The Islamic State, anatomy of the new califate (Th. Flichy de La Neuville)

We are pleased to welcome Thomas Flichy de La Neuville, professor at Saint-Cyr, who reviews the ISlamic State :


Is the advent of the Islamic state a surprise? What is the nature of the Islamic state? What are the foundations of the Islamic State? What are the energy challenges of the conflict? What are the differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda? What are the historical roots of the Islamic State? Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the movement? A 2.0 jihadism ?  Is ISIS a fanatical organization? What is the attitude of the population towards the Islamic state? How many fighters? What weapons? What financial sustainability for the Islamic state? Can the coalition defeat the Islamic state ? JDOK

Is the advent of the Islamic state a surprise?

Not for everyone. In 2004, the National Intelligence Council published Mapping the global future, a document considering several scenarios for the world in 2020. One of them was called The New Caliphate. One is struck by the accuracy of forecasts made ten years ago. Some insights were particularly accurate: “In 2020, al-Qaeda will have been dethroned by Islamist extremist groups (…) The heart of al-Qaeda will weaken, but other groups inspired by al-Qaida and based on regional bases will continue to carry out terrorist attacks (…) The New Caliphate gives us an example of how a global movement fuelled by religious radicalism could be a challenge to the Western values ​​(…) A radical change in a Muslim country of the Middle East could spur terrorism in the region and restore confidence in people by showing them that the new Caliphate is not just a dream. “Indeed, the report continued,” the terrorists will require a fixed headquarters to plan and conduct operations” However, the National Intelligence Council was wrong on two points. First, the Caliphate was conceived as a transnational insurgency. Even though it claims the blurring of boundaries between Syria and Iraq, the Islamic state’s specificity is that it wants to create a stable territorial construction. Secondly, the power of the Caliphate had been overestimated. It has not interrupted the process of globalization by increasing the costs of securing trade. After all, criminal organizations have never prevented great empires from trading: piracy hasn’t prevented the Roman Empire from carrying trade with China. In short, even if the New Caliphate was one scenario amongst four very different scenarii (Davos World, Pax Americana, Cycle of Fear), it is clear that the predictions have proved very accurate.

What is the nature of the Islamic state?

The least one can say is that the Islamic state is subject to differing interpretation. For the European Union and the United States, ISIS is a self-generated hydra of criminals and fanatics unrelated to Islam. It’s aim is to conquer oil fields with the help of young men enlisted on internet. Many Arab countries, on the reverse, see ISIS as an American creature. Its aim would be to spawn chaos in the Middle East so as to capture its resources. In reality these divergences of interpretation can be explained by the dual reality of ISIS. Daesh is altogether a political construction and an imaginary representation. The disappearance of the last Abbasid caliph arose a dream: to take revenge on the Mongol, Persian and Christian armies which had taken the Caliphate. This dream was long forgotten, even by al-Qaeda. It has now been fulfilled.

What are the foundations of the Islamic State?

The foundations are firstly religious: because the Baathist project was secular, the Shia majority reacted by becoming pietistic. As a consequence, ISIS can be analysed as a religious overbid. But Iraq is also a mosaic of Arab tribes, which consider themselves the inheritors of a prestigious ancestor. The tribal structure appeared on the Mesopotamian era and has continued despite foreign invasions. The British have manipulated the tribes so as to establish their indirect administration. They would delegate the water distribution and control of land to the sheikhs, the tribal leaders. Divided into Sunni and Shiite branches, undermined by divergent interests, Iraqi tribes have now a very opportunistic posture. They are mainly headed by former officers, nostalgic of the old Iraq. For them, the Islamic state is only a mean but certainly not an end.

What are the energy challenges of the conflict?

Iraq holds one of the largest oil reserves in the world, with about 143 billion barrels. Chinese companies (NCPC, PetroChina and Sinopec) exerted a powerful lobby on Iraqi oil before the beginning of the attack on the Islamic state. The present conflict clearly threatens the huge interest that China has taken since the end of the 2003. Since 2008, China has invested tens of billions of dollars in Iraqi oil. In addition, 10,000 Chinese workers are present on petrol exploitation sites. In this conflict, China paradoxically stands alongside its main economic competitor on the Iraqi territory. Aspiring to capture 80% of Iraqi oil in 2035 (8 million barrels per day), China has no desire to raise the money for a new war. Iraqi Kurdistan, meanwhile, will remain preserved because this area has over a quarter of the oil reserves of the Iraqi state and its gas resources account for 5,000 billion m3. Not only Kurdistan has begun negotiations with the western oil companies on its territory, it has also begun to export oil towards Turkey.

What are the differences between ISIS and Al Qaeda?

