Rise and rise of ISIS Implications for India and the world
The jihadist group’s emphasis on sectarian thinking will widen divisions in Islamic society, including in India which has the third largest concentration of Muslims in the world, leading to unprecedented violence and bloodshed
Dr Ashok Behuria
Fellow, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation and Consultant, Pakistan project, IDSA
On June 20, a bearded, black-turbaned middle-aged man clad in black religious attire, with a calm but resolute voice spoke from a faintly lighted balcony (or a mimbar) of a local mosque in Mosul. He announced the message of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) a day after he was named the Caliph of the Muslim world. Until then a shadowy figure, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — often call “the ghost” by secret agencies — was much of a mystery to the entire world.
Imprisoned in 2004 and let off as an innocent in December 2009 by the Americans, Baghdadi led ISIS to spectacular success in no time. With the release of ISIS five-year plan to liquidate borders and spread Islam from Spain to China (Andalusia to Khurasan), he has left the world guessing about his next move and sent shockwaves in the States in the entire West Asian region.
The EVOLUTION OF ISIS AS a TERROR MACHINE
While much attention is being paid to Baghdadi’s personality and ability to lead ISIS, the facts surrounding the group’s evolution as a credible terror organisation over a decade — which has eclipsed even Al-Qaeda — deserve critical scrutiny.
In the post-9/11 days, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a radical Sunni militant from Jordan who had participated in Afghan Jihad, orchestrated some attacks on US facilities in Amman and announced the formation of a militant group called Al-Tawhidwal Jihad. Under pressure at home, he shifted his base to Iraq soon afterwards. With the US attack on Iraq in 2003, he pledged his loyalty to Al-Qaeda and was given the title Emir of a shadowy group called Al-Qaeda in the Land of the Two Rivers. After his death in a US air strike in June 2006, the organisation renamed itself Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006 and was led by Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (aka Hamid Dawud Mohamed Khalil al Zawi) of Iraq and Al Masri of Egypt. ISI was targeted by joint US-Iraqi forces and both Abu Omar al-Baghdadi and Al Masri were killed in April 2010. Following this, in May 2010, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was declared Emir of the organisation.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi also known as Abu Dua (originally named Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al Badri al Samarra’i also known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi al-Husseini al-Qurashi) hailed from the Iraqi township of Samarra. He was born into a Sunni family of religious scholars and had a PhD from the Islamic University in Baghdad. By 2003, he had set up a local organisation called Jamaat Jaish Ahle Sunnah wa al-Jamaah, which was engaged in activities aimed at safeguarding the interests of the Sunnis of Iraq in the aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster.
According to some media reports, he was found to be indulging in questionable activities against the US forces and was picked up as a suspect in 2004 and detained in Camp Bucca until his release in 2009. It seems he had earned a reputation as a religious scholar in the Diyala region of Samarra and developed contacts with the Iraqi Al-Qaeda faction led by Zarqawi by the time of his arrest. Apparently, he kept contact with Zarqawi’s outfit as it underwent a transformation from being a mere franchise of Al-Qaeda to an independent radical outfit called ISI. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi built a network of militants during his stay at Bucca, and honed his jihadi skills to suit his theological orientation.
OPPORTUNITY TO REGROUP IN NORTHERN SYRIA AND IRAQ
The shifts in domestic politics in Iraq since 2010 — especially after his anointment as the head of ISI at a time when it had suffered heavy losses in its confrontation with joint US-Iraqi forces — provided ISI with an opportunity to regroup. Nouri al-Maliki government, in power under US blessings since 2006, started showing its Shi’ite leanings brazenly once the American forces left Iraq, raising concerns of Sunnis in Iraq about their future. The influence of Iran added to their worries. Maliki’s susceptibility to Iran was quite visible, with the head of notorious Iranian al-Quds force Qasem Soleimani’s regular visits to Baghdad to advise him on matters concerning Iraqi security and preservation of his regime.
The turmoil in Syria since March 2011 prepared the most fertile ground for ISI to consolidate its position in northeastern Syrian cities lying along the Euphrates river — Ar-Raqqah, Deir ez-Zor, Al-Mayadin and Al-Kamal. Further northeast, it also established control over cities of Al-Hasakah and Al-Malikiyah, closer to the Kurdish autonomous region along the borders in northwestern Iraq.
According to reports, ISI used its presence in the region to strengthen its financial support base. It took control of the trading route from Turkey into Iraq passing through Syria. The region along with the neighbouring Nineveh province of Iraq is home to some of the major oil fields of Syria and Iraq. ISI also took charge of local power plants, and Bashar al-Assad government reportedly paid it handsomely for uninterrupted power supply. ISI also resorted to other well-known terrorist tactics to raise its finances — smuggling, extortion, drug trafficking, kidnapping, taxation of local trade of commerce etc. It took full advantage of the fact that there was no effective security presence from the Syrian side and used the area as a strategic backyard.
