Uprising of ISIS: How the Jihadist Group Became a Household Name

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ISIS fighters fixed potholes, organized soup kitchens for those who had lost their homes, and secured round-the-clock electricity. In so doing, ISIS exhibits some understanding that in the twenty-first century, new nations cannot be built by terror and violence alone. To succeed, they require popular consensus.
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International terror expert Loretta Napoleoni confronts the Islamic State's contradictions head-on in her timely and thoroughly researched book, "The Islamist Phoenix."

In The Islamist Phoenix (Seven Stories Press, 2014), the first major book to be published about ISIS, Loretta Napoleoni painstakingly documents how, growing out of more conventional terrorist organizations and networks, the Islamic State (as the group is currently known) has rocketed to the forefront of the global jihadist movement, achieving unparalleled successes in nation-building and rekindling their long-dormant dream of resurrecting the original Caliphate in a twenty-first century incarnation. The following excerpt from the introduction touches on the group’s use of “propaganda of fear” and technology to advance its mission.

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For the first time since World War I, an armed organization is redesigning the map of the Middle East drawn by the French and the British. Waging a war of conquest, the Islamic State (IS), formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (al Sham), ISIL or ISIS, is erasing the borders that the Sykes-Picot Accord established in 1916. Today the black and gold flag of IS flies across a territory larger than the United Kingdom or Texas, from the Mediterranean shores of Syria well into the heart of Iraq, the Sunni tribal area. Since late June 2014, this region has been known as the Islamic Caliphate, a designation that had previously ceased to exist with the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of Ataturk in 1924.

In the Islamic State, as in al Qaeda before it, many Western observers see an anachronistic organization that seeks to turn back the clock. Indeed Syrian and Iraqi refugees have described its rule as indistinguishable from that of the Taliban regime. Posters forbid smoking and the use of cameras; women are not allowed to travel without a male relative; they must be covered up and cannot wear trousers in public. At the same time, the Islamic State seems engaged in a sort of religious cleansing through aggressive proselytization. Residents of its territory who do not flee must adopt its radical Salafist creed or face execution.

Since his ascent to the global stage, IS leader and Caliph Abu Bakr al Baghdadi has drawn comparisons to al Qaeda’s Mullah Omar. Ironically, these comparisons may well have led Western intelligence to underestimate him and his organization’s strength. Despite its seemingly medieval approach to legality and social control, to deem the IS essentially backward would be mistaken. While the world of the Taliban was limited to Koranic schools and knowledge based upon the writings of the Prophet, globalization and modern technology have been the incubator of the Islamic State.

What distinguishes this organization from all other armed groups that predate it—including those active during the Cold War—and what accounts for its enormous successes is its modernity and pragmatism. Its leadership shows an unparalleled grasp of the limitations facing contemporary powers in a globalized and multipolar world. For example, IS sensed, before most others had, that joint foreign intervention of the sort that occurred in Libya and Iraq would not be possible in Syria. Against this backdrop, the Islamic State’s leadership has successfully exploited to its own advantage, and almost unobserved, the Syrian conflict—a contemporary version of the traditional war-by-proxy with plenty of sponsors and armed groups. Seeking a regime change in Syria, the Kuwaitis, Qataris, and Saudis have been willing to bankroll a plethora of armed organizations, of which IS is only one. However, instead of fighting its sponsors’ war by proxy, the Islamic State has used their money to establish its own territorial strongholds in financially strategic regions, like the rich oilfields of Eastern Syria. No previous Middle Eastern armed organization has been able to promote itself as the region’s new ruler using the money of its rich Gulf sponsors.

In sharp contrast with the Taliban’s rhetoric, and despite its barbarous treatment of its enemies, the Islamic State is spreading a powerful, in part positive, political message in the Muslim world: the return of the Caliphate, a new Golden Age of Islam. This message comes at a time of great destabilization in the Middle East, with Syria and Iraq ablaze, Libya on the verge of another tribal conflict, Egypt restive and ruled by the army, and Israel once again at war with Gaza. Hence, the rebirth of the Caliphate under its new Caliph, al Baghdadi, appears to many Sunnis not as the emergence of yet another armed group but as the rise of a promising new political entity from the ashes of decades of war and destruction.

The fact that this Islamist Phoenix materialized on the first day of Ramadan 2014, the holy month of fasting and prayer, should be regarded as a powerful omen of the challenge that the Islamic State poses to the legitimacy of all fifty-seven countries whose citizens predominantly follow the Islamic faith. As IS spokesman Abu Mohammed al Adnani has put it: “the legality of all emirates, groups, states, and organizations becomes null by the expansion of the Caliph’s authority and the arrival of his troops in their areas.” It is a challenge posed by a contemporary state commanding a modern army, which traces its legitimacy to the first territorial manifestation of Islam in seventh- and eighth-century Arabia.

