How should we think about the Caliphate?

Owen Bennett-Jones

In its recent propaganda video, Clanging of the Swords: Part 4, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) presented a tightly edited series of grotesque executions. Thirty-eight people were filmed being killed: one man was shot as he ran through the desert trying to escape gunmen in a 4x4; another was trapped in his car; one was at home when Isis broke in and beheaded him in his bedroom. It’s hard to believe that what you’re watching really happened until the relentless inhumanity is interrupted by an occasional human moment. At one point a gunman walks down a row of kneeling young men with their hands tied behind them. He aims a pistol at the back of each man’s head, fires, watches the body slump forward in a pool of blood, moves on to the next in line and repeats the exercise. Then, one of his victims has the idea of trying to save himself by anticipating the shot and, a split second too early, falls forward, pretending to be dead. Needless to say, the ruse doesn’t work. There is also footage of Isis gunmen driving through a town when, for no apparent reason, they stick their Kalashnikovs out of the car windows and fire at two men walking along the pavement. One is hit and collapses. The car moves forward, and the Isis fighters keep firing as their victim lies motionless on the ground. Presumably they want to make sure he’s dead. As they drive away the second pedestrian – amazingly still unharmed – runs for his life in the other direction.

You might think that a film showing your organisation randomly murdering people would not attract new recruits. But Isis’s various communications have achieved two objectives. First, they have terrified the Iraqi army, sapping the soldiers’ will to defend the Iraqi state. Threatening text messages sent direct to their mobile phones reinforce the point. Second, Isis has quickly carved out a global presence. A few weeks ago it seemed that only policy wonks had heard of it. It didn’t even have a settled acronym: some called it Isis, others Isil (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – the Arabic supports either). The distinction hardly matters now as the organisation has renamed itself the Islamic State, with its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, as its caliph. Whatever it’s called, its pitch relies on glamour shots of earnest young men with dishevelled, flowing hair living in rural settings unsullied by the paraphernalia of modern life – except for the assault rifles and ammunition strapped to their chests. The talk is all about duty, sacrifice and martyrdom.

But in many respects Isis is a very modern organisation. The brochure detailing its 2012-13 activities is like a state of the art corporate report. The most striking page, with slick graphic design, has 15 silhouetted icons – time bombs, handcuffs, a car, a man running – with each representing a field of activity: roadside bombs, prisoner escapes, car bombs and the clearance of apostates’ homes. Next to a picture of a pistol is the word ‘assassinations’ and the number 1083: the number of targeted killings Isis claims to have pulled off in the year under review. That sits alongside 4465 roadside bombs, 160 suicide attacks and more than one hundred repentances by apostates. And these impressive statistics relate to the period before the greatest jihadi achievement since 9/11, Isis’s conquest of Iraq’s second city, Mosul. Isis is also the first jihadi group to occupy contiguous land in two countries. You could argue that al-Qaida did that in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border areas but it could only survive by remaining in the shadows. Isis, by contrast, has been able to move through north-east Syria and large parts of northern Iraq with almost complete freedom. There has always been a strand of Islam with global aspirations rising above national frontiers: the Islamic State now aims to put those ideas into practice. One of the caliph’s first acts was to send bulldozers to destroy the frontier posts between Iraq and Syria.

There has been much comment about the foreign volunteers attracted by Baghdadi’s pan-Islamist ideology. You might think the recruits from Western Europe in particular would be more trouble than they’re worth: many don’t speak Arabic and have been brought up in such comfort that they find it difficult to adapt to jihadi life. But they have advantages too. Often well educated, they bring zeal along with their Western passports. Some can be persuaded to become suicide bombers. Isis’s openness to foreign fighters has paid dividends, though the question that concerns Western media is how much of a threat they would pose if they returned to the societies that nurtured them. British officials claim that as many as five hundred Muslims from the UK are now fighting in Syria and Iraq and that those who survive and return will be too numerous for the security services to monitor. But in reality there is nothing even approaching an existential threat to the UK. Many of the young men who have gone to the Middle East have done so precisely because they don’t consider the UK their enemy and don’t think they should attack British targets. And one of the insights gained by the various deradicalisation programmes that now exist all over the world is that while jihadis appear ferocious, many are fairly weak-willed individuals. It’s easy to persuade them to fight, but it also turns out to be easy to persuade them to stop. It has been estimated that in the past just one in nine returning foreign fighters has continued to wage jihad in some form in his home country.

For all its innovations, the Islamic State is a direct descendant of al-Qaida – specifically, of al-Qaida in Iraq. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, bin Laden had a whole new front on which to fight. Al-Qaida in Iraq was established under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a particularly bloodthirsty petty criminal who allowed virtually anyone in his organisation – religiously educated or not – to take a decision on whether a person was a proper Muslim. The organisation became famous for posting films on YouTube showing the beheading of anyone thought to have fallen short of the required standards. Al-Qaida’s central leadership tried to explain to Zarqawi that his nickname – Sheikh of the Slaughterers – was unhelpful but Zarqawi remained his own man until, in 2006, the Americans tracked him down and killed him.

