The Defeat of ISIS
The "War on Terror" has largely become a war against "extremist" groups associated with the Islamic religion. For most westerners, limited knowledge of Islam, Islamic history, and the various sects, groups, and denominations of Islam prevents understanding of the true nature of "Islamic terrorism". With the advent of ISIS ("the Islamic State") and its successes in Syria and Iraq, we see the culmination of failed western policies and a general western failure to understand both Moslem fundamentalism and Arab nationalism. In this essay, I will try to explain the basic elements, concepts, and ideas that form the foundation of terrorist/jihadist beliefs - whether real or fabricated to unify opposition to western ideas.
Forming a generalized characterization of Islam leads to a simple truth: Islam is a religion of devotion to God which has as a fundamental premise its supremacy over all other religious beliefs. It is natural for one who believes that their theology is the right one to also believe that any other theology is inherently flawed and inferior. The difference in Mohammed's interpretation of this reasoning is that he openly states (in the Quran) that the killing of infidels - those who refuse to believe in Islamic theology - is a religious duty of those who do believe. Of course, just as modern Christians and Jews ignore or suppress some similarly negative teachings of their scripture, most modern Moslems reject or ignore this so-called duty. But for those fundamentalists who wish to read and teach the Quran literally or absolutely (as the inerrant word of God), the Islamic scripture provides clear direction - jihad (war) against all other religions.
Thus, the first distinction we must make in understanding Islam is that bright line between those who believe in their duty to kill infidels and those who reject this idea. There is also a large group of Moslems in the gray area of taking no position or accepting whichever view is least threatening to them at the moment. Subsequently, I shall argue that this uncommitted group is one of the big problems we face.
Many of the other divisions or distinctions within Islam seem incidental and insignificant to westerners. We hear of Sunnis and Shiites and few westerners could tell you the difference or know that 85% of the world's Moslems Sunnis. Their primary difference centers upon a 1400 year old argument about who should succeed the Prophet Mohammed (the Sunnis chose Abu Bakr, a friend of the prophet's, while the Shiites claimed that Mohammed had anointed his son-in-law, Ali). There is some similarity to the Christian division of Christians into Protestants and Catholics, especially when it comes to geo-political boundaries and religious divisions such as Northern Ireland.
Just as there are both Catholics and Protestants who are Republicans and Baptists and Lutherans who belong to the NRA, Moslems are also joined and divided by social ideas and politics. Of course, there are Moslems, Christians, and Jews who put self-interest above their religious, social, or political beliefs and people of most any religion who will kill someone else of their own religion over non-religious differences. In this light, we find the basis for members of ISIS who will kill, torture, rape, and steal from fellow Moslems (something any fundamentalist Moslem would call unquestionably non-Islamic).
Thus, in the same light that a Christian who kills anyone has fundamentally denied their religion by their murder, any self-referenced "Moslem" who practices jihad against other Moslems is fundamentally self-deluded. In this we find the error in the use of both "fundamentalist" and "Moslem" as descriptive of ISIS terrorists. Our first clear understanding of ISIS should build upon the base that they are not righteous under any religion and that they are using Islam as a tool of manipulation towards a larger purpose. It is that purpose which identifies the terrorists and our understanding of that purpose which will lead to their defeat.
The stated goal of ISIS is to create and sustain an Islamic State or Caliphate. First, we should understand that the idea of an Islamic State is a misnomer and misconception. An ideal American-like democracy could be just as much an Islamic State as any Caliphate since the Quran only insists that a government be based upon a constitution and adhere to the body of Islamic laws that exist in the Qur'an and Sunnah (moral principles which include the Ten Commandments) and serve the will of the people (through the). A Caliphate would be a government led by a Caliph - a proper political and religious successor to the prophet Muhammad. But since the primary division within Islam relates to this succession, it's a bit like a Christian advocating a universal Christian state led by the Pope.
