ISIS is an “imminent threat to every interest we have,” warned Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel. “This is beyond anything we’ve seen. We must prepare for everything.” In an article appearing in The Hill, long-time Congressional staffer Brent Budowsky argued that it is “highly probable” ISIS will…obtain nuclear, chemical, biological or other weapons of mass death…to use in attacks against New York [or] Washington”. Texas Governor Rick Perry added, There is a “very real possibility” that ISIS forces may have crossed the US-Mexican border. Speaking on television, Senator Inhofe asserted, “We are in the most dangerous position we’ve ever been in as a nation.” Former Marine four star General John Allen went further. “World War III is at hand.” This is shock and awe in reverse.
The cause of these alarms is the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, a swarm of murderous fanatics led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. We know little about him. The name is not his real one. A product and creator of the region’s continuing chaos, he has spent the past eight years rising through the ranks of Iraq’s jihadist underground to become its commander and most recently the self-proclaimed leader of the Islamic State.
He has been compared to Saladin, the 12th century Muslim commander who defeated the crusaders; Genghis Khan, the Mongol conqueror who employed calculated cruelty to encourage prompt surrenders; Muhammad Ahmad, the selfproclaimed Mahdi—the prophesied redeemer of Islam–who united the Muslim tribes of Sudan to turn back a British army; even Pablo Escobar, the notorious Colombian cartel leader turned politician, despised by the authorities, adored by the masses. Al-Baghdadi reflects shards of all of these—successful warrior, cruel conqueror, religious fanatic, charismatic criminal.
A real man, al-Baghdadi’s public persona is a carefully crafted myth that has enabled him to attract like-minded fanatics, troubled young men, and violenceseeking sociopaths from around the world, turning a jihadist gang into a fearsome force. It is the myth that has rattled Washington.
Apparently intended to dispel notions that he is not just another jihadist thug, his official biography says that was a cleric and that he has a master’s degree and a doctorate in Islamic studies. It describes him as a professor, teacher, former educator, recognized preacher, “possessing vast knowledge of history and lineage.” It goes on to say that al-Baghdadi “incited fighting and roamed and fought,” that he was “captured and escaped” (he was detained for eleven months in 2004 by US forces in Iraq and released), that he is man of “passion and determination”.
Until his recent sermon in Mosul—a rare public appearance for a jihadist leader—few of his devoted followers had ever seen or heard him. (Some claim that the man who spoke in Mosul was not al-Baghdadi.) For security reasons, he reportedly communicates only with a small group of immediate lieutenants who then carry out his instructions. Unlike Osama bin Laden, who issued 34 video and audio messages between 9/11 and his death in 2011, and al Qaeda’s even more talkative current head, Ayman al Zawahiri, who since 9/11 has issued more than 50 public messages, al-Baghdadi is neither seen nor heard. His lack of appearances in audio or visual recording, his press release points out, “is not due to his lack of eloquence or weak arguments, for the man’s speeches were eloquent and his arguments good and his intelligence apparent.”
Putting aside the official hagiography, al-Baghdadi is obviously intelligent, committed, possesses organizational and military skills, and although security concerns may curtail future public appearances, he clearly is a man who knows that contemporary warfare is about the manipulation of perceptions, and he understands the utility of terrorism to excite followers and frighten foes.
Intelligence analysts inventory Al-Baghdadi’s weapons—old Soviet tanks, new US Humvees, some artillery, mortars and machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades captured in Iraq. They correctly include in his arsenal “social media,” which enable ISIS to launch volleys of threats online, barrages on YouTube, salvos on Twitter.
The tactics of ISIS reflect the man. The gruesome images of beheadings, mass executions, and other atrocities, professionally recorded and posted on the Internet by ISIS, reflect the nature of the enterprise and the man who leads it. ISIS combines religious fanaticism with a bloodlust that is repellent even to al Qaeda’s hardened terrorists.
