Tracing the Islamic State’s DNA

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Sahar Pirzada[1]


(The Islamic State, is a name that has now come to be synonymous with unyielding terror and growing influence. It’s mega-theatre of torture and staged horrors have the attention of the world which despite the mathematics of military numbers, ammunition and world opinion on its side appears almost impotent to stop the strengthening of the IS genome.

To understand the behavior of an organism we must trace its DNA in order to grasp its current behavior and future strengths, weaknesses and potential evolution. It shows us where it came from and where it will be going. The DNA holds an organisms past, present and future in its double-helix. Let us then trace the Islamic State’s DNA in an effort to understand what lies behind the obvious spectacles of horror and violence to which the world has earned a front row seat with little power to do anything but clutch their hearts and watch. – Author)

History Etched in Geography – The Geography of History

To gauge the depth of the conflict that brought about the Islamic

State we must briskly peruse the area of immediate impact and take a succinct lesson in the history of the Levant which has taken the conflict in Syria to Iraq and threatens other neighbouring states such as Lebanon and Jordan. The lands on the Eastern ends of the Mediterranean called the Levant were mainly ruled by the Ottomans. After the end of World War I when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, the Levant was divided and fell under the influence of the British and the French. In the French sector, Lebanon and Syria were established while Iraq, Transjordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Palestine (under British Mandatory control granted by the League of Nations) took shape under the British. Due to a mosaic of different religious persuasions it became hard to draw clear boundries (“artificial” Sykes-Picot boundaries created in the aftermath of World War I that had divided the Islamic umma into states”)1 especially due to difficult relations between groups, mainly created by outside powers.

For a brief period at the time, the socialist governments of Egypt, Iraq and Syria came together in a surge of Arab nationalism but after the oil crisis of the 70s the conservative oil-rich monarchies of the Arabian peninsula and Iran grew as a power “allied with the West rather than the Soviet Union and gained legitimacy not from socialism. but from their purported adherence to the defence of Islam.”

In 1979, after the Revolution, Iran abandoned its alignment with the West, blaming the US and the UK for supporting the autocratic rule of the deposed Shah. The Iranians were not Arabs and since they were a Shiite majority they made their people sensitive to the dominance of the Sunnis.

“The scene was set for the re-emergence of conflict between the Sunnis and the Shias. The Sunnis of the Gulf, and particularly Saudi Arabia, proponents of an austere form of Islam (Salafism or Wahhabism) which they hoped would bolster their legitimacy, spent some of their oil money setting up Islamic schools (madrassas) across South Asia (particularly in Pakistan) and elsewhere to spread that conservative form of Islam, and fight against the perceived influence of the Shiite Iranians, who were seen as a threat to the survival of the Gulf monarchies, particularly in Saudi Arabia with its significant Shia population concentrated in the oil-producing Eastern Province. Sunni Saudis sometimes refer to Shia Saudis simply as ‘Iranians’.”2

Saddam Hussein preempted a revolt of the oppressed Iraqi Shiites and being a former established foe, launched a one million lives heavy assault on Iran. The cost of his paranoia was altogether too high.

Iraq had for long been a Shiite majority under Sunni rule and after Saddam, the resurgence of the Shiite in government gave the Iranian Shiites a big boost. “Saddam’s Ba’ath Party was nominally the same as the party of the Assads’ in Syria but the two governments were in fact bitter enemies. With a Shiite-dominated government now in Baghdad, Iran lost an implacable enemy and gained significant influence over the country, together with easier land access to Syria, the older ally.”

The Sunnis of the region adhere to a conservative form of Islam, Wahabism or Salafism as it is called, take a hard-line view of Islam and consider any deviation from their interpretation to be heresy where they sometimes include even the Shiites within this fold. They became increasingly challenged by the Shiite resurgence of power in Iraq. Shiites on the other hand label these Wahabists as ‘takfiris’ who “take it upon themselves to declare Muslims as ‘Kafir’”. It is a potentially explosive situation and due to the various Middle Eastern uprisings, the focal point of the conflict shifted to Syria. The government in Syria was allied with Iran and opposed to Sunni political Islam. Manifestly, due to deliberate government actions, the Syrian government turned peaceful protests into violent ones morphing the landscape into a nexus of sectarian conflict that took on a Sunni-dominant hue with support from Gulf money for select Sunni Islamist groups and a “disorganized secular opposition under the umbrella of the Syrian National Coalition.” The conflict thus became polarized between Assad’s government supported by Iran, Iran’s Shiite proxy militia in Lebanon, Hizballah and the Wahabist groups. Therefore, the Sunnis in Syria who were in effect being terrorized in a violent campaign aimed at containing the conflict by the Syrian government, and the discontent, marginalized, previously dominant Sunnis in Iraq under Nouri al Maliki’s discriminatory sectarian policies, both became fertile recruiting grounds for Sunni jihadist radical groups.

The Kurds in the area play a role because their territory in Iraq is more stable and independently oil-rich and the Syrian Kurds are known to be supporting Assad’s regime for de facto control of Kurdish regions in the north but they are not really a single unified force and lack coordination. They are Muslims of a “pro- Western, anti fundamentalist orientation.”

