Understanding Islamic State (2/2)

Mathilde l’Hôte, correspondent in Valencia, Spain, translated by Gemma Kentish
16 Janvier 2015

If Islamic State has taken advantage of a complex and unstable regional context (see previous article on IS), its development is no less surprising. In fact, Islamic State marks a real break from the traditional Jihadist movements like Al-Qaeda, who has been been leading the way for decades. Let us explore this further.

credits DR
credits DR
Firstly, the objective of IS is to establish the Caliphate within a very precise territory (Iraq and Syria), in contrast to the global ambitions of other Jihadist groups, with Al-Qaeda at the forefront. From this point of view, IS seems to be achieving its aim, being the first movement of this kind to control such an large expanse of land, similar to the size of the United Kingdom. Since Mosel was seized on 10th June 2014, the amount of land under the influence of the organisation has become considerable.

It is nevertheless difficult to appreciate what is actually going on within the territory. In a report, VICE, a platform for investigative journalism, were given exclusive access to spend three weeks alongside IS fighters. It is clear that an “Islamic order” has been progressively put into place, with the nomination of governors, taxes and the modification of school programmes like at Mosel university, where certain subjects like philosophy have been banned, and where men and women have been separated. Islamic tribunals have also been set up, with the aim of creating a legal framework for Sharia law and to condemn people who are perceived to be disloyal. Furthermore, training camps have been built, primarily for adolescents, in a military push and ideological training. IS has therefore not only conquered a significant area of land, but is also implementing a real societal transformation in the region. 

Considerable financial and military resources

Aiding them to establish their authority, the group benefits from considerable financial and military resources. As Christina Anagnostopoulos notes in her Le Journal International article, financial sources are abundant and efficient. According to the CIA, these different resources may provide the organisation with approximately one million dollars a day. This allows them, as well as continuing to grow, to offer their soldiers a much higher salary than other Jihadists, on average $500-700 a month, a significant factor in terms of recruitment. 

From a military point of view, Islamic State has three main resources at its disposal. Firstly, after the dismantling of Saddam Hussein’s army in 2003, the group seized control of important equipment that met a number of their needs: light weapons, helicopters, and a number of vehicles ranging from simple trucks to large tanks. Secondly, many military figures from Saddam Hussien’s former regime have since joined the ranks of IS, such as Izzat Ibrahim Al-Douri, former vice-President of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council, now head of general staff in IS. And finally, the organisation benefits from foreign fighters. If a large number of combatants are coming from the Middle East and North Africa (Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco, Turkey and Pakistan), it is estimated that several thousand Western fighters are also joining the ranks of IS, perhaps representing around 80 different nationalities. 

Professional Communication

Islamic State knows how to put an international and efficient communication system in place. Firstly, the media centre Al-Hayat, set up in May 2014, is a useful tool for propaganda. It releases all sorts of content: on the one hand, very violent videos and images show decapitations, hangings, crucifixions. On the other hand, the video series Mujatweets, show a very different side to the organisation, helping local populations. Similarly, the online magazine Dabia highlights, in regular updates, all the ‘successes’ of the group. All this content is provided in English, either through subtitles or dubbing,  opening up their recruitment to an international reach.

 The group has truly succeeded in taking advantage of social media. Even if since Mosel was taken some content has been suppressed on the web, like on Twitter in French, English and German, most of their videos are easily accessible to the public. Moreover, the controlling of some of their content online contributes indirectly to the process of propaganda. If Western media give it the title of ‘an IS propaganda film’, it is worth asking whether or not this increases its weight and significance as a propaganda film. 

The objectives of this propaganda are clear. Firstly, they help the organisation to convert certain people to their cause, and thus to increase the number of fighters and sympathisers of their ideas internationally. Also, through the broadcasting of violent and hateful messages, the group instils fear into those they consider their enemies. This approach can also, in the long term, instigate and foster a Western rejection of Muslims. This process is dangerous since it can create a stigmatisation of Islam, and will thus only increas the bitterness of IS and other Jihadist groups against the West. This instigation has already been used by former American President George W. Bush, with his definition of the ‘axis of evil’, which only served to reinforce lack of understanding between different cultures. Finally, although these objectives may seem similar to other Jihad organisations, the nature and the impact of communication set up far surpasses the other groups, particularly that of Al-Qaeda.

It is thus clear that this organisation is not typical of other groups, and poses a real threat to the stability not only of the region, but also internationally, with the problem of when these foreign fighters will want to return to their home countries. As Resolution 2170 states, adopted by the UN Security Council on 15th August 2014, “terrorism in all forms and manifestations constitutes one of the most serious threats to international peace and security”. However, it is important not to overestimate the capabilities of Islamic State. Two major weaknesses are apparent today. On one hand the military capacity of the group seems to be limited in the long term, from a human and material point of view. On the other hand, the reaction of the local population should be closely observed. Even if right now it seems that there is not a significant resistance, this can very rapidly change if these seized regions begin to lack money or when violence is used against them.