So after about two months of intense work through a number of lectures, interviews and talks, for which I am grateful to have been invited to give, I notice that many of the continuing questions I receive currently are aimed at understanding not only how, but why IS still advances. Military experts seem to be in total agreement that the caliphate decreases geographically as coaliation forces and joint efforts on the ground are seizing control over strategically important cities. This is only partially true. In the main region yes, however IS expands its provincial reach by establishing affiliating bases in Egypt, Libya, Nigeria and other mostly North African countries, but also in the far east towards Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is easy to be blinded by potential military success in Syria and Iraq, however it is an overestimation to say that current military efforts decrease the strength and spread of IS. That aside, the ideological and regional context are not only more worrying but at the same time also constitute the framework in which the true possibilities to engage and facilitate resistance exist. Reasons for this has an important historical outline.
Sunni vs. Shia context
IS takes a narrative point of departure in the treatment of sunni muslims in Iraq after the US invasion 2003. When removing the Baath Party and Saddam Hussein regime, the sunni minority in the country (which in comparison to shia muslims had been favoured the most by the regime and constituted about 20 % of the Iraqi population before the declaration of the caliphate) became politically marginalized. An insurgency grew from the dismantlement and former Baath Party members, leading generals etc in the former regime, became a strong part of this insurgency. Groups like Al-Quaida and above all IS absorbed this insurgency and politicized it in forms of seeking to build its state.
Two major dimensions must be regarded in this political, religious and weaponized project. First, the importance for IS to restore sunni political power in Baghdad after the war(different from Saddam Hussein as his politics were more secular and promoted Arab nationalism) and second, to unify Aleppo in Syria and Baghdad in Iraq under a joint rule of government. This unification is one of many endeavors by IS which can clearly be related to the islamic theology and history they are relying on. In addition, unification of that kind also constitutes a significant message of a vision needed to be sold to the sunni populations and tribes in these countries. By embedding this message in fear of ’kufr’ (non-believers) and a firm belief in the ’tawhid’ (the concept of monotheism and oneness with God) – IS is to be perceived as the restorer of ”true” muslim faith and the great caliphate. So it’s a messianic vision with a strong political project underneath that in combination is not only powerful but also lethal in the increasingly tensed divisions between sunni and shia in these countries.
Speaking oh this division, what IS primarily has done over the years is to appeal to local sunni populations, playing on the concept of victimhood, mantling the role as defender of marginalized sunni groups in the region. The US left power in Baghdad to a shia minority and it didn’t take long for domestic and religious tensions to accelerate. In Syria, the Assad-regime continously tormented its citizens and still contributes widely to the deconstruction of Syria as we once knew it. So in the world of IS, there is an interplay between victimhood and strong aggression. These perpetual factors are intertwined and one cannot exist without the other.
The real enemy for IS, or primary might be a better word, seems to be the’rafik’ (their word for shia muslims) of Iraq. They are currently under the influence (and protection) of the Iranian revolutionary guard due to intense negotiations between the US and Iran, regarding operations in Iraq. One of the main figures in sunni islamist terrorism and Al-Quaida operations in Iraq after the US intervention 2003, Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi (dead 2006), early targeted the shia muslims as main enemies to destroy in order to have any possibilities to advance in the sunni jihadist project that later became IS. His approach and strategy to gain support from the sunni populations for Al-Quaida in Iraq was to strike against shia muslims in the most explicit way (burning their mosques, ruthless killing through religios motivations etc.) and make them retaliate. Because when an aggregated shia population were to do so, sunni muslims in the region would be empowered to join Al-Quaida in defending the sunni tradition and people of the (true) islam – a role now taken even further by IS.
The need for sunni awakening and cooperation
And today? Iranian, US and Syrian airstrikes bombing IS (self- proclaimed protectors of sunni islam and sunni muslims under their governing). Present foreign policies and military efforts of these coalition countries are increasingly playing in the hands of IS and also makes their messaging of victimhood and protectors against enemies and threats, more powerful for the sunni muslims in the region. Considering the historical context, this message is not hard to sell to ravaged and marginalized sunnis in fractioned countries. Many simply see an alliance between US, Iran, the Assad-regime in Syria and the shia-muslims in Iraq, Iran and other actors joining, and this makes the threat more evident, one-dimensional and enhances the image of IS as protectors, not villains, in the eyes of sunni groups and populations. I consider this to be the main reason for why there is no sunni insurgency within the ruled areas, rising against IS.
And let’s be honest. The only initial thing that truly and effectively can challenge the spread and further establishment of the IS caliphate, is to have sunni-muslims, regionally and internationally, to work together in a new joint rise (comparable to the Anbar Awakening in 2006 when roughly 30 tribes in the Anbar province stood up against Al-Quaida in Iraq) – something IS is determined to prevent from happening again and towards them. If acknowledging this, western states and policy makers are to engage in altering not only the political (military) strategies but also challenge the deeply rooted and continously growing belief among sunni muslims, that the US (and west in general) are out to get them.
Understanding the basis of IS, its core, background, vision, aim and especially strategies to achieve it expands our knowledge about these issues. Through it we can better prepare and execute the necessary ideological countering against islamic extremism. But by only advancing on a military front we can easily draw an analogy to hitting a nest of bees with a sledgehammer.
It just doesn’t work. No matter how hard you hit.