You cannot understand the Islamic State without understanding their motivations.
The question is, “Are their motivations political or religious?”
In the West, this is where the conversation breaks down. We see everything through the lens of our politics. Any discussion about the relationship between terrorism and Islam immediately becomes convoluted because we separate religion and politics.
This is a dichotomy the Islamic State does not subscribe to. They do not separate religion and politics—that is why they are called the Islamic State. They are both a state and a religion. That is the first thing Westerners need to understand about ISIS.
Religion and politics are often intertwined in Muslim majority nations, whereas in the West they are seen as either unrelated or competing ideas. As a result, when Westerners try to understand what motivates groups like the Islamic State, they think it has to be one or the other—religion or politics—which is not the case. The Islamic State has said as much themselves.
In the first edition of their official publication it says that any confusion is “a result of secularism pervading the people’s intellects in our era, separating between religion and state, and between the Shari’ah and governance, and treating the Qur’an as a book of chanting and recitation rather than a book of governance, legislation, and enforcement.”
Looking at ISIS through Red, White, and Blue Lenses
When Westerners look at the Islamic State they to do so with tunnel vision, desperately clinging to the tidbits of information that fit their political narrative. They either focus on the effects of failed American policy, or they ignore its effects altogether. They argue that ISIS is solely a symptom of American foreign policy, or that ISIS is just a bunch of religious nuts with no causal relationship to the Iraq war. Neither do the situation justice.
The 2003 American invasion of Iraq undoubtedly destabilized the region: 125,000 civilian deaths, the De-Ba’athification order, and Nouri al-Maliki’s purge of Sunni officials from the Iraqi government. Factor in Obama’s premature withdrawal from the region and the Syrian Civil War and you have a perfect storm. All of these elements fertilized the soil, enabling the Islamic State to take root. You cannot talk about ISIS without talking about the Iraq war. However, the seed planted in the fertile soils of Iraq and Syria was not created by the Iraq invasion.
While many on the right want to ignore the relationship between the Islamic State and American intervention in the region, their liberal counterparts are guilty of willfully ignoring the relationship between the Islamic State and, well…Islam! At the risk of sounding redundant, the Islamic State is Islamic. Just as the word “State” represents their political ambitions, the word “Islamic” represents their religious motivations. The Islamic State’s objectives are baked right into their name. Our politics have complicated the matter. Now obviously, not all Muslims are extremists, as some voices on the far right would have us believe. But that doesn’t mean that Jihadists are not Muslims. Many liberals mistakenly believe that radical Islam is not really Islam. There has to be middle ground between the xenophobic lunacy of the far right and the political correctness that has paralyzed the far left. What is that middle ground?
Much of this debate has swirled around the question, “Is Islam a religion of peace?” The answer to that question is simple: Islam is not a religion of peace, nor is it a religion of violence. There are passages in the Quran that promote both peace and violence. Islam is what Muslims do with those passages. It is how the Muslim community interprets their sacred books and expresses their beliefs that ultimately define Islam. The vast majority of Muslims turn to the Quran for spiritual guidance, but there a sizable minority of Muslims—nearly 200 million—believe that violence against unarmed civilians is a justifiable means to realize their political objectives because, according to their understanding of Islam, their political objectives are religious objectives issued by God.
Why is it important to admit that ISIS is Islamic? They are a barbaric theocracy and religion is their play book. Their beliefs tell us where they are going and how they plan to get there. Their playbook is open for everyone to read, but we refuse to look at it. We are too busy debating over whether tracing their motivations back to their foundational documents unfairly stereotypes other Muslims. We won’t open their playbook, because to do so is to admit that they are a religious movement. This is a mistake. To come to terms with what the Islamic State is and the threat it poses, we must get over this hump and name the problem.
“Coming to terms” means “to name.” There is no other way to understand their motivations. We have to diagnose the problem. Without a clear understanding of their motivations, there can be no strategy. So say it with me: the Islamic State is a version of Islam. They are Muslims. They might not represent the majority of Muslims, but they are part of a formidable fringe group within Islam. This does not make you a racist, a xenophobe, an Islamaphobe, or a bigot. It makes you a pragmatist.
The Foundation of Islamic State Ideology
To understand the Islamic State, you need to understand the ultra-orthodox branch of Sunni Islam to which they belong. “The fountainhead of Islamic extremism that promotes and legitimizes such violence lies with the fanatical ‘Wahhabi’ strain of Islam centered in Saudi Arabia, ”writes Dr. Yousaf Butt, director of the Cultural Intelligence Institute. It is a radical and violent subset of Salafism—which is itself an austere form of Islamic fundamentalism that seeks to implement Sharia law and purify Islam of religious innovation (bid‘ah) and idolatry. The starting point of Islamic extremism is fundamentalism.
The differences between Salafism and Wahhabism are nuanced. One such difference, according to its adherents, is that Salafism dates back to the companions of the Prophet; whereas Wahhabism got its start in 1740. Salafism paints a clear-cut picture of Islam and what it means to be a Muslim. It views the example set by the Prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors as the ideal to which all Muslims should aspire.