Separate Paths and the Emergence of IS: (Birth of the IS Strand)

The Levant thus appears to be a fertile jihadist soil; growing organizations such as the Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) which came into being after the ousting of Saddam Hussein, targeting US and Iraqi government forces and the Shiites. The IS is presently an independent offshoot of the AQI. A Jordanian, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who died in 2006, headed AQI at the time. Earlier he had set up Jamat ul Tawhid wal Jihad (JTJ) but after failing to bring down the monarchy moved to Iraq and aligned himself with Al Qaeda. Its seat of power was Anbar, a Sunni majority area and in 2006 came to be known as the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).

From 2006 to 2010 the plan was to oust the Iraqi government and replace it with an Islamic State but 80% of ISI’s leaders were killed after US and Iraqi attacks which paved the way for a newer, younger generation of leaders like Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to take control of the group. Some sources claim that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi spent time from 2010 to 2013 reforming the IS’s organizational structure and military capabilities.

To emphasize the Iraqi nature of the organization he cleared the higher echelons of power of foreigners, paving the way for ISI’s breakout which was triggered in part by the fading away of core al Qaeda under Zawahiri, the escalating malfunction of the Iraqi state and the Syrian civil war. When the US combat mission was removed in 2011 it cleared the way for the militants to accrue swathes of land across Iraq and Syria.

Other sources attribute the design and structural success of the organization to a former colonel in Saddam’s air defence force, Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi. He was mentioned by some as one of the leading figures but was not very well known, probably by design, even by his moniker ‘Haji Bakr’. Upon his death he left behind a blueprint for the state in the form of handwritten notes, organizational charts, list and schedules. These documents were a “source code for the most successful terrorist army in recent history.”3 Prior to the discovery of these 31 pages, all information about the organization had come either from those who had defected or data sets seized from the IS’s internal administration in Baghdad. These explain their astounding success in Syria and plans for Iraq. In short, it is a blue print of their success.

Haji Bakr took up residence in Tal Rifaat, north of Aleppo, as part of the advance party that planned on capturing territory in Syria and subsequently Iraq. This discreet town that later became a stronghold for IS was a good choice because many workers who had gone to work in the Gulf States in the 1980’s had returned there with radical convictions and conditioning by 2013, armed with a bevy of useful contacts.

Haji Bakr drew up the organizational structure of the group all the way down to the local level which specifically designed responsibilities for a takeover. “It was not a manifesto of faith, but a technically precise plan for an Islamic Intelligence State.”4 Validating this assumption further is the fact that no copy of the Holy Quran was discovered from his house when he was captured – much in the same vein as the likes of Ramzi Yousaf who belonged to Al Qaeda – they came across more interested in the war quotient than the religious one.

Before we progress our efforts to analyse their modus operandi we need to see where the ISI shifts alliances and for what reasons.

What’s in a name? – Split DNA

“In 2013, ISI announced a merger with Jabhat al-Nusrah, forming the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS or ISIL. Al-Sham is the Levant, the land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, hence ISIL. Some anti-ISIS Arabic-speakers reject the name ISIS or ISIL, because they do not accept that the group represents Islam. They prefer to call the group Daesh, derived from the equivalent acronym to ISIS but from Arabic. In Arabic ‘Daesh’ has pejorative connotations).”5

Al Nusrah was not too keen on the merger as it was more focused on Syria and the ISIS was too Iraqi for their liking. They were also linked to the core leadership of Al Qaeda which had cut ties with the IS in 2014 upon which Al Baghdadi decided that the ISIS should join the fight in Syria but “the insurgency in Syria was a crowded scene with myriad secularist and Islamist groups of varying shades and shifting allegiances, partly fostered by the confusion of support coming from different countries, such as in the West and Gulf, with different objectives.” Due to the severing of ties among the 2 organizations Al Nusrah lost most of its foreign fighters to ISIS which avoids fighting the Syrian army and is more interested in acquiring land as opposed to Al Nusrah who are interested in bringing down the Syrian government. There is a fairly vast difference in their strategic objectives. Interestingly, the Syrian government’s response to IS is a relatively soft one even after “the group has been in full control of the Raqqah governate since 2014”.

“There are indications that the Syrian government was still treating ISIS gently in 2014. Jane’s calculated that in that year, only 6% of 982 Syrian counter-terrorism operations targeted ISIS and only 13% of ISIS attacks were against Syrian government targets. ISIS aims to monopolise the Sunnis’ rebellion against Damascus, and this appears to be a more urgent priority than bringing the government down. If the government were to fall to a myriad of opposition groups, generally more ‘moderate’ than ISIS, ISIS would not control the setting up of a new state. If ISIS can absorb other rebel groups and end up as the sole opposition to Assad, the group would be in complete control of the new Syria if the Assads’ fell.”6

Modus Operandi and the Strategic Blueprint

This document is Haji Bakr’s sketch for the possible structure of the Islamic State administration.

Source: SPIEGEL International

The blueprint showed the plan for a gradual infiltration of villages with acute precision of targets. The recruiting would always commence under the pretense of opening a missionary centre or a ‘Dawah’ office which was a natural magnet for men of religious orientation. From this pool of men a few would be selected for reconnaissance and collection of information regarding the social, political and financial makeup of villages and their hierarchical structure. IS set to task upon villages a nest of spies (one or two to a village) dexterous at subterfuge. They would accumulate information on the names of powerful families, the powerful people in these families, their income, its source, religious inclinations, criminal activities etc. Even down to who was homosexual or having an affair; for information, if used correctly can be the strongest weapon of all. It was also planned that several men would marry daughters from these influential families to “ensure penetration of these families without their knowledge.”

