding the organization.
The Islamic State and its predecessors had to set up a force structure configured in such a way that it would not succumb easily to the more powerful forces of their state opponents. From a relatively primitive war-fighting outfit in its early days, the Islamic State has morphed into simultaneously a terrorist outfit, a guerrilla organization and a quasi-conventional force.
At the beginning, Zarqawi's chief operational weapon was suicide bombing, used by tactical groups such as Hezbollah, the Palestinians, the LTTE in Sri Lanka, and the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Between April 2003 and September 2005, 400 suicide bombings took place in Iraq, including 90 in May 2005, nearly as many as the number conducted by Palestinians in Israel between 1993 and 2005.29 As AMZ put it in an interview released after his death:
The brothers' most effective weapon, after relying on God and praying to him for success, has been martyrdom operations. It is the brothers' unanswerable weapon for which the enemy can find no remedy. The enemies cannot prevent such operations.... Hence these martyrdom operations have played a big role in weakening the enemy and making it reach this level of despair, confusion, defeatist spirit, and psychological collapse.30
In Iraq, the suicide bombing campaign transcended the level of the tactical to knock at the door of the strategic, to paraphrase Mao Zedong. However, the campaign's impact was not necessarily to the ultimate benefit of AQI. It contributed to the outbreak of the vicious civil war between Sunnis and Shias and to the decision of many Sunni groups to turn against what was known as AQI in late 2006 and early 2007. Contrary to popular perceptions, a slight majority of the targets in Iraq between 2003 and 2009 were the government, police and military — the infrastructure of the state — and not commercial or civilian targets. However, many of those killed were obviously Shia. The ratio changed after the campaign of 2012, when many civilian areas were targeted, markets in particular.
IS "strategists" used to complain that rural Iraq was not suitable for classic guerrilla warfare because of its lack of sanctuaries, the absence of truly inhospitable terrain such as in Afghanistan, Chechnya or Yemen, and the ability of U.S. forces to move rapidly anywhere, anytime. AMZ himself was aware of these. In an interview released in December 2006, he was asked, "What difficulties face jihad in Iraq?" He responded,
There can be no comparison between our capabilities and the enemy's resources. Hundreds of our brothers are fighting hundreds of thousands of the enemy.... The land of jihad in Iraq is different from Afghanistan and Chechnya. The brothers in those two countries are helped either by forests or high mountains where they can hide from the enemy and prevent him from reaching them. Iraq is flat without mountains, wadis or forests.31
The situation of AMZ and his group was remedied to some extent by their determination to establish a sanctuary in Diyala province northeast of Baghdad. The terrain there enabled them to establish training grounds for some disciplined small units that actually stood and fought U.S. combat forces in significant battles.32
By 2012, IS had developed into a hybrid structure, to borrow a term popularized by the U.S. strategic analyst Frank Hoffmann. Unlike traditional terrorist groups whose resources are limited, but in line with sophisticated insurgent organizations, IS developed a robust and lethal basket of capabilities concurrently. They range from the traditional instruments of terrorism and guerrilla warfare to those of semi-conventional warfare. The latter capability is the most worrisome and has been characterized by the ability of IS to bring to the battlefield multiple small units to conduct either offensive or defensive operations. The Islamic State can go back and forth along this spectrum depending on circumstances, the environment, and the characteristics of the enemy. When under immense pressure, it reverts back to its terrorist specialty: the solo suicide bomber or the more effective VBIED. When it is facing lackluster conventional military forces on the ground, IS tends to lean towards the higher end of the spectrum of violence and uses semi-conventional warfare conducted by relatively well-trained and well-equipped small units. Any strategy for the military destruction of the Islamic State has to take into account its chameleon-like capabilities. A one-dimensional operational method that deals solely with its guerrilla or conventional capabilities will fail; all of them must be countered simultaneously.
