The Islamic State One Year After The Caliphate Declaration
29 July 2015
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
As we pass the one-year anniversary since the announcement of ISIS's
so-called "caliphate" demanding the allegiance of the world's Muslims and
ultimately sovereignty over the entire world, much of the commentary has been
far too ephemeral. The media has had a tendency to take whatever comes out
immediately in the news -- such as the attack today in Sinai claimed by ISIS
and its threat to Hamas in Gaza -- as indicative of long-term trends.
This is true both on the ISIS home fronts in Iraq and Syria and on the
international stage as a number of official "province" (wilaya) affiliates
have been announced in Sinai, Nigeria, Libya, Algeria, Yemen, Saudi Arabia,
Afghanistan/Pakistan and, most recently it seems, the Caucasus area. In
addition, the international export of the ISIS brand has recently seen a wave
of ISIS-claimed (but not confirmed) massacres in Sinai, Kuwait and Tunisia.
Illustrating the problem of the tendency to jump on developments as they come
are the various proclamations that ISIS is either winning or losing in Iraq
and Syria. For instance, the claim that ISIS is winning/on the march was
renewed in the wake of ISIS's capture of Iraq's Anbar provincial capital of
Ramadi and various towns in the Syrian Homs desert, including the ancient
locality of Palmyra/Tadmur.
What such a generalized assessment fails to take into account is some broader
context: first, as emerged from documentary evidence circulating on the
ground since the end of April, ISIS leader Baghdadi had ordered for a
mobilization in the Syrian provinces to reinforce the fighting fronts in
Anbar and Salah ad-Din provinces, particularly calling for would-be suicide
bombers and operative commandoes. Unsurprisingly then, a wave of suicide
bombings proved key in throwing Iraqi forces in Ramadi into disarray. Second,
the Assad regime loss of towns in the Homs desert reflects more its own
forces' weakness than ISIS's strength, as the regime has also lost other
peripheral areas in the south on and near the border with Jordan and in the
north in Idlib province to an assortment of Syrian rebel forces.
However, while ISIS could mobilize forces in Syria to reinforce fighting
fronts in Iraq, it logically follows that ISIS can only focus on so many
fronts at once. At the same time, largely unnoticed was the Syrian Kurdish
YPG's push with coalition air support towards the key northern border town of
Tel Abyad, which ISIS has now lost. Further, ISIS attempted to keep up
momentum by launching a new offensive in the north Aleppo countryside in late
May, aiming to retake its one-time "Emirate of Azaz" that it strategically
withdrew from in February 2014. However, that offensive has largely stalled
as various rebel groups including al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra
mobilized reinforcements to halt further ISIS advances, leading ISIS to
resort to economic siegeby preventing trucks carrying fuel extracted from
ISIS-held areas from entering rebel zones.
The picture that thus emerges is an organization that is neither winning nor
losing: rather, like any long war, there is much ebb and flow. Yet some
constants have definitely become clear. Most notably, in the heartland of
ISIS territories, including control over major cities like Mosul and Raqqa,
there is a lack of local opposition to fundamentally undermine its rule, and
that dynamic is highly unlikely to change for the foreseeable future. In
part, this is because of ISIS's comprehensive state presentation and
bureaucratic structure that bring a sense of order amid years of chaos. The
internal security apparatus and intelligence gathering is also rigid, being
able to suppress signs of rebellion within ISIS's own ranks and playing
members of the same tribe against each other, helping to suppress a
repetition of the "Sahwa" phenomenon that rolled back ISIS's predecessor
Islamic State of Iraq in the Iraq War.
Linked to the state presentation is the problem of ISIS financing. Since ISIS
assumes all aspects of a state from education to services, there are plenty
of avenues for income beyond oil and gas infrastructure and antiquities
smuggling: foremost in taxes, ranging from school registration fees to
garbage disposal and landline phone subscriptions. This is by far the most
important revenue for ISIS, and thus the state presentation, while needing
critical analysis, also needs to be taken more seriously in this context.
Airstrikes on oil infrastructure have not critically undermined ISIS
finances, as ISIS has simply responded by raising taxes in various parts of
its territories. The problem is compounded by the fact that ISIS territories
do not exist in isolation from their wider milieu. People in rebel-held
areas, for example, readily do business in ISIS territory, finding the
security situation there ideal, as one contact in Azaz put it to me. This
prevents the drying up of the cash flow in ISIS-held areas.
In short, don't bet on a collapse-from-within of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. But
what of ISIS on the international stage and its competition with al Qaeda for
leadership of the global jihad? The list of countries where ISIS now has
officially claimed affiliates may seem impressive at first sight, but in
truth, the growth of the ISIS brand has been greatly exaggerated. Since ISIS
presents itself as a state, true success in measuring the ISIS affiliates
abroad depends on the emergence of a state structure on the model of
governance in Iraq and Syria, embodied in the various Diwans (state
departments) of ISIS. Only two known locations outside Iraq and Syria have
seen ISIS affiliates replicate this structure to a reliable degree: the
cities of Sirte and Derna in Libya.
However, already that structure in Derna has been virtually dismantled by
other rebel factions in the city that became fed up with the ISIS presence.
That should tell a lot about ISIS as a brand abroad, where it is more
accurate to see it as a terrorist threat, but nowhere nearly as entrenched as
in Iraq and Syria. Indeed, that should not come as much of a surprise: ISIS
does not have the same organic roots and financial means in areas outside
Syria and Iraq.
None of this is to downplay ISIS as a problem inside and beyond Iraq and
Syria. But overall, some sober perspective is needed when one can fall for
ISIS's impressive media strategies to garner attention. ISIS as a brand is
here to stay with us for the long-term, but it does not constitute an
existential threat, nor is it a mighty juggernaut.