By Abdulrahman al-Rashed
22 June 2015
We have a pre-set image of terrorist groups, including young extremists with long hair and beards carrying out suicide operations, bombings and assassinations to sabotage and overthrow regimes. The difference today is that such appearances and acts are coming from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), not Al-Qaeda.
ISIS is a chaotic organization with weapons and videos broadcast on TV. It has the potential of a state, with wealth, power, people and lands. It has oil wells and refineries, trucks to smuggle it, and a network of brokers who can arrange sales and barter. ISIS has also a margin for manoeuvre - it deals with its enemies, and sells gas and oil to some government-controlled areas in Syria to operate power plants.
It has people in charge of levying money from banditry, trucks in transit and taxes. ISIS has formed municipal councils in the cities and towns it controls, with their own courts and police. They try to control local phone communications and internet distribution. In ISIS-controlled areas, the streets are lit and water reaches all houses on a daily basis. This terrorist state has a leadership, flag and propaganda campaigns. It brutally slaughters people to terrify others.
When I attended the recent World Economic Forum by the Dead Sea, I asked an Arab banker about their branch in the Iraqi city of Mosul, which is occupied by ISIS. He said although its business has deteriorated, the branch opens every day on time, and the staff go to work every morning. ISIS has not closed banks, although it considers them forbidden usury.
Iraqi ISIS controls more than 40 cities and towns, the largest of which are Mosul and Ramadi, capital of Anbar province. Its militias are just 80 kilometres away from Baghdad. It shares borders with Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and extends its authority to east, north and central Syria. ISIS controls three dams, and has deprived its opponents of water.
Consolidation and Expansion
If ISIS decides not to expand, and if it does not lose future defensive battles, it will be able in a couple of years to have official relations with some countries. Such an evolution makes ISIS more dangerous than its mother-organization Al-Qaeda. The latter’s aim was to spread religious extremism and attempt to overthrow regimes that were against it. However, it lacked proper plans for the aftermath.
ISIS is an advanced and more dangerous model, a project to establish a real state. It targets troubled areas, seizes lands, validates its presence then expands. It seems that it can accurately read its opponents in Syria, Iraq and the West. It takes advantage of sectarian incitement by Iraqi and Iranian Shiite political forces, and exploits it to recruit Sunnis in the areas it occupies.
The sectarian mobilization allows ISIS to present itself as a state to those who do not feel that they belong to a state. They will defend the state with conviction and fearlessness. It seems that the organization is thinking more with its mind than its weapons. It monitors what comes out of opposing governments, especially the United States.
So far, ISIS has not provoked Washington with hostile operations that may lead the U.S. government to repeat what it did in Afghanistan in response to the 9/11 attacks. The strategy of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s government seems more focused than the leadership of late Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
Baghdadi is targeting failing states or those suffering from a political vacuum, such as Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya. He seeks to control areas that fall within his sectarian interest. He suppresses people and seizes their financial resources. He appoints some people from the area to manage local affairs, and after seizing weapons and lands, he moves to well-planned military operations.
ISIS is a rich state. The Rand Corporation estimates that its income from oil-smuggling last year reached $100 million, its revenue from extortion $600 million, and looting from banks $600 million. Even if these numbers are overstated, it is certain that Baghdadi’s state is richer and much more dangerous than Bin Laden’s. ISIS has oil, banks, massive weapons supplies, and local youths and outsiders fighting for it.
It will be difficult to challenge ISIS without the participation of all countries in the region, including conflicting governments and the existing international coalition. It will be very difficult as long as Washington remains unable to manage Baghdad’s orientations or to stop Iran. Without the criminalization of sectarianism from both sides, the coalition will lack power.
The clash between the Gulf and Iran over Syria and Yemen is complicating the situation. With these regional differences and American underperformance, ISIS will prosper and will be very difficult to defeat.
Abdulrahman al-Rashed is the former General Manager of Al Arabiya News Channel. A veteran and internationally acclaimed journalist, he is a former editor-in-chief of the London-based leading Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat, where he still regularly writes a political column. He has also served as the editor of Asharq al-Awsat’s sister publication, al-Majalla. Throughout his career, Rashed has interviewed several world leaders, with his articles garnering worldwide recognition, and he has successfully led Al Arabiya to the highly regarded, thriving and influential position it is in today.