State-Formation and Nation Building
Since the Islamic State was also in the process of state-formation and nation building, it sought to develop governance and control structures that are more transparent than the leadership and bureaucratic structure that governs the organization. This state infrastructure had to be developed and defended against both internal enemies and the state or foreign forces. In short, a violent nonstate actor is often engaged in both destruction, aimed at the state or administrative apparatus of its enemy (and often only secondarily at its military forces), and construction, as it seeks to build its own counter state. This requires the financial resources to both wage war and provide services to the people under its control.
Despite the Islamic State's efforts to project an image of success in state-formation, the consensus of opinion is that it is not doing a very good job.33 IS "wrings" money out of those who live under its control, but the people see few benefits.34 IS officials claim that this is because the state is at war and that this takes precedence. In addition, the provision of social services is beset by immense corruption and a lack of bureaucratic and administrative capacity.
The biggest problem that IS faces is a structural one that it will be incapable of resolving because of the logic of its ideology and the number of enemies it has created. IS spends most of its time exerting control within its restive domains and fighting its enemies rather than engaging in state-formation and consolidation. The Islamic State has not been able to move from domination — threatening or using coercion — to hegemony or establishment of legitimacy. It has one advantage: the resistance within its domains is not solid, despite the existence of some insurgents, because the captive populations have not been given hope or outside help: Baghdad remains suspicious of Sunni refugees fleeing IS into safer areas under the control of the central authorities, and this has further alienated the Sunni community from their government.35
An effective resistance would require organization, leadership, weapons and outside support. To be sure, Sunni insurgent groups have apparently decided that initial support for the Islamic State may not have been wise and have started to reassess their cooperation. Heavy clashes between the insurgents and the Islamic State have been reported. Local Sunni militias have sprung up to conduct hit-and-run attacks and ambushes and assassinations of IS personnel. It is not clear, however, that the Sunni resistance to the Islamic State will have much traction, absent external support, arms and training. Many of the Sunni insurgent groups have lost their most able commanders and personnel to desertion or death. IS may also have assassinated a number of the most able insurgent commanders in preparation for seizing Mosul and Ninevah province in 2014.
Second, the Sunni urban militias are not well armed or trained, and it is unlikely they would get support from the central government in Baghdad or the KRG. The former is loath to arm Sunni militias and the latter may find well-armed Sunni Arab militias a danger to their nationalist agenda in the coming years.
Third, many of the tribal revolutionaries in the rural areas are not well prepared either. In mid-December 2014, Sunni fighters in the town of Wafaa were forced to give up their positions to advancing IS fighters because they had run out of ammunition. The locals complained bitterly that the Iraqi government did not wish to arm them; it did not trust them and wanted its own forces, particularly the Shia militias, to take credit for any thwarting of the IS advance. In the words of Mohammad Fahdawi, an Anbar leader, "The Iraqi government only wants to give the people of Anbar two options. Either the IS group enters Anbar, or the Shiite Muslim fighters come in. The government doesn't want the Sunni Muslim tribes to play a larger role in the liberation of Anbar. It wants the Shiite Muslim militias that it sponsors to do this."36
The leaders of several influential Sunni tribes proclaimed their support for the Islamic State in June 2015. In a combined statement, they condemned the Iraqi government and claimed that the only way to regain peace in Anbar was through support of IS. It is difficult to gauge how much of this was genuine, a situation that would unfortunately imbue it with legitimacy, or expressed out of fear of what IS would do if they abstained from voicing loyalty, or simply because they were resigned to the fact that there was no alternative.