The level of infusion and access to information seeped down deep to knowledge about which religious school of thought families belonged to, how many offspring they had and of what age, whether the religious orientation was sufi, or mystical or a variant of Islam and how democratic concepts featured in the village. The unobtrusive infiltration was thorough and thus a successful stratagem for war. In the words of Mao Tse Tsung, “The guerilla must move among the people as a fish swims in the sea.” And that is exactly what they did.

The informants, mostly young men in their 20s, some even as young as 16 or 17, joined for a multitude of reasons such as joining as mercenaries and doing it for the money, or as regime opponents having quarreled with other rebel groups or just as young men who felt adrenalized by the perceived excitement of it all. Even former intelligence spies found space in this design.

“The plans also include areas like finance, schools, daycare, the media and transportation. But there is a constantly recurring, core theme, which is meticulously addressed in organizational charts and lists of responsibilities and reporting requirements: surveillance, espionage, murder and kidnapping.

For each provincial council, Bakr had planned for an emir, or commander, to be in charge of murders, abductions, snipers, communication and encryption, as well as an emir to supervise the other emirs — “in case they don’t do their jobs well.” The nucleus of this godly state would be the demonic clockwork of a cell and commando structure designed to spread fear… The goal was partly that everyone would keep an eye on everyone, even inside the organization”.6

Haji Bakr designed a system of continuous, omnipresent surveillance.

He was also astute enough to calculate that religious fanaticism was not enough for dominance. They needed strategic calculations too for implementation. Thus in 2010, a small group of intelligence officers from Iraq made Abu Bakr al- Baghdadi (not to be confused with Haji Bakr) the leader or ‘Caliph’ providing a religious face to the organization given that he was an educated cleric. Al Baghdadi was an embittered victim of deBaathification. During this period he met the Jordanian Zarqawi of AQI fame from where the connection to IS was made.

By 2010 the probability of defeating the Iraqi government seemed bleak, but the uprising against Assad’s government in Syria allowed them to move forward as there existed an eclectic mix of anarchic groups ripe for exploitation by the IS. The IS has taken on many shades from a mafia-like organization to an apocalyptic precursor.

One thing is clear though. None of its attacks so far have been on Christians or the Jews. The most vulnerable to its devices so far have been the Muslims themselves and bearers of the Islamic label.

The band of IS infiltrators expanded inconspicuously and went unnoticed as they set up base, always through innocuous looking Dawah offices. They also established themselves in Raqqah which is now its capital. The Syrians, unsuspecting of a threat from anyone other than the regime, sat blinded by this emerging presence until the IS finally declared themselves and put up black flags in Al Dana and blocked off streets. They expanded quietly, without any display of open aggression, eliminating open resistance and abducting or killing any hostile individuals that arose along the way. They did not recruit many Syrians and prohibited Iraqi soldiers from going into Syria. They strengthened their manpower by recruiting foreign insurgents who had been coming to Iraq since 2012. They lured in the radicals who were already there as “Students from Saudi Arabia, office workers from Tunisia and school dropouts from Europe with no military experience were to form an army with battle-tested Chechens and Uzbeks. It would be located in Syria under Iraqi command.”7 And so it grew.

Since very few of the new recruits were from Iraq they remained aloof from the locals, received two months initial training and were indoctrinated to remain unflinchingly loyal to the central command. The troops thus emerged unwavering, merciless, as they had no personal links to anyone outside their circle of comrades and could be deployed easily to any locale as compared to the Syrian fighters who had families to look after in addition to defending their hometowns. “In 2013, IS books listed 2,650 foreign fighters in the Province of Aleppo alone.

Tunisians represented a third of the total, followed by Saudi Arabians, Turks, Egyptians and, in smaller numbers, Chechens, Europeans and Indonesians.”8

The IS also used the popular tricks of illusionists in creating larger than life impressions and throwing out misleading numbers through trickery. The black uniforms created an ominous and threatening presence and the fact that their faces were covered meant that they couldn’t be identified. Therefore, there could be no exact count of how many there actually were, whether 200 or a thousand. The IS also offered itself as a protective power in areas that were vulnerable or conflict ridden, gradually increasing its foothold in the area.

Soon Raqqa, a non- political and non- religious sleepy town, fell to the IS and later became the “prototype for the complete IS conquest.” Anyone that posed resistance from top ranking officials to novelists were either murdered or made to disappear. This became the paradigm to elicit allegiance. In a short time 14 clans that had 2 years earlier pledged oaths of allegiance to Assad’s government, surrendered to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

The cunning and trickery of the IS was almost ingenious. On one occasion when they were being attacked they simply changed out of their uniforms into jeans, blended in with the Syrian brigades and then in the ensuing melee opened fire on them. With cheap tricks, masquerades and innocuous missionary offices they went from strength to strength and swathed their way, untouched, in a line of burning successes through the landscape.

In the words of Robert Greene, “There is nothing more intoxicating than victory, and nothing more dangerous.”

The Body of IS Soldiers

How does the IS grow in numbers? Who are these people? Does the organization’s seductive magnetism come from its image, ideology, or is it just the result of a circumstantial influx propelled by other factors?

To begin with, Nourie al Maliki, the Prime Minister of Iraq from 2006 to 2014 deliberately nurtured an anti Sunni sentiment and disenfranchised the whole Sunni community in Iraq in addition to making alliances with Shia militant groups. The IS has been able to exploit this sectarian tension and pull recruits into its fold. It helped the cause when a large number of Al Qaeda trained prisoners were released from jail which resulted in a large scale infusion into the Islamic State.

