Ideologically, there is little difference between the Islamic State and other radical Islamic jihadist movements. But in terms of geographical presence, the Islamic State has set itself apart from the rest. While al Qaeda might have longed to take control of a significant nation-state, it primarily remained a sparse, if widespread, terrorist organization. It held no significant territory permanently; it was a movement, not a place. But the Islamic State, as its name suggests, is different. It sees itself as the kernel from which a transnational Islamic state should grow, and it has established itself in Syria and Iraq as a geographical entity. The group controls a roughly defined region in the two countries, and it has something of a conventional military, designed to defend and expand the state’s control. Thus far, whatever advances and reversals it has seen, the Islamic State has retained this character. While the group certainly funnels a substantial portion of its power into dispersed guerrilla formations and retains a significant regional terrorist apparatus, it remains something rather new for the region — an Islamist movement acting as a regional state.
The Islamic State has created a vortex that has drawn in regional and global powers, redefining how they behave. The group's presence is both novel and impossible to ignore because it is a territorial entity. Nations have been forced to readjust their policies and relations with each other as a result. We see this inside of Syria and Iraq. Damascus and Baghdad are not the only ones that need to deal with the Islamic State; other regional powers — Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia chief among them — need to recalculate their positions as well. A terrorist organization can inflict pain and cause turmoil, but it survives by remaining dispersed. The Islamic State has a terrorism element, but it is also a concentrated force that could potentially expand its territory. The group behaves geopolitically, and as long as it survives it poses a geopolitical challenge.
Within Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State represents elements of the Sunni Arab population. It has imposed itself on the Sunni Arab regions of Iraq, and although resistance to Islamic State power certainly exists among Sunnis, some resistance to any emergent state is inevitable. The Islamic State has managed to cope with this resistance so far. But the group also has pressed against the boundaries of the Kurdish and Shiite regions, and it has sought to create a geographical link with its forces in Syria, changing Iraq's internal dynamic considerably. Where the Sunnis were once weak and dispersed, the Islamic State has now become a substantial force in the region north and west of Baghdad, posing a possible threat to Kurdish oil production and Iraqi governance. The group has had an even more complex effect in Syria, as it has weakened other groups resisting the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad, thereby strengthening al Assad's position while increasing its own power. This dynamic illustrates the geopolitical complexity of the Islamic State's presence.
History of an Idea
The Islamic State has a library of ancient myths and prophecies it uses to lure warriors in a march towards the thirteenth century, where they will defeat the infidels in a great final battle in northern Syria. Whether they die and are rewarded with paradise or survive to enjoy the coming Utopia under divine rule, they will be the victors; and this is the appeal of the Islamic State.
On the 4th of July, Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri, alias Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi took center stage in the Grand Mosque in Mosul for the first time as Caliph Ibrahim, the Emir of the Faithful in the Islamic State. He wore the black robes of the Abbasids Caliphate that reigned from 750 to 1258.
Muslims throughout the world were commanded to move to the caliphate and pledge their allegiance to Caliph Ibrahim. He had been appointed by the Shura Council that established the caliphate and had acceded to their wishes to assume the role of the Successor of Mohammad.
Abu Mohammed Adnani, a spokesman for Islamic State, announced to Muslims worldwide in a commentary titled “The Promise of God” that other organizations would have to acknowledge the supremacy of Caliph Ibrahim or face the wrath of the IS. Caliph Ibrahim declared that the Islamic State would encompass in five years the lands from India to Southern Europe. That would include Mullah Omar’s caliphate in Afghanistan, which has links to Al-Qaeda. Neither organization has pledged its allegiance to Abu Bakr Baghdadi. The head of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood and many other Islamic scholars are also rejecting the demands of Abu Bakr Baghdadi to acknowledge his supremacy, but not the Islamic principles being promoted and not the idea of a caliphate.
Caliph Ibrahim offers believers a journey back eight centuries to the time of the Abbasids Caliphate when Islam was spreading far afield. It is that lost glory that he is trying to resurrect and impose upon the world. In keeping with the principles of that distant time, Christians and Jews are to be given the opportunity to convert, flee, or to pay a tax and live as second class citizens. All others are to be put to the sword, their property seized, and their wives and daughters violated and forced into slavery. Everything is spelled out clearly in the Quran and in the “Majmu’ al-Fatawa” that was written by Sheikh Taqi ibn Taymiyyah after the fall of the Abbisids Caliphate. It is this doctrine that Ibrahim ibn Awwad ibn Ibrahim ibn Ali ibn Muhammad al-Badri studied as a doctoral student in Islamic studies at the Islamic University in Baghdad. The doctrine is a part of the curriculum at Saudi-financed, Salafi-oriented madrasas.
