The Islamic State Of Iraq And Syria New Islamic Fundamentalist Threat To World Order
As fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continued to seize territory, the group built an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis overseeing departments of finance, arms, local governance, military operations and recruitment
The troubled Middle East has given birth to yet another extreme right insurgent group who have named themselves as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The formal announcement of the formation of this extreme right wing group was immediately followed by horrifying pictures of the execution by beheading of two western journalists. The pictures released showed the captured victim and his executioner carrying a knife in his hand followed by pictures of the executed prisoners who had been beheaded. Already the ISIS had executed dozens of innocent victims whose only sin was that they were Shiite.
The origins of the Sunni Shiite rift goes back to the creation of Islam when after the Prophet died one group stated that the successor had to be a descendent of the Prophet, while the opposing group stated that the best leader among the leading followers of the Prophet would lead the congregation.
Ali Hussain Khadhim, an Iraqi soldier who was a Shiite was captured with hundreds of other soldiers by Sunni soldiers of Iraq after there was a revolt by Sunni soldiers in the Iraqi army in June 2014 to form the ISIS. They were taken to a palace complex in Tikrit where the Sunni soldiers segregated the Sunnis from the Shiite, who were then marked for death. A trench had been dug as the burial pit and after the Shiite soldiers were lined up, the Sunni soldiers of the ISIS started firing. As the bullets rained on them, Ali Hussain Khadim fell into the trench dug as a mass grave for the Shiite soldiers, but luckily he was not hit by a bullet. The Tigris River was flowing near the trench dug for killing the Shiite soldiers by the ISIS. He lay among the wounded and the dying Shiite soldiers. When the murderous assassins had left, he managed to crawl out of the trench and hide among the rushes on the river bank. After hiding for some time he managed to escape along the river bank and hiding in Sunni houses finally made it to his home village.
Khadim was in Camp Speicher, when the US trained officers fled. He left the camp along with about 200 hundred soldiers in civil dress. They had not gone far, when they ran into an ISIS convoy who rounded them up and took them to a camp in Tikrit which became a killing ground.
As fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria continued to seize territory, the group built an effective management structure of mostly middle-aged Iraqis overseeing departments of finance, arms, local governance, military operations and recruitment. At the top of the organisation was the self declared leader of the group, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a radical Chief Executive of sorts, who handpicked many of his deputies from among the men he had met while a prisoner in United States custody at the camp Bucca detention centre a decade ago. He had a preference for military men and so his leadership team included many officers from Saddam Husain’s disbanded army. They included former Iraqi officers like Fadl al Hayali, the top deputy for Iraq who once served Saddam Hussain as a Lt. Col. and Adan al Swedavi a former Lt. Col., who now heads the groups military council. Its leaders augment traditional military skills with terrorist techniques refined through years of fighting US troops, while also having deep local knowledge and contacts. ISIS is in effect a hybrid of terrorists and an army. ISIS burst into local consciousness in June 2014, when its fighters seized Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city. The Iraqi army melted away and Mr. Baghdadi declared a Caliphate or Islamic State that erased borders and imposed Taliban like rule over a large territory. Not everyone was surprised by the group’s success. These guys know the terrorism business inside out and they are the ones who survived aggressive counter-terrorism campaigns during the surge. This is the conclusion of an United States anti-terrorism official.
The group has also received support from other armed Sunni groups and from former members of Saddam Husain’s Baath party, angry over their loss of status. Mr. Baghdadi’s deputation includes twelve walis or local rulers, a three man war cabinet and eight others who manage portfolios like finance, recruitment etc. Operations are carried out by a network of regional commanders with cadres, who have a degree of autonomy. They have set drop times, when they open a shared network to coordinate.
For example, ISIS responded to US air strikes on its positions by distributing a professionally produced video last week of the beheading of the US journalist James Foley, more than 200 miles away. ISIS is the current incarnation of the Al Qaeda in Iraq, who then battled US forces under the leadership, of Abu Musa al Zarqawi, before his death in an US airstrike in 2006. The Iraqi expert, Mr. Baghdadi had 25 deputies across Iraq and Syria. At least one third of these were army officers during Saddam Hussain’s rule and nearly all were imprisoned by US forces. The last two leaders of the ISIS Military Council were former Iraqi army officers, a Colonel and a Captain. Both have been killed, and been replaced by a Lt. Col. – Adnan al Sweldawi. Hassan Abu Hanieh, a Jordanian expert on Islamist groups said, that while Baghdadi had relied mostly on Iraqis, he had left areas like religious guidance, recruitment and media production to foreigners. Many of them are Saudis. This is to make ISIS appear globalised. Mr. Baghdadi’s chief spokesman is a Syrian. One group of foreign fighters is led by an ethnic Chechen- Omar al Shistani.