As with any religious government the fundamental issue is who determines the Will of God. In Islam, like other major religions, the fullest guide to the Will of Allah is in scripture - the Quran. It is supplemented by other writings, but there are always issues not specifically decided or mentioned in scripture and matters where scripture is less than clear or complete. In an Islamic state, the manner in which scripture is read, interpreted, and applied becomes the key. In an ideal Caliphate, one person is deemed the supreme guardian (Caliph or faqih) of the law (Sharia) and the Caliph is bound by the constitution and people's council (Al-Shura).The Caliph serves at the will of the people and must retain their confidence and hear their criticisms. Ideally, "Every person in an Islamic society enjoys the rights and powers of the caliphate of Allah and in this respect all individuals are equal."
As with democracies, the real Caliphates differ greatly from the ideal Caliphate. A central issue is the Quran's teaching that leaders become such only under the Will of Allah. This creates a logic of "might makes right" so that once anyone gains power they may claim that such could only have happened under the authority and guidance of Allah and therefore their leadership cannot be challenged under Islamic law. Even when the qualification of Islamic leadership is based upon knowledge of the law and moral fairness, it usually becomes a small group of self-determined experts or scholars (Imam) who judge such (among themselves). For these reasons and others, there has never been anything like a functional Islamic State based upon the ideal Caliphate and most Islamic governments have become despotic.
"Among the Muslims the framing of laws has always been the preserve of the religious leaders, men distinguished for their extreme devoutness and piety. The qualities prized most in religious people are detachment from worldly matters, aloofness, strictness in the performance of duties, unawareness of public affairs and dislike of the followers of other religions. All these are qualities adverse to social progress. People characterized by an excess of these qualities, especially if they are inborn in them, are unable to understand the requirements of a developing civilization. For all the veneration such people rightfully enjoy because of their holiness and purity, they can offer little guidance to men and women in the conduct of their mundane affairs."
Thus, if the real purpose of ISIS is to create a new Islamic Caliphate, they are doomed to failure. But this is a case where actions clearly speak louder than words and we should not believe the words of ISIS. To understand the real purpose of ISIS, we need to better understand who their leadership is, what beliefs they hold, who funds them, and what their actions indicate.
It is a striking aspect of ISIS that their leadership remains largely hidden (not the least due to American drone strikes). And while recent journalistic reports speak of certain leaders, the simple fact is that we do not know who leads ISIS or exactly where they came from. What is clear is that ISIS is led by a more competent and creative coalition of leaders than generally thought. Our starting question should be: who formed this coalition?
According to a widely respected story by Christoph Reuter published by de Spiegel  in April of 2015, the founder of ISIS was Samir Abd Muhammad al-Khlifawi (aka Haji Bakr; note that the name of the first Caliph was Abu Bakr, a companion of Mohammed and the origin of the Sunni/Shiite division). Khlifawi was a former colonel in Saddam Hussein's intelligence service and undoubtedly did much of ISIS's strategic and organizational planning. But it seems clear that he was brought into the organization by someone else.
Thus, while the military backbone of ISIS has roots in the Baathist military of Saddam Hussein, recent divisions and disputes within ISIS strongly indicate that it is not led by an Iraqi Baathist. Reuter states that Bakr - and a small group of former Iraqi intelligence officers - made Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the emir and later "caliph," the official leader of the Islamic State. But I suspect that this person is (or was) an imaginary figurehead or alternative personality of Haji Bakr. ISIS needed a respectable educated cleric to give the group a religious front man and rather than risk putting someone else in that position, they created an iconic religious leader who could be played by any actor (originally Khlifawi). This method also ensured that their leader could not be killed. As stated within the work Reuter attributes to Bakr, "The goal is to deceive all, but those who love God."
Consistent with Bakr's intelligence background, the structure he proposed utilized prescribed piety, Sharia law, and the courts to serve the goals of surveillance and control. It is evident that his plan was widely implemented within ISIS - but by whom?
Some suggest Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, but he was killed in an American air strike in 2006. Despite his death before ISIS became operational, his fingerprints seem to appear often in its development. Others see the roots of ISIS growing from the American military's Camp Bucca where thousands of Baathists and opposition leaders were held from 2003-2009 (including Bakr from 2006-2008). It seems apparent that many of the Baathists who led the ISIS military were aligned or recruited at Camp Bucca, but the roots of ISIS lie elsewhere.
