OBSERVARE
Universidade Autónoma de Lisboa
ISSN: 1647-7251
Vol. 6, n.º 1 (May-October 2015), pp. 116-139
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THE “ISLAMIC STATE”: TRAJECTORY AND REACH A YEAR AFTER ITS
SELF-PROCLAMATION AS A “CALIPHATE”
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Luís Tomé
ltome@autonoma.pt
Associate Professor at Autonomous University of Lisbon-Department of International Relations
(Portugal). Visiting Professor at the National Defense Institute, the High Command and Staff
College, the Middle East Technical University in Ankara-Turkey and La Sapienza–Universitá di
Roma, Italy. Scientific Coordinator of OBSERVARE – Observatory of Foreign Relations, where he
also coordinates the research group “War, Peace and Security Studies”. His most recent work is
the edited book “Islamic State” – the new global jihadist phenomenon (Media XXI, in press), a
collective book with eight essays and authors from Portugal, Italy and Turkey.
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Abstract
On 29 June 2014, the ISIS/ISIL or Daesh announced the change of its name to just "Islamic
State" (IS), proclaimed itself a "Caliphate" and named its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as
"Caliph Ibrahim". About a year later, this article intends to evaluate the trajectory and reach
of this territorial jihadist entity. It starts by contextualizing the self-proclamation in terms of
ideology and objectives and then it describes how the IS has sought to consolidate itself as
a de facto "State" and the tragic effects of its policy of terror. The last part examines the
international expansion of the IS, analysing its reach in attracting "foreign fighters", the new
wilayats created outside Syria and Iraq, the newly affiliated local groups, and the activities
of the IS in cyberspace.
Keywords:
Islamic State, ISIS, Terrorism, Jihadism, International Security
How to cite this article
Tomé, Luís (2015). "The «Islamic State»: trajectory and reach a year after its self
proclamation as a «Caliphate»". JANUS.NET e-journal of International Relations, Vol. 6, N.º
1, May-October 2015. Consulted [online] on date of last visit,
observare.ual.pt/janus.net/en_vol6_n1_art8
Article received on May, 5 2015 and accepted for publication on May, 28 2015
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THE “ISLAMIC STATE”: TRAJECTORY AND REACH A YEAR AFTER ITS
SELF-PROCLAMATION AS ACALIPHATE”
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Luís Tomé
Introduction
The origin of the self-proclaimed "Islamic State" dates back to existing jihadist groups
in the 1990s, namely the Bayat al Imam and the Jama'at al-Tawid wa-al-Jihad, both led
by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi1 who, following the invasion of Iraq in 2003,
began to target both the "expulsion of foreign invaders" and to instigate a sectarian
civil war by attacking Shiite and Kurdish communities that started to be predominant in
Iraq in the post-Saddam Hussein era. Around the same time and with similar
motivations, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi2, born in 1971 in Samarra in the so-called "Sunni
triangle" north of Baghdad, helped establish another group, the Jamaat Ahl Jaysh al-
Sunnah wal Jamaa. In 2004, while Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was captured in Fallujah by
the US military and detained in Camp Bucca where he mingled with many other
jihadists, al-Zarqawi expressed fidelity to the "Emir" Osama bin Laden and his group
joined the al-Qaeda (AQ), adopting the name Tanzim al-Qaeda wal Jihad fi Balad al-
Rafidain or, briefly, "al-Qaeda in Iraq" (AQI).
In June 2006, Zarqawi was killed by the Americans and the AQI came to be led by
Ayyub al-Masri, former member of the Zawahiri’s Islamic Jihad Group in Egypt.
Meanwhile, in October of that year, some jihadist factions grouped in the Mujahideen
Shura Council created the "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI), and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was
made responsible for the overall supervision of the Shariah Committee, while the
group's leadership was given to another al-Baghdadi, Abu Umar. The ISI was conceived
as an independent group and not as a subsidiary of AQ, which was not even consulted
on the process (Bunzel, 2015:20), with the ISI continuing the sectarian attacks in order
to achieve the goal of having a "pure" Islamic State. In 2010, after the death of al-
Masri and Umar al-Baghdadi by American bombing, Bakr al-Baghdadi took the
leadership of a very fragile ISI (Fishman, 2011) and, like his predecessor, the title of
“Commander of the Faithful”, claiming to be a descendant of the tribe.
