June 12, 2015

NOT YET STATE-LIKE ENOUGH:

Inside the Islamic State (Malise Ruthven JULY 9, 2015, NY Review of Books)

[B]in Laden is dead, thanks to the action of US Navy SEALs in May 2011, but as Abdel Bari Atwan explains in Islamic State: The Digital Caliphate, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden's official successor as leader of "al-Qa'ida central," looks increasingly irrelevant. Bin Laden's true successor is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the shadowy caliph of ISIS, the so-called Islamic State. As "Commander of the Faithful" in that nascent state he poses a far more formidable threat to the West and to Middle Eastern regimes--including the Saudi kingdom--that are sustained by Western arms than bin Laden did from his Afghan cave or hideout in Pakistan.

One of the primary forces driving this transformation, according to Atwan, is the digital expertise demonstrated by the ISIS operatives, who have a commanding presence in social media. A second is that ISIS controls a swath of territory almost as large as Britain, lying between eastern Syria and western Iraq. As Jürgen Todenhöfer, who spent ten days in ISIS-controlled areas in both Iraq and Syria, stated categorically in January: "We have to understand that ISIS is a country now."

In his book, based on visits to the Turkish-Syrian border, online interviews with jihadists, and the access to leaders he enjoys as one of the Arab world's most respected journalists, Atwan draws a convincing picture of the Islamic State as a well-run organization that combines bureaucratic efficiency and military expertise with a sophisticated use of information technology.

For security reasons, and to enhance his mystique, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-styled caliph, keeps a low profile, rarely appearing in public. He is sometime known as the Phantom (al-shabah) or "'the invisible sheikh' because of his habit of wearing a mask when addressing his commanders." His real name is Ibrahim bin Awwad bin Ibrahim al-Badri al-Qurayshi. He was born in 1971 in the Iraqi town of Samarra, once the seat of the caliphs in the Abbasid period (750-1258), whom he seeks to emulate. Crucially, the Bobadri tribe to which he belongs includes the Prophet Muhammad's tribe of Qurayshin in its lineage. In the classical Sunni tradition, the caliph is required to be a Qurayshite.

According to Baghdadi's online biography, supplied by the IS media agency al-Hayat, he is from a religious family that includes several imams (prayer leaders) and Koranic scholars. He is said to have attended the Islamic University of Baghdad where he received his BA, MA, and Ph.D., with his doctorate focusing on Islamic jurisprudence as well as including studies of Islamic culture and history. He first attended the university during Saddam Hussein's "Faith Campaign," when the Iraqi dictator encouraged Islamic religiosity as a way of rousing national feeling against the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq after the US liberated Kuwait from Saddam's occupation in 1991.

While Baghdadi's academic credentials confer legitimacy on his claim to be a religious guide as well as a political and military leader--an authority possessed by neither bin Laden nor Zawahri--his extensive battlefield experience and reputation as a shrewd tactician have enabled him to gain the support of experienced commanders and administrators from the former Baathist regime. As Atwan writes:

Islamic State always has the advantage of surprise and is able to seize opportunities as and when they arise. Rather than "fight to the death," its brigades will slip away from a battle they are clearly not going to win, regrouping in a more advantageous location....

In January 2015, for example with the US-led alliance bombarding Islamic State targets in Iraq, the Military Council decided to redeploy its efforts to Syria. Fighters inside Iraq were ordered to lie low...while battalions and sleeper cells in Syria were reactivated. As a result, the group doubled the territory under its control in Syria between August 2014 and January 2015.
While skeptics may doubt the sincerity of the ex-Baathists, assuming they are seeking a return to the power they enjoyed before the US invasion, it seems more likely that their support for ISIS has been motivated by religious conviction. With their former hegemony lost, and the previously despised "infidel" Shias in the ascendant in Iraq, these erstwhile secularists are returning to their faith.

This is not to say that the expertise they acquired under Saddam has been lost. As Atwan explains, ISIS is a "highly centralized and disciplined organization" with a sophisticated security apparatus and capacity for delegating power. The caliph--as "successor" of the Prophet--is the ultimate authority; but despite his sermon exhorting believers to "advise me when I err," any threat, opposition, or even contradiction is instantly eradicated. Baghdadi has two deputies--both former members of the Iraqi Baath Party. Both were his fellow prisoners in Camp Bucca, the sprawling American detention center in southern Iraq now seen as the "jihadist university" where former Baathists and Sunni insurgents were able to form ideological and religious bonds. Abu Muslim al-Turkmani, Baghdadi's second-in-command, was a member of Saddam's feared military intelligence. Baghdadi's second deputy, Abu Ali al-Anbari, was a major general in the Iraqi army.

The sooner we can get them to declare borders, field an army and establish structures of governance the easier our target acquisition becomes.
Posted by at June 12, 2015 8:45 AM
  

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