Why Isis is a geopolitical threat

The origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham go back to the nineties, when Abu Musab al Zarkawi, who fought against the Red Army in the war of Afghanistan, founded the Jamat al Tawhidwa-l-Jihad. During the Iraq war, the leaders of Al Qaeda condemned al Zarkawi’s excessive use of violence against the Iraqi population instead of against the coalition forces, as well as his inclination to an overly radical imposition of the Sharia, the Islamic law. This internal impasse could only grow deeper with the death of the Jordanian terrorist in 2006. What at the beginning was unknown organization of some dozens of non-Iraqi fighters progressively became a widely known group also beyond Iraq’s borders, where everybody knew it as Al Qaeda in the land of the two rivers or Al Qaeda in Iraq. Its brutality, along with its operational military effectiveness on the ground, captured the attention of the international intelligence services.

Why Isis is a geopolitical threat - Geopolitica.info

After that, theMajlisShura al Mujahedin organization and the Islamic State of Iraq were created. Theoretically, the Islamic State of Iraq is the direct predecessor of Isis, which, according to the original plan, should have spread out over a large part of the central and western regions of Iraq. But the original political and military plan of al Zarkawi’s successors could not be carried out as expected as it had to face the opposition both of the leaders of the local tribes and of the population of some regions where Sunnis are the majority. The organization then went through a period of crisis, starting in 2006 (immediately after al Zarkawi’s death) and culminating in 2010, when Zarkawi’s men (Abu Ayyub al Masri and Abu Omar al Baghdadi), at that time leading figures of the organization, were also killed and the power passed into Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s hands. The modern Isis took advantage of the progressive fragmentation of the Iraqi camp and, thanks to the exacerbation of the Syrian crisis, succeeded in crossing the borders of Iraq. From this perspective Jabhat al Nusra, the Al Qaeda local group, was of course a natural ally, even if the relationship between the two groups was never conflict free. Soon a conflict burst out between the leader of Al Qaeda, al Zawahiri, and Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. The fusion of these two sides, the Iraqi and the Syrian one, permitted the Iraqi organization to enhance once again its geopolitical and military plan, resulting in the declaration of the Caliphate, on the 29th of last June.

By this act, Isis defined its long term objective, giving its leader a double power, both earthly and spiritual, to be the chief of the Ummah (understood both as a religious community and a political entity). In the short and not so short term, however, Isis’s aim is to strengthen its power in the territories that it already conquered. This process can be achieved firstly, through violence, gaining military legitimacy using the strategically symmetric plan that Al Qaeda always lacked, and secondly, through the possibility of the acquisition of an international identity based on the integration of the essential features of a state. Most of Isis’ actions are just as brutal as those of Bin Laden, Al Zawahiri or other fundamentalist Muslim groups, but on a political level, when compared with past fundamentalist Islamic movements,Al Baghdadi’s organization went one step further. In this text we try to briefly highlight the essential and most characteristic features of Isis, especially those elements that are causing Isis’s identity to shift from that of a simple terrorist group towards a condition more similar to that of a state. Up until now, these few elements are but suggesting a very slight move towards a national model; the results of this on-going process cannot at this stage be defined.