From 2011 onwards, a new combination of factors favoured the prominence of ISI and
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
i) the American withdrawal from Iraq, leaving a fragile country led by Prime Minister
Nouri al-Maliki (May 2006-September 2014), who pursued a pro-Shiite agenda and
alienated the Sunni minority, which allowed the ISI to strengthen among Sunni
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
1 Or Ahmad Fadeel al Nazal Al Khalayeh.
2 Or Ibrahim Awwad Ibrahim Ali al-Badri or Ibrahim al-Badri al-Qurashi al-Sammarai.
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tribes, former insurgents and also former members of the Baath Party and Iraqi
military and security structures seeking to regain the power they had enjoyed
during the era of Saddam;
ii) Osama bin Laden's death in May 2011, which meant not only the elimination of the
main reference of the jihadist movement but also the weakening of the AQ, leading
to greater autonomy of its affiliate groups and to the rise of local and independent
regional groups (Tomé, 2012);
iii) the “Arab Spring" in North Africa and the Middle East, unleashing huge turbulence
and conflict in most of these countries (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon,
Syria, and Yemen), as well as the resurgence of sectarian rivalries and the
expansion of extremist movements;
iv) and, in particular, the civil war in Syria from March 2011, as a result of a challenge
to the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and involving multiple factions (Shiite
militias, real democrats, the moderate and jihadists) and hundreds of groups (more
than 1000 were referenced at some point), in a chaotic stage that quickly became
the largest "magnet" for jihadists from around the world and for complex "power
games" (ranging from Iran and Russia to Arab countries, Turkey, EU or the US ...).
In this context, the ISI
«has reconstituted [itself] as a professional military force capable
of planning, training, resourcing, and executing synchronized and
complex attacks in Iraq» (Lewis, 2013: 7),
announcing, in the beginning of 2012, its unstoppable return” and launching
increasingly powerful attacks with high media impact: for example, between the
summers of 2012 and 2013, it launched the violent campaign "Breaking the Walls" with
truck bombs, also aiming at several prisons where hundreds of jihadists escaped3.
Meanwhile, in neighbouring Syria, the ISI and the AQ instigated the creation of the "al-
Nusra Front" (Jabhat Al-Nusra /JN) led by the Syrian Abu Mohammad al-Golani (or al-
Julani), a former operational in Iraq sent by Bakr al-Baghdadi to create a "front" in
Syria. As the ISI was again a credible force and taking advantage from the situation in
Syria, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi decided to expand the ISI to Syria, and, in April 2013,
proclaimed the establishment of the "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" or "ash-
Sham" (Dawlah al-Islamiyah fil Iraq wa ash-Sham) and the corresponding merger of JN
in the new ISIL/ISIS/Daesh. Al-Golani refused this manoeuver and Ayman al-Zawahiri,
the successor to bin Laden in al-Qaeda's core leadership, instructed Bakr al-Baghdadi
to limit the ISI’s activities to Iraq. However, al-Baghdadi reiterated that his group
would also remain in al-sham (al-Baghdadi, 2013). After months of theological and
operational disputes, on 2 February 2014 the AQ officially announced its dissociation
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3 Of the eight prisons attacked by the ISI between July 2012 and July 2013, the most high profile case was
Abu Ghraib prison in July 2013, where more than 500 prisoners managed to escape, including many
jihadists.
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from the ISIS, referring to it as a “group(Bunzel, 2015: 29), with the ISIS ending up
getting into fratricidal conflict with AQ’s branch in Syria (see Cafarella, 2014).
More than fighting Assad’s regime, the ISIS then concentrated its efforts towards
occupying and administering territories and localities in Syrian Sunni areas (Raqqa,
Idlib, Deir ez-Zor and Aleppo), triggering, in parallel, a similar campaign in Iraq: after
capturing Fallujah and Ramadi in January 2014, the ISIS expanded rapidly and
conquered other bastions like al-Qaim, Tikit and, in early June, the strategic city of
Mosul. On 29 June 2014, the ISIL/ISIS/ Daesh announced the change of its name to
just "Islamic State" (IS), proclaimed itself a "Caliphate" and named its leader Abu Bakr
al-Baghdadi "Caliph Ibrahim". It thus evolved from being a jihadist insurgent terrorist
organization to becoming a politically organized territorial entity in Syria and Iraq.