Add to that cart the expelled Baathists and disbanded, unemployed soldiers. Some former Baathists who fell into unemployment triggered poverty after the disbanding were ‘fixable’ had they been given a job but they were ignored by Nourie and thus fell prey to the IS ironically, on the survival instinct. There are reported to be hundreds and thousands of such people who are now in charge of the Islamic State’s military operations who were the best officers in the Iraqi army which is why the IS finds such success in intelligence and on the battlefield. Any gaps resulting from war are filled by more Iraqi former officers sustaining the Iraqi-centric influence at the group’s core. They introduce the Baathist mindset and its skills. The IS also lures disenfranchised Sunnis and people from their rebel groups. It indulges in modern day internet propaganda and hashtag campaigns quite successfully which holds a great forbidden attraction for some, especially the younger generation. Another effective recruiting tool is the pillage by IS of cultural sites. These acts find their way into the news and resultantly into the minds of susceptible young men who may potentially glamorize this kind of war. The IS numbers thus, keep growing exponentially.

It is estimated that the total number of foreign fighters in Iraq & Syria associated with extremist Sunni groups is around 15,000 from 80 countries and about 10,000 are with the IS.9

Interestingly, it is not just the men who find their way to the battle grounds of IS, but even women from as far away in coordinates and lifestyle as Germany. It is hard to fathom why women would make such choices and enter into the hard life of a jihadist, or be married to a jihadist as a “Bride of Jihad”. Research shows that women are mostly not recruited through the Salafist mosques but rather through internet propaganda. Fighters are revered like pop stars and heroines. A German blogger who writes under the name ‘Muhajira’, under the heading ‘A True Heroine,’ writes about her life ‘on the foundation of jihad, on the foundation of honor.’ She reports that her trip to Syria was ‘like a story from a picture book.’ The feeling is indescribable, she raves. ‘Finally, I am free to wear my niqab as I like without seeing and hearing ridicule.’ The blogger is also open about helping to find girls for fighters. “Because there are a lot of unmarried mujahedeen here, we will find the right brother.”10

It seems all roads lead to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

The Resilient Baathist Gene

The Baathists suffered a fatal blow in the then changing landscape of Iraq and as someone rightly said,’ your enemy’s enemy is your friend.’ For them it wasn’t just a fall from grace, but a fall from power in favour of the Shiites and they were resentful of this inversion. Though secular by design, the party had been Islamacised by Saddam Husse himself in the face of waning Arab Nationalism in the early 90’s. His Islamic Faith Campaign made the transition to IS an almost natural consequence after their expulsion. It is reported that former members of Saddam’s military helped set up the IS Security and Intelligence Council which oversees communication between regions and provides protection to Al-Baghdadi while also executing the groups judicial decisions regarding kidnappings and assasinations.

It would have been an overly optimistic assumption that such a large strain such as the Baath Party would self-annihilate. Many believe that the Baathists are just using Daesh and not the other way round. The first hypothesis being that the Baathists are used to power, and they want it back. They want to run Iraq as power has a lasting aftertaste. The second, more intriguing, theory is that the Baathists may have aided the creation of a fearsome group like the IS in order to offer themselves up at a later stage as a more ‘moderate’ option paving their way back to the top. They in effect might just have “set them up.”11

The Baathists have also regrouped themselves as the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries who engage with the West and also receive support from the Syrian regime. They claim to support the Geneva Convention and solutions to Iraq on democratic lines opening  the route to future engagement with the West. In a way they are similar to the Baathists inside the IS who, on the same agenda, theorists believe, fuel the IS terror to appear less arbitrary.

Rebel Groups Galore – Friends & Foes to the IS

The Levant is chock-full of rebel groups which in their different capacities sometimes act as friends and sometimes as foes to the IS. In any case, they add critical mass to the resistance. Though the conflict in Iraq is viewed as a military engagement between the IS and the Iraqi government, the reality is more complex. The Islamic State is not the sole group battling the government , there are a multitude of resistance groups like the Ansar al- Islam, Jaysh Rijal al- Tariqa Naqshbandia (JRTN) and various Sunni tribes.

Observers were shocked when IS took over Mosul but the IS was helped by an existing insurgent force in Mosul led by Izzat Ibrahim al Douri. Izzat Ibrahim al Douri, a top military commander and Vice President in the Saddam army is said to have helped IS to gain control over Mosul and though black flags attest to Mosul as an IS area it is really al Douri who holds power there.12 Al-Douri heads a Sunni group of Sufi orientation called the Jaysh Rijal al- Tariqa Naqshbandia (JRTN) which is in essence a Baathist outfit in a more PR-friendly guise for the West.

This, they hope will, make it “less embarrassing for the international community to engage with them, having vilified the Baathist regime” in the past.13 The organization has strong links with influential figures in the AKP ruling party in Turkey of Recep Tayyep Erdogan. The group has stronger roots in Iraqi Sunni communities than the IS and is favoured also by the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sunni tribes collaborated with the US to drive Al Qaeda out of Iraq and were instrumental in turning Iraq’s civil war around. They were funded through the Awakening Councils which were later handed over to the Iraqi government. When the IS started its surge through Iraq and the Awakening Councils refused to arm the tribes, they turned against the government.

Some Sunni tribes however, have not joined the IS such as the Albu Nimr tribe of Anbar,Salahuddin and the Albu Issa based in Fallujah whose 581 members were massacred by IS in 2014.14

The Ansar al Islam – a rebel group of Kurdish origin earlier associated with Al Qaeda – increased its resistance to the government after the US withdrawal in 2011.