It was no surprise that so many officers from Saddam Hussain’s time have joined ISIS. The political dominance of the Iraq’s Shiite majority made many Sunnis feel disenfranchised. After 2003, these personnel became more radical. For those who had served in Saddam Hussain’s staunchly secular army the transformation was complete by the time they joined the ISIS.
After more than three years, and almost 2, 00, 000 dead in Syria, the near collapse of Iraq and the rise of the most sinister terrorist army—the Islamic State of Syria and Iraq, which has conquered vast swathes of territory in both countries, President Obama’s admission recently that they do not have a strategy to deal with this threat is startling and disappointing. The threat ISIS poses only grows with time. It cannot be contained. It must be confronted. This requires a comprehensive strategy. This strategy would require the President to explain to his war weary Americans, why this threat cannot be ignored. The ISIS is now one of the largest, richest terrorist organisations in history. It occupies a growing safe haven, the size of Indiana, in the heart of the Middle East and its ranks are filled with hundreds of radicals, holding western passports, including some Americans. That is why the Secretary of Homeland Security has called Syria a matter of urgent consideration. His warnings about ISIS have been echoed by the Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence and now the Secretary of Defence. Americans need to know that ISIS is not a problem for Iraq and Syria alone. It is a threat to the United States.
Any strategy must be comprehensive. It must squeeze ISIS finances. It requires an inclusive government in Baghdad, which shares power and wealth with Iraqi Sunnis, rather than pushing them towards ISIS. It requires an end to the conflict in Syria and a political transition there, because the government of Bashar al Assad will never be a reliable partner against ISIS; in fact it has abetted the growth of ISIS, just as it facilitated the terrorism of ISIS’ predecessor, the Al Qaeda in Iraq. A strategy to counter ISIS also requires a regional approach, to mobilise the United States and their partners in a coordinated multilateral effort. Ultimately ISIS is a military force and it must be confronted militarily. The US actions against ISIS in Iraq so far have been tactical and reactive half measures. Continuing to confront ISIS in Iraq, but not in Syria would be fighting with one hand tied behind our back. There should be a comprehensive military plan to defeat the ISIS wherever it is. Such a plan would be to strengthen partners who are already resisting ISIS, the Kurdish Peshmerga, Sunni tribes, moderate forces in Syria and effective units of Iraq’s army. Our partners will be the boots on the ground and the US should provide them with full arms support and intelligence. The US should not get the Iranian armed forces involved.
In a polarised region and a complicated world the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria presents a unifying threat to a broad array of countries, including the United States. What is needed to confront its nihilistic vision and genocidal agenda is a global coalition using political, humanitarian, economic, law enforcement and Intelligence tools to support military force. In addition to its beheadings, crucifixation and other acts of sheer evil that has killed thousands of innocents Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, including Sunni Muslims, whose faith it purports to represent, ISIS poses a threat well beyond the region. ISIS has its origins in Iraq, which has over a decade of experience in extremist violence. The group has collected a hardened fighting force of committed jihadists with global ambitions, exploiting the conflict in Syria and sectarian tensions in Iraq. Its leaders have repeatedly threatened the United States. In May 2014, an ISIS associated terrorist shot and killed three persons in a Jewish museum in Brussels. The ISIS cadres of foreign fighters are a rising threat not just in the region, but in any country that they could manage to travel undetected including the United States. There is evidence that these extremists, if left unchecked will not be satisfied at stopping with Syria and Iraq. They are larger and better funded in this new incarnation of the ISIS, using pirated oil, kidnapping and extortion. They are equipped with sophisticated heavy weapons looted from the battlefield. They have already demonstrated the ability to seize, to hold more territory than any other terrorist group in a strategic region that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and is perilously close to Israel. ISIS fighters have exhibited repulsive savagery and cruelty, even as they butcher Shiite Muslims and Christians in their effort to touch off a broader ethnic and sectarian conflict. The beheading of the United States journalist James Foley has shocked the conscience of the world. We have to confront this scourge and defeat it. ISIS is odious, but not omnipotent. We have proof already in northern Iraq where United States air strikes have shifted the momentum of the fight providing space for Iraqi and Kurdish forces to go on the offensive. We need to support the Iraqi forces and the moderate Syrian opposition who are facing ISIS on the frontlines. The United States will hold the presidency of the United Nations Security Council in September 2014, and we should use this opportunity to continue to build a broad coalition and highlight the danger posed by foreign terrorist fighters including those who have joined the ISIS.