I agree with Christopher Reuter that the "secret of IS' success lies in the combination of opposites, the fanatical beliefs of one group and the strategic calculations of the other." We see the two coming together after the civil war in Syria provided a unique opportunity: in late 2012 an anarchic mix of local councils and rebel brigades in northern Syria were ready for exploitation by a tightly organized highly secretive coalition of ex-soldiers, intelligence officers, and jihadists. These jihadists were different from other terrorist groups (like al-Qaida) since their goals were clearly different. Their agenda lacks a specific religious basis and their strategic planning utilizes Islamic faith as just one of many means to some vague purpose. If ISIS is led by a jihadist, he is far from typical and not properly labeled as such.
The defining characteristic of the ISIS leadership is the "unscrupulous changing of alliances and its precisely implemented propaganda narratives. Islamic State's only constant maxim is the expansion of power at any price."(Reuter). When we combine that characteristic with the stated purpose of forming a new Islamic Caliphate, we see that the ISIS leadership is mostly political (using Islam to form a new country). This political foundation provides useful clues to understanding ISIS and makes some historical background helpful.
In 1916 the Middle East was parceled out in a Franco-British pact called the Sykes-Picot Agreement. Lacking knowledge of or concerns regarding the religious and ethnic intricacies of the Middle East, the borders created by this agreement formed the basis for current national boundaries while splitting up Shiites among Iran, Iraq and Lebanon (with the Shia off-shoot Alawites in Syria). This area has come to be known as the Shia crescent. Sunnis were a sizeable majority in other countries in the region while pockets of Shiite majority were scattered among them.
Concurrent with negotiation of the Sykes-Picot Agreement was discussion regarding Palestine and Zion which eventually led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 whereby Brittan said that it would "favor the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people". Secret negotiations seeking Jewish support for the Allies during WWI led to duplicitous promises to the Arabs and Palestinians. Thus, when the United Nations adopted a resolution recommending the adoption and implementation of a plan to partition Palestine in 1947 (as Resolution 181(II)), the die was already cast for civil war that would lead to the creation of a Zionist nation. Hostilities began promptly after the resolution passed and Jews fled Arab states to Israel and Arabs fled Israeli territories. On 14 May 1948, David Ben-Gurion declared the establishment of an independent Israel.
During the first half of 1949, agreements/armistices were reached between Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel ending the war(s) and settling borders (until the 1967 war). But the hatred and fighting have never really ended - especially for the Arabs. Subsequent wars led to expanded occupation by the Israelis and despite peace agreements, animosity has steadily increased between Jews and Moslems. American support for the Israelis combined with American industrial investment in Arab oil and efforts to effect regional politics led to strong anti-American sentiment among Moslems. Subsequent attacks on America (especially the World Trade Center in New York City in 1993 and 2001) by Islamic founded terrorist groups led to American military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. Those invasions served to further disrupt regional political instability and increase hatred for America within Islamic extremist groups.
Karl Sharro (jokingly) offers the following diagram of friend/foe relationships within the Middle East:
A diagram showing the favor/disfavor relationships between various Islamic factions, schools, and political parties would be much more complex. In order to better understand ISIS and its goals, we should examine one particular simplified linear relationship: Hanafi, Salafism, Wahabism, and ISIS. But first, a notice and disclaimer:
When we name a school of thought or categorize a group based upon shared beliefs, we must ALWAYS understand that no two individuals within those schools or groups may share the same exact beliefs. Individuals who identify themselves with a particular belief system or group almost never represent a majority of that group's total beliefs. Group labels and categories are useful for discussion, but are never properly used to generalize individuals.
The Branches of Islam � Relative Sizes
Within Islam, the largest group is Sunni. Among Sunnis, the largest group is Hanafi and the smallest groups (of significance) are Salafi and Wahabi. "The Salafi tradition is a modern reformist movement critical of what it considers to be misguided accretions to Islam such as grave visitations, saint veneration, and dreaming practices. It calls for abolishing these and returning to the ways of the original followers of Prophet Muhammad, the salaf or predecessors." The major difference between Hanafi and Wahabi Sunnis is that Wahabis believe that Prophet Muhammad should be praised only as a human being whereas Sunnis/Hanaifs show extra special care and respect for the Prophet of Islam. Wahabis view the veneration practices and events of the Hanafis as unlawful and wrongful innovations of infidels.