About a year later, this article aims to evaluate the trajectory and reach of the self-
proclaimed "Islamic State Caliphate". Much more than making a mere quantitative
balance, it crosses information, description and analysis, relying on data as much
updated as possible and essentially using open sources. For greater objectivity and a
better understanding of the IS purposes, the article cites several messages of the IS
itself: after all,
«If one wants to get to know the programme of the [Islamic]
State, its politics, and its legal opinions, one ought to consult its
leaders, its statements, its public addresses, its own sources» (Abu
Muhammad al-Adnani, spokesman for the IS, 21 May 2012, cit. in
Bunzel, 2015: 4).
It starts by contextualizing the self-proclamation of the "Caliphate" in terms of ideology
and objectives of the IS. Then it describes how the IS has sought to consolidate itself
as a de facto "State", including its forms of "governance", territorial administration and
financing, as well as the sources of its military arsenal, the growing number of militants
and " foreign fighters and the tragic effects of its persistent policy of terror. After
making a brief reference to international efforts to contain and combat the IS, the last
part is mainly dedicated to the international expansion of the IS, ranging from the new
wilayats outside Syria and Iraq to its affiliated local groups, as well as referring to IS
attacks and activities in cyberspace, thus illustrating the current situation of this
jihadist terrorist threat about a year after its self-proclamation as a "Caliphate".
Proclamation of the “Caliphate” ideology and objectives
Like al-Qaeda (AQ), the ISIS/DAESH/ Islamic State is based on the Salafist-jihadist
ideology (al-salafiyya al-jihadiyya), a puritanical branch of the Wahhabi Sunni Islam
that wants the Islamic community (Umma) to return to “pure” ancestral practices,
making a clear separation between the "true believers" and the "unbelievers"
considered to be "apostates" or "infidels". Refusing theological diversity, the Salafist-
jihadists also base their views on the Takfir doctrine, which sanctions violence against
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other Muslims accused of apostasy, unbelief or unfaithfulness (kafir)4 (Hafez, 2010;
Bunzel, 2014). Viewing themselves as the defenders of the original Islam that the
Prophet Muhammad and his companions preached, and considering that Islam is under
attack by the "infidels", the Salafi-jihadists claim that the use of violence or "holy war"
(jihad) is the only way to fight the enemies and defend the true Islam. The ultimate
goal of the also called "jihadism" is thus the creation of a “pureIslamic Community in
the form of "Emirate" or even "Caliphate", according to its unique interpretation of the
Prophet Muhammad’s tradition (sunna) and Islamic law (sharia), with "believers" taking
part in the jihad, while the "apostates" and "infidels" must be simply exterminated
(Brachman, 2009; Duarte, 2012; Rabbani, 2014; Bunzel 2015). As clearly stated by a
jihadist prelate:
«We don’t make a distinction between civilians and non-civilians,
innocents and non-innocents. Only between Muslims and
unbelievers. And the life of an unbeliever has no value. It has no
sanctity ... We assume that the objective is to kill as many people
to cause terror ... The Divine Text is clear on the need to cause
"maximum possible damage." The operational must therefore
make sure that he kills as many people as he can kill. Otherwise,
he will burn in hell (...) The secularists say that the "Islam is the
religion of Love." It is true. But Islam is also a religion of War. Of
peace, but also of terrorism. Muhammad said: "I am the Prophet
of mercy." But He also said: "I am the Prophet of the massacre."
The word terrorism is not new among Muslims. Muhammad said
even more: "I am the Prophet who laughs when I’m killing my
enemy." It is therefore not just a matter of killing. It is laughing
when killing». (Omar Bakri Mohammed, 2004: 28-31):
However, ideologically, the IS adopts an even more exclusive view than AQ and other
jihadist groups, being less tolerant of those considered to be "deviant Islamic sects",
particularly Shi'ism:
«Following takfiri doctrine, the Islamic State is committed to
purifying the world by killing vast numbers of people ... Muslim
"apostates" are the most common victims» (Wood, 2015).
In February 2004, in a letter sent from Iraq to the leadership of AQ, Abu Musab al-
Zarqawi harshly attacked Shiism both politically and ideologically, considering the
Shiites
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4 The vast majority of leaders, organizations and religious authorities of Islam reject this concept of takfir,
considering it a doctrinal deviation (bid'at) or heresy. Some recent Edicts (fatwa) also condemn and
repudiate the "Takfir doctrine".
