A Guide to the Islamic State Group and 3 Lessons for the Future

This article briefly describes what the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, now known as the Islamic State is; what its goals are; how historically unique its method of "State-building" is; and what dangers it poses to the Middle East State system. It also briefly suggests at least three pertinent lessons that countries in a similar situation to Iraq can learn.

Islamic State fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of their proclaimed capital, the Syrian northern province of Ar-Raqqa (Reuters)

What is the Islam State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) now known as the Islamic State (IS), and what are its goals?  

The Islamic State Group believes itself to be a sovereign State; hence its reference to itself as such. It is a movement led by a man called Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi which aspires to re-establish a type of polity known as a Caliphate – an Islamic form of government underpinned by Shari’ah which first emerged in the 7th century after the death of the Prophet, and was abolished in 1924 with the end of the Ottoman Empire. The group is a Jihadi organization in that it ideologically believes the Caliphate can only be re-established through armed force (i.e. Jihad). And finally it is an extremist sect in that, as we have seen, it doesn’t shy away from using mind-numbing violence to impose its narrow minded interpretation of religious tenets. 

Its stated goals are the: 

·         re-establishment of the Caliphate – which it believes it has already fulfilled

·         expansion of the Caliphate across the Levant (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine) – hence the “al-Sham” in its original name (al-Sham is the Arabic term for the Levant area)

·         and the eventual spread of their Caliphate across the whole world.

How unique is its method of “State-building”?

From an historical perspective, there is nothing unique or new in states being born violently, and augmenting their power through expansion and conquest. While it may seem shocking to contemporary eyes that a “new state” – whether it will endure remains to be seen – is being born through war, and has set about expanding its territory through conquest. In actual fact this has been the “normal” process of state-building from an historical perspective.

The overwhelming majority of states today are the products of violent creation and conquest – even post-colonial states, whose borders were after all created through the conquest and destruction of pre-colonial polities by the colonial powers. As the leading scholar on Europe’s state-building process, the late Charles Tilly, famously said when commenting on Europe’s violent past: “War made the State and the State made war”.

Similarly from a religious perspective, there is nothing wrong in principle with the establishment of the Caliphate through war and conquest. The Islamic Caliphates and Empires of the past were established, and dissolved, through exactly that process.

There are major problems with the way the IS has gone about establishing its State however.

The first is the wanton butchery with which Baghdadi’s followers have gone about their business of “state-building”. It’s one thing when the violence unleashed is a product of the war being fought to establish the State – i.e. battlefield deaths. It is quite another thing entirely when that violence is transferred wholesale beyond the battlefield and is used to indiscriminately kill captured prisoners of war – as IS openly boasts of doing – or to ethnically cleanse captured areas by forcing the civilian population to flee on pain of Genocide – as we have seen with the Yazidis, for no other reason other than because they belong to the wrong ethnic group.

Not even history and religion can shield them from the deserved condemnation of the world on this count. There is a reason why Genghis Khan’s name is still mentioned pejoratively some 800 years later! And to my mind, it is the atrocities more than anything else that will eventually doom IS’ Caliphate to destruction. It will not only repel potential followers and supporters, it will also provoke the Major Powers into taking military action against it – as seems to have happened now with the US’ decision to conduct airstrikes against it.

The second major problem with the IS Caliphate is the fact that it has been rejected by the majority of Islamic scholars. Ironically, the IS Caliphate has also been rejected by other Jihadist groups. The rejection by the majority of Islamic scholars, including scholars respected within Jihadi circles, is not to be underestimated. Under Islamic law, a Caliphate can only be established in one of two ways: when there is a broad consensus amongst scholars that the time is right for it, or through war. Baghdadi has obviously settled for the latter, hoping that battlefield success will legitimate his claim. Whether he succeeds or not, remains to be seen. As for me, I am highly sceptical of his chances.

Do they pose any danger to the peace and stability of the Middle East and by extension the world?

To the Middle East, absolutely they do; to the whole world, in the long term potentially yes. The IS has made it quite clear that it aims for the destruction of the Middle East’s state system – which they view as the artificial construct of Europe’s colonial powers. Their erasure of the Iraq-Syria border, the declaration of a proto-state which straddles the two countries, and the very immediate danger they pose to Jordan and Lebanon is the most visible manifestation of this territorial threat. To the extent that the Middle East is punctuated by weak states, this threat will endure for as long as expansion and conquest remains the driving force of Baghdadi’s State.

While the territorial danger is real, we shouldn’t overestimate it however. To my mind, the IS has probably reached its furthest extent. It may still secure some tactical gains – a town here, a city there – but the big sweeping strategic advance that catapulted it to the limelight earlier this year seems unlikely for now. Everywhere, the IS Caliphate looks boxed in to me. To the south lies Baghdad, a prize Iran, and for that matter the Americans, will not let fall to the IS. To the north are Kurdish territories which the Americans, with the announcement of a supply of weapons to the Peshmerga (Kurdish militia) to better defend their areas from the IS, have practically committed themselves to protecting. To the east is Iran, one of the Middle East’s few strong and capable states. And to the west are Jordan and Saudi Arabia, countries which due to their strategic relations with the US, means the US would probably unhesitatingly defend should their territories be comprehensively threatened by IS forces.

