With tactics so brutal Al Qaeda has disavowed them, the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) marks a shift in global terror. Fueled by the Syrian Civil War, ISIS has proven itself to be a capable, vicious promulgator of Islamic extremism.
This past summer has seen incredible strides by ISIS, which established a capital in Raqqah, Syria, and extended its rule across parts of northeastern Syria and into Iraqi territory. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi proclaimed himself caliph on June 29 and renamed the group the Islamic State. While the Islamic State has garnered sizable media attention, particularly following the beheadings of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and the persecution of religious minorities, including the Yazidis, its origins as a source of terror go back more than a decade.
Founded in 1999 as the Jemma Tawid wa-al Jihad, or Organization of Monotheism and Jihad (JTJ), the group proclaimed its allegiance to Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda. The following years saw the growth of JTJ under the leadership of Abu Al-Zarqawi, notorious for the insurgency he led against the West throughout the occupation of Iraq.
The Syrian Civil War has energized a radical Sunni base for the Islamic State. While the Assad regime struggles to retain its control over the country, the Islamic State has easily made impressive territorial gains across northern and eastern Syria, extending as far as central Iraq.
But the facts are not the purpose of this commentary. One can easily find a plethora of information, both true and false, on the subject of Islamic extremism in the last decade. What we are looking for today is to align the facts and examine what they mean for the West’s future as a player in Middle Eastern politics and the future of the region.
The Islamic State is vastly different from Al Qaeda, which, for most of recent memory, held a monopoly on holy war in the Middle East and Central Asia. Unlike Al Qaeda, which relied on a vast, clandestine financial network with funds coming from bin Laden himself and fundamentalist Islamic governments across the globe. The Islamic State, on the other hand, which in the eyes of the group’s membership is an established caliphate, has a tax structure and financial sector that is arguably stronger than recognized Middle Eastern governments. As the Islamic State’s fighters move into a city, they capture financial institutions, citizens’ wealth and, most importantly, oil. Vox.com’s Max Fisher explains that oil will be a critical part of ISIS’s economic future; however, it will not be without challenge. The development and maintenance of an oil well, along with the challenge of exporting crude oil, would be extremely problematic for ISIS.
The West’s perception of the Middle East can be described, at best, as narrowly focused. First, one must recall that Islam itself is nearly 600 years younger than Christianity. If we look at Western Europe as the Prophet Muhammad began the proselytization of Arabian Peninsula, our vision would be mired with gruesome executions, inquisition and a general ignorance of a world outside the Bible. Islam is experiencing the same growing pains that Christianity experienced; it just happens that the current generation of Christians has no concrete evidence of the violence imparted on the faithful by their church and its believers. That being said, the future of ISIS is a fundamentally religious question. Its prospects for survival do not depend on continued airstrikes or the presence of a Western military force. While many would argue that conflict in the Middle East is a vast, complex issue, one could certainly break down the struggle into a single catalyst: the Sunni versus Shia divide. Therein lies the problem for the Western world. While many believe it is the West’s responsibility to enter the fray and begin a peacekeeping and humanitarian mission in Iraq and Syria, the reality of the situation is the complete opposite.
Any Western military force that engaged the Islamic State would simply aggravate an already extremely volatile situation. The very reason Foley’s supposedly British executioner spoke to President Obama directly is because of the United States’ involvement in the Middle East and Central Asia over the last decade and a half. The rise of Al Qaeda is, in large part, due to the presence of coalition forces in Saudi Arabia during the First Gulf War. The Islamic State situation is rooted in the Sunni/Shia divide. The historically Shia-controlled government of Iraq has made the country a massive recruitment ground for the ultra-conservative Sunni Islamic State.
With the facts on the table, what does the future hold for the Islamic State? While the reality of the situation is a continually evolving one, the West must, under any circumstances, remain out of the fray. Saudi Arabia has remained deeply opposed to the revolutions across the Arab world, viewing them as a threat to the monarchy in Riyadh. As a political issue, it could have potential leverage in reinstating a government in Baghdad. On the other hand, examining ISIS from a religious context, one might look to Iran, a majority Shia country, to engage the Islamic State.
Such a simple conflict to understand will require an extremely complex solution. In my next article I will examine the geopolitical situation in Iraq and Syria and delve deeper into the religious divide that has been a critical part of the Islamic State’s rise to power.