Isi HELPED BY Bashar al-Assad AND HIS ENEMIES
Assad government probably tolerated ISI for its hostile position vis-à-vis the US, and hoped to divert attention of the West towards Iraq. Assad may have at last succeeded in his strategy. However, ISI translated this opportunity into a massive gain for itself. It raised its voice against the Shia regime of Assad and tapped Sunni anger in northeastern Syria to its advantage. It also coordinated with other anti-Assad forces and enjoyed the patronage of Saudi and Turkish intelligence agencies, which sponsored insurgency in Syria. There are reports in the Western media that ISI militants might have received training in guerrilla fighting from Americans at their camps in Jordan.
Differences crop up with Al-qaeda under Al-Zawahiri
Almost coinciding with American pullout of troops from Iraq in December 2011, another Sunni radical outfit Jabhat al-Nusra made its presence felt in Syria by January 2012. It pledged its loyalty to Al-Qaeda by the end of that year. While al-Nusra and ISI cooperated with each other, differences came to the fore in July 2012, when for the first time Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi called for a regional Islamic state. Moreover, ISI’s rabid anti-Shia sectarian outlook and open call for launching a sectarian war might not have gone down well with Al-Qaeda leadership under Al-Zawahiri. In April 2013, ISI renamed itself ISIS — Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams, which was otherwise reported by the media as Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) or Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Al-Zawahiri did not like this idea and asked Baghdadi to limit his activities to Iraq alone and leave Syria to al-Nusra, its affiliate. Predictably, al-Nusra leader Abu Mohammad al-Jawlani denounced ISIS. By December 2013, the ISIS and al-Nusra cadres were engaged in a bloody struggle for supremacy in Syria.
Isis marches into iraq, captures several towns
However, ISIS under Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi refused to comply with such suggestions and moved along the Euphrates river to capture the towns of Ramadi and Fallujah, south of Baghdad, in January 2014. The ISIS success was quite spectacular. The Iraqi army could hardly put up credible resistance, exposing its weaknesses as a force of any consequence. By June 11, it moved down from its bases in northeastern Syria along the Tigris river and descended on Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq and capital of Nineveh. It has advanced further and threatened to take control of other important States along the Tigris — Baiji, Tikrit and Samarra — and engaged Iraqi forces in pitched battles. The Iraqi army is facing tough resistance from ISIS safeguarding the oil refinery at Baiji. To add to Maliki’s worries, al-Nusra and ISIS have reportedly agreed to coordinate their activities in Iraq.
Intensely sectarian in its approach, ISIS advocates Salafi-Takfiri ideology, which can tolerate kufr or non-believers but not apostates. According to this philosophy, anybody who claims to be a Muslim but does not advocate true Islam, as is acceptable to the Takfiris, is an apostate. Anybody who has disagreements with ISIS is a potential apostate and worthy of execution. Going by its high quality publications put out in the past few months, which show the strength of the ISIS propaganda machinery, it would not tolerate apostates masquerading as Muslims. It would fight the tawaghits, the worst form of apostates, who have crossed the boundaries of Islam, and oust them from all Muslim States. As Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi thundered in his maiden khutba at Mosul:
“It was only a matter of time before the oppressive tawaghit of the Muslim world would begin to fall one by one to the swords of the mujahidin, who would raise the banner of tawhid, restore the hukm of Allah, direct the masses back to the prophetic manhaj of jihad and away from the corruption of democracy and nationalism, and unite them under one imam.”
ISIS dislike for territorial nationalism and democracy is quite clear in this passage. ISIS urges Muslims from all over the world to come and join its jihad. To quote Baghdadi again: “Muslims today have a loud, thundering statement, and possess heavy boots. They have a statement to make that will make the world hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy and uncover its deviant nature.”
Thus, it is an ultra radical strand of Salafi-Wahabi world view that guides the ISIS today. It is lot more radical than that of Al-Qaeda. It is clearly competitive radicalism at work in a situation like the one faced by the Muslim society spread from Morocco in Maghreb to Moro Islands in Philippines.
The method that ISIS is adopting is nothing new — other Islamic terror groups Ansar Dine in Mali, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shahab in East Africa, as also Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan also resort to such brutality. However, what distinguishes the group is its focused attention on the Islamic ummah (nation) and its emphasis on cleansing Islamic society by getting rid of the apostates and toppling regimes there headed by tawaghits.