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«the proximate, dangerous enemy of the Sunnis…The danger from
the Shi‘a…is greater and their damage worse and more destructive
to the [Islamic] nation than the Americans targeting and hitting
[the Shi‘a] in [their] religious, political, and military depth will
provoke them to show the Sunnis their rabies and bare the teeth
of the hidden rancour working in their breasts. If we succeed in
dragging them into the arena of sectarian war, it will become
possible to awaken the inattentive Sunnis as they feel imminent
danger and annihilating death at the hands of these Sabeans [i.e.,
Shi‘a] (al-Zarqawi, 2004).
This vision would become one of the pillars of the ideology of the IS and hence, from its
antecedents in Iraq, IS pursues a strategy aimed at instigating and instrumentalising a
sectarian holy war" within Islam, primarily between Sunnis and Shiites. In fact, even
before the creation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), al-Qaeda's ambitions and strategy
in Iraq exceeded those of the central structure, directly attacking Shiite and Kurd
Muslims with such a level of violence that central AQ warned its Iraqi branch of the risk
of losing popular support in the country as well as that of the global Islamic
community5.
On the other hand, organically, the IS claims, as it has always done, that it is not just a
jihadist organization (tanzim) but literally what its name implies: a real "State" (dawla).
In 2006, an official document of the newly created "Islamic State in Iraq" (ISI) claimed
that:
«This state of Islam has arisen anew to strike down its roots in the
region, as was the religion’s past one of strength and glory» (cit. in
Bunzel, 2014: 2). In the words of Graeme Wood (2015), «bin
Laden viewed his terrorism as a prologue to a caliphate he did not
expect to see in his lifetime. His organization was flexible,
operating as a geographically diffuse network of autonomous cells.
The Islamic State, by contrast, requires territory to remain
legitimate and a top-down structure to rule it».
And a “Statewith expansionist ambitions: on 8 April 2013, the renamed ISIL or ISIS
demanded the establishment of an "Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant" or "ash-
Sham", a region that includes Syria but also Jordan, Israel, Palestine and Lebanon, and,
in a broader sense, covers territories in Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus. This announcement
came two days after the leader of AQ-core, Ayman al-Zawahiri, called for the
unification of the jihad in Syria, but between Jabhat Al-Nusra (JN) and other jihadist
groups, and not through the expansion of the ISI to Syria and even less through the
merger of JN with the new ISIS. Although the leader of the JN, al-Golani, rejected that
manoeuvre and openly declared obedience to "Emir" al-Zawahiri, and the leader of the
AQ-c instructed Bakr al-Baghdadi to dissolve the ISIS and limit the activities of his
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5 Letter from Ayman al-Zawahiri, then number two of al-Qaeda, to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of AQI,
dated 9 July 2005.
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group to Iraq, leaving Syria for the JN, ISIS reaffirmed the new designation and forced
its expansion to Syria.