Another distinction between Salafism and Wahhabism is the concept of takfir or excommunication. Takfir is a central tenet in Wahhabism. According to Wahhabi doctrine, any Muslim that strays from the 7th century mold outlined in the Quran and canonical hadiths is considered an apostate. And the penalty for apostasy is death. Though the Quran strictly forbids killing other Muslims, the strictest adherents of Salafi-Wahhabism would argue that apostates are not Muslims, because they stray from the true Islam. Those who turn their back on the faith, as the founder of Wahhabism noted, “should be killed, their wives and daughters violated, and their possessions confiscated.”
As Salafists, Islamic State supporters have a very definite idea of what Islam is and as Wahhabists they believe that those who do not adhere to that idea are apostates, which is, of course, punishable by death. The use of takfir to target other Muslims is a core tenet of the Islamic State and it was set forth three decades before the Declaration of Independence was signed.
In more modern times another Salafistic trend has emerged. This movement might be seen as a subset within a subset, Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadists. As their name indicates, they believe that Jihad is an authentic expression of Islam. Jihad means “to struggle or strive.” This struggle takes place within two very different contexts, both of which are rooted in the Quran and hadiths. One is the spiritual struggle to maintain the faith of Islam within one’s personal life. This is referred to as the greater jihad. The lesser jihad is armed conflict in order to “maintain the faith” in a socio-political sense. When you blend the core principles of Salafism and Wahhabism with an infatuation with the lesser jihad, you get the modern day Islamic terrorist.
The Quran is no more tilted towards violence than Judeo-Christian scripture, but Islam is more predisposed to politics than other religions. In the West, we have our religious nut jobs, but secular government and egalitarian laws drives a wedge between their beliefs and their actions. In many Islamic majority countries, politics and religion are inseparable. Well over 50 percent of Muslims throughout North Africa, the Middle East, Pakistan, and Afghanistan believe that Sharia is the inspired jurisprudence of God. Therefore, politics and religion often overlap within Islam.
In other words, Islamic law and governance are the same thing. This is not a modern development. It is easy to see how Islamic fundamentalists connect religion and politics. They point to the example set by the prophet Muhammad and his immediate successors, all of whom served as both spiritual and temporal authorities. There is an inherent relationship between Islam and politics that dates back to the Prophet. Therefore, the implementation of Sharia is a basic tenet of Salafism. Where Jihadists differ from other Muslims and even other Salafists is in the ways they seek to affect political change.
Islamist groups (religious/political activists) form political parties and start movements within the existing political structures to affect change. This is not so with the Salafi-Wahhabi-Jihadist. The Salafist in them believes that the laws of God are inerrant and that the state has a duty to implement those laws. They shun all non-Islamic influences, including democracy. As Salafists they rely upon a strict interpretation of scripture, and since democracy has no foundation within the Quran or their hadiths, they view representative government as a form of apostasy. In their mind, democracy seeks to elevate the laws of man above the laws of God. It is heresy and, in their opinion, being forced to take part in it is nothing short of religious persecution—an offense, which according to the Quran justifies the lesser jihad.
The Wahhabist in them believes that any government that fails to implement true Sharia is an apostatic institution, and that their faith requires them to overthrow that government. The Jihadist in them believes they are justified in resorting to violence to accomplish this goal. Forced participation in any political structure that does not reflect the true face of Islam is religious oppression, so the use of violence is justified in the mind of a Jihadist. They argue that it might be the “lesser” jihad, but according to Quran it is still your duty as a Muslim. Whereas other pious Muslims may want to live in an Islamic State governed by authentic Sharia, the Salafi-Jihadist is compelled to fight to make that a reality. That reality is called a caliphate—a religious state governed by a strict interpretation of Islamic law. This is the primary motivation of the Islamic State.
Their ideology is simple. It is a fundamentalist ideology that proclaims there is one God and his prophet is Muhammad. The divine law was revealed to the Prophet, and this revelation is recorded without error in the Quran and their hadiths. Islam was perfect at its inception and to deviate from that perfection apostasy. They therefore reject religious innovation as a matter of principle. If it is not justified by scripture, it is discarded. If there is justification within scripture, it is compulsory for both the individual and the state. As a result, the Islamic State stones adulteress, practices crucifixion, has reinstated slavery, and punishes apostasy with death because it is in their scriptures. Put all this together and the Islamic State emerges as a theocratic movement hell bent on returning to the 7th century.
Why Does the Islamic State Hate America?
It goes without saying that the leaders of the Islamic State are no fan of American foreign policy, but the tension between ISIS and the West is deeper than mere policy disagreements. The roots of the Islamic State are nourished by streams within Islam older than America itself. So why does ISIS hate America? If there is no mention of it in scripture, there is no place for it in an Islamic State. They reject modernity and progress on an ideological level. They view democracy, secularism, free speech, and egalitarianism as apostasy and heresy because these institutions put the laws of man before the laws of God. In their mind, liberty is godlessness masquerading as righteousness, and Jihadists are obligated by their religion to put an end to this charade. This was the motive behind the Charlie Hebdo attacks. The Charlie Hebdo attacks were not retaliation for the Iraq war, the American Presence in Saudi Arabia, or the crusades. It was divine retribution.
