Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Understanding the nature of Islamic State is key to formulate appropriate responses

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📥  Public Policy


Since news emerged this summer of the kidnapping and brutal killing of US journalist James Foley it’s been hard to move for stories of ‘Islamic State’ (IS) in the media. The spread of IS across Iraq and Syria has mobilised many states into targeted airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, whilst reports continue to emerge of IS threats and the capture of more Westerners in the region.

But what are the group’s aims and motives and what can be done to curtail its recent advances, including most recently in the city of Kobane on the Syria-Turkey border? We asked current PhD student Mattia Cacciatori for his thoughts in this explainer:

Islamic State, not terrorism

IS is the successor to ISIS (Islamic State for Iraq and Syria) and its aim is not to produce a classic insurgency or to promote a revolution, rather its strategy is the building of a new state.

The power capillarity of the current IS, and its capacity to generate resources in new ways, differentiate the group from conventional terrorist organisations. Understanding this is a crucial step in formulating appropriate responses against this new threat.

Financing an Islamic State

After the group’s migration from Iraq to Syria, IS’ main source of income has been the control of oil wells in Eastern Syrian provinces. Various sources have highlighted that IS is making a lot of money by selling crude oil from conquered refineries to the Middle-Eastern black market.

The second main source of income for IS is the taxation that the organisation imposes on merchants who operate within the Islamic State. Trucks on highways passing through IS-controlled areas are charged up to $800 per truck. Bank withdrawals from IS-banking committees in Mosul are also taxed by the organisation.

The final source of income for the organisation is kidnappings. David Cameron recently stated that the organisation has raised tens of millions of dollars from ransom payments.

This polymorphous financial framework reflects the group’s growing geographical reach as well as its growing political authority within the region.

IS and popular support

IS had been developing under various names since the late 1990s.

In Iraq, the power vacuum created after the US invasion of 2003, and the subsequent fall of Saddam Hussein, set the basis of the forerunner to IS. From 2005, ‘Operation Awakening’, a US-financed and supported strategy that channelled the Iraqi Sunnis’ malcontent for the harshening of the Sharia law imposed by ISIS’ predecessors, produced a forced exodus of the organisation from Northern Iraq to Syria.

With the progressive withdrawal of US troops from Iraq that started in 2008, the Sunnis that supported ‘Operation Awakening’ were left at the mercy of violent Shi’ite groups of Southern Iraq. This once again led them to look elsewhere for support and protection, and provided the context of the resurgence of Sunni supported extremist Islamist groups, and the rise of IS.

Now the popular support for the group rests deeply on anti-American and anti-Shi’ite feelings, providing IS with enormous logistical support within the cities of Northern Iraq and Syria.

The fallacy of responses

In June 2014 a caliphate was proclaimed on the border between Syria and Iraq, al-Baghdadi proclaimed himself as Caliph of the new IS.

NATO’s response has been limited to airstrikes in IS-controlled regions. Despite being formally against a new invasion of Iraq, President Obama is now considering revisiting this initial premise.

In the US, faith in the ultimate success of both airstrikes and a possible invasion rest on a belief that has dominated American strategies since the Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War: a belief that such action will galvanise the support for the US, and its backed regimes, with the Iraqi Sunnis helping the West to fight IS. However, after the 2008 withdrawal campaign, anti-American malcontent has been spreading in Iraq, fuelled by IS’ anti-American propaganda and by the Southern Iraqi Shia’s attitude since the fall of Hussein.

If this history is repeated, US actions may actually harden anti-Western sentiment in the general population.  Such a perspective, brings credence to the idea that IS (as Al-Qaeda did in the past) have been goading the US into a limited intervention, precisely to boost anti-Western feelings on one side and to obtain political recognition on the other.

Targeting oil resources alone may not be enough to critically damage the organisation’s income. In addition, these actions might also have further consequences in the Middle East.

Misunderstanding the threat and lack of strategy

So far, all the verbal attacks made on IS by President Obama, follow the old narrative of anti-terror wars. But IS is different. The organisation might deploy terror tactics, but it is a state-like structured organisation. IS is legitimised by a considerable part of the Sunni population and has, according to some politicians, declared war on the United States. Given the current financial, bureaucratic, and geopolitical circumstances, the response of the West to the threat posed by IS has been limited to airstrikes in IS-controlled regions. However, if the long-term objective of the West is to stabilise the Middle East, the strategic response should include a more efficient intelligence structure in the area, as well as consolidation and reconstruction policies, in order not to create another power vacuum in the region.

In the context of the current financial preoccupations of the US, one should not expect Washington to carry the burden of these strategies alone. In fact, recent developments support the idea that the US is trying to involve local powers, such as Turkey, in their strategies. The co-operation among local entities is pivotal for Westerners’ responses on this threat and should set the basis for a de-fragmentation of the region.

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