Moreover, since its inception, the ISI aimed at the eventual restoration of the
"Caliphate", a mythical monarchic-theocratic form of government that represents the
unity and the leadership of the "Islamic world", a coveted global empire ruled according
to Islamic law or Sharia directed by a single leader, the caliph, the Prophet
Muhammad's successor. Therefore, several references and maps of the ISI, ISIS and,
of course, the IS suggest an ambition that includes dominating all the territories of
ancient historical Caliphates, ranging from the Iberian Peninsula (Al-Andalus) to
Southeast Asia. In other words, the self-proclamation as "Caliphate" embodies a
«fundamentally political rather than religious project - even though the IS insists the
two are inseparable» (Rabbani, 2014:2)
This self-proclamation came on 29 June 2014, in a document entitled "This is the
Promise of Allah" produced in several languages and posted on the Internet, where the
ISIL/ISIS/Daesh announced the restoration of the "Caliphate", simply called "Islamic
State" (IS) and appointed its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as "Caliph", hereinafter
called "Caliph Ibrahim":
«Here the flag of the Islamic State, the flag of tawhīd
(monotheism), rises and flutters. Its shade covers land from
Aleppo to Diyala…. The kuffār (infidels) are disgraced. Ahlus-
Sunnah (the Sunnis) are masters and are esteemed. The people of
bid’ah (heresy) are humiliated. The hudūd (Sharia penalties) are
implemented the hudūd of Allah all of them. The frontlines are
defended…. It is a dream that lives in the depths of every Muslim
believer. It is a hope that flutters in the heart of every mujāhid
muwahhid (monotheist). It is the khilāfah (caliphate). It is the
khilāfah the abandoned obligation of the era (…) Therefore, the
shūrā (consultation) council of the Islamic State studied this
matter after the Islamic State by Allah’s grace gained the
essentials necessary for khilāfah, which the Muslims are sinful for if
they do not try to establish. In light of the fact that the Islamic
State has no shar’ī (legal) constraint or excuse that can justify
delaying or neglecting the establishment of the khilāfah such that
it would not be sinful, the Islamic State represented by ahlul-
halli-wal-‘aqd (its people of authority), consisting of its senior
figures, leaders, and the shūrā council resolved to announce the
establishment of the Islamic khilāfah, the appointment of a
khalīfah for the Muslims, and the pledge of allegiance to the
shaykh (sheikh), the mujāhid, the scholar who practices what he
preaches, the worshipper, the leader, the warrior, the reviver,
descendent from the family of the Prophet, the slave of Allah,
Ibrāhīm Ibn ‘Awwād Ibn Ibrāhīm Ibn ‘Alī Ibn Muhammad al-Badrī
al-Hāshimī al-Husaynī al-Qurashī by lineage, as-Sāmurrāī by birth
and upbringing, al-Baghdādī by residence and scholarship. And he
has accepted the bay’ah (pledge of allegiance). Thus, he is the
imam and khalīfah for the Muslims everywhere. Accordingly, the
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“Iraq and Shām” in the name of the Islamic State is henceforth
removed from all official deliberations and communications, and
the official name is the Islamic State from the date of this
declaration» (IS, 2014).
By proclaiming itself "Caliphate", the IS also claims that all Muslims - individuals, states
and organizations - should pay obedience and be faithful (bay'ah) to "Caliph Ibrahim":
«We clarify to the Muslims that with this declaration of Khilafah, it
is incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge allegiance to the Khalifah
Ibrāhīm and support him (may Allah preserve him). The legality of
all emirates, groups, states, and organizations, becomes null by
the expansion of the Khilafah's authority » (ibid.).
Bay'at is a kind of obedience commitment given to a leader of an Islamist group; for a
jihad, it is as if that commitment was with the Prophet Muhammad himself, and cannot
be broken under penalty of apostasy (takfir). Immediately following that
announcement, on 1 July 2014, in his sermon at the Grand Mosque of Mosul, the very
"Caliph Ibrahim" declared
«I have been appointed to rule over you ... And obey me so long
as I obey God touching you. If I disobey Him, no obedience is
owed from me to you» (al-Baghdadi, 2014).
Unsurprisingly, the alleged obligation of all Muslims to pay allegiance to "Caliph
Ibrahim" and the corresponding nullification of all other States and organizations before
the global authority of the Islamic State is repudiated by all Islamic States and
numerous Islamic religious leaders, including the Grand Muftis of Saudi Arabia and
Egypt, Abdulaziz al al-Sheikh and Shawqi Allam, respectively, or the International
Union of Muslim Scholars. Although for different reasons, this rejection is also made by
various jihadist organizations: even before the announcement of the "Caliphate",
central al-Qaeda (AQ-C or AQSL), presumably from Pakistan, and also the Islamic Front
and Jabhat al-Nusrah, both in Syria, had publicly rejected the ISIS; after the self-
proclamation of the IS "Caliphate", the AQ-C officially rebutted bay'at to "Caliph
Ibrahim" again and started to promote its own proto-Caliph, Mullah Muhammad Omar,
the Taliban leader of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan "since 1996; meanwhile,
seven other jihadist groups repudiated the authority of the IS - Caucasus Emirate in
Russia, the General Military Council for Iraqi Revolutionaries in Iraq, Katibat al-Imam
Bukhari in Syria, Al-Qaeda Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Algeria, Moro Islamic Liberation
Front (MILF) in the Philippines, Harakat Ansar Iran (HAI) in Iran, and Al-Qaeda in the
Arabian Peninsula in Yemen while the Taliban in Afghanistan have, to date, remained
neutral to the IS (IntelCenter, 2015; Azamy and Weir, 2015).