A satirical magazine in France, called Charlie Hebdo, published a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad on the cover of their magazine. Alongside the cartoon was a caption that read, “100 lashes if you don’t die laughing.” Obviously, they were drawing attention to the brutality of Sharia law as it is practiced in many Muslim majority countries. On January 7th 2015, two gunmen armed with assault rifles forced their way into the Paris offices of the magazine and opened fire, killing 11 people and injuring 11 others. From our point of view, the cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo were exercising their freedom of speech. In the mind of Jihadists everywhere, the cartoonists defied the laws of God. Not only do Jihadists believe that this is punishable by death, but they feel obligated to enforce the punishment. This example demonstrates the incompatible nature Islamic fundamentalism and a secular government based on individual liberties. The two cannot occupy the same space.
There is no denying that groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State hate the West. But the truth is they hate the West for far more fundamental reasons than foreign policy. They hate the West because the secular principles for which it stands are irreconcilable with their religion. This does not mean that Islam is inherently at odds with the West, but it does mean that their version of Islam is fundamentally opposed to the principles of Western civilization. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State, has said that “they have a statement to make that will cause the world to hear and understand the meaning of terrorism, and boots that will trample the idol of nationalism, destroy the idol of democracy, and uncover its deviant nature.” Yes he hates the West for political reasons, but his hate for the West is rooted in who we are, not what we have done. From our point of view, the war between the West and the ISIS is a clash of civilizations. From their point of view, it is not just a religious war, it the malahim.
The Islamic States Apocalyptic Narrative
“Dabiq” is the title of the Islamic State’s monthly magazine. It plays a crucial role in recruiting. Dabiq is a town in Northern Syria. What is the significance of Dabiq? On page one of the first edition, the Islamic State explains:
“As for the name of the magazine, it is taken from the area named Dabiq in the northern countryside of Halab (Aleppo) in Sham (Syria). This place was mentioned in a hadith describing some of the events of the Malahim (what is sometimes referred to as Armageddon in English). One of the greatest battles between the Muslims and the crusaders will take place near Dabiq.”
Hureyrah’s hadith actually says, “The Last Hour would not come until the Romans (understood to mean “Christians”) land in Dabiq. An army consisting of the best soldiers of the people of the earth at that time will come from Medina to counteract them.” The army coming from Medina in Saudi Arabia is of crucial importance, for reasons I will explain later. For the time being, suffice it to say that they are not issuing a call to a jihad, but the Jihad.
The Islamic State is an end of days cult and they see themselves as the prime movers in the coming apocalypse. They have crafted an apocalyptic narrative that, not only supports their claim, but is also supported by verses from scripture. They have skillfully blended tales of their military victories in Iraq and Syria with a number of apocalyptic hadiths to create the impression amongst radicals that they are the fulfillment of these prophesies and an agent of God working towards even greater events. One such hadith says, “The people of al-Sham (Syria) are under His guarantee (caliphate) and His care.” The Islamic State presents themselves as the guarantor of this divine promise: “The Islamic State has an extensive history of building relations with the tribes within its borders in an effort to strengthen the ranks of the Muslims, unite them under one imam, and work together towards the establishment of the prophetic Caliphate.”
However, the apocalyptic narrative does not stop with tales of glory on the battle field. They also like to remind people of the hadith that foretells an Islamic redeemer that will emerge from the tribe of the Prophet at the end of times to lead the faithful to victory over “the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy,” ridding the world of evil. This savior will usher in a utopian period where all Muslims will live together under one black flag. And, of course, that man is Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi.
Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi, the Caliph
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is the self-proclaimed caliph or the leader of the Muslim world. “Whoever overcomes them by the sword such that he has become Caliph and is called Amir al-Mu’minin, it is not permitted for anyone who believes in God to remain and not recognize an Imam, regardless of whether he is pious or immoral.” This is another hadith cited by Islamic State supporters to legitimize the claims of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Baghdadi was born in Samarra, Iraq. He claims to be a descendant of the Quraysh tribe. This is important because his claim to Caliph, in part, rests on his family’s lineage. The Quraysh are descendants of the prophet Muhammad. Even his name strikes a prophetic chord. Abu Bakr was also the name of the Prophets father-in-law.
Unlike other Jihadist leaders—Zarqawi, Bin Laden, or Zawahiri—Baghdadi is an Islamic scholar (which is why ISIS’ propaganda is more effective). Baghdadi holds a bachelors, masters, and PhD in Islamic studies from the Islamic University in Baghdad. The focus of his studies was on Islamic culture, history, and jurisprudence. Baghdadi went on to lead prayers and preach at a Mosque in Samarra. He has always been an overly religious man, but he did not start out as a Jihadist. He was a quiet, pious Salafist with perhaps some Wahhabi tendencies (though he received no formal education at Wahhabi institutes in Saudi Arabia). But he was not a Jihadist.