Whatever compelled Sunni tribes to express their support for IS, their ambivalence in the fight does not augur well for efforts to dismantle this entity. Indeed, some tribes are fighting alongside IS and others against it. There are cases in which tribes such as the Jumaila where relatives fight on opposite sides. The fact that Sunni tribes fighting IS feel that it is a hopeless task under current circumstances, makes it that more difficult to enlist this crucial community in the fight. The industrial-style barbarism waged by IS, which targets all and then is filmed to terrorize, is something tribal fighters are not used to. It has crushed their morale. In the words of one tribal leader, Sheikh Sabah al-Issawi: "They [IS] are the only enemy that targets everything. They are targeting life in all its forms — women, children, funerals, mosques, clerics and tribal chiefs. They don't leave anything behind."37 Sheikh Issawi blamed the "sectarian" government in Baghdad for the tribe's lack of weapons: "The government believes that when weapons are given to Sunni tribes, they will be handed over to Daesh. Some of them believe that all Sunnis support Daesh. The origin of this fear is sectarian."38 Unsurprisingly, he concluded that most of Anbar's tribes are sitting on the fence: "The first group believe in the Daesh doctrines. The second group hates Daesh, but they saw what happened to the tribes who fought al-Qaeda between 2006 and 2008. Afterwards the government turned against them and arrested them. Most have been killed or jailed."39
The Sunnis distrust both Baghdad and the United States. The words of Sheikh Abdullah Humaidi al-Bu Isa resonate with a lot of Sunnis in Anbar, particularly with those who had helped the Americans defeat al-Qaida in 2010: "We blame President Obama for not keeping his promises. Sunnis have been displaced. They are being slaughtered. He misled us. The Americans have no credibility. We no longer trust what they say."40 Similarly, across the border in Syria, a Syrian sheikh of the Baggara tribe of Deir ez-Zour province, Fawaz al-Bechir, claimed that the Syrian government asked him to rally the tribe to fight IS. His response: "I told them, 'For decades you did everything to undermine our authority and weaken us and now you want us to help?'" By way of contrast, a sheikh of the Shammar Jarba discouraged his people from participating in the protests against the regime of Bashar al-Assad: "Visibility was poor, so to speak, and we couldn't tell where things were headed."41 Many Sunnis are caught between Scylla — Islamic State — and Charybdis — the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad and its vengeful militias, and they have little room for maneuver. This tragedy and failure of the Sunnis of Iraq provides IS with the legitimacy of the worst alternative.
Iraq and Syria have been dealt mortal blows as modern nation-states. I am not arguing that they were doomed to fail because they were artificial. However, history has provided evidence of structural impediments to the success of nation-states. Neither myriad efforts of local elites nor those of outside powers in state-formation and nation building have succeeded. Iraq seems inexorably headed towards a three-way split. This has been exacerbated by the appearance on the scene of the Islamic State, whose declared goal is a caliphate but whose actions on the ground, including the erasure of the post-World War I Sykes-Picot boundary, have contributed to the further fracture of Iraq and Syria.
On the other hand, it would be incorrect to predict that the Islamic State is destined to win. The IS project of creating a new nation based on Islamic principles as a stepping stone toward the formation of the caliphate is a utopian project. While the Islamic State has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors, it has not mastered the art of state creation. The fact that some tribes in Iraq have supported it is not a factor in its favor; the tribes are suspicious of the government in Baghdad and fear the Shia militias. However, the idea of a caliphate is not something that excites them as it does the urban denizens who have flocked to IS from all over the world. IS has not effectively embedded itself within Iraqi society in the manner it had expected to. From its perspective, its de facto Iraqi allies are fickle and prone to changing sides depending on circumstances.
State-making and nation building are not pleasant activities. History has provided us with ample proof from Western, Asian and, of course, Middle Eastern civilizations. However, what the survivors of these often bloody enterprises expect in return are security and stability, not the endless wars that IS ideology and actions have spawned.
1 This paper is a very brief summary of Ahmed S. Hashim, The Caliphate at War: Ideological, Organizational, and Military Innovations of Islamic State (London: Hurst and Company, forthcoming in May 2016). The paper is also based on my many observations and notes in a collection of diaries I maintained while on advisory deployment with U.S. forces in Iraq between 2003-2004, 2005-2006, and in 2007, consisting of eight volumes of notebooks; and on a wide variety of jihadist literature and statements downloaded between 2003 and the present. Some of the websites are no longer active or are difficult to access. I was fortunate to hold onto the materials I downloaded years ago as they have proved invaluable for the writing of the book.