It is also pertinent to note here that Former Iraqi interior minister Falah al-Naqib has estimated that IS makes up no more than 15 percent of the anti-government forces in Iraq.15

Theatre, Shock and Awe of the IS

The IS employs the strategy of shock and awe. It releases horrendously spectacular digital productions of its atrocities on the internet such as the burning alive of a Jordanian pilot of the coalition forces. Such images immediately capture world attention and exacerbate the groups existing image of a ruthless advancing force. It is a tool for intimidation and an effective one. These images are aimed at instilling fear in the enemies mind. It is their war of images.

The IS, also through the destruction of cultural artifacts in cities like Mosul, are enforcing a strategic campaign on culture rather than carrying out a popularly perceived “medieval nihilism”. This serves many purposes and is successful in creating impressions that we can readily understand such as the beheading of statues and men alike, which is read as insanity, making viewers feel fated as no one can fight insanity. These images of cultural destruction find their way into mainstream international media reaching out to a larger audience, serving the dual purpose of instilling terror and finding new recruits. According to an essay by George Diez the message of these images is “We aren’t just able to kill in the present… we are also able to destroy the past: We are the masters of both time and space.”16

The result – shock and awe in its most effective avatar.

Funding Channels of the IS

Funding is an integral component for not just establishing an organization but sustaining it. Though foreign funding does in part oil the IS machine, especially as it did in its early days from Saudi Arabia and Qatar, the Islamic State is not dependent on outside sources to keep it running which is just as well as some of that funding now goes to more moderate groups in Iraq. Still the amount of money that reaches Syria and Iraq from the Gulf in all probability amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars.17

The IS has built up a proto state in Syria where it controls some of the energy infrastructure, sells oil from its captured oil wells in Syria and electricity to the Syrian government. It also collects ‘jizya’ or taxes. In addition it is able to fund itself through organized crime, bank robberies, the sale of antiquities which after the fall of Mosul could amount to around $1.5 billion.18

According to Louise Shelly, Director of the Terrorism, Transnational Crime at Corruption Centre at George Mason University, “the IS operates like a run-of-the-mill crime syndicate in which ideology takes a back seat to money making.” According to her they also use previously established, post-invasion routes in the area for low level smuggling of items such as cigarettes, pornography, human smuggling, kidnapping and the arms trade. They use the corruption of officials as a tool in the same way as an organized crime group would. It appears that globalization has helped terrorists to thrive financially.19

The Thread of Comparisons

  1. Islamic State’s Comparison to Wahabism.

The two can be viewed as links on the same chain.

In a way, the IS has roared back to life the “Wahabist Impulse” tempered by the original “Ikhwan Approach” which did not, as many had perceived, perish entirely in the 1930s when the last of the Ikhwan, the armed Wahabist moralists were gunned down by King Abd-al Aziz in an effort “to develop a more sophisticated diplomatic posture” with Britain and America. The Ikhwan Approach did not die which is why a dual approach is clearly seen with the Saudis towards IS. “It’s a kind of untamed Wahabism…..Wahabism is the closest religious cognate ” says Bernard Haykel, a scholar at Princeton University.20

“Today ISIS undermining the King’s legitimacy is not seen to be problematic but rather a return to the true origins of the Saudi- Wahab project”.21 It is however, an area of mounting concern for the Saudi Royal family if the ‘one Ruler one Authority, one Mosque’ concept shifts from endorsing the King to endorsing, for this purpose, the Caliph.

The IS has been known to distribute Wahabist literature in its territories and include it in texts for schools that are under its control and the pasting and display of Wahabist view points in public spaces.

A catalytic agent in the IS mindset and resuItant action is a hard line, orthodox interpretation of Sunni Islam transpiring into a model bordering on what can be viewed as an almost blasphemous disregard for Islamic tradition in its aversion to religious history, cultural symbolism and heritage in the form of holy shrines and reverence to the Prophet(PBUH) himself and his companions. This is a Wahabist design that can be attributed to Muhammad bin Abd-al Wahab with his “Jacobian-like hatred for the putrescence and deviation” that he felt surrounded him in the honouring of saints etc. Under Wahab’s idea of ‘takfir’ if Muslims did not follow his version of Islam they could be declared infidels and could “deprive a man of immunity of his property and his life.” In his unrelenting demand for conformity he demanded allegiance to a single Muslim leader. He decreed that rejection of this conformity could result in death, the violation of their wives and daughters and the confiscation of their possessions.22 This is the exact principle under which the IS presently operates.

One of the two differences perhaps is that the Wahabist scholars pledge an alliance and conformity to earthly rulers (and by proxy the House of Saud) while the IS calls to action against foreign domination of the Arab world and the establishment of a no borders nationhood under the Islamic Caliphate.

Another convergence in parallel ideology, is that in the earliest model of Wahabism, it flourished alongside the official seat of Islamic power, the Caliphate of the Ottoman Empire. However, the IS version of Wahabism wants to claim the Caliphate for itself and aims to do that through the capture of land in specific regions along with its infrastructural resources, and by establishing rule over the Levant for starters.