As I said earlier, you cannot talk about ISIS without taking about the Iraq war. In part, this is because you cannot talk about Baghdadi without talking about the Iraq war. It was the clash between war and his Islamic fundamentalism that created the Baghdadi we know today. Baghdadi comes from the Salafist school. Initially he was not involved in politics. In fact, there is one story about Baghdadi getting into a fight with his landlord over the deviant nature of politics. The landlord was trying to persuade Baghdadi to join his Islamist party, but Baghdadi refused to participate in political parties because they undermine the authority of God.
In February of 2004, Baghdadi was arrested by U.S. forces in Iraq. He was held for 10 months as a civilian internee at Camp Bucca detention center under his birth name, Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badry. In prison he became a Jihadist. Upon his release he co-founded the Army of the Sunni People Group. Baghdadi served as the head of the sharia committee for the group. That group later joined the Mujahedeen Shura Council. He was also a member of their sharia committee. In 2006 the MSC was renamed the Islamic State in Iraq—also known as al-Qaeda in Iraq—and Baghdadi became a senior leader. He served as both the supervisor of the sharia committee and a member of the group’s senior council. When the former leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq was killed, Baghdadi became the group’s new leader. He remained the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq until, against the orders of Al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Baghdadi expanded his operations into Syria, absorbing the majority of al-Nousara’s fighters (Al-Qaeda in Syria). At this point, Baghdadi renamed the group the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Levant/ISIL). And the rest is history.
Baghdadi is a microcosm of the conundrum that is Islamic extremism. He embodies fundamentalist ideology—the extreme religiosity, piety, and narcissistic worldview that leads one to believe that their faith is the true faith. When this ideology is mixed with war, oppression, and poverty it leads to violent extremism. So many Muslims, even when confronted by extreme poverty and bloodshed, turn to their religion in search of personal solace and hope. But when fundamentalists, like Baghdadi, are confronted by similar circumstances, they open the Quran or their hadiths and find a violent, apocalyptic message. Driven by fear, they look for mechanisms of power and control.
The Threat Posed by ISIS
There is little doubt that the Islamic State is an apocalyptic cult within radical Islam. They rely upon a strict interpretation of scripture and a brutal enforcement of Sharia law. They believe their version of Islam, is the only Islam. But do they pose a significant threat to the West or has this threat been exaggerated by the media?
One of the most popular misconceptions about ISIS is that they are a fledgling group of unorganized thugs fumbling around in the deserts of Iraq and Syria. This idea was born on January 27th 2014 when President Obama infamously referred to ISIS as al-Qaeda’s “J.V. team.” On the left, this set a dangerous precedent of underestimating the threat posed by the Islamic State. Since then “the J.V. team” has seized control of huge swaths of land in Syria and Iraq, along with dozens of discontinuous satellites in North Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan. They have also acquired resources, revenue, and began to govern.
Truthfully, apart from inspired attacks, the immediate threat to the continental United States is probably minimal. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula still represents a greater security risk to the American homeland, because the exportation of terrorism is their primary aim. ISIS and al-Qaeda have two different objectives. This is what is so troubling. The Islamic State is not just a terrorist organization. It is a state. Baghdadi frequently reminds Muslims that they are religiously obligated to immigrate to the caliphate. If this is not possible—for financial reasons, old age, government no fly lists, etc—then Baghdadi encourages spontaneous acts of jihad in support of the Islamic State.
In contrast to his al-Qaeda counterparts, Baghdadi’s primary concern is not the export of terrorism, but state building. Yes, they have organized attacks abroad, most notably the attacks in Paris. But the Islamic State’s more immediate concern is governing. They aren’t just looking for fighters. They have their feelers out for people with specializations essential to state building. Baghdadi has issued a “special call” to scholars, experts in Islamic jurisprudence, as well as people with administrative, and service expertise, medical doctors, and engineers, and as always he reminds them to fear Allah, for their immigration to the Islamic State is a personal obligation to God. You might think that anyone educated enough to be a doctor or an engineer would never be interested in joining the Islamic State. I would remind you that 62% of al-Qaeda’s membership has/had a university level education, including the likes of Zawahiri (M.D.) and Osama Bin Laden (civil engineer).
The Islamic State is focused on state building—at least for the time being—but the ability to hold territory is a prerequisite for state building, and this requires soldiers. The Islamic State military is, when compared to other nations, rather modest. But it is quickly growing in numbers. Current estimates suggest that the Islamic State army consists of about 200,000 soldiers. These numbers do not take into account the forces in their satellite stations, or the forces of the 35 terrorist groups that have pledged their allegiance to the Caliphate, most notably the Nigerian based group, Boko Haram. Of the 200,000 ISIS soldiers, more than 30,000 are foreign fighters that immigrated to the Islamic State from 70 countries. Saudi Arabia tops the list with over 7,000 Islamic State fighters. ISIS has also been known to swallow up rebel brigades in Syria, which enables them to quickly acquire fighters, weapons, and strongholds. All that said, it is not the actual number of ISIS fighters that is troubling. It is potential number and how rapidly they are tapping into that potential that is frightening.