But this wasn’t any kind of ending. The battle-hardened remnants of al-Qaida in Iraq, together with other groups of militants who had fought the US occupation, decided on a makeover, renaming themselves the Islamic State of Iraq. The new group made steady progress after the Americans pulled out in 2011, and at the start of this year, under Baghdadi’s leadership, took over most of two towns which the US had made huge efforts to secure: Fallujah and Ramadi. These were major symbolic victories that helped establish Baghdadi’s reputation as the world’s foremost jihadi leader. Unlike al-Qaida’s Zawahiri, he was winning battles on the ground.

Things were also moving ahead in Syria. In the summer of 2011, when it looked as if the Assad regime in Damascus might not survive, Baghdadi sent a member of the Islamic State in Iraq, Abu Mohammed al-Joulani, to set up shop next door. The democratic opposition to Assad was exhausted; within months al-Joulani was taking and holding territory in northern Syria. In January 2012 he publicly announced the existence of what he called Jabhat al-Nusra. For a year al-Nusra enjoyed steady gains, partly because the Assad regime realised that if it allowed the jihadis to take territory the West would change its view of the Syrian conflict. So the government forces chose to focus their fire on the Free Syrian Army rather than the jihadis.

After seeing Joulani’s gains in Syria, Baghdadi decided to assert himself. In April 2013 he changed the name of the Islamic State of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and soon announced a merger between Isis and al-Nusra. Joulani saw it as a hostile takeover. There are many versions of why the two men fell out, from a clash of egos to irreconcilable policy differences. According to one story Baghdadi ordered Joulani to bomb a hotel in Turkey where some of Syria’s democratic opposition leaders were meeting. Fearing that his Turkish supply lines would be jeopardised, Joulani refused and Baghdadi took umbrage. Policy towards Iran was another area of disagreement. Some senior Isis members complained that al-Qaida had a policy of not attacking Iran; al-Nusra accepted it but Isis didn’t want to. Whatever the precise reasons, the disagreements led to fighting between Isis and al-Nusra and Joulani appealed to Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaida’s leader, to adjudicate. Zawahiri declared that al-Nusra was al-Qaida’s official affiliate in Syria, and that Isis had severed ties with al-Qaida. He urged the group to restrict itself to fighting in Iraq – a suggestion Isis rejected out of hand. Zawahiri may now have some regrets but he also knows that Baghdadi may eventually fail – because of his reliance on extreme violence if for no other reason.

It was a lesson al-Qaida learned the hard way. September 11 had set the bar very high and it was difficult to see what would count as a spectacular al-Qaida attack in the years that followed; the organisation found that it had to use ever more violence or risk being left out of the headlines. The strategy of escalation finally unravelled in November 2005 when suicide bombers attacked three hotels in Amman. In the space of a few minutes more than fifty people were killed, including several members of a wedding party. The next day there were protests in the streets: the demonstrators condemned the killings and chanted slogans in favour of King Abdullah. Zawahiri drew the obvious conclusion, but other jihadis failed to understand the value of restraint. Every time a jihadi movement has won power it has lost popularity by failing to give the people what they want: peace, security and jobs. In Afghanistan, for instance, the Taliban had considerable public support when it came to power in 1996 after years of civil war: many Afghans were glad of the stability the Taliban offered. But Mullah Omar’s administration was so violent and so little concerned about worldly matters that by 2001 most were pleased to see him go. Other jihadi administrations have faced similar problems. In 2009 the current leader of the Taliban in Pakistan, Mullah Fazlullah, won control of the Swat Valley, just a few hours’ drive from Islamabad. His practice of murdering opponents and leaving their bodies to rot in the main square of the valley’s biggest town, Mingora, so disgusted the local people that they supported an army offensive against the militants. Similar things have happened in North Africa, where no jihadi movement has been able to hold on to power.

The lesson would seem to be that left to their own devices, jihadi administrations fail. There are signs, however, that Baghdadi or at least some of his commanders has begun to appreciate the importance of this issue. In some Syrian towns Isis has managed to restore a degree of normality not just by guaranteeing security through a system of rough justice but also by introducing price controls on basic commodities and even carrying out civic tasks such as issuing car number plates. Free fuel and food – all with Isis branding – are often distributed to the needy. For the moment these attempts to win over local populations are outweighed not only by Baghdadi’s violent methods but also by his insistence on unpopular, religiously inspired rules to do with alcohol, smoking, dress codes and music. But should the Islamic State learn to govern as well as it fights, its support would be greatly enhanced.

For the moment its prospects are undermined by its reliance on fear. But there is another reason to believe that in the long term it isn’t as dangerous as many believe. After Mosul fell, Nouri al-Maliki’s government declared that there were between four and six thousand Isis fighters in Iraq. Others think that was an overestimate. Either way, it’s clear that so few men couldn’t have taken such huge amounts of territory so quickly without help. The fact is that Isis isn’t the single-minded monolith it may seem. It’s the public face of a coalition of ex-jihadis, Baathist military officers and various tribal leaders disillusioned with Maliki’s government. A number of distinct militias have fought alongside Isis, including the Islamic Army of Iraq, led by Sheikh Ahmad al-Dabash, a man who doesn’t share Baghdadi’s ideas about a caliphate. ‘Iraq can stay under one system,’ he said recently, ‘but [with] three separate Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite regions. There is no better solution than that.’ Events are moving his way.

