Once again, they’ve left behind rich spoils — ranging from tanks to tinned beans. Once again, the brutal jihadists are seizing cities and claiming fresh ground. What’s happened? Three months ago, Islamic State was supposed to be on its knees.
Its second-in-command, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Waduli, was killed in an air attack. Iraqi Government forces recaptured the city of Tikrit. The siege of the Kurdish city of Kobane turned into a meat-grinder. The sniper bullets of female Peshmerga fighters and the laser-guided munitions of Coalition combat jets cut a swathe through the Sunni warriors.
Perhaps most dramatic of all, Islamic State’s spiritual leader appeared to have fallen victim to Coalition bombs. Was he fit enough to rule? Was the campaign of targeting key Islamic State figures effectively beheading the beast? The 35,000 black-clad fighters were defeated. Demoralised. In decline. But someone seems to have forgot to tell Islamic State that. The Caliphate strikes back
Out of the ashes
On June 29, 2014, Islamic State declared a new Caliphate — a Muslim religious state led by their god’s chosen prophet. It was an important act: The revival of this ancient form of government was intended to mark a transition from terrorist organisation to religiously legitimate government.
“Rush, O Muslims, to your state,” urged their new, exalted supreme commander. He soon fell silent. For months nobody heard from self-proclaimed descendant of Muhammad, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — now to be known as Caliph Ibrahim.
But, on May 14, Caliph Ibrahim finally returned. A half-hour speech was posted online in which Baghdadi called for renewed mobilisation — urging Muslims around the world to come to his caliphate and take up jihad.
It was a well-timed move. It capitalised on news that Islamic State had scored a major new victory: Six suicide bombers had breached the Iraqi Government defences at the provincial capital of Ramadi. The army up and ran. It’s not been just one victory: In the past week has come news that the jihadists have seized control of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra.
The West has been mourning the loss of such cultural heritage. Palmyra’s residents, however, have to come to grips with Sharia law.
Knights of a cruel god
Much of Islamic State’s appeal rests in it having a goal: To create a new religious utopia. And it’s driven by the belief this is almost within its grasp. It’s a goal built around a Sunni Islam apocalyptic, ‘end-of-times’ perspective.
It’s a message falling on fertile ground: Masses of Muslim males around the world discontent with their lot in life, their leadership and the rapidly changing world around them. It shouldn’t be surprising. It’s a message that has proved appealing to religious extremists of any creed or colour throughout history.
The deep wound the Crusades left on the cultures of the Middle East is being felt even now. It’s why so many saw the US-led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ as just another Western assault on their religion and way of life. It’s why so many see US-backed governments, such as that of Iraq and Israel, as puppet states.
In the case of Islamic State, the tiny town of Dabiq features prominently in their mythology. It’s about prophecy. Just as the ancient Israeli town of Meggidio (Armageddon) is seen as the site of the final great battle in Western culture, so too is Dabiq for Islamic State.
You’ll often see the name appearing in its propaganda. It’s even the title of their magazine. According to legend, it’s where the infidel will finally be defeated. Prophecy. Religion. Power. It’s a heady mix. It’s how Islamic State hopes will legitimise its caliphate. While many to surge forward to support the stark black flag — high-profile figures including European schoolgirls and Australian loners — there have been fewer than hoped for.
The declaration of Caliphate does not appear to have done Islamic State any particular good. Instead, most of the extremist jihadist groups loosely affiliated with ISIS initially expressed resentment at the audacity of such a move.
And while terrorist attacks in the name of Islamic State — such as those in France, Canada and Australia — are headline-grabbing, they don’t seize or secure territory. Nevertheless, something has given Islamic State a unifying boost.
Coalition air strikes appear to have generated a new wave of hatred towards ancient enemies. The unity offered by such hatred has since been expressed as far away as Pakistan, India, Kenya, Libya and Somalia. Besides, everybody likes to back a winner.
An appointed time
Most of the world only became aware of ISIS when it stormed into Iraq a year ago with stunning success: US-funded and trained Iraqi government forces simply collapsed and fled. But it’s actually been about since 2011: A name lost amid the myriad of fighters generally being covertly encouraged by the West in their fight against Syria’s dictator, Bashar Hafez al-Assad.
What makes ISIS different? Success. Ambition. A never-before-seen grasp of the propaganda potential of social media. No single factor brought the Islamic State into existence. Rather, it has grown out of a boiling cauldron of economic, social, religious and ethnic discontent.
Some of the appeal of ISIS resides in its simplicity and strength of message: Anyone who opposes the rule of its god-appointed caliph is by definition an apostate or an infidel. The appeal of absolutes cannot be underestimated.
It’s good versus evil. And you’re either with us, or against us. Many Muslims believe in returning to the simplicity of the early days of their faith. It’s an appeal that reaches through many religions, including fundamentalist Christian movements.
