The New Face of War
News about “The Islamic State” has been circulating widely since August 2014, when President Obama ordered a prolonged campaign of airstrikes in Iraq. The average news reader is baffled by them and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq as a whole. “Is America at war alone? Who is in this coalition? Is this even a war?” To add complexity to the impressions, The Islamic State is not a State, they reject international norms and behave more like a gang of pirates with the heavy weaponry, cash assets, and infrastructure of a developing nation. The group has been on the radar of western intelligence since 2005.
Unlike Syria versus civilian rebel groups, or Israel versus Palestinian rebel groups, where a sovereign nation is battling the recognized army of oppressed and organized people whose end goal is an internationally recognized nation, Islamic State does not have the primary objective of secession or to topple any particular government. They are a self-perptuating force claiming strategic territory, drawing their own borders, starting with The Levant. It is likely that, like a form of cancer, they will want to expand that influence forever. They also like to inject themselves among rebels to expand their influence, like cancer. This is most glaring in Syria, where honest rebels are trying to take back their homeland from a despotic ruler and install a democratic government. Islamic State wants no such democracy anywhere.
In this three part series of short articles, we hope to convey the story of The Islamic State and bring the average reader up to speed with current events and historic precedent for both sides of every conflict. First dealing with the background of the group, secondly dealing with the Arab Spring, and third to observe recent events leading up to Obama’s decision to launch airstrikes.
Al-Qaida and the U.S. Invasion of Iraq
Around June of 2014, news spread wildly that Baghdad was surrounded by a militant group whose rapid advance threatened the new American-installed democracy of Iraq. It was Barack Obama’s first-term achievement to end the war of George W. Bush, handing Iraq back to its people under a well-trained army. The militant group’s title was “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” (ISIS) or “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant” (ISIL). Only weeks later, the group announced a simpler name: the Islamic State.
The media has been inconsistent, using various acronyms. Many use ISIS because it sounds dramatic, like the kind of enemy a musculur Hollywood hero would fight on a special operation. The White House sticks with ISIL. So does Al-Jazeera. So shall we. It aptly describes their region of influence and the historical context of their political body: the medieval caliphate. Conveniently, the revised name cuts off territorial limitations altogether. An assertion from the Obama administration is that they will stop at nothing to impose strict Sharia Law governed by totalitarian force that “does not belong in the 21st Century.” With a potential mission of world domination, Baghdad and Damascus are just the beginning for ISIL and their development of such a religious legal system is conveniently isolated from public dialogue.
A caliphate can rule over a vast empire, ever-expanding its sphere of influence because national borders are meaningless from that standpoint. It is an Islamic political body that rules people under Sharia Law. Sort of like the Catholic Pope ruling with Canon Law during The Crusades, the ISIL caliphate wants to convert masses and redraw borders. The root of ISIL’s rage against western people in The Levant starts with early Christian settlements. Sharia Law is not precise, but whomever enforces a legal system derived from edicts of the Hadith, Sunnah, and Quran scriptures can be said to govern by Sharia Law. Only the Quran was transmitted through the prophet Muhammed, and the other scripts were recorded after his death.
ISIL did not develop from a vacuum and the caliphate did not form overnight. The group did not always have its sight set throughout The Levant. The army’s history begins in Iraq working alongside al-Qaida, the primary target in America’s war on terror.
Al-Qaida formed a new branch in Iraq (AQI) in 2004, to combat American occupation under the Bush administration. A coalition of militant groups formed the Mujahideen Shura Council in Iraq, working with AQI while keeping their controversial tactics disassociated, in order to keep up the appearance of following international standards from the central command of AQI.
By 2006, the coalition congealed in to The Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), with Abu Omar al-Baghdadi as the Amir, their Prince and visionary leader. The leader’s identity was veiled by this pen name and an actor appearing in videos helped transmit his script. AQI and ISI worked together with the same mission of expelling American forces from Iraq. Although not always in agreement tactically or ideologically, they effectively battled American occupation by recruiting from outside of Iraq. Outside funding also maintained forces. A great deal of al-Qaida funds pass through Saudi Arabia. This was well known before the 2003 invasion of Iraq as well as the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan. The official 9/11 Commission Report does not blame Saudi Arabia for supporting terrorist networks.
Al-Qaida (and ISIL) profits from good old fashioned pirating: absorbing whatever can be gained from occupied territories. There is a lot to be gained by AQI from franchising the name, so long as a cut of loot is shared with the political body.
In 2005, a U.S. Military backed movement known as Anbar’s Awakening provided the formation of The Sons of Iraq, a coalition of tribal Shiekhs in the al-Anbar province. Shiekhs are religious leaders, mostly Sunni muslim. The territory at their command connects Iraq to Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia: an important strategic border and smuggling thoroughfare. The Sons of Iraq had a mission of combating foreign fighters. Actively fighting AQI helped reduce violence in their regions while keeping Sunni support within the indigineous population.
In 2006, Nouri al-Maliki became the first Shia Prime Minister in the new democratic government installed by the United States. He was selected after a failed Sunni leader and because it was believed he was not tethered to Iran. This is important, because ISIL is Sunni whereas Iran is majority Shia. The Syrian dictator, Bashar al-Assad is Shia. Iran was placed in the “Axis of Evil” by the Bush Administration.
The development of Iraqi forces in conjunction with U.S. forces did in fact lead to gains over AQI and ISI, including the Anbar province. However, it is widely accepted that Maliki’s inability to cooperate with Sunni leaders and refusal to bring the Sons of Iraq in to the Iraqi Security Services provided the conditions for ISI to expand. He is relatively moderate but would prove to be a diplomatic failure. He resigned under international pressure and his government reformed in 2014.
Late 2007, the leader of the Sons of Iraq was assasinated and inter-tribal cohesion quickly eroded under his heir. Only months later, the U.S. relinquished financial obligations and arms to the Sons of Iraq, leaving them in the hands of Iraqi Security Services (ISS), under al-Maliki. Pretty soon ISS vowed to disarm all Sunni militant groups. Feeling betrayed by the U.S. and targeted by ISS, thousands of newly unemployed tribal fighters defected to the Islamic State, bringing arms with them.
In 2010, ISI leader al-Baghdadi was assasinated in a joint US-Iraq operation, killing AQI leader Abu Ayyub al-Masri, and others simultaneously. Intelligence gained from this operation also led to the targeting of Osama Bin Laden. These accomplishments gave President Obama credence to declare that Al-Qaida had been “decimated” and announced the complete withdrawl of American ground troops engaged in combat missions. This hope for a solid and stable Iraqi army might have been overzealous especially because the political mission was truly incomplete. Only with peaceful intertribal relationships all over Iraq could an army keep security in the capitol.