The Islamic State’s atrocities serve a dual purpose. They terrify adversaries, not only Iraqi soldiers who throw down their weapons and run away at the approach of its dreaded forces, but far beyond. Baghdadi must be pleased to watch the fear bandwagon in Washington. Here are the military and political leaders of the nation that defeated the Axis powers in World War II and stared down the Soviet Union during the Cold War, publicly trembling in outrage and alarm. Uninformed that this sort of spectacle is the tenor of today’s American politics, al-Baghdadi could be excused for thinking that he has struck terror into the hearts of all Americans.
The atrocities also appeal to the bloodlust of would-be jihadists. Al-Baghdadi offers his followers the opportunity to participate in unlimited violence. This is the opportunity not merely to fulfill one’s religious obligation, defend Islam, and ultimately gain access to paradise, but to sack cities, execute heretics, participate in beheadings, hangings, crucifixions, kill children, abduct and rape women.
A lucrative criminal empire supports the group’s operations. According to a recent RAND report, its diverse criminal operations bring ISIS a million dollars a day. Operating on a spoils of war principle, ISIS lives mainly off of plunder, emptying the banks of towns it captures, selling confiscated and stolen goods— mainly capital equipment—machinery, construction equipment, automobiles— which the group sells at a discount to buyers in Iraq and elsewhere, seizing the property of those who have been forced to flee. This is not mere looting. Al Qaeda in Iraq, the Islamic State’s predecessor, had a “spoils unit,” presumably to supervise the pillaging. ISIS is no less organized.
Its videotaped demolitions of Shia mosques and Christian religious sites conceal a profitable trade in antiquities. Recently captured records of ISIS financial transactions show that in one region of Syria alone, the group netted $36 million from smuggling plundered archeological artifacts.
Ransom from kidnappings, protection money, extortion, and taxes levied on the population it controls—even truck drivers pay ISIS road taxes—augment the group’s income. ISIS has also taken control of several small oilfields in Iraq and a refinery in Syria, enabling it to sell smuggled oil at a discount, adding millions to its coffers.
Contributions from sympathetic supporters abroad, which are critical to the funding of other jihadist fronts, appear to account for a only a small portion of the Islamic State’s income. This self-sufficiency gives the group greater autonomy, but also create a different kind of vulnerability. The Islamic State’s funding is predatory, which is why it must keep expanding. Otherwise, once the banks are emptied, the businesses looted, and the bulldozers and generators sold off, confiscation and extortion from the remaining inhabitants must increase, and that provokes opposition. The foes of ISIS can accelerate this process by going after the obvious and vulnerable sources of cash flow—oil smuggling, for one.
The group’s new name outlines its territorial ambitions. Under al-Baghdadi, the organization changed its name from the Islamic State of Iraq to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or in Arabic, al Sham, meaning the “North.” This is an area that encompasses Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel and a slice of Turkey. It was the “north” to the first Muslim warriors who, in the 7th century rode out of the Arabian Peninsula to conquer the Middle East, North Africa, and southern Spain.
But al-Baghdadi’s soaring personal ambitions transcend these mere land boundaries. For his Mosul sermon, a kind of inaugural address, he wore a black turban and robes, a visible assertion that he is a direct descendant of Muhammad himself. He pronounced the restoration of the caliphate. As the selfproclaimed Caliph Ibrahim, he claims to be the successor to the Prophet–the supreme religious authority and absolute political leader of the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. As al-Baghdadi obeys only God, so must all Muslims obey al- Baghdadi. Traditional Muslim scholars consider that brazen declaration presumptuous and a violation of Islamic law. It is a step that even Osama bin Laden never contemplated.
A caliph must have charisma and deliver victories. In his sermon, al-Baghdadi could rightly claim to have delivered victories, although he followed proper Islamic formula by saying “the mujahedeen have been rewarded victory by God after years of jihad.” He promised that he would restore Islam to might.
And al-Baghdadi can claim charisma. He can inspire extreme devotion although until the Mosul sermon almost none of his recruits had ever seen or heard him. Al-Baghdadi inspires by his reputation rather than his presence that inspires.