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A de facto State and terror
The ISIS/IS has demonstrated its capacity to impose itself on government forces and
opposition groups (Lister, 2014: 2). As it expanded, it sought to portray the image of
being an effective administering organization in the areas where "state authority" was
missing or fragile. At the end of June 2014, the renamed Islamic State controlled a vast
area that ranged from Aleppo in Syria to the Diyala province in Iraq, and a population
of nearly 6 million people. As such, its strategy has been to consolidate characteristics
inherent to the condition of "State" - namely, territorial control (especially locations,
routes and infrastructure) and political, economic and judicial administration.
Administratively, the IS operates in different wilayats or provinces, each with its
operating structure. Although some IS wilayats have been proclaimed in the territories
of other countries, as we shall see, most still lie in Iraq and in Syria: in mid-2015, there
are twenty IS wilayats, twelve of which located in Iraq (Anbar, Baghdad, Diyala,
Euphrates/Furat the latter covering territories both in Iraq and in Syria - Fallujah,
Kirkuk, Jnoub, Ninewa, Salah al-Din, Shamal Baghdad, al-Jazeera, and Tigris/Diglah)
and eight in Syria (al-Barakha/Hasakah, Damascus, Euphrates/Furat, Halab/Aleppo,
Homs, al-Khair / Dayr az Zawr, Raqqa, and Hamah).
Immediately after "Caliph" Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who is the supreme political, religious
and military authority, the territories of the IS in Syria and Iraq are under the authority
of two respective "governors" involved in the military strategy and governance of those
areas in coordination with local councils (IEP-GTI Report 2014: 52). The IS political
structure includes four main "councils- sharia, shura, military and security - replicated
in the chain of command down to local level by the various wilayats in Syria and Iraq.
In its simple but effective bureaucratic organization, the IS established religious
committees, a religious police, educational committees, Sharia courts and recruiting
offices, public relations or tribal issues offices, as well as "advisers" and "coordinators"
for finance, propaganda, receiving "foreign fighters", shelters, and dealing with
women's, orphans’ or prisoner issues, imposing its form of "governance" (Caris and
Reynolds, 2014). In parallel, the IS expanded other requirements in the areas under its
control that resemble a de facto state: security and military services, management of
medical services and of "Islamic education", collection of fees and taxes, issuance of
identification documents, printing of its own currency, control of services and resources
(mail, transport, telephones, Internet, garbage collection, water, electricity, fuel and
energy supply) and, from here, regulation of the economy and society.
The total number of IS members, activists and fighters is imprecise and difficult to
calculate, varying greatly depending on the source and also on whether it refers only to
militants in Iraq and Syria or whether it also includes individuals and groups operating
in other countries and regions. On the other hand, in addition to Syrian, Iraqi and
foreigner volunteers and jihadists, the Islamic State is known to force people from
other conquered rebel groups or confined areas under its rule to fight on its behalf - so,
even restricting to the territory controlled by the IS in Syria and Iraq, it is complex to
distinguish between its militant members and those who exercise certain functions
because they are forced to it or fear reprisals. Still, it seems clear that the number of
IS members and fighters has increased continuously over the past years; it grew
suddenly since the proclamation of the "Caliphate"; and it is now well above other
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jihadist groups, including al-Qaeda. When the US withdrew from Iraq in 2011, the ISI
had few hundreds of members; in early 2015, the IS had between 17,000 and 31,500
combatants - well above, therefore, the 1000-3000 that central AQ had at its peak in
the late 1990s (Gerges, 2015). In June 2014, the number of ISIS militants in Syria and
Iraq was estimated at between 5,000 and 10,000; in the following month, numbers
increased thanks to the 1000-2000 militants from other jihadist groups in Syria and
Iraq (such as Jaish al-Sahabah in the Levant and the Faction of Katibat al-Imam
Bukhari in Syria or Ansar al-Islam in Iraq) who joined its ranks; in September, the CIA
estimated the existence of between 20,000 and 31,500 IS fighters in Syria and Iraq; in
late 2014, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimated over 80,000 (50,000 in
Syria and 30,000 in Iraq) IS militants, while the office of Kurdish President Massoud
Barzani rose the total number of IS members to 200,000, a number that included
combatants and support staff, police forces, local militias, border guards, and
paramilitary personnel associated with the various groups of security guards and
recruits. Crossing several sources, the current estimated number of IS fighters varies
between 35,000 and 100,000, while the AQ and its affiliates is believed to have
between 5,000 and 20,000 members.