The biggest long-term danger the IS poses to the world is through the material support and training facilities it could offer to other terrorist groups. The IS is now listed as the world’s richest terrorist group, with billions in cash and gold bullion; and it now controls a vast swath of territory straddling two countries. These are obviously resources that could be used to plan and support devastating terrorist attacks against adversaries. While precautions should always be made, I however don’t believe any international terrorist operation to be among Baghdadi's top list of priorities for now given that he is still trying to consolidate his territory. Any terrorist spectacular against especially Western countries will only draw those countries into taking more aggressive military action against the group.

What lessons should countries in a similar situation as Iraq draw from its troubles?

It seems to me that there are at least three pertinent lessons that they should draw from the tragedy that has befallen Iraq.

No State lasts forever

Iraq may yet survive the IS assault and emerge with its State intact. But for now, and probably for the foreseeable future, the possibility of stitching back together the broken societies of that traumatised country will remain a distant prospect. A country that was once a regional player in its heyday has now become a playing field for all the regional powers to act out their ambitions. With Iraq’s ruling elites having botched the opportunity to reform their country’s badly dysfunctional polity, when the forces of disintegration came knocking at the door, their enfeebled State simply collapsed.

 As for politically unstable countries with fractious elites, they should soak in for a while the stories of an Iraq in turmoil. It will have a powerfully clarifying effect on the dangers they face should they fail to get their acts together. States don’t stay together because they have a “sovereign right” to. Rather, States stay together because the societies over which they govern have decided to stay together, and have decided to act purposively towards that goal. They stay together because the leaders and the elites of those societies have decided to set aside all parochial interests to forge a common destiny, and a common vision of a shared political community.

The fact is when unbridgeable fissures are allowed to emerge and fester within any political community; it provides the space for the forces of decay and disintegration to thrive. Not even a Kingdom of God on earth can escape this fundamental law of political reality.

No one will save you when you are unwilling to save yourself

This is a particularly pertinent lesson for countries with the misfortune of being governed by indolent and short-sighted elites. As the Iraq example has amply shown, when a State is faced with existential challenges, the drive for survival must come from within. Absent this internal drive, disintegration becomes inevitable. It is a brutal world out there. And no amount of appeals to brotherly solidarity will convince neighbours, or the wider international community, to lift a finger and save a dysfunctional state from tumbling over the precipice.

Despite the Iraq crisis now having dragged on now for a while, the US only decided to act when a community was facing the real threat of Genocide (in other words not because the State itself was collapsing), and when it became clear that IS forces were encroaching further into Kurdish held territory. Given that the US has strategic installations and personnel stationed there; it felt compelled to respond to contain the IS advance. As for Iraq’s neighbours, what have they done to aid the country as it floundered to contain the threat of the IS? Well, they have contented themselves with watching the drama from afar; unwilling to act lest they provoke the beast now tearing Iraq apart.

A demoralised and politicised army can’t fight

Iraqi army collapse as IS forces surged into the north and the west of the country earlier this year was stunning. Faced with about 800 Jihadi warriors bearing down on them, two entire divisions of the army – roughly 30,000 men – simply buckled and fled. This comical, were it not so tragic, performance didn't happen because the soldiers were ill-equipped – the soldiers were actually relatively well-equipped compared to the Jihadist and insurgent forces. Rather it happened because the soldiers were demoralised and, in a process known as “coup-proofing”, the officer core had been gutted; competent officers were replaced with politically pliant ones. This meant that when it came time to actually fight, the soldiers were simply not willing to sacrifice their lives for a mission they didn't believe in. Neither were their officers competent enough to restore military discipline once it began to break down.

This is a very important lesson particularly for my countrymen, Nigerians, to ponder on as we battle our own determined group of violent extremists intent on imposing their narrow (and heterodox) vision of Islam. While it is now no secret that Nigerian troops are dangerously ill-equipped. The “mutiny” of the soldiers from the 7th Division on the 14th of May, and the often reported stories of soldiers fleeing at the sight of Boko Haram fighters, should be seen as warning signs of creeping mission weariness. It should also be seen as a problem arising not only from poor weaponry, but also from low morale and the erosion of command and control capabilities – i.e. the ability and competence of commanders to exercise authority over their troops.

If there is anything we can draw from the Iraq experience on this issue, it is that, even if adequately equipped, soldiers debilitated by poor morale, lacking belief in the mission they are meant to risk their lives for, and led by incompetent officers, will likely flee when faced with a determined adversary!

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