Islamic State propaganda appeals to people on a number of different levels. First, it appeals to their religious convictions. According to Baghdadi, “The State is a state for all Muslims. The land is for the Muslims, all the Muslims. O Muslims everywhere, whoever is capable of performing hijrah (emigration) to the Islamic State, then let him do so, because hijrah to the land of Islam is obligatory.” Jihadists are religious fundamentalists. They interpret scripture literally and as a result believe they are obligated to join the Holy War—maybe not that particular Jihad, but they do believe it is their duty to join in the fight. There are roughly 200 million Muslims worldwide that condone the use of violence in the name of God. If one percent of this group are persuaded by the claims of the Islamic State and can immigrate to the Caliphate that would be an army of two million fighters!
The propaganda machine of the Islamic State also appeals to the insecure and impoverished people of the region. It promises them an Islamic utopia. In the words of Abu Muhammad al-‘Adnani, the official propagandist of the Islamic State, “The time has come for those generations that were drowning in oceans of disgrace, being nursed on the milk of humiliation, and being ruled by the vilest of all people, after their long slumber in the darkness of neglect—the time has come for them to rise.” Baghdadi has said of the newly established caliphate that “if kings were to taste this blessing, they would abandon their kingdoms and fight over this grace.” These are lofty sentiments to say the least, but in an area ruled by dictators and ravaged by poverty, war, death, chaos, and destruction these words find traction. To the disenfranchised, the Islamic State’s territory is offered as a promise of security and stability.
The Islamic State is not a covert operation. They hold territory. This is a claim al-Qaeda has never made (not bad for the J.V. team). The Islamic State’s territory is spread out across some 35,000 square miles, nearly three times the size of Belgium. Their territory stretches from the Syrian-Turkish border, up to Raqqa, their capital in Northern Syria, and on into Iraq. Approximately 10 million people live within the Islamic State’s fluid borders. They recognize no borders. One of the first gestures Baghdadi made was to erase the border separating Iraq and Syria. “Syria is not for the Syrians,” says Bagdadhi, “and Iraq is not for the Iraqis. The State is a state for all Muslims.” And within this state there are considerable resources.
The Islamic State’s Checkbook
David Cohen, the Undersecretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence at the Treasury Department, said that “ISIL’s revenue streams are, to be sure, diverse and deep…. ISIL is probably the best-funded terrorist organization we have confronted.” The key is not only “deep,” but “diverse.” Organizations like Al-Qaeda rely almost exclusively on wealthy donors. So the treasury department can track down and freeze their assets. But the Islamic State’s pockets are not just deep, the sources vary, which makes them more difficult to deal with. If you cutoff one stream and they turn their attention toward another source of income. Furthermore, their revenue streams are difficult to cutoff because they self-contained.
The Islamic State has an inbred economy. We cannot simply stop their cash flow. They generate money within—or just along their borders—and spend it within to avoid the international banking system. So there is no spigot to turn off. There are even reports that they plan to establish an Islamic State Central Bank and print their own currency. So how much money do they have?
Currently, the Islamic State holds $2.4 billion in cash and assets. A huge chunk of that—a $1.5 billion chunk to be exact—came from the Iraqi banks they robbed as they tore through the country. What about sustainable income? Thomas Reuters projects a possible income of $US 2.9 billion annually, whereas Forbes puts the number at $2 Billion annually. So, the Islamic State is either a poor country or an incredibly well funded terrorist group, depending on how you classify them. And to make matters worse, their economy is expanding, fast! A report issued by the Rand Corporation suggests that ISIS brings in between $1 and $3 million per day. In contrast, their financial ledgers in Mosul showed that the group made less than $1 million per month from 2008 to 2009. Where is all of this money coming from?
Let’s start with the land. The 35,000 square miles they have conquered is rich in resources. Some estimates put Islamic State oil production at more than 80,000 barrels a day. Now, they are not capable of selling that oil at standard market prices. They have to sell it on the black market at discounted prices. They use small, mobile refineries and illegally sell the oil along their borders for about $50 a barrel (normally valued at more than $100). Despite this huge price cut, it is still believed that they make anywhere from $500 million to $1 billion annually from their black market oil trade. According to the Pentagon, the recent air campaign has reduced their oil revenues by 43 percent. Therefore, their current oil revenues are around $275 to $600 million annually. In addition to oil, Reuters believes that the Islamic State could leverage their monopoly on natural gas, phosphate, cement, sulfur, and the State’s agricultural reserves in the region for as much as $1.2 billion annually on the black market.