In 2008, ISIS operates a strategic transformation. Its aim becomes the sustainable installation on a territory. This new goal conflicts with the old jihadist policy of al-Qaeda whose aim was destabilization and not nationalization. On 29 June, ISIS operates a symbolic transformation: the Caliphate is restored. Supported by the majority of Sunni tribes, seen as a resistance movement, ISIS has not lost its allies despite the fragility of their points of agreement. ISIS remains perfectly faithful to the medieval Sunni tradition, however, it uses suicide bombings with more pragmatism than Al Qaeda in Iraq. Indeed, its purpose is not the general destabilization. Its attacks are usually set on military targets, while al Qaeda sought casualties first. Despite their similarities and gateways, ISIS and al-Qaeda are competitors. They appear as two false twins in competition. This explains the escalation in their legitimizing barbarity. Unlike the “old” al-Qaeda, which was pyramidal, secret, authoritarian and transnational Daesh is modern, open, and urban. For al-Zawahiri, the leader of al-Qaeda, the members should stay in their country to compel Muslims to radicalize. ISIS, on the other hand wants to promote emigration to the new holy land. Executives of Al-Qaeda usually came from the social elites of their countries, unlike those of ISIS whose rise is faster, and have a more popular base. Al Qaeda was soluble in globalization. On the reverse, the Islamic state had the intuition that the world of tomorrow would be composed of nations. Reconnecting with the past, it has taken a step ahead.

What are the historical roots of the Islamic State?

The proclamation of the Caliphate, as well as the overwhelming success of the members of ISIS appears as the victory of the Sunni Arabs, who have been defeated during the last five centuries. This advent is as a response to a humiliation. After the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, Abu Bakr took the title of khalifa, “successor”. From 661 to 749, the Umayyad dynasty established his caliphate in Damascus. This represented the pinnacle of Islam. ISIS soldiers are imbued with this medieval model. The resurgence of the Caliphate under the Islamic state is more than a reminder, it is a political program strengthened by a religious legitimation. In effect, since the collapse of the caliphate in 1258, the Sunni Arab world seems to have lost control of its destiny. From the thirteenth century onwards, the political domination of Islam has been transferred to the Ottoman Turks. During the late Middle-Ages, the Sunni Arab world has lost control of the commercial and maritime traffic in the Mediterranean to the benefit of European ports. The Islamic State clearly wants to avenge the insults of the twentieth century and break with the centralized Iraq set up after the First World War. One could add a second explanation. Its violence can also be presented as the desperate reply to the sterilization of innovation. In his sermon of Friday, July 4, the “Caliph Ibrahim” explained why jihad was essential: “The worst things are new religions, every novelty is an innovation, and every innovation a misguidance”.

Who is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the movement?

Al-Baghdadi, known as “the ghost” (al-shabah) is known for his discretion. Third on the list of the most wanted terrorists in the US, his head has been set at a price of $ 10 million. Already identified by the US military, he is targeted by an air strike in October 2005 and arrested the same year. He radicalizes in prison and makes ​​contact with relatives of Abu Umar group. His release in 2009 raises many questions: why let him out? Was it a gesture of appeasement by the government? Did the United States want to use him in Syria against Assad? His religious piety and make him a formidable leader. He is known for his taste for secrecy. This prevents him from airstrikes. In effect, the Abbasid Caliph lived away from the world, hidden behind a veil in public ceremonies. Al-Baghadi wants to reunite Muslims. However, he has caused a new fitna between Sunni muslims.

A 2.0 jihadism ?  

The younger generation – potentially candidates for jihad – are receptive to the “connectivity” of Daesh, which uses techniques of image production, which are superior to most terrorist groups. Hashtags campaigns multiply. The proliferation of English subtitles on videos, enable ISIS to address its non-Arabic-speaking supporters. Al-Djazeera has denounced the violences of Daesh. The Islamic State also relies on its own network. It has its own label video-production: Al-Furqan Media Production. This propagandist platform was able to send 40,000 tweets in a day when Mosul was taken.

Is ISIS a fanatical organization?