To finance its activities, the IS has the millions of euros and dollars found and stolen in
the banks and administration offices of the towns it conquered and the proceeds from
the sale of oil from the dozen wells and refineries it controls. According to the Global
Terrorism Index Report 2014 (IEP, 2014: 52), the IS
«controls a dozen oil fields and refineries in Iraq and Syria,
generating revenues of between one to three million U.S. dollars
per day… As well as oil, it is believed that the ISIL has access to
40 per cent of Iraq’s wheat growing land», a situation that led K.
Johnson (2014) state that «the Islamic State is the Newest
Petrostate».
Other important IS funding sources include “donations" from individual, tribal and
jihadist organizations, tax and "religious taxes" collection from those under its
control, theft and extortion, kidnapping and ransom payments and arms, drug,
historical artefacts and human organs trafficking. With this wide range of funding
sources, the IS yield is estimated at about 3 to 5 million USD a day in 2014, and its
total financial resources is estimated to stand at between 1.3 and 2 billion USD (Barret,
2014 : 45). That is, the IS has become «the richest terrorist group in the world»
(Lister, 2014: 2), described by the former US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel as
«sophisticated and well-funded as any group that we have seen.
They're just beyond the terrorist group ... they are tremendously
well-funded» (cit. in Keatinge, 2014).
As for the powerful weapons at its disposal,
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«the Islamic State, like many irregular forces before it, has opened
spigots from varied and far-ranging sources of supply, in this case
on a grand scale»,
including weapons previously used in the Libya, Sudan and the Balkan wars and others
produced by the US, Russia, China, Iran, and Europe (Western and Eastern). The IS’s
military arsenal mainly includes weapons and ammunition captured from Iraqi and
Syrian forces, armaments and equipment purchased, exchanged or captured from
groups opposing Bashar al-Assad in Syria. On the other hand, in addition to small
arms, machine guns, explosives, and grenades, the Islamic State’s arsenal includes
unusual war weapons held by terrorist groups, from tanks and armoured vehicles to
howitzers, drones and guided anti-tank missiles (Conflict Armament Research, cit. in
Chivers, 2015).
The Islamic State’s attempt to affirm and consolidate itself as a "State" has been
implemented through violence and extraordinary brutality by armed militants operating
simultaneously as a terrorist group, army, police, guerrilla, militia, and criminal gang.
According to the Global Terrorism Index Report 2014 from the IEP, in the year of ISI’s
expansion to Syria in 2013, the number of terrorist attacks worldwide rose 61% over
the previous year, causing nearly 18,000 dead, with Syria and Iraq among the
countries with the highest number of victims of terrorism and with 66% of the global
total of deaths being the responsibility of only four groups, including ISIS (the others
being al Qaeda, the Taliban and the Boko Haram). In Iraq alone, in 2013 there were
6362 deaths caused by terrorist attacks (an increase of 162% compared to 2012), of
which 77% were ISIS’ responsibility (IEP-GTI Report 2014: 52).
In line with its predecessors, the IS continues extermination practices not only against
Christians and Jews, but especially against Muslim communities, namely Shiites, Kurds,
Alawites and Yazidis, in what Amnesty International describes as "ethnic cleansing" and
the UN calls "crimes against humanity". Hence, the expansion of the IS has contributed
significantly to the barbarism and the humanitarian tragedy in Iraq and Syria, which
occupy the first and second places, respectively, in the ranking of the most dangerous
countries in terms of terrorist activity, according to the Country Threat Index of
IntelCenter. In 2014 alone, the IS killed 2317 people; also according to the Most
Deadly Terrorist/Rebel Groups of IntelCenter and adding to that number the deaths
caused by other groups that meanwhile joined the IS until mid-2015, the total number
of dead of the "IS Network" in 2014 exceeded 5000. Accordingly, this same source
shows in its Group Threat Index - which examines the volume of terrorist alerts, the
traffic of messages, videos and photos, attacks and victims of several dozen terrorist
organizations – that the IS became the most dangerous and lethal terrorist group in the
world (IntelCenter, 2015).