Natural resources are not the only source of revenue associated with the territory. Within their borders there are 4,500 cultural sites under their control. ISIS does not just loot them; they sell everything they can. The sale of antiquities on the black market nets them an estimated $100 to $300 million a year. The Islamic State also relies upon taxation and extortion. When you brutally rule 10 million people, you can squeeze them for every dime they have. Some of the taxes are normal, but others are more like the taxes demanded by Tony Soprano. On the one hand, they tax sales, education, utilities, public services, and require road tolls. On the other hand, they force non-Muslims to convert or pay a special tax. Muslims deemed to be tolerable apostates are forced to pay upwards of $2,000 for a special ID card proving they have repented. All in all, these taxes are said to total in the neighborhood of $360 million annually. The United Nations has said that ISIS collects another $40 million in kidnapping revenues annually. They also bring in money from the slave trade where they sell boys and girls ages one to nine for about $165 a person, and adolescent girls for $124 each. ISIS not only has deep, dirty pockets, but they have a bunch of pockets and most of them are difficult to pick using the traditional anti-terrorism methods.
What do they spend their money on?
A state is only as strong as its ability to enforce its laws. Make no mistake, their belief system is not what distinguishes them from other Islamic groups in the region. There are millions of Muslims throughout North Africa and the Middle East that have a similar understanding of Islam (with the exception of slavery and their far reaching definition of apostasy). What sets the Islamic State apart is their willingness to enforce their beliefs. They maintain a religious police force and Sharia courts. The law is brutally enforced in the Islamic State. However, they do not waste their money housing tons of prisoners. Rather, they rely upon the brutal and public enforcement of law to maintain order. No Western or irreligious images maybe displayed. Promiscuity of any kind, including slightly transparent hijabs, is forbidden. Drug addiction, alcoholism, homosexuality, and adultery are all punishable by death. This type of control is expensive.
They also pay their fighters and pay them well. In the Islamic State it is said that the Jihadists and their families live at the top of a two tiered system. A salary sheet I pulled from an Islamic State recruiters Facebook page says that “a single Syrian fighter is paid $400 per month, whereas married Syrians are paid $550 monthly, plus $50 for each kid and $100 for his wife, including a house for him with oil for his vehicle. Non-Syrians fighters are paid $800 a month along with the same bonuses, plus an extra $400 stipend for his emigration to IS controlled territories.” Higher salaries are the main reason the Taliban has been losing ground to the Islamic State in Afghanistan. The Islamic State knows that military victories and the ability to hold territory fuel the story they are telling, so they invest heavily in their fighters. It is thought that they spend upwards of $360 million a year funding their fighters.
The Islamic State also splurges on education, if you can call it that. Education in the Islamic State is little more than a Jihadi youth program. The children are indoctrinated with the Islamic State’s austere version of Islam and trained to fight at as early as six years old. In Islamic State madrassas (religious schools), the children undergo extreme physical tests and rigorous hand-to-hand combat training. They are instructed to “listen and obey,” asked to reaffirm their allegiance to Baghdadi, and taught how to shoot a gun. Part of the Jihadi indoctrination process includes graphic propaganda videos that glorify jihad and suicide bombings. There are tens of thousands of children under Islamic State control. Many of them are conscripted child soldiers. Baghdadi seems to be about buying time, holding territory and state building while he waits for his youth program to produce a legion of Jihadi soldiers that “listen and obey” his every command.
And of course, the Islamic State spends quite a bit on weaponry and ammunition. A good portion of the Islamic State’s armory is Russian and American military equipment stolen from Syria and Iraq. When ISIS soldiers overran Iraq they stole 52 American 155mm M198 howitzers, 1,500 American Humvees, and 4,000 PKC machine guns. They also have 40-50 tanks, hoards of RPGs, grenade launchers, ak-47s, rocket launchers, field guns, anti-aircraft guns, and Stinger shoulder fire missiles, most of which came from Syria. It has even been reported that they have captured a couple of Mig fighter jets.
Recent intelligence indicates that the Islamic State is aggressively pursuing chemical weapons. They have used chemical weapons in the past. But those were presumably weapons stolen from Bashr al-Assad. Now, according to U.S. intelligence officials, they are putting together a team of scientists from Iraq and Syria and setting up centers dedicated to developing chemical weapons. This is a recipe for disaster. There are 300 to 400 million people in the region that Baghdadi believes are apostates deserving of death. If he is allowed to hold territory, accumulate capital, and pursue weapons of mass destruction, the J.V. team could surpass the devastation of the Third Reich.
Perhaps the most important cog in the wheel of the Islamic State is their propaganda arm. They rely upon propaganda and social media for recruitment. So a great deal of money is poured into cultivating and disseminating their message. Their magazine is visual—bright and graphic. Their narrative is powerful. It targets Islamic fundamentalists that are impoverished and insecure, painting a utopian picture of life within the caliphate.
Their narrative revolves around divine providence. This narrative is reinforced by conquest—victory on the battlefield equals favor with God. They use social media and their publications to broadcast their military victories. Early military victories in Syria gave birth to this trend. Later, when Fallujah and Raqqa fell, the story started to resonate more and more. Finally, when Baghdadi ascended the pulpit of the great Mosque in Mosul and declared a caliphate, the radicals of the world were worked into feverish rapture. Musa Cerantonio, an Australian born Islamic preacher, told Graeme Wood, “I was in a hotel (in the Philippines), and I saw the declaration (of a Caliphate) on television. And I was just amazed…” Their conquests on the battlefield and the declaration of a Caliphate were interpreted as “extraordinary signs” by radical Muslims all over the world. The attacks in Paris also legitimized them amongst more traditional Jihadists.