It would be too simple that the ISIS were mere victims of indoctrination. Their determination is not that of the psychopath, but that of the men of faith who know that everlasting life outweighs that of the world. It is true that the Islamic State integrates social unbalanced or downgraded members. However it first attracts true believers who have read the legalistic scholars of the Middle Ages, especially Ibn Taymiyya. Al-Baghdadi is cold, intelligent, and learned. The Islamic State submits its action to an imperative: the victory of God. It bases its claims on Takfirism. This medieval trend reappeared in the late 1970s, advocating not only a return to the original Islam but also the use of legal violence against the kafir, the “infidels” (takfir means “anathema”). Most Iranian media identified the men of the ISIS as a takfirist current and IRIB, the official news organ of Tehran, call ISIS: “The Takfiris of Daesh.” ISIS can thus be presented as an eschatological structure within Islam. Images shot by Medyan Dairieh for Vice News, show border guards chained in a pickup. A man tells them that they will be executed by the sword and then says: “Long live the Islamic State! Allah akbar! “Strangely enough, the future victims respond,” Long live the Islamic State! Allah akbar! “Only totalitarian systems, because they are cold and rational are able to annihilate the internal resistance of the individual, so as to make him cheer his own executioners … In this respect, ISIS has obviously already passed the threshold of crimes against humanity and imitates in its methods and goals, the mass murders of the Nazi Einsatgruppen in Ukraine and Russia. In the province of Salah al-Din, hundreds of soldiers of the Iraqi army were executed on their knees with a bullet in the neck. This is the same principle as the “Shoah by bullet”.

What is the attitude of the population towards the Islamic state?

For an increasing number of Muslims, ISIS appears as a respectable regime. Unlike al-Qaeda jihadists, Daesh wants to associate territory, population and administration. The speed at which institutions have been transformed is remarkable. When they entered Mosul, fighters demanded that officials and workers went to work, and that the distribution of water and electricity be ensured. Men were placed at intersections, so as to regulate traffic. Conciliatory mayors were maintained. Widespread corruption practices were replaced by a fee of ten dollars a month on traders in exchange for security.

How many fighters?

It is difficult to assess the number of fighters because it is constantly changing. The lowest figure before the summer of 2014 would amount to tens of thousands of men, including 6,000 in Iraq and 5,000 in Syria. But this figure increased to 20,000 during major operations in June and July that freed jihadist prisoners in the centre and north of the country. Half are foreign fighters. The Islamic State benefits since June, from a growing influx of foreign volunteers – about 3000 – coming from the border between Turkey and Syria. Candidates for jihad come from the entire Muslim world, driven by the success of ISIS. In Pakistan and Afghanistan, the popularity of ISIS increases, especially as the structure of the former Taliban organization has been destroyed. In fact, the Caliphate recruits mercenaries abroad, just as the Abbasids did ​​from the ninth century onwards.

What weapons?

In addition to its recruitment, the military successes of ISIS in both Syria and Iraq are due to the surprising amount of weapons at his disposal. Daesh recovered from the al-Assad army thirty Soviet T-55 and T-72 tanks. In addition, armoured vehicles like MRAP Humvees were also taken to the Iraqi government, as well as 52 guns M-198 155 mm and, more worryingly, SCUD missiles. More interestingly, its arsenal includes anti-tank guided missiles (TOW, Kornet, HJ-8), with more conventional rocket propelled grenades (RPG-7, M-70 OSA), allowing him to fight efficiently against Syrian tanks. Finaly, ISIS has anti-aircraft short-range missiles unknown (SA-18, SA-24, FN-6).

What financial sustainability for the Islamic state?

The war treasure of Daesh has risen from 800 million in june 2014 to two billion dollars today. One billion derives from oil in Syria and Iraq, $ 430 million from the looting of banks, 100 million from the production of counterfeit currency notes, and 40 million from the traffic of Antiques. Slavery also brings substantial revenues: seven hundred Yazd women were sold $ 150 per capita. The Caliphate is the richest terrorist organization in the world. One question remains unanswered, how has ISIS been able to seize six Iraqi armoured divisions including 4 without firing a shot?

Can the coalition defeat the Islamic state ?

Saudi Arabia has played the card of political Salafism in Syria and Iraq in order to counter Bashar al-Assad. In this confrontation, Saudi Arabia has been supported by Turkey, Israel and the Gulf countries. The Islamic State will be easily blocked by Ankara and Tehran. However,  Saudi Arabia could represent a reservoir of conquests. Baghdad, Damascus, Medina, the military objectives of the Islamic State can be seen as a trip back in time, from the latest capitals of the Caliphate to the oldest. Ryad is currently benefiting from the disruption of Iraqi oil production. In fact, the real threat to Saudi Arabia is Iran and not the Islamic state. Qatar hosts organizations that support the “Iraqi revolution”. As far as the United States are concerned, they have sponsored the Syrian opposition, now discover – a bit late – that they cannot not fight ISIS without the support of Bashar al-Assad. The grand coalition of 25 countries, established by he NATO summit, has failed to mobilize a single Muslim country for the military part. It thus appears more as an operation of communication than as a real success. To overcome the Islamic state, Daesh must confined on the West and the East thanks to the help of Bashar al-Assad and Iran. Without this pragmatic shift in the US foreign policy, the war is already lost.

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