Iraq is already closer to being three states than one. Given the depth of the distrust between the communities, it’s likely that the divisions will harden; Baghdad itself could be partitioned. The Kurds, who reacted to the fall of Mosul by taking control of Kirkuk, won’t willingly give it up. Some Shias are beginning to think that a Shia state may be preferable to an Iraqi one and even some Sunnis are wondering whether they too might be better off looking after themselves. The disintegration of Iraq fits into larger trends challenging the established order in the Middle East and it isn’t only jihadis who are driving the changes. In a development that would have been unimaginable a few years ago, Western companies are now buying oil from the Kurds despite the opposition of the central government in Baghdad. In Syria, Isis controls some oilfields but the output still gets to market. As for borders, it is no longer outlandish to consider the possibility of an Alawite redoubt in western Syria and of Kurdish self-rule: a de facto independence that would change not only Iraq but also Turkey, Syria and Iran. Israel and the Western powers are already voicing concern about what might happen in Jordan. No doubt they will all resist demands to recognise any attempted changes to national boundaries. But that may lead to a growing divergence between the international system regulating relations between states and the reality on the ground.

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The promise of the Arab Spring has largely been extinguished. Hopes of democratic change have been replaced by fears of dictatorships and caliphates. The most striking disappointment in the region is Egypt, where the ideals of Tahrir Square have ended with the rule of a military man even more authoritarian than Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood – which has won every post-Arab Spring election in which it has stood – has been declared a terrorist organisation, with hundreds of its leaders sentenced to death. All this has happened with the support of the West: the US secretary of state, John Kerry, recently handed over half a billion dollars to the Sisi regime. And the situation in Syria has led some to wonder whether, compared to the jihadis, Assad might after all be the best option. The West would be more than tempted to back any suitable dictator who came along in Iraq if they thought he could keep the Islamic State under control. The West, in other words, is reverting to its traditional Middle Eastern policy of supporting authoritarian regimes who keep both radical Islamists and liberal democrats at bay.

When George Bush and Tony Blair invaded Iraq they promoted the idea that the West was facing a worldwide jihadi threat led by al-Qaida. The global war on terror was against a single enemy: radical Islam. At first, each manifestation of that threat was attacked with massive force, beginning in Afghanistan. More recently, the West’s offensives have been less consistent. The jihadis in Mali were attacked, but in Somalia al-Shabaab was largely left alone. Some see the occasional failure to act as Western weakness. ‘The starting point is to identify the nature of the battle. It is against Islamist extremism. That is the fight,’ Tony Blair argued in an essay on his website written in response to the Isis advances in Iraq. He went on to recommend another – possibly illegal – military intervention. Those who are less encumbered by the past have a different analysis: that while jihadis are involved in many contemporary struggles, the various conflicts also involve a complicated array of other factors. There is no longer a single enemy – if there ever was one – plotting to attack the West. There are many separate forces, each with its own motives and agendas, mostly to do with the need to fight local enemies. Each conflict has its own history and dynamics. In Iraq, the current rebellion is driven not by anti-Americanism or hostility to the West in general but rather by the sectarianism, corruption and incompetence of the Maliki government. The Iraqi Shias and their Iranian backers, along with Sunni moderates and even the Kurds, all now have an interest in confronting Baghdadi – something they could do with much greater effectiveness than the US army. In fact, the deployment of US forces would play into Baghdadi and Zawahiri’s hands.

Towards the end of June, David Cameron told the House of Commons that Isis could take control of northern Iraq and set up a government there: ‘The people in that regime, as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom.’ It’s a highly contentious statement, and goes much further than anything said by the US administration. In recent months the Republicans have successfully developed a narrative according to which Obama’s reluctance to use force in the region has led to a general perception of US weakness. The domestic pressure on Obama to be more aggressive in the use of military power is considerable. Despite this, he seems to have faced down the demands – now coming from an unlikely alliance of Maliki and the American right – to send US forces to Iraq. The Sunni militants who have seized Iraqi towns, Obama said, pose a ‘medium and long-term threat’ to the US. But, he added, ‘what we can’t do is think that we’re just going to play whack-a-mole and send US troops occupying various countries wherever these organisations pop up.’ And anyway, he said, the local populations would reject Isis because of its violence. It’s an unusual turnabout: Downing Street more hawkish than the White House. But perhaps that’s of little consequence. In a remarkably frank articulation of London’s subservience to Washington, William Hague said in response to the Isis advances: ‘We will support the United States in anything they decide to do.’

Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Syria may seem to have backfired. But is it really clear that greater Western funding of the Free Syrian Army would have resulted in the emergence of a democratic, liberal state? The failure of the Arab Spring elsewhere suggests otherwise. Western politicians are having to adjust to their increasing inability to dominate the world. When you consider the alternatives, America’s inaction looks well advised. And while Obama is derided by left and right for his many failings it may just be that after he leaves office in a couple of years’ time, he’ll be missed.

4 July