3 For a succinct French language explanation by one of its originators, see Fernand Braudel, "Histoire et science sociales: La longue duree," Annales, no.4 (1958), 725-753.
4 Space considerations force me to limit my discussion largely to Iraq and it has been the focus of my attention for many years. There is a growing and solid literature on the war in Syria; without a doubt the most detailed recent politico-military analysis is Charles Lister, The Syrian Jihad (London: Hurst, 2015). Good brief accounts include Christopher Philips, "Sectarianism and Conflict in Syria," Third World Quarterly 36, no.2 (2015): 357-376.
5 Taqi ad-Din Ahmed ibn Taymiyyah, Kitab al-jihad, quoted in Suleiman Mourad and James E. Lindsay, The Intensification and Reorientation of Sunni Jihad Ideology in the Crusader Period: Ibn 'Asakir of Damascus (1105-1176) and His Age, with an Edition and Translation of Ibn 'Asakir's The Forty Hadith for Inciting Jihad (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 107.
7 On the evolution of Saddam Hussein's policies towards religion, see Joseph Sassoon, Saddam Hussein's Ba'th Party: Inside an Authoritarian Regime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 259-268.
8 For a more extensive discussion of nationalism and religion in the Iran-Iraq War, see Chapter Three of my forthcoming book, The Caliphate at War.
9 Saddam Hussein, The Khomeini Religion, Baghdad: Dar al-Ma'mun for Translation and Publishing, 1988, 22, 32.
10 Ahmed S. Hashim discussions in Mosul with members of the IIP, September 2005.
11 See, for example, Solomon Moore, "In Mosul, New Test of Iraqi Army," New York Times, March 20, 2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/20/world/middleast/20mosul.html?_r=2&hp=&oref=sl.
12 Cited in Simon Tisdall, "Kurdistan Has Long, Fraught Road to Independence," Guardian, July 3, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/03/kurdistan-sustainable-independence-iraq.
13 Simon Tisdall, "Kurdistan Faces Long, Fraught, Road to Sustainable Independence," Guardian, July 3, 2014, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/03/kurdistan-sustainable-independence-iraq.
14 For more on this little known individual and his ideas, see Oded Yinon, "A Strategy for Israel in the Eighties," Kivvonim (Winter 1981-1982), reprinted as "Making the Arab World Collapse," Journal of Palestine Studies 11, no.4 (Summer-Autumn 1982): 209-214.
15 See Thomas Ricks and Anthony Shadid, "A Tale of Two Baghdads," Washington Post, June 2, 2003, 1; "Iraq's Sunnis Seethe over Loss of Prestige," Houston Chronicle, June 6, 2003, http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/story.hts/special/iraq/1940702; and Anthony Shadid, "Frustration and Foreboding in Fallujah," Washington Post, June 19, 2003, A16.
16 Didier Francois, "More a Leader of Men than Souls," Liberation, June 9, 2006 in OSC-EUP20060609029009, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_200_240_51_43/http.
17 See Edward Wong, "Iraqi Tribal Chief Opposes the Jihadists," International Herald Tribune, March 2, 2007, http://www.iht/com/bin/php?id=4782816; Todd Pittman, "Sunni Sheiks Join Fight vs. Insurgency," Washington Post, March 25, 2007, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/03/AR2007032500600_pf; "With U.S. Backing, Abu Risha Rose from Young Clan Leader to Head of Sunni Fight against al-Qaida," International Herald Tribune, September 13, 2007, http://www.iht.com/bin/php?id=7493257.
18 "Jihad and Change Front 'Answers' on Issues, 'Constants,' Positions," from Ana al-Muslim.net, cited in Open Source Center-GMP20080316050001, March 11, 2008, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_200_240_1019_43/htt.
19 "Sheikh min al-anbar yandhar al-hizb al-islami bikhala' maqarataha fi al-anbar wala satahajamha al-'ashirat" (Anbar sheikh warns the Islamic party to vacate its offices in Anbar or face attacks from the tribes), Alhawra.com, February 18, 2008, http://alhawra.com/newnews2005/2007/5082.htm.