Foreign fighters in particular are attracted to the ISIS version of jihad. Various motives drive would-be warriors to join distant jihadist fronts, including religious conviction, a desire to defend Islam, a sincere belief that martyrdom will be rewarded in paradise. Other attractions include participation in an epic struggle, adventure, and being surrounded by fellow believers instead of repellent infidels.
Personal crisis appears to be a major factor in self-recruitment. Some recruits admit that their old lives sucked. Reports indicate that many of those who traveled to Syria to join other jihadist fronts have since defected to ISIS, which provides an opportunity to live in a caliphate and to be on the winning side as opposed to being on the run.
But unlimited violence—the chance to get avenge past insults, to fulfill every violent fantasy–is obviously what ISIS propaganda thinks will resonate most with its potential recruits. And recruits attracted by violence are precisely the kind ISIS is most likely to now get.
Authorities in the West worry about what happens when these fighters return home bringing their visions of jihad and experience with them. But their presence in growing numbers will also affect the Islamic State’s own future trajectory. Al-Baghdadi can direct these violent impulses, but he cannot easily rein them in. To stay in charge will require that he go along with what even he may regard as excesses. Such tensions affect all terrorist groups. Often the thugs for whom violence is not a means of acquiring power but an end in itself prevail. Al-Baghdadi himself was a firebrand whose own thirst for violence al Qaeda could not contain. Among his commanders today are even more extreme copies of Baghdadi.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State will continue to expand—it cannot stop, but it will be unstable both on the edges and inside. Al-Baghdadi has shown skills in creating alliances, but he has also rapidly accumulated enemies. ISIS forces remain at war with other jihadist groups in Syria, whose enclaves ISIS will likely attack. ISIS is at war with Iraq. And although Iraq’s army remains ineffectual, sectarian demographics will impede an ISIS advance to the east or south. To the north, ISIS is at war with the more effective Kurds. It has provoked America’s wrath. Its handful of captured old tanks and guns provide little defense against modern weaponry. The Syrian government may have allowed ISIS a degree of immunity because it tarnished the entire rebel movement, but Syria will not abandon the defense of its own enclaves. Not one of al Qaeda’s affiliates or any of the other jihadist movements has declared their allegiance to the Islamic State.
The Islamic State will inevitably alienate some of the Baathist commanders and Sunni tribes who now support it. The very nature of its composition and geography make it vulnerable to centrifugal forces. Its cohesion depends heavily on the survival of its hunted leader. Baghdadi’s three predecessors have all been killed by American airstrikes. In each case, a successor took over the leadership just as Ayman al-Zawahiri succeeded Osama bin Laden. Al- Baghdadi, however, may have complicated transition by assuming the title of caliph. If history is any guide, internal competition and quarrels may make things difficult for a would-be Ibrahim II.
That does not mean that the Islamic State poses little danger or that it will be a pushover. The violent jihad inspired by al Qaeda’s ideology will continue and the world will be dealing al-Baghdadi and his successors for many years to come. But before the United States engages in what could be a long and messy military campaign, it might cool the alarmist and partisan rhetoric and coolly examine the threat the Islamic State poses to America’s national security. It does not surpass every threat we have seen.
And while preventing massacres may be a noble task and retaliation for attacks on US citizens may be appropriate, before the United States assumes a broader imperial mission, it should demand more of those in the region that are most directly threatened by ISIS. The recent success of the Islamic States estimated 7,000 fighters can be explained only by the hollow military power they confront. Iraq’s army has not won a single battle and cries for American help. If Iraq cannot defend itself with nearly 300,000 men under arms, can America protect it?
Saudi Arabia worries about the threat posed by ISIS, but although it has a quarter million under arms and 500 advanced combat aircraft, it will not attack Sunnis to assist Iraq’s or Syria’s Shia regimes. Instead, it reportedly asked for military assistance from Pakistan and Egypt to protect its own borders (but subsequently denied doing so). ISIS also threatens Turkey and Jordan. And if America’s European allies worry about the future terrorist threat posed by ISIS, they too can do more.
Regional animosities, regime fragility, sectarian divides, or domestic politics may constrain action by others, but that does not make the destruction of ISIS America’s sole responsibility.