This is why the Islamic State does not hesitate to display the mass killing of prisoners or speak openly of enslaving Yazidi women and others. Their practices were approved thirteen centuries ago and are supported by other Salafists. Time has not modified those ancient teachings.
Believers are being offered a Utopian promise and the opportunity to reap revenge upon all of those infidels and false Muslims who have suppressed righteous Muslims throughout the world and over the centuries. “Revenge, revenge, revenge,” is the battle cry; and it has all been heard before.
Sheikh Wahhab Is Still Speaking
By whatever name we call him, the words of the new self-proclaimed caliph are taken straight out of the mouth of Shaikh Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, who walked this road of revolution and reform through much of the eighteenth century. Because Caliph Ibrahim draws upon historical sources, he can be replaced with another candidate by the Shura Council if the need arises, thus representing an institutionalized succession procedure.
Sheikh Wahhab was a fundamentalist that rejected what he saw as the corrupting of the Faith. The practices of many Bedouins of praying to saints, giving a spiritual meaning to particular places, celebrating the birthday of Muhammad, and constructing monuments were all viewed as idolatry. True believers accept only God and his word.
The Sheikh invoked the practice of Takfir. The rule states that any Muslim who fails to uphold the Faith should be put to the sword, his property seized, and his wives and daughters violated. Under this practice, Shia and Sufis were not considered to be Muslims and not deserving of life.
The Turks and Egyptians who came on their pilgrimages to Mecca were considered to be particularly abhorrent. They traveled in luxury, smoked, and were declared to be Muslim pretenders. The sect substituted for nationalism and was directed against the foreign corrupt rulers before pan-Arab identity began to unite the tribes.
Ibn Saud, the leader of a minor tribal group in the Nejd saw in the sect a vehicle that could be used to forward his ambitions. Banditry could be transformed into jihad; and the defeated tribes could be given the choice of converting to the sect and to benefit in the spoils or die. If they died in battle, they would enjoy a direct move into paradise.
What the Wahhabi Sect added to Islamic practice and what appealed to Ibn Saud was the requirement of the followers to give absolute loyalty to the political leader. To question the teaching or to fail submitting to the leader was cause for execution with the loss of property and the violation of wives and daughters.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the success of Saud was evident with much of the Arabian Peninsula under his control. His raid upon the important Shia center of Karbala in Iran 1801 saw an estimated five thousand Shia slaughtered and their religious sites destroyed. That was followed two years later by the capture of Mecca and later Medina.
The Ottomans could no longer ignore the carving up of their colonial territory by a desert tribe. An army of Egyptian troops was sent to settle the matter. The Wahhabi capital of Dariyah was seized and destroyed in 1818. Wahhabism receded into the Arabian Desert.
Yet it did not disappear. It remained the core philosophy of the Saud tribe and would become the core belief of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, from where it began to spread throughout the Middle East.
Wahhabism arose at a time when the foreign Ottomans were enjoying the benefits of being colonial rulers, which left a religious and political vacuum that Wahhabism eventually filled. Exactly one century after it was defeated, it arose anew with the fall of the Ottoman Empire and its dismembering by the British and French.
The tribes went from one colonial rule to another without having any say in what form their lands would take or what type of government would rule. After World War II, the European rulers were replaced mainly by autocrats. Where oil was exploited, the autocrats had riches that gave little benefit to the masses.
The destruction of the Saddam regime and the dismantling of the state structure by the United States in 2003 created the next vacuum that would give a new reform movement the opportunity to grow.
Revenge and Utopia
The strength of the Islamic State is that it gives the millions of impoverished people who see themselves as oppressed the opportunity to ride their 21st century tanks back to the promised Utopia, where the religious pure will reap all of the benefits and the disbelievers will receive their rewards at the end of a modern version of the sword.
If you believe, then all of the events that are converging in Syria were prophesized by Mohammad thirteen centuries ago, when he told the future generations that a great battle between Islam and the infidels would be fought out in northern Syria at the town of Dabiq near the Turkish border. That is where the old world will come to an end. It will precede the arrival of the Mahdi and the end of the world. Only the purest of the pure from the ranks of Muslims will enjoy the new state of peace and prosperity.