Here we have the major issue among the Salafi and Wahabi Moslems: what does the law say regarding the treatment of Islamic infidels? For ISIS, the reading is clear - you convert them or you kill them just as any other infidel. Needless to say, this is an extreme extremist view within Islam (if it can rightfully be considered Islamic at all). Our question should be: "Why would a nationalistic political movement choose this extremist minority religious viewpoint?" One thing is for certain, the decision has little to do with religious scholarship or devotion.
The answer to this question leads to the answer of another: where did ISIS get its funding and weapons (allowing them to capture more money and weapons)? As usual, to get to the root of any movement's true purpose, follow the money. Among Moslems, there is no collection of wealth which compares to that of the Saudis (not just the vast wealth of the Saudi royal families). Coincidentally, Saudi Arabia is the Wahabi center of Islam. Early in their planning, the leaders of ISIS picked their sponsors well and have used the minor branch of Islam best suited to their needs to gain power and control through murder, a secret service fashioned after the Stasi (of East Germany), and good propaganda fashioned after the Nazis under Hitler.
"What we call ISIS is more than just a militant cult. At present, ISIS controls a network of large population centers with millions of residents, in addition to oil resources, military bases, and roads. It has to administer the affairs of the populations over whom it rules, and this has required compromise and coalition-building, not just brute force. In Iraq, the group has had to work with secular Ba'athists, former army officers, tribal councils, and various Sunni opposition groups, many of whose members are in administrative positions. In Syria, it has likewise had to negotiate with other rebel factions as well as tribes, and relies on local (non-ISIS) technical expertise to manage services such as water, electricity, public health, and bakeries." ISIS is not a terrorist group on steroids - it is a strong nationalist movement funded by deep pockets led by ruthless but intelligent hypocrites who have demonstrated unique abilities to recruit, find working compromises, and manage social functions.
ISIS is fueled by one of nature's most potent forces: hatred. We (the west) have provided that fuel in abundance through ignorance, greed, and our own hypocrisy. Our leaders have caved to special interests with misguided motives and complete disregard for the ultimate cost of their decisions. We continue to work from antiquated and disproven ideas regarding Islam and Moslem cultures. We are guided by journalists who see no deeper than their shallow sound bites. And, we find ourselves helpless to prevent the slaughter, enslavement, torture, and rape of innocent victims of ISIS - a movement that exists because of us.
The good news is that ISIS will eventually self-destruct. The bad news is that even should that self-destruction happen tomorrow, tens of thousands will have paid a very heavy if not ultimate price. The worse news is that we seem unable to find the wisdom necessary to realize our mistakes and to alleviate their continuing reinforcement of this problem. When ISIS is gone, there is currently nothing to keep another similar or worse group from arising. The fire may go out, but the highly volatile fuel remains.
While there are many helpful possibilities, a solution will require a bold change in direction for both the west and the Islamic world. The west must come to terms with its own conflicted goals and ethical failings. It must end its belief in the right to impose upon other peoples and their nations either religious ideas, political structures, or cultural standards. Concurrently, the Islamic world must openly and rigidly hold and teach that Islam is a religion of peace devoted to a single cause - bringing everyone into the hands of Allah through love, justice, and moral action. Violence in the name of Allah is the greatest blasphemy in Islam.
It is said that the opposite of love is not hatred, but apathy. Thus, the opposite of hatred is not love, but devotion. We must find a way to convert our vast reservoirs of hatred into devotion for universal peace and prosperity.
 Especially the Sunnah - the orally transmitted record of the teachings, deeds, and sayings of Muhammad as well as specific reports about Muhammad's actions and companions.
 From "My Love and My Choice" edited by Syed Mumtaz Ali at http://suzyashraf.tripod.com/htm/_ed._Syed_Mumtaz_Ali.htm.
 From the "Book of Stones," by Jabir Ibn Hayyan (9th century).
 Early after the US took control of Iraq in 2003, Paul Bremer (as head of the US occupational authority in Baghdad) issued a decree dissolving the Iraqi army sending tens of thousands of armed, bitter, and unemployed military leaders into captivity or hiding. Many of these well-trained Sunni officers went on to serve ISIS
 Reuter quotes Iraqi journalist Hisham al-Hashimi as saying that Bakr was "a nationalist, not an Islamist".
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