In a hastily organised meeting on the sidelines of the NATO summit meeting held in Newport, Wales recently, diplomats and defence officials from the United States, Britain, France, Australia, Canada, Germany, Turkey, Italy, Poland and Denmark conferred on a two pronged strategy to bolster allies on the ground in Iraq and Syria., while attacking Sunni militants from the air. They said the goal was to destroy the Islamist militant group, not to contain it. There is no containment policy for the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), the Secretary of State John Kerry said at the beginning of the meeting, using another acronym for the ISIS. They are an ambitious, avowed genocidal, territorial grabbing, Caliphate, desiring a quasi state, with an irregular army and leaving them in some capacity intact anywhere would be to leave a cancer in place that will come back to haunt us. He and other officials present made it clear that at the moment, any ground combat troops would come from either Iraqi Security forces or Kurdish Peshmerga fighters on the ground in Iraq or from moderate Syrian rebels opposed to the government of Bashar al Assad in Syria. United States officials are hoping to expand the coalition against ISIS to include as many countries as possible, particularly in the region. The US was hoping to get quiet intelligence help about the Sunni militants from Jordan; expected Saudi Arabia to finance and aid moderate Syrian rebel groups. The ambassador of the UAE to the United States said that his country stood ready to join the fight against ISIS. No one has more at stake than the UAE and other moderate countries in the region that has rejected the regressive Islamist creed and embraced different forward looking paths, the ambassador said. The Emirates government is ready to join the International Community in an urgent coordinated and sustained effort to confront a threat that will if unchecked have global ramifications for decades to come. Enlisting the Sunni neighbours of Syria and Iraq is crucial, experts said because air strikes alone will not be enough to push back ISIS.
Once again, the United States is saddling up to lead an armed posse to the badlands of Mesopotamia. Today’s foes are an exceptional vile cast of Sunni zealots, killers calling themselves ISIS. An offshoot of Al Qaeda, ISIS has exceeded its progenitor in forms of both political ambition and brutality. Across swathes of Syria and Iraq it has founded a Caliphate. ISIS’s love of gore, with gleeful massacres recorded or video distribution across the internet, the brutal persecution of religious minorities and it is said the enslavement of women and children has estranged it even from Al Qaeda. ISIS is a killing and destructive machine says Abu Quatada, a jihadist ideologue. The strength of ISIS reflects the political implosion in much of the Middle East. ISIS is the product and the chief instigator of the ever deepening Sunni-Shia enmity that runs from Bahrain to Lebanon. ISIS has become bigger, better armed and financed and more brutal than other terrorist groups. It is reckoned to earn some one million dollars per day from selling oil and ransoming hostages. According to recent intelligence estimates ISIS and its allies count about 30,000 to 45,000 men, roughly a third of whom are thought to be highly skilled fighters. It has mobilised foreign recruits faster than groups in other conflicts partly because of the ease of access to Syria through Turkey. Twelve thousand foreigners are reported to be operating in Syria. ISIS grew out of the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq. A lot of its success stems from the team that the group’s leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has gathered. Quite a few are former officers of Saddam’s army. With the seizure of Mosul on 10th June 2014, where the Iraqi army was routed, ISIS acquired a huge stockpile of US supplied weapons, armoured vehicles, artillery, anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, fleets of Humvees and a vast quantity of ammunition. Thus strengthened it cleared out the last Syrian forces from Raqqa province. A few weeks ago it took the al Tabqa airfield in possibly the most significant and bloody defeat suffered by the regime till recently.
The ISIS has spawned from the way the United States intervened in Iraq and sent the US Army into that country. The mainly Sunni army was defanged and after destabilisng the government the US set up a Shia as the leader of Iraq. There was naturally a Sunni reaction to this immature action by the United States and the ISIS is the result- a complete swing to the Islamic right. The weapons downloaded by the Iraqi army has fallen into the hands of the Islamic right, in this case the Sunni ISIS. This has been compounded by the ongoing rebellion in Syria, where the Shia President and his supporters have turned against the Sunni people of Syria. The Russians are supporting the Shias, though they have no such religious affiliation. The ISIS has heavily supported the Sunnis of Syria to pull down the Shia leadership. It is the parallel developments in Iraq and Syria that has contributed to this situation.
The task before the United Nations is very clear. It has to first kill the rising wave of the Sunni ISIS, seize their armaments and defang them and simultaneously control a Shia backlash. The countries in the zone of contention have to be directed to cooperate with the United Nations while they carry out this very sensitive operation.
By E N Rammohan
(The writer is former Director General, BSF)