  1. Territory: Isis rapidly imposed and then expanded a real political control on sections of both the Iraqi and the Syrian territory, establishing a situation recalling the monopoly of physical coercion – even if its degree of legitimacy, as intended by Weber, is still to be proved.It is the first time that a terrorist group takes hold of a progressively more vast and delimited area. The ethnic-religious clearance of the Yazidi, Curds and Christians too, even if carried out with the distinguishing fervor of religious fanaticism, seems to prove the will to create a homogenized political community well defined from a cultural perspective. Thetroops of Isis, furthermore, conquered some strategically important cities like Raqqa (the “capital”), Aleppo and Abu Kamal in Syria and Mosul, Ramadi andFalluja in Iraq. Controlling these cities means controlling the infrastructures, key places over the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, oil wells and refineries. On these territories Isis is not behaving like a traditional terrorist group, hiding or ravaging, but it is imposing an administrative system, new laws and taxes, as a “normal” government. During the summer, Isis managed to recover a large part of the Syrian territory that it had previously lost and was then under the control of opposing rebel groups. At the same time, inIraq the organization is moving towards Baghdad. It was more difficult for Isis to seize the border areas, for example theterritories between Syria and Iraq or Turkey. This is why the conquest of the city of Kobane is a very important strategic step.
  2. Organization: One of the distinguishing features of Isis’leadership structure is its complexity that is in many aspects similar to the organization of a state government. At the top of the organization towers the self-proclaimed Caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, surrounded by a group of personal advisors. The next two most important positions are those held respectively by Abu Ali al Anbar, governor for Syria, and Abu Muslim al Turkmani, governor of Iraq, who in their turn command twelve other local governors. These three men form an executive branch known as Al Imara. Lower in the pyramid of power we find a succession of local councils in charge of their territories of those sectors (legal, financial, military, intelligence, communication and recruiting) essential to the organization’s survival. Appealing to their shared Sunni identity, Isis managed torecruit a part of former Saddam Hussein regime’s administrative and military apparatus, whichhad had no chance of integration with Nuri al Maliki “Shiite” government.Isis’ militia, who are more and more similar to a real army, can count on about 11.000 volunteers from Muslim majority countries (with an astonishing 3.000 people coming from Tunisia, 2.500 from Saudi Arabia, 1.500 from Morocco and other volunteers coming from Turkey and Algeria). There are also volunteers coming from western countries hosting large Muslim communities (more than 900 volunteers from France and 800 from Russia, a few dozen from the United States, the UK, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Kosovo).
  3. Economy:Profits from the black oil market andoil refineryactivity (ranging from one to over three million dollars a day) contribute to making Isis one of the wealthiest terrorist groups ever. The organization controls most of the oil wells located in the East of Syria and in the central-northern regions of Iraq. In July, Isis’ troops seized “Omar”, the biggest oil field in Syria, which produces about 30.000 barrels a day. Their military penetration in Iraq is oriented towards those areas where the majority of energetic resources lie. Experts say that the oil field under Isis’ control can produce from 25.000 to 40.000 barrels of oil a day.
  4. Arms: The Islamic State stole thousands of arms and equipment from Iraqi emplacementsand owns tanks as well as heavy artillery (as we could see during the attacks of the troops that seized the city of Kobane). Isis also took possession of other military equipment (sent by foreign countries) thatwas meant to arm other Syrian rebel groups. Isis troops seem to be in possession of some M16 and M4 rifles marked “Property of U.S. Government”. Rifles of the same type are believed to be in the hands of some other irregular Shiite rebel groups in Iraq (these rifles were probably originally sent by the U.S. to arm the new Iraqi army after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime). However, (and not only in the beginning of the Syrian civil war), the possibility that these arms were given to Isis by some of the countries who tried to use the organization to put an end to the “Shiite crescent” over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon after 2003 by Iran, cannot be ruled out.

All these elements contribute to create a fundamental difference between Isis and the previous terrorist movements, especially those who operated in the so-called “Great Middle East”. Al Qaeda, the organization that for years was viewed as the most dreadful Islamic movement, never actually had direct and real control of a territory, but limited its role to influencing (even if in a significant way) the decisions of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Its structure, military equipment and skills to obtain energy resources, even if more developed than in the past, never went beyond the borders of a terrorist organization. All these observations cannot forecast the hypothesis of Isis becoming a proper state, but only highlight a geopolitical trend, currently still developing, which the U.S. and its allies, willing or not, will have to face in the near future. Many are the factors that will influence the further evolution of this phenomenon. Firstly, Isis’ ability to reinforce its legitimacy among the population as, if it is true that so far Isis established it using violence, it is also true that no Sunni exodus was registered from the seized territories. The intensification of the air strikes by the U.S. in Syria and Iraq supported on the ground essentially by the Kurdish Peshmerga and the possibility of a Turkish intervention (at the conditions expressed by the Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu) will also play an important role. Nowadays, Isis is in reality taking advantage of the incapacity of Obama’s administration to solve a deeper geopolitical dilemma.

Should the U.S. choose the path of appeasement with Iran by continuing with the air strikes against Isis’ emplacements, renouncing Turkish military aid and efforts to put down Assad’s regime? Alternatively, should they ally with Turkey and other Sunni countries, thus putting an end to Isis’ ambition but simultaneously adding more pressure on the Iranian nuclear issue and facing a new regime change in Syria?