Through its newly formed Al-Hayat media, it is likely to spread its message of hatred further in the days to come. This has already alerted the kings and sheikhs in the region. It is expected to find an echo among the people of the region too if it manages to sustain its initial success in Syria and Iraq and hold on to the territory it has occupied today.
With the Sunni anger oozing out in this particular region — thanks to the short-sighted policies of the incumbent Maliki regime in Iraq to fight it mainly with the Shi’ite resistance force, and the Western pursuit of using insurgency to topple Assad regime in Syria — there are strong chances of ISIS managing to retain control over the terrain.
This is all the more probable given the lack of international will to fight it and the failure of the Iraqi government to enable a national unity framework. The widening sectarian division in the region will provide fuel to ISIS locomotive in the coming days.
IMPLICATIONS FOR the REGION AND WORLD
It appears certain at the moment that ISIS and its ideological siblings will engage in a long-drawn-out war over their competing world views and interests. The long-term consequences of protracted intra-Islamic conflict will have grave repercussions for the region and the world. The success of ISIS has led regime-backed mullahs to come out with denunciation of ISIS ideology and its political intent to raise a Caliphate. Even some other radical outfits have dismissed the arguments of ISIS and declared its Caliphate un-Islamic. However, the success of ISIS has led the Sunnis in the region to believe that there is an opportunity for them to strike back.
Ever since the success of the Shi’ite Islamic revolution in Iran, there is a long-running desire for an equivalent Islamic revolution in the Sunni fold. ISIS feeds them with the hope that it is possible to redraw the map of the region. In their latest video distributed by Al-Hayat as well as in their newsletter (Islamic State Report No 4) under the caption “Smashing of the borders of the Tawaghit”, they have clearly stated that the wrongs committed by Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 dividing the Islamic Caliphate into territories under possession of the colonial powers — which has given rise to the present State system in West Asia — would be reversed.
It remains to be seen how the people of the region — long used to territorial identities of Saudi, Iraqi, Syrian, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian etc — would ultimately react to such formulations. Going by the initial reactions and migration of about 7,000 Sunni fighters from Pakistan-Afghanistan and four Indians from Kalyan in Mumbai, the appeal of ISIS is for all to see. Rise of ISIS and its emphasis on sectarian thinking is likely to widen the sectarian divisions in the wider Islamic society, including in India, and lead to violence and bloodshed unprecedented in Islamic history.
This may not be good news for India, home to a substantial number of Muslim population — in fact the third largest concentration of Muslims in the world. The Sunni-Shia divisions were so far lying dormant in India. However, in recent months, reports of thousands of Shias seeking visas to go to Iraq to defend their places of worship can be an indicator of how far the sectarian animus can affect tranquility at home.
Add to that the effect of chronic instability in the region on India’s energy and economic interests. Roughly 70 lakh Indians working in the region send back about $35-40 billion as remittances, which serve our economy well. A huge percentage of our hydrocarbon is sourced to this region as well. Consequences of ISIS storm hitting West Asia would, therefore, not be in Indian interest. Other energy-hungry countries in Asia like China would also not be happy about it.
SHOULD INDIA BE A MUTE SPECTATOR?
At such a juncture, can India afford to hide behind the oft-repeated line advanced by strategic analysts here that we do not have any leverages and therefore must wait it out and rely only on hope?
What is quite shocking is that despite millennia of interaction with Islam and the Middle East, how little India understands or knows about either Islam or the conflicts that are erupting in the Islamic world. It is almost as though India believes that by adopting an ostrich-like attitude (burying its head in the sand and hoping the storm will pass it by) it will remain unaffected (at least domestically, if not internationally) by the dynamics of what is happening in the Islamic world.
In the past, Manmohan Singh Government fared miserably in terms of preparing and strengthening India to ride out such storms. Even as the Narendra Modi Government starts to build India’s capacities to handle such crises, it cannot just base its policy on the hope that things would not reach the meltdown stage anytime soon.
Hope can never be a substitute for policy, but for now it seems to guide our policy towards the region. We tend to hope that ISIS’s ultra-radical overtures would repel Islamic societies and force them to stand up to its virulence. But chances of that happening are quite bleak because such is the nature of the beast that divisions among States on sectarian lines (Saudi Arab-Iran for instance) might keep the flame alive.
Politically speaking, the Modi Government needs to get its narrative in order; it should have an outreach programme that informs the public of the challenges and what it is doing to meet them. The challenge before India is enormous, but the trust that the people of the country have reposed in the Modi Government needs to be vindicated.
Views expressed here are those of the authors and don’t reflect views of the organisations they work for.
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