In the case of Islamic State, it rejects any new innovation since the times of the Prophet. The word of the Koran is literal law. That law cannot be changed. Nor can the world it applies to. It’s an ideal evident in the propaganda pictures they paint: The dark forces behind Western governments are corrupt and cruel, caring more about economics than people.
Such corruption, they argue, has infested Islamic nations such as Egypt, Indonesia, Kenya and Saudi Arabia. And it’s keen to present itself as a collection of young, empowered, just and strong jihadists engaged in an apocalyptic quest for change.
Once ISIS steamrolled through Iraq and Syria, it was given an opportunity to assert its extreme ideology: Anyone who disagrees with its interpretation of Islam must die. Anything outside of this ideology must be destroyed. Anything less would be impure.
Images of the glorious dead flood Twitter, along with those of beheaded and executed infidels. Foreign recruits are exulted. Mountains of cigarettes are burnt, along with books. Everywhere are the flames of change.
Islamic State has unleashed a storm of apocalyptic religious and political ideology on the sympathetically-minded. And its spurred many of them to act — in as far flung areas as suburban Melbourne, Paris and Boston.
It’s a two-faced message. On the one hand it’s horror: The swift justice of the sword as applied to uphold their god’s word. It’s the brutal beheadings of hostages. The smashing of ancient artefacts. It’s all intended for its international audience.
On the other hand is a message of compassion: It’s about brotherhood and warrior-brides, affordable housing and medical care, loyalty and the uprising of the oppressed. This is the message aimed at internal consumption. Both campaigns have equally high Hollywood-esque production values.
Files are uploaded to ‘cloud’ storage and blogging sites, and their links tweeted to groups of supporters. These supporters, in turn, publish copies of these files and forward their locations to their own followers. Such a deliberately ‘viral’ distribution process has proven hard to suppress: Most social-media account clampdowns being overcome within days, if not hours.
But the effort being expended to contain Islamic State’s social media presence has grown considerably: It is now finding it much harder to have its say — prompting a flurry of threats on the lives of Twitter employees. Islamic State is still getting its message out. But it’s having to shift and adapt fast: Just as it does under the bombs of Coalition combat jets..
Islamic State has long embraced the tactics of terrorism, insurgency and guerilla warfare. It is based on experience won on the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq since 1999. At the heart of this successful hit-and-run strategy is a core of competent commanders, many of whom were former military officers under deposed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Others cut their teeth fighting Russian military and police in Chechnya.
Not only did the fleeing Iraqi army leave behind an enormous cache of advanced weapons, Islamic State’s military leaders knew how to use them. And they’ve just had a second fresh injection of matériel: Iraqi defenders fleeing Ramadi earlier this month have once again left behind stockpiles of artillery, vehicles, guns and ammunition.
It’s an important and timely boost for Islamic State which paid a heavy price in its failed attempt to seize the city of Kobane. Islamic State needs to maintain the momentum of military success. It’s how it wins over new recruits — both at home and abroad.
And while much media attention has focused on a few Western faces, the vast bulk of Islamic State’s 15,000-strong “foreign legion” comes from just five nationalities. Tunisia. Saudi Arabia. Morocco. Jordan. Turkey. It’s the disaffected and disillusioned Muslim communities of these countries that have been stoking the jihadists’ fires.
Such foreign fighters also tend to be somewhat more competent than the determined, but ill-disciplined, tribal warriors of Syria and Iraq. Keeping them on-side is an important challenge for Islamic State. weaker opponents rich in resources. Wheat, water — oil. Without such economic lifeblood, any state — yet alone a caliphate — cannot exist.
To do this it has had to appeal to three distinct groups: The local tribes to whom international borders have long been meaningless, the Arab nationalists who resent the meddling influence of the West and the Muslim Umma who believe in one nation based on their common faith.
But has Islamic State achieved this through being appealing? Or is the fundamental reality that the governments of I and Syria are fatally flawed? Is Islamic State just an alarming sociopolitical phenomenon which will fade away as quickly as it flared up? Or does it represent the ignition of deep-seated resentment and desire for change? This is yet to be seen.
Islamic State’s greatest challenge may simply be to strike a balance between the rule of fear, and the power of legitimacy. But, as most democratic governments understand, it’s the basics that count the most.
And then there’s keeping the lights burning — and the internet buzzing. Ultimately, if Islamic State is to survive, it needs to be capable of maintaining a functional economy. It’s attempting to do that by insisting administrative and social services staff keep turning up for their old jobs, and paying their salaries.
At the moment much of the income to sustain this economy appears to be through the illegal sale of crude oil, captured weapons and looted artefacts. Internally, it taxes its citizens — as well as charge tolls and fees.
Its soldiers are encouraged to supplement their income with property looted from their victims. They’re also rewarded with sex slaves. Overall, it’s an environment unlikely to inspire loyalty. And the sight of so many foreign fighters lounging around the streets does nothing to convince Syrian and Iraqi residents that Islamic State is a homegrown rebellion.