Ibn e Saud and Abd al Wahab in the late 1700s reintroduced the idea of martyrdom in the name of jihad and its glorification as an access to heaven. By 1790 their Alliance had forced conversions to Wahabism after their repeated raids on Medina, Syria and Iraq. This also seems to be the favoured geographical landscape of the IS. They both employed the same strategy for bringing people to submission through fear. They pillaged the city of Karbala in Iraq in 1801 and slayed above 5,000 of its inhabitants including women and children.23

All in all though, the evolving present day IS scenario presents itself as a cruel return to history written in Wahabist code. It appears that a convoluted, self-serving version of Islamic interpretation in the struggle for political power has come full circle. And that the Wahabist philosophy which proved successful in the past for the purposes of its contextual design, is set to implode upon itself.

  1. Islamic State’s Comparison to Al Qaeda

It is ironic, if not a matter of some amusement, that with the emergence of IS, Al Qaeda, previously the sum of all evils, is being viewed as the more “rational” of jihadist Islamic groups.

The Al Qaeda and IS both employ the modus operandi of violent unconventional warfare to meet their ideological ends but both have a different approach to the use of violence as a jihadist tool.

“Al Qaeda grew out of a radical tradition that viewed Muslim states and societies as having fallen into sinful unbelief, and embraced violence as a tool to redeem them. But the Wahhabi tradition embraced the killing of those deemed unbelievers as essential to purifying the community of the faithful.

‘Violence is part of their ideology,’ Professor Haykel ( a scholar at Princeton) said. ‘For Al Qaeda, violence is a means to an ends; for ISIS, it is an end in itself.’

The distinction is playing out in a battle of fatwas. All of the most influential jihadist theorists are criticizing the Islamic State as deviant, calling its self-proclaimed caliphate null and void and, increasingly, slamming its leaders as bloodthirsty heretics for beheading journalists and aid workers.” According to a Professor at Georgetown University, “It is not Al Qaeda, but far to its right.”24

The IS is highly unscrupulous, minimally religious and only uses religion as the means to an end, shifting alliances where the need arises. “its only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price”.25

Barack Mendelsohn, a political scientist at Haverford College, writes, their relationship “had always been more a matter of mutual interests than of shared ideology.

The IS sometimes even categorize Al Qaeda as ‘bad Muslims’ for no longer being aggressive enough towards the West and are critical of their softened attitude. Recently an Islamic State ideologue declared even the Palestinian Hamas as “unbelievers” for agreeing to a ceasefire with Israel.

The IS and Al Qaeda both envision a Muslim state but work on bringing the idea to fruition on different timelines. Al Qaeda works towards this end hoping for its materialization somewhere in the distant future, near the end of time, near an apocalypse. IS believes in carpe diem, seizing the day, making Islamic dominance ubiquitous in the now, the immediate moment. In the words of William McCants of the Brookings Institute, “The IS really moved up the (Caliphate) timetable.”

iii. Islamic State’s Comparison to the Baath Party of Saddam

Though one would assume there were great differences between Saddam Hussein’s Baath Party known to be a secular organization and IS which is built on the pillars of radical Islam, but on closer inspection one can spot certain similarities. In Saddam’s heyday extreme torture was perpetrated on his orders which dominated the discourse about the country and today what dominates the discourse about IS is their penchant for harsh punishments.

Saddam’s party like the IS ran training camps for foreign volunteers and recruits across the Arab world.

Saddam’s Baath Party lost its secular hue when strict Islamic tenets were introduced such as inscription of the words “Allahu Akbar” onto the Iraqi flag and severing of the hand as a penalty for theft. The beheading campaign which mostly targeted women, who are regretfully always the first victims as tangible expressions of Islamic movements resulted in the death of around 200 people by his Fedayeen elite unit.

“The brutality deployed by the Islamic State today recalls the bloodthirstiness of some of those Fedayeen. Promotional videos from the Hussein era include scenes resembling those broadcast today by the Islamic State, showing the Fedayeen training, marching in black masks, practicing the art of decapitation and in one instance eating a live dog.”26

The Multiplying Gene. Spread of IS

It should be understood that many of the declarations of allegiance to Islamic State may simply be an opportunistic pegging by smaller radical organisations around the world to IS as it raises their impact barometer by virtue of association with the currently most feared jihadist organization in the world. It also services the IS propaganda to project its transnational, global growth and strengths. It is a symbiotic relationship that both can rely on to serve their purposes and public image.

A recent opinion poll suggested that IS has almost no popular support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia or Lebanon, even among Sunnis. In Egypt, only 3% support ISIS, while in Saudi Arabia it was slightly higher at 5%. Only 1% of Lebanese Sunnis supported the group.27 In Egypt though the support is only 3% one of its most radical groups the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM)announced its allegiance to IS in November 2014.

In Libya, as a result of the fall of Qaddafi, an opportunistic vacuum was created and the IS has declared 3 parts of Libya as its governorates.

In Saudi Arabia though the government supports military action against the IS especially in light of the assumption that’s its real goal is to replace the House of Saud with the Caliphate, there is support from individuals that fund the IS. The government has banned its citizens from joining the war in Iraq and Syria. Despite government restrictions,

November 2014 was an important month for establishing IS presence in Saudi Arabia. The IS claimed responsibility for the death of a Danish contractor in November and the November attack on a Shia mosque was also linked to the IS. According to the Saudi-owned Al-Hayat newspaper, in July 2014 “an opinion poll of Saudis [was] released on social networking sites, claiming that 92 percent of the target group believes that IS conforms to the values of Islam and Islamic law.”28

Considering that large numbers of Chechens are fighting in Iraq and Syria it was suggested by Russian media that a recent attack in Grozny can be attributed to the IS. A group of fighters there comprised of Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Dagestan & Chechnya that declared to be aligned with the IS.