It has all been foretold, and the falling bombs on Islamic State positions in northern Syria are giving credibility to the ancient script for those who believe.
All that is needed to fulfill the prophecy is the arrival of an infidel army. The taunting of the United States by killing American citizens publically is intended to draw that army onto the battlefield to unite Muslims against the return of the Crusaders. If the United States rejects the challenge, it will be declared a coward and will confirm to followers of the Islamic State their strength. This is sure to give the movement even more appeal in the eyes of potential jihadists.
Yet it as we point out below, it is unclear whether the Islamic State can survive. It is under attack by American aircraft, and the United States is attempting to create a coalition force that will attack and conquer it. It is also unclear whether the group can expand. The Islamic State appears to have reached its limits in Kurdistan, and the Iraqi army (which was badly defeated in the first stage of the Islamic State's emergence) is showing some signs of being able to launch counteroffensives.
Countering with a Coalition
The United States withdrew from Iraq hoping that Baghdad, even if unable to govern its territory with a consistent level of authority, would nevertheless develop a balance of power in Iraq in which various degrees of autonomy, formal and informal, would be granted. It was an ambiguous goal, though not unattainable. But the emergence of the Islamic State upset the balance in Iraq dramatically, and initial weaknesses in Iraqi and Kurdish forces facing Islamic State fighters forced the United States to weigh the possibility of the group dominating large parts of Iraq and Syria. This situation posed a challenge that the United States could neither decline nor fully engage. Washington's solution was to send aircraft and minimal ground forces to attack the Islamic State, while seeking to build a regional coalition that would act.
Today, the key to this coalition is Turkey. Ankara has become a substantial regional power. It has the largest economy and military in the region, and it is the most vulnerable to events in Syria and Iraq, which run along Turkey's southern border. Ankara's strategy under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been to avoid conflicts with its neighbors, which it has been able to do successfully so far. The United States now wants Turkey to provide forces — particularly ground troops — to resist the Islamic State. Ankara has an interest in doing so, since Iraqi oil would help diversify its sources of energy and because it wants to keep the conflict from spilling into Turkey. The Turkish government has worked hard to keep the Syrian conflict outside its borders and to limit its own direct involvement in the civil war. Ankara also does not want the Islamic State to create pressure on Iraqi Kurds that could eventually spread to Turkish Kurds.
Turkey is in a difficult situation. If it intervenes against the Islamic State alongside the United States, its army will be tested in a way that it has not been tested since the Korean War, and the quality of its performance is uncertain. The risks are real, and victory is far from guaranteed. Turkey would be resuming the role it played in the Arab world during the Ottoman Empire, attempting to shape Arab politics in ways that it finds satisfactory. The United States did not do this well in Iraq, and there is no guarantee that Turkey would succeed either. In fact, Ankara could be drawn into a conflict with the Arab states from which it would not be able to withdraw as neatly as Washington did.
At the same time, instability to Turkey's south and the emergence of a new territorial power in Syria and Iraq represent fundamental threats to Ankara. There are claims that the Turks secretly support the Islamic State, but I doubt this greatly. The Turks may be favorably inclined toward other Islamist groups, but the Islamic State is both dangerous and likely to draw pressure from the United States against any of its supporters. Still, the Turks will not simply do America's bidding; Ankara has interests in Syria that do not mesh with those of the United States.
Turkey wants to see the al Assad regime toppled, but the United States is reluctant to do so for fear of opening the door to a Sunni jihadist regime (or at the very least, jihadist anarchy) that, with the Islamic State operational, would be impossible to shape. To some extent, the Turks are floating the al Assad issue as an excuse not to engage in the conflict. But Ankara wants al Assad gone and a pro-Turkey Sunni regime in his place. If the United States refuses to cede to this demand, Turkey has a basis for refusing to intervene; if the United States agrees, Turkey gets the outcome it wants in Syria, but at greater risk to Iraq. Thus the Islamic State has become the focal point of U.S.-Turkish ties, replacing prior issues such as Turkey's relationship with Israel.