As I have stated, the Islamic State is primarily concerned with state building, whereas groups like Al-Qaeda focus on the exportation of terrorism. So carrying out an act of terrorism abroad is an important selling point when trying to persuade some of the more traditional Jihadists to join the Islamic State. The attacks in Paris legitimized them amongst those jihadists primarily concerned with taking the fight to the West, as does their ability to inspire spontaneous, uncoordinated attacks abroad, like the ones in San Bernardino. But at the end of the day, ISIS is not just a terrorist group. It is a theocratic movement with an apocalyptic narrative. And in Islam, any eschatological narrative has to turn toward Saudi Arabia.
The Head of the Snake
Saudi Arabia is not only the epicenter of Islam; it is the birthplace Salafi-Wahhabism, the inspiration for Baghdadi’s distinct brand of radical Islam. Over the past 30 years, the Saudis have spent anywhere from $100 to $200 billion promoting this radical form of Islamic fundamentalism—funding text books, maddassas, clerics, and universities, both at home and abroad. To put that number in perspective, it is more than 15 times as much as the Soviet Union spent exporting communism in its seven decades of existence. As a result, there are large pockets of people within Saudi Arabia that agree—in part or on the whole—with the Islamic State’s version of Islam. In fact, more Saudis have joined the Islamic State than any other foreign nation.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi described Saudi Arabia as the “head of the snake and stronghold of disease.” Dating back to Bin Laden, Wahhabi-Salafi-Jihadists—a monster created, not by America or the West, but by the Saudis—have despised the House of Saud. Bin Laden on down to Baghdadi see the Saudis as puppets of the West. They believe that the Saudi Royals have sold out on the faith. To make matters worse, Saudi Arabia is home to Mecca and Medina. The Salafi Jihadists are sickened by the fact that the two holiest sites in Islam fall under the jurisdiction of corrupt apostates that pander to Western interests and worship money, rather than Allah.
When evaluating the threat to Saudi Arabia posed by ISIS, most people have focused on the possibility of the Islamic State seizing control of the Kingdom. That will not happen—the Saudis produce 10 million barrels of oil a day and have a reserve of 268 billion barrels. If ISIS got anywhere near that, they would need god to be on their side to save them from the hell that the rest of the world would rain down on them! Baghdadi isn’t stupid. He has a knack for strategic thinking. Baghdadi doesn’t want the country, at least not right now. He wants “the great army from Medina.” This is the army mentioned in the apocalyptic hadiths central to the Islamic State’s narrative. The Islamic State is extending a kind of prophetic invitation to the great army of Medina, inciting them to come and fulfill their religious obligation by joining in the great Jihad.
Baghdadi wants to be seen as the fulfillment of ancient prophecies, because he knows how such “signs” are interpreted by jihadists. Baghdadi knows that he can leverage those signs for more recruits and more momentum in his ongoing propaganda war. He wants to create division within the country. Baghdadi is trying to separate the jihadists and the disenfranchised from the rest of the pack. When the Saudi Royals crackdown on them, Baghdadi will present himself as their protector and offer his caliphate as their only refuge. Baghdadi cannot conquer the House of Saud, but I suspect he can leverage the ultra conservative Salafist–Wahhabi ideology against the Royal Family by waging a war of propaganda. Divide and then conquer is his modus operandi.
ISIS began as an off-shoot of Al-Qaeda in Iraq. Under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi the group grew in power. He declared war on all Shiite Muslims. This provoked attacks against Sunnis, as knew it would. Zarqawi’s group suddenly emerged as the only group capable of defending the Iraqi Sunnis. This gave Al-Qaeda in Iraq legitimacy and job security, so to speak. Under the leadership of Bin Laden, Shiites were tolerable apostates. Starting with Zaqawi, the Shiites became apostates deserving of death. With Baghdadi at the helm, the radius of apostasy was expanded (takfir). Baghdadi believes that not only are Shiites apostates, but many Sunnis that fail to live the true faith are also apostates. “The faith,” according to him has one important caveat: you are obliged to pledge your allegiance to him, the caliph. Baghdadi expanded the umbrella of heresy and apostasy to include, not just non-Muslims and Shiites, but a great many Sunni Muslims as well. Even Zarqawi and the Al-Qaeda brass could not go along with this. In doing this he fractured and divided an otherwise overwhelming Sunni opposition to his Caliphatic aspirations, and absorbed a significant amount of support. This is how Baghdadi acquired, not only religious authority amongst radicals, but political and military power as well.