In Nigeria, Boko Haram has voiced support for the IS and the group has been developing social media strategies similar to the IS. It appears the IS has set a new paradigm for the mass marketing of terror through the media.

Aymen Al Zawahiri, in September last year, announced the presence of Qaedat al- Jihad in the Indian Subcontinent (QJIS) which is seen as an effort by Al Qaeda to invigorate the organization in the wake of IS triumphs which have stolen Al Qaeda’s thunder. However, some analysts believe that it might be the nexus of the jihadist groups evolution towards a Sunni-centric jihadist comglomerate proto state development into India and Pakistan led by IS aspiration to the Caliphate. Maybe this is the “next level of caliphate construction in the coming years”.29

This, however, seems unlikely since though the two organisations aspire towards a Caliphate, the mechanism of Al Qaeda, its franchises and IS differs. Britain has warned India of a possible attack from the IS but the group has not really made its presence known in the area. There is no evidence except the arrest of a Bangalore- based executive who was operating a pro IS Twitter handle.30

In Afghanistan a number of people who were disillusioned by Al Qaeda’s failure to find space to implement the Sharia despite the heavy loss of life to the jihadists have joined the IS. In October 2014 IS aligned troops launched a brutal offensive resulting in the death of a hundred people and captured a number of villages in the Gazni province.31At present, there is an underlying turf war between the Taliban & IS in Afghanistan and so far only a few of the former TTP leaders have defected to the IS and joined the leadership Council called the Khosran Shura set up by the Islamic State.

“The announcement of the Shura demonstrates that the group’s ambitions for influence among jihadists Afghanistan and Pakistan. While fighters with the Pakistani Taliban have defected to the Islamic State, following in the footsteps of the members of the Khorasan Shura, the Afghan Taliban have remained loyal to Mullah Omar and have refused to declare their loyalty to Abu Bakr al-Bahgdadi in most cases.”32

The IS in Pakistan

Though Pakistan is a crowded space for the IS, the military action in North Waziristan has nudged many fighters towards the IS according to Mufti Hassan Swati who claims to be the Deputy Head of the Islamic State in Pakistan. According to him the IS in Pakistan was being led by Hafiz Saeed Khan from its headquarters in Balochistan. Haji Saeed had envisioned himself as a strong contender for the leadership of TTP but lost out to Maulana Fazlullah of the Peshawar APS attack and the shooting of Malala Yousafzai fame. Swati and Khan were among 6 high ranking TTP officials led by Sheikh Maqbool a former TTP spokesman to defect to the IS. The IS media arm in January 2015 declared “Pakistan and the neighbouring Afghanistan to be one region called the Province of Khorasan”. In September 2014, pamphlets by the IS were distributed to “Afghan refugees in Pakistan exhorting them to pledge allegiance.”

Members of Pakistan and Afghan Taliban acknowledged that a few hundred of their members had joined the IS.33 There is skepticism regarding the pamphlets that it is just sponsored propaganda to instill fear in people and prompt a reactionary, panicked response from the government in Pakistan. Similarly, pamphlets titled “Fatah” appeared in Peshawar34 along with some writings on the wall in Balochistan and the city of Wah and Karachi along with posters in Lahore. The posters in Lahore were outrightly rejected by the Punjab government attributing them to sectarian militants aiming to intimidate the Shiites in the name of Daesh.

Amongst the handful of groups in Pakistan seduced by the IS lure are:

A TTP affiliate, Tehreek-e- Khilafat, in July 2014; In August 2014 the Jamat ul Ahrar, a hard –line anti Shiite splinter group of the TTP led by Mulana Fazlullah; and potentially the group Hizbe Islami who has shown support for the IS. The former Sipah e Sahaba now known as Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat Pakistan avidly promote IS activities in Syria in a display of support for the group.35

So far, aside from the declared allegiance by some TTP leaders, according to Mian Sana Ullah, a former Pakistani Ambassador, response from Pakistan has by and large been “muted”. “There have been no open rallies” in its support neither have there been “credible reports that youngsters have flown to the IS territories to join its fighters,” though the impact of IS internet propaganda cannot be accurately gauged.36 However, before dispelling all such fears for Pakistan, one must remember that there is a directly proportional relationship between economics and recruitment. Until those larger issues are addressed the potential threat of IS and other radical groups in the area will loom large.

It is generally believed though that the “idea of the caliphate is not a preferred aspiration” in the region and the “concept will hardly find a few takers in Pakistan.”37

Despite this optimism and the assumption that the IS is not operational in Pakistan, “its victories have energized battle- weary militants in Pakistan” and have set a new template for waging jihad.38

What is interesting about the allure of IS indigenously in Pakistan is that it appears to be a reciprocal relationship. The IS too seems to want to pander to the sentiments of the Pakistani constituency.

“In the summer, the Islamic State publicly demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani scientist serving an 86-year prison term in the United States for her part in an attack on Americans in Afghanistan, in exchange for the American journalists James Foley and Steven J. Sotloff, who were later beheaded.

