THE NEW BINLADEN 05 August, 2014
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), also known as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is the biggest jihadist group fighting in Iraq and Syria. (S in ISIS stands for the Arabic word al-Sham, referring normally to the Levant, or the eastern Mediterranean states.) With its focus shifting to Iraq, the ISIS has scored many victories this year, starting with the capture of Fallujah in January. It shocked the world with its audacious takeover of Mosul, the second largest city of Iraq, in June. One of the richest insurgent groups in the world with assets reportedly worth $2 billion, it has now its sights set on Baghdad, throwing the Middle East into a fresh crisis.
The Invisible Sheikh
It is these qualities that make al Baghdadi such a hero to his followers. To them he is a leader who has proved himself in combat (certainly no dry Islamic theologian as al Qaeda’s Ayman al-Zawahiri). He controls day-to-day operations, which together with his secrecy only increases his prestige. What he lacks in talk, he makes up for with ambition. Frustrated with limiting his sadism to Iraq, he formally decided to expand into Syria on April 8, 2013 and in so doing, morphed ISIS into the Islamic State of Iraq and the Leant (ISIL)
The Tech Savvy caliphate
Al-Baghdadi has proved to be the complete 21st century jihadi: Not only financially astute but internet savvy. The camera phone and broadband internet have propelled ISIS into the international imagination. Recently, the group abducted and beheaded an Iraqi police officer and then tweeted a picture of the severed head with the caption: “This is out ball. It is made of skin World Cup”.
ISIS Enters a Divided House
In their desperation to find a ‘strongman’ who was capable of restoring order to the country, the US and UK then compounded their initial mistake by settling on Maliki as their preferred candidate, and helping to secure his election as Iraqi prime minister in April 2006. Maliki was strong, but he was also a bigot. Capable Sunni ministers were booted out of office on spurious grounds and the offices of state and the civil service filled with Shias determined to strengthen their grip on Iraq at the expense of the Sunnis.
The Kurds, meanwhile, have their own concerns. As the Iraqi army deserted the oil-rich city of Kirkuk (Jerusalem for Kurds), Kurdish forces moved in. They have little inclination to leave. “Kirkuk is ours”, said my Kurdish friend Mustafa to me over the phone. And our state is coming, just watch. Statehood is a centuries old Kurdish dream and Mustafa was merely echoing a belief now percolating through Iraqi Kurdistan.
Saudis Fear Shia Iran
Iraq is unraveling. And Iran (which already holds considerable influence in the country) has stepped gratefully into the mess. The Revolutionary Guard has two battalions on the ground while the Quds force chief major General Qassem Suleimani is reportedly in Baghdad overseeing the fight back. Tehran considers the fall of Iraq to ISIS an existential threat. It possesses the resources to ensure this doesn’t happen.
All this has terrified Saudi Arabia, the region’s “Sunni lion”. The emergence of an increasingly powerful and anti Sunni Shia Crescent (the notionally crescent shaped region of West Asia with a high Shia population, stretching from Lebanon right around to Qatar) has, in Riyadh’s eyes, materialized. Saudi spy chief yourself bin Ali al Idrisi is fighting a proxy sectarian war with Selemani in Syria as Iranians battle to keep the Alawite Assad in power and Saudis fund Sunni rebels groups trying to overthrow him.
Just over a decade ago, the West decided to reorder Iraq’s internal politics and in so doing, set in motion events that have reordered West Asia’s geopolitical landscape to Iran’s benefit. As ISIS continues to advance across Iraq, it is clear that the only immutable law in West Asia in the one of unintended consequences.
Delhi is also aware of the wider problem. ISIS has rebooted the jihadi franchise; Sunni in surgents around the world are watching and hoping to emulate its striking success. Both al Qaueda and the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Toiba are capable of Launching terror strikes in India, which a possible spurt in violence in Jammu & Kashmir, taking the Government’s focus away from growth and much-needed economic recovery, also remains a danger. Prolonged instability in Iraq could also hike India’s oil prices (Iraq is the coutry’s scond largest oil supplier after Saudi Arabia) further damaging the economy. The threat is significant and procimate-not bad for a man who is only 42.