In fact, the IS does not recognize any Islamic interpretation and jurisdiction other than
its own, imposing its brutal version of the sharia on all those it considers to be
"apostates" and "infidels" and implementing a policy of terror which includes mass
summary executions, amputations, rapes, immolations, beheadings, and crucifixions.
The barbarity of the Islamic State is openly repudiated by most Islamic religious
leaders, by all Islamic countries and also by the Islamic Cooperation Organization
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(which brings together 57 Islamic countries), with the Secretary General of the OIC,
Iyad Ammen Madani, affirming
«We need to condemn, particularly and in the strongest terms, the
heinous and barbaric crime committed by the so-called IS terrorist
group» (Madani, 2015).
The terror perpetrated by the IS even made the Vatican, which traditionally opposes
the use of force, adopt an unprecedented position in mid-March 2015, declaring that if
it is not possible to achieve a political decision without violence, «the use of force will
be necessary» against the IS in order to «stop this genocide» and protect Christians
and other religious groups6.
For the IS, however, "terror" is not only inherent in its jihad against all "apostates" and
"infidels" but also a key driver of its expansion strategy due to the "demobilizing" effect
that it seeks to have (and has) in the populations and opposition forces, in particular
among the Syrian and Iraqi government contingents.
The alarm caused by the extension of the IS "Caliphate" and its corresponding social,
economic, humanitarian, and political implications (see, e.g., Adams, 2014) led to a
sudden change in the geopolitical chess in the region and brought about a very eclectic
"anti-IS front" since the summer of 2014, including the creation of a broad international
coalition led by the US and currently with about 64 participants7 and the hitherto
unthinkable joint positions of Western countries, Arab countries (especially Saudi
Arabia, Egypt, Qatar and Jordan), Iran, Turkey, the Iraqi government, the Peshmerga
Kurds, several insurgent groups operating in Syria or even the very Syrian regime of
Bashar al-Assad .... According to the US State Department, in early June 2015 the IS
controls less 25% of territory in Iraq than when the "International Coalition" began its
campaign8. Meanwhile, following the Iraqi Government’s request, NATO decided to
reactivate the training and assistance mission to Iraqi government forces for more
effective anti-IS fighting9.
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6 Statement made by the Vatican Ambassador at the United Nations in Geneva, Archbishop Silvano Tomasi,
in an interview with the American Catholic website "Crux" (see Allen, 2015). This position came the same
day that the Holy See, Russia and Lebanon presented the Council of the UN Human Rights a document
entitled "Supporting the Human Rights of Christians and Other Communities, particularly in the Middle
East", supported by 70 signatory countries, hoping to encourage states around the world to provide
humanitarian aid to Christians and other groups persecuted by the IS.
7 Out of the more than sixty participants of the "anti-IS international coalition," only some participate in
direct military operations or provide air support and military equipment: the US, Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain,
Saudi Arabia, Egypt, United Arab Emirates, France, the UK, Germany, Canada, Australia, Italy, Czech
Republic, Albania, the Netherlands, Estonia, Hungary, Turkey, Belgium, Denmark, and Lebanon. Some
"allies" have only been providing political support and "humanitarian aid" (including the Arab League and
the European Union, as well as Sweden, Kuwait, Switzerland, Japan, Austria, New Zealand, South Korea,
Ireland, Spain, Slovakia, Norway, Luxembourg, and Qatar), while with regard to others we only know
their statement of support and commitment to this coalition, participating particularly in terms of sharing
information - Andorra, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Slovenia, Finland, Georgia, Greece,
Israel, Kosovo, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malta, Morocco, Mexico, Moldova, Oman, Poland, Portugal,
Romania, Serbia, Singapore, Taiwan, Tunisia, and Ukraine.
8 Statement made by Antony Blinken, US Deputy Secretary of State, at a meeting in Paris on 2 June 2015,
with representatives from 20 countries to discuss the status of the fight against the IS in Iraq (see the
BBC, 2015).
9 The NATO Training Mission-Iraq (NTM-I) was established in 2004 to help Iraq create effective new armed
forces after the overthrow of Saddam's regime, but the mission was discontinued in 2011 due to the