Iran's Changing Regional Role
The emergence of the Islamic State has similarly redefined Iran's posture in the region. Tehran sees a pro-Iranian, Shiite-dominated regime in Baghdad as critical to its interests, just as it sees its domination of southern Iraq as crucial. Iran fought a war with a Sunni-dominated Iraq in the 1980s, with devastating casualties; avoiding another such war is fundamental to Iranian national security policy. From Tehran's point of view, the Islamic State has the ability to cripple the government in Baghdad and potentially unravel Iran’s position in Iraq. Though this is not the most likely outcome, it is a potential threat that Iran must counter.
Small Iranian formations have already formed in eastern Kurdistan, and Iranian personnel have piloted Iraqi aircraft in attacks on Islamic State positions. The mere possibility of the Islamic State dominating even parts of Iraq is unacceptable to Tehran, which aligns its interests with those of the United States. Both countries want the Islamic State broken. Both want the government in Baghdad to function. The Americans have no problem with Iran guaranteeing security in the south, and the Iranians have no objection to a pro-American Kurdistan so long as they continue to dominate southern oil flows.
Because of the Islamic State — as well as greater long-term trends — the United States and Iran have been drawn together by their common interests. There have been numerous reports of U.S.-Iranian military cooperation against the Islamic State, while the major issue dividing them (Iran's nuclear program) has been marginalized. Monday's announcement that no settlement had been reached in nuclear talks was followed by a calm extension of the deadline for agreement, and neither side threatened the other or gave any indication that the failure changed the general accommodation that has been reached. In our view, as we have always said, achieving a deliverable nuclear weapon is far more difficult than enriching uranium, and Iran is not an imminent nuclear power. That appears to have become the American position. Neither Washington nor Tehran wants to strain relations over the nuclear issue, which has been put on the back burner for now because of the Islamic State's rise.
Last Sunday also, Shiite and Sunni clerics from about 80 countries gathered in Iran's holy city of Qom to develop a strategy to combat extremists, including the Islamic State group that has captured large parts of Iraq and Syria.
New role of the United States?
This new entente naturally alarms Saudi Arabia, the third major power in the region if only for its wealth and ability to finance political movements. Riyadh sees Tehran as a rival in the Persian Gulf that could potentially destabilize Saudi Arabia via its Shiite population. The Saudis also see the United States as the ultimate guarantor of their national security, even though they have been acting without Washington's buy-in since the Arab Spring. Frightened by Iran’s warming relationship with the United States, Riyadh is also becoming increasingly concerned by America’s growing self-sufficiency in energy, which has dramatically reduced Saudi Arabia's political importance to the United States.
There has been speculation that the Islamic State is being funded by Arabian powers, but it would be irrational for Riyadh to be funding the group. The stronger the Islamic State is, the firmer the ties between the United States and Iran become. Washington cannot live with a transnational caliphate that might become regionally powerful someday. The more of a threat the Islamic State becomes, the more Iran and the United States need each other, which runs completely counter to the Saudis' security interests. Riyadh needs the tensions between the United States and Iran. Regardless of religious or ideological impulse, Tehran's alliance with Washington forms an overwhelming force that threatens the Saudi regime's survival. And the Islamic State has no love for the Saudi royal family. The caliphate can expand in Saudi Arabia's direction, too, and we've already seen grassroots activity related to the Islamic State taking place inside the kingdom. Riyadh has been engaged in Iraq, and it must now try to strengthen Sunni forces other than the Islamic State quickly, so that the forces pushing Washington and Tehran together subside.
What is noteworthy is the effect that the Islamic State has had on relationships in the region. It has also revived the deepest fears of Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Ankara wants to avoid being drawn back into the late Ottoman nightmare of controlling Arabs, while Iran has been forced to realign itself with the United States to resist the rise of a Sunni Iraq and Saudi Arabia, as the Shah once had to do. Meanwhile, the Islamic State has raised Saudi fears of U.S. abandonment in favor of Iran, and the United States' dread of re-engaging in Iraq has come to define all of its actions.
It appears that Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia are all waiting for the United States to solve the Islamic State problem with air power and a few ground forces. These actions will not destroy the Islamic State, but they will break the group's territorial coherence and force it to return to guerrilla tactics and terrorism. Indeed, this is already happening. But the group's very existence, however temporary, has stunned the region into realizing that prior assumptions did not take into account current realities. Ankara will not be able to avoid increasing its involvement in the conflict; Tehran will have to live with the United States; and Riyadh will have to seriously consider its vulnerabilities. As for the United States, it can simply go home, even if the region is in chaos. But the others are already at home, and that is the point that the Islamic State has made abundantly clear.