There is an Evil Brewing
Baghdadi’s campaigns begin, not with guns and tanks, but with a divisive war of religious propaganda. Once he separates his target audience from the pack, he presents himself and his caliphate as their only safe haven. The Islamic State has made enemies, not only with the West, but with everyone around them. This has led many people to believe that they are on a suicide mission. Why else would they want to fight Russia, America, Europe, and every other country in the region, all at one time? The answer is simple. He wants to separate the Salafi Jihadists from the pack and offer his caliphate as their only refuge (something al-Qaeda cannot do, because they do not hold territory). How do you do this? You become the face of Salafi Jihadism and make an enemy of everyone. As the noose tightens around the neck of supposed sympathizers in other countries, he offers his caliphate to those jihadists that feel persecuted at home. He wants to make life unbearable outside of the caliphate for likeminded Salafi-Jihadists, so that life within the caliphate becomes their only option.
“The world today has been divided into two camps and two trenches, with no third camp present,” says Baghdadi. “The camp of Islam and faith, and the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy––the camp of the Muslims and the mujahidin everywhere, and the camp of the jews, the crusaders, their allies, and with them the rest of the nations and religions of kufr, all being led by America and Russia, and being mobilized by the Jews.” He is painting a black and white picture of the world. On one side all of the Salafi-Jihadists—al-Qaeda, the Taliban, al-Shabaab, al-Nousara, Boko Haram—and on the other side, well…everybody else. How will he accomplish this?
Iraq and Iran are actively engaged in the fight against ISIS. They are both Shia majority countries. Bashar al-Assad, the murderous dictator in Syria, is also engaged in the fight against ISIS. He also happens to be a Shia Muslim. The United States has been targeting the Islamic State with airstrikes for over a year. Russia joined the fight a few months ago. The Paris attacks sucked France, England, and Germany into the battle. The Saudis have begun a brutal crackdown on supposed Islamic State sympathizers. As this crackdown intensifies, the Islamic State will become more explicit in their identifying the Saudi Royal family with “the camp of kufr (disbelief) and hypocrisy.” The Islamic State will say—over and over again—that the Saudis are working together with the Shiites, the West, and the Jews to murder Sunni Muslims. He will leverage the Sunnis hatred of the Shiites—a hatred the Saudis have spent billions reinforcing—against the Saudi royals, and suggest that they are hypocrites. In order to destabilize the House of Saud, he will use religious propaganda to convince hoards of Sunni Wahhabis that the Saudis are involved in a conspiracy to exterminate God’s people. This has been his strategy all along.
The House of Saud is just the big enchilada. Baghdadi would love to force all Sunni majority, Arab nations—Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, and United Arab Emirates—into an “unholy alliance” with the West. All of these Sunni Arab countries have ISIS contingencies within them—especially Saudi Arabia—which makes war with the Islamic State dangerous business for these countries. The Islamic State threatens the stability of every Sunni Arab nation in the region. So, yes, Baghdadi is an enemy to everyone, but they have to be careful how they approach him. He is trying to force these Sunni-Arab countries into an alliance that he can describe as an “irreligious anti-Sunni coalition of Shiites, Jews, and Americans.” This is an important part of propaganda war. This message could potentially spread like wildfire and undermine the power structures that keep the extremest monsters in the closet. Narratives like this have the potential to become unifying battle cries for hundreds of thousands of hardliner Sunni-Wahhabists and Jihadists in the region. It might not work, but it is not a suicide mission. It is how you create an apocalyptic scenario. It is how you start WWIII.
Do we wait for the End of Days or Bring the End of Days to ISIS?
Evil rejects accountability. It refuses to look at itself in the mirror. In a theocratic government, the official state theology is the metric that determines what is just and legal. In the Islamic State it is the barbaric collection of hadiths and Quranic quotations emphasized by Baghdadi that establishes this metric. He is the personification of God’s expectations on earth. Everyone must submit to his example, because to do otherwise is to defy God’s law, of which Baghdadi is the embodiment. His narcissism is so developed and so pervasive that in his mind there is no other Islam, but his Islam. When he pronounced himself Caliph, he said, “I am Islam.” This is a claim he is willing to enforce with the sword.
I have never advocated for military intervention. With that said, I am not a pacifist. There is a time and a place for military intervention. The great Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chögyam Trungpa once said, “In an extreme case, if I happened to find myself in the central headquarters where they push the button that could blow up the planet, I would kill the person who was going to push the button for the bomb right away and without any hesitation. I would take delight in it!” I believe we are fast approaching such a case. He wants to get his finger on the button. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is a narcissistic sociopath with genocidal and apocalyptic aspirations. But make no mistake: his vision is not a pipe dream. He has the resources, the will, and the authority to make his dream a nightmare for hundreds of millions of people in the region. He wields religious and political authority. This authority is backed by the might of a well armed, growing army. In Abu-Bakr Al Baghdadi there is an evil brewing the rest of the world cannot ignore.
When we open his playbook, his motives become clear. This is an apocalyptic crusade and his sights are set on Saudi Arabia, which is one place the West simply cannot tolerate an ISIS presence. Life as we know it will come to a grinding halt, if the Islamic State destabilizes Saudi Arabia. This is why it is important to understand their religious ideology when developing a strategy. We know where they are headed and how they plan to get there. This knowledge frames the conversation for us: We can confront them now, or later when they are considerably stronger. The choice is ours.
Author: Benjamin Riggs
Editor: Travis May
Image: ISIS flag