20 See Megan Greenwell and Saad al-Izzi, "Maliki Aide Lashes Out Over Sunni Demands," Washington Post, July 28, 2007, p.12.
21 "Translation of Old Al-Zarqawi Interview, Says God's Law Must Rule 'Entire World,'" OSC-GMP20061211281001, December 6, 2006, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_762_303_0_43/http.
23 "'Al-Zarqawi's Online Magazine Article Defines Groups' Philosophy, Seeks to Justify Attacks," Al-Ikhlas forum posted first issue of Dhurwat al-Sanam, Abu Maysarah al-Iraq, "This is who we are," FBIS-GMP20050313000163, March 03, 2005, https://www.fbis.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_1696_1229_303_303_43/http.
24 "Al Zarqwi's Legal Committee Publishes Book 'Why Do We Fight? And Whom Do We Fight?" OSC-GMP20051017371006, October 17, 2005, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_200_240_51_43/htt.
25 "Al-Baghdadi Statement Views 'Dividends and Losses' After Four Years of 'Jihad,' OSC-FEA20070417118651, April 17, 2007, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server/pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_200_240_1019_43/h.
26 Version of declaration derived from: http://triceratops.brynmawr.edu/dspace/bitstream/handle/10066/14242/ADN20140629.pdf?sequence=1.
27 "Translation of Old Al-Zarqawi Interview, Says God's Law Must Rule 'Entire World," OSC-GMP20061211281001, December 6, 2006, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_762_303_0_43/http.
28 Quoted in Nimrod Raphaeli, "The Sheikh of the Slaughterers: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and the Al-Qaeda Connection," MEMRI, Report No. 231 (July 1, 2005).
29 Dan Eggen and Scott Wilson, "Suicide Bombs Potent Tools of Terrorists," Washington Post, July 17, 2005, A1.
30 "Translation of Old Al-Zarqawi Interview, Says God's Law Must Rule 'Entire World," OSC-GMP20061211281001, December 6, 2006, https://www.opensource.gov/portal/server.pt/gateway/PTARGS_0_0_762_303_0_43/http.
32 See Joshua Partlow, "Troops in Diyala Face a Skilled, Flexible Foe," Washington Post, April 22, 2007, A1.
33 Jamie Ingram, "Islamic State's Inadequate Service Provision Undermines Its Authority over Strategically Important Energy Assets in Syria and Iraq," Jane's Intelligence Review, August 11, 2015, http://www.janes.com/article/53599/islamic-state-s-inadequate-ser.
34 Matthew Rosenberg, Nicholas Kulish and Steven Lee Myers, "Predatory Islamic State Wrings Money from Those It Rules," New York Times, November 29, 2015; Fazel Hamrawy, Shalaw Mohammad and Kareem Shaheen, "Life under ISIS in Raqqa and Mosul: 'We're Living in a Giant Prison," Guardian, December 9, 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/dec/09/life-under-isis-raqqa-mosul-giant-prison-syria-iraq; and Mirren Gidda, "ISIS Is Facing a Cash Crunch in the Caliphate," Newsweek, September 9, 2015; http://europe.newsweek.com/isis-are-facing-cash-crunch-caliphate-333422.
35 Firas Abi Ali, "Iraqi Government Restrictions on Sunni Refugees Likely to Backfire, Encouraging Partition and Support for Islamic State," Jane's Intelligence Weekly 7, no. 20 (April 22, 2015).
36 Mustafa Habib, "Low Supplies, Political Disputes in Anbar: Not Long before Extremists Take Over," Niqash, December 18, 2014, http://www.niqash.org/en/articles/politics/3597/Not-Long-Now-Be.
37 Orla Guerin, "Iraq's Sunni Tribes Face Lonely Battle against Islamic State," BBC News, June 25, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middleeast-33225371.
41 Sam Dagher, "Control of Syrian Oil Fuels War between Kurds and Islamic State," Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2014, http://www.wsj.com.articles/control-of-syrian-oil-fuels-war-betwe.
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