This very real threat is particularly felt by those who share a border with Syria and Iraq. In July 2014 the flag of the Islamic State appeared in Jordanian villages, and in August thousands of IS militants streamed into Lebanon from Syria, taking the town of Arsal. Since this offensive was launched, even former sponsors now fear the military power of the Caliphate: at the beginning of July, Saudi Arabia deployed 30,000 soldiers to its border with Iraq after the Iraqi army withdrew from the area.

Beneath the religious veneer and the terrorist tactics, however, lies a political and military machine fully engaged in nation-building, and, more surprisingly, in seeking consensus in the wake of its territorial conquests. Residents of the enclaves that the Caliphate controls affirm that the arrival of IS fighters coincided with improvements in the day-to-day running of their villages. IS fighters fixed potholes, organized soup kitchens for those who had lost their homes, and secured round-the-clock electricity. In so doing, IS exhibits some understanding that in the twenty-first century, new nations cannot be built by terror and violence alone. To succeed, they require popular consensus.

While territorially the master plan is to recreate the ancient Caliphate of Baghdad—an entity that stretched from the Iraqi capital all the way into modern Israel in its heyday, before being destroyed by the Mongols in 1258—politically the goal of the Islamic State is to craft its twenty-first-century incarnation. In his first speech as the new Caliph, al Baghdadi pledged to return to Muslims the “dignity, might, rights, and leadership” of the past and called for doctors, engineers, judges, and experts in Islamic jurisprudence to join him. As he spoke, a team of translators across the world worked to release, almost in real time, the text of his speech on jihadist websites, and on Facebook and Twitter accounts, in several languages including English, French, and German.

To many, the Islamic State’s main aim is to be for Sunni Muslims what Israel is for Jews: a state in their ancient land, reclaimed in modern times; a powerful religious state that protects them wherever they are. For how shocking and repugnant this comparison is, it is nonetheless the potent message broadcast to the disenfranchised Muslim youth who live in the political vacuum created by disturbing factors such as the rampant corruption, inequality, and injustice of modern Muslim states; the ruthless dictatorship of Bashar al Assad; the Nouri al Maliki government’s refusal to integrate Sunnis into the fabric of Iraqi political life and end their persecution by the Baghdad political machine; the failure to replace the socio-economic infrastructure destroyed during the war; and the high rate of unemployment. It is a powerful and, at the same time, seductive message also for those living abroad, the disenfranchised European and American Muslim youth who struggle to integrate in a Western society that offers fewer and fewer opportunities to young generations. No other armed organization has shown such insight into, and political intuition regarding, the domestic politics of the Middle East and Muslim immigrants’ frustration all over the world. No other armed organization has so successfully adapted to contingent factors, such as the provision of basic socio-economic infrastructure and business partnership with local authorities in the territory it controls, in its efforts at nation-building.

Indeed, the leadership of IS has studied the tactics and structure of other armed groups, and has applied these lessons in a new context. Like the European armed organizations of the 1960s and 1970s, such as the Red Brigades in Italy and the IRA in Northern Ireland, the Islamic State appreciates the power of the “propaganda of fear,” and has been especially skilled at using social media to propagate sleek videos and images of its barbarous actions to local and global audiences. That fear is a much more potent weapon of conquest than religious lectures is a fact that al Qaeda failed to understand. Equally, the Islamic State appreciates that extreme violence sells the news: in a world overloaded with information, the twenty-four-hour media cycle seeks ever more graphic images—thus the surfeit of photos and videos of brutal punishments and tortures uploaded in formats that can be easily watched on mobile phones. In our voyeuristic, virtual society, appealingly packaging what appears to be sadism has become a great show.

IS has also drawn lessons in the power of propaganda from closer to home. The Islamic State has analyzed the propaganda machines that the US and UK administrations employed to justify their preventive strike on Iraq in 2003. It has paid particular attention to the February 5, 2003, UN Security Council speech by then-US Secretary of State Colin Powell, credited with creating the myth of Abu Mussad al Zarqawi to justify the invasion of Iraq. Thanks to an extensive and highly professional use of social media, the Islamic State has generated equally false mythologies to proselytize, recruit, and raise funds across the Muslim world.

Crucial to the success of this strategy has been the web of secrecy and mythology carefully woven around IS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In this information-saturated world, mystery also plays a major role in stimulating the collective imagination. The more something is concealed, the more one desires it to be revealed, and the less one knows, the more one imagines. Offer viewers a few clips, and they will complete the picture as they like it. Modern advertising has constructed a trillion-dollar industry upon these simple concepts. Now the Islamic State’s propaganda machine is using them to manufacture the myth of al Baghdadi and of the new Caliphate. Islam is premised on the mystery of the return of the Prophet. Hence, at the same time that IS terrorizes Westerners with shockingly barbarous killings, it leads Muslim supporters to believe that the Prophet has returned in the clothes of al Baghdadi. What’s surprising is our surprise.

Excerpted from The Islamist Phoenix: The Islamic State and the Redrawing of the Middle East by Loretta Napoleoni, published by Seven Stories Press.

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