With graphic violence spread through social media, and the declaration of a new caliphate in Iraq and Syria in June, the Islamic State (formerly ISIS) has shown a swiftness and brutality that has shocked Western nations.
But what conditions have given rise to this army of jihadis? And what lies in the future following Obama’s call on UN world leaders to dismantle its "network of death”?
At the Frontline Club on September 24, four experts discussed the militant group’s origins, how its tactic and structure differ from Al Qaeda, and where it’s going as the West resolves to strike in what promises to be a years-long conflict.
“I don’t believe that air campaign that is currently happening in that particular region is going to be able to defeat ISIS,” said Peter Neumann, a professor and founder of the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King’s College London to start off the debate. “More importantly," he added, "I think that this conflict has attracted so many foreign fighters is going to cause problems down the line.”
A crucible for ISIS: Iraq and the Syrian civil war
Conditions for the militant group’s rise were created by the US invasion of Iraq and the Syrian civil war sparked by the Arab Spring, the panelists agreed.
“What really made the difference was the uprising of the Sunni in Syria. The Sunni Arabs in Syria are over 60% of the population, as opposed to around 20% in Iraq,” said author and Middle East correspondent Patrick Cockburn. “This changed the sectarian balance in the region.”
“Both Maliki and Assad have applied military solutions to what are fundamentally political crises. That is one of the main reasons that ISIS not only exists, but is as strong as it is today,” said Dr. Alia Brahimi, a visiting research fellow at the Oxford University Changing Character of War Programme. “A lot these militants that flooded into Syria, and helped to militarise so spectacularly the Syrian revolution had cut their teeth in the Iraqi insurgency.”
Conflicting approaches between ISIS and Al Qaeda
After 9/11, Osama bin Laden found that his authority was far reaching, but fragmented - with what came to be known as Al Qaeda comprising disparate, loosely affiliated groups such as Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. ISIS, however, has a different structure.
“The hallmark of Al Qaeda was to attack the west, carry out terrorist attacks; they wanted to overthrow Bashar al-Assad,” said Neumann. “ISIS said, ‘let’s Let’s[gl1] not do that, we don’t care about Bashar al-Assad so much. We’re going to start a state, we’re going to hold territory and then we’re going to live from that territory, we’re going to recruit people from within that territory, we’re going to raise money from within that territory.’”
“The story is actually one of deep division within Sunni radical Islam. Hence the very public disputes between Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and the splits in various Al Qaeda branches since then,” said Dr. Brahimi. “Zawahiri has the added problem that he doesn’t control any territory.”
“To that end,” she said, “I think the draw down in Afghanistan becomes significant because I think they will, in Kunar Province, try to establish something they can claim as an emirate.”
Social media as a tool for IS recruitment
Long after Al Qaeda’s initial attack in 2001, the media landscape has changed drastically. The IS brand has snowballed on social media, with one result being graphic beheadings distributed through video services and Twitter.
“You definitely see in the English-speaking world jihadis, particularly on social media, that IS is the one that attracts more support,” said Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi, a Shillman-Ginsburg fellow at the Middle East Forum. “They have much more articulate English advocates as opposed to Al Qaeda. And it’s in that capacity which someone whose supporting the Islamic State in the west might choose to now act on these declarations to go and attack western targets.”
“A lot of the Europeans are useless at fighting. They often haven’t shot a gun in their lives,” Neumann said. “If you’re good at video editing, media and outreach, that is obviously something that you can do. And the English-language propaganda that Aymenn talked about is, of course, produced by foreign fighters who are not fighting a lot, but who are part of ISIS.”