‘That’s quite important,’ said Zahid Hussain, author of ‘The Scorpion’s Tail,’ a book about the rise of Islamist militancy in Pakistan. ‘It shows they knew who Aafia Siddiqui was, and that they wanted to have some kind of influence on the Pakistan groups.’”39

Though the presence of IS in Pakistan, if at all, is weak at the moment and does not seem to find root in the aspirations of Pakistanis towards a Caliphate, it is no way a time for complacency. Given the socio-political global climate especially with the rise of the New Athiests and the anti Muslim animus that propels them, at any given time in this fertile ground of radicals, jihadists might just react and morph their avatar to form an alliance with the IS which as perception would have it, gets the job done when it needs to make a point. And what the IS has going for it is commonly held belief that nothing succeeds like success.

The Final Thread

Avarice, pride, exploitation, bad decisions, twisted romanticism, reactionism and ambition rule our existence. Through these layers of consciousness are manifested organisms such as the Islamic State whose genome is coded with the structure of our devices; its double helix as twisted as our satanic self-propagation. Perhaps what we view as the survival of our ideologies is, in fact, self-annihilation.

In the words of Bertrand Russell in his Unpopular Essays, “After ages during which the earth produced harmless trilobites and butterflies, evolution progressed to the point at which it generated Neros, Genghis Khans, and Hitlers. This however, is a passing nightmare; in time the earth will become again incapable of supporting life, and peace shall return.” 40

We should then perhaps bide our time and count on evolutionary self-annihilation and wait for greed, terror and the ego to subside and for peace to prevail.


    1. Ahmed S Hashim, ‘The Islamic State: from Al-Qaeda affiliate to caliphate’,Middle East Policy Council Journal, Winter 2014, Volume XXI, Number 4,
    2. Research paper 15/16 19th March 2015 The House of Commons Library . Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
    3. (The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State by Christoph Reuter.
    4. ibid
    5. Research paper 15/16 19th March 2015 The House of Commons Library . Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
    6. ibid
    7. Speigel – The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State by Christoph Reuter
    8. ibid
    9. Speigel – The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State by Christoph Reuter
    10. Research paper 15/16 , 19th March 2015 The House of Commons Library . Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
    11. Daughters of Jihad – The German Women of Islamic State by Jorg Diehl. February 13, 2015
    12. Ribal al-Assad, ‘The Islamic State and Saddam’s Phantom Army’, Huffington
    13. 17 things about ISIS and Iraq you need to know May 14, 2015 Edited by Zack Beauchamp
    14. Research paper 15/16 19th March 2015 The House of Commons Library . Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
    15. Ribal al-Assad, ‘The Islamic State and Saddam’s Phantom Army’, Huffington Post, 17 November 2014
    16. ibid
    17. Medevial Fantasies? IS Pursues Apoclyptic Logic. March 19 2015 http://www.
    18. Research paper 15/16 – 19th March 2015 The House of Commons Library . Sectarian Conflict in the Middle East
    19. ibid
    20. Spiegel Jan 06 2015, Islamic State Is a Diversified Criminal Operation. http://
    21. NY Times, David Kirkpatrick, Sept 2014 ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed isis-abu-bakr-baghdadi-caliph-wahhabi.html?_r=0
    22. Breitbart News 28 Aug 2014 Alastair Crooke You Can’t Understand ISIS If You Don’t Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia.. http://www.breitbart. com/national-security/2014/08/28/huffington-post-isis-horror-explained-by-saudi-wahhabism/
    23. ibid
    24. ibid
    25. NY Times, David Kirkpatrick, Sept 2014 ISIS’ Harsh Brand of Islam Is Rooted in Austere Saudi Creed isis-abu-bakr-baghdadi-caliph-wahhabi.html?_r=0
    26. Speigel – The Terror Strategist: Secret Files Reveal the Structure of Islamic State by Christoph Reuter
    27. The Washington Post – The hidden hand behind the Islamic State militants? Saddam Hussein’s. aa97676c-cc32-11e4-8730-4f473416e759_story.html
    28. Arab public opinion and the fight against ISIS, Fikra Forum/Washington institute for near East Policy, October 2014
    29. The Huffington Post- Middle East Time Bomb: The Real Aim of ISIS Is to Replace the Saud Family as the New Emirs of Arabia by Alastair Crooke. Posted: 09/02/2014
    30. Al Arabia- Al-Qaeda’s play in the sub-continent: An ISIS evolution? By Dr Theodore Karasik. Sunday, 7 September 2014 views/news/middle-east/2014/09/07/Al-Qaeda-s-play-in-the-sub-continent-An-ISIS-evolution-.html
    31. IBN LIVE Jan 19 2015.
    32. NBC News. ISIS in Pakistan and Afghanistan: Taliban Fight by Mustaq Yousafzai. Jan 31 2015.
    33. The Diplomat- Islamic State in Afghanistan: Start of a Turf War? – by Ankit Panda -Feb 03 2015
    34. NBC News. ISIS in Pakistan and Afghanistan: Taliban Fight by Mustaq Yousafzai. Jan 31 2015.
    35. The News -The ISIS Challenge by Mian Sana Ullah . Oct 27 2014
    36. Al Arabia- Al-Qaeda’s play in the sub-continent: An ISIS evolution? By Dr Theodore Karasik. Sunday, 7 September 2014 views/news/middle-east/2014/09/07/Al-Qaeda-s-play-in-the-sub-continent-An-ISIS-evolution-.html
    37. The News -The ISIS Challenge by Mian Sana Ullah . Oct 27 2014
    38. ibid
    39. Allure of ISIS for Pakistanis Is on the Rise. By Declan Walsh Nov. 21, 2014
    40. ibid
    41. Unpopular Essays, Sardonic Comments on Human Inclinations – Butrand Russell.

The author is an editor of the journal and an educationist.