The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant also known as ISIS or just IS is a Salafi jihadist militant group that adheres to an Islamic fundamentalist, Wahhabi doctrine of Sunni Islam and currently controls vast territories in Iraq and Syria and a population ranging from 2.8 to 8 million people. The Islamic State, which is what ISIL calls itself, proclaimed a worldwide caliphate in June 2014 with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi being named its caliph. As a caliphate, it claims religious, political and military authority over all Muslims worldwide. ISIL affiliates also control small areas of Libya, Nigeria and Afghanistan and operate in other parts of the world, including North Africa and South Asia. That’s why claims that it is only a regional problem are hard to comprehend especially given the numbers of foreign fighters which are estimated at around 31 000.
The group originated as Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad in 1999, pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 and participated in the Iraqi insurgency following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003. Joining other Sunni insurgent groups to form the Mujahideen Shura Council, it proclaimed the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in October 2006. At the outbreak of the Syrian Civil war in 2011, ISI wanted to merge with al-Nusra Front to form the “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”. However, this merger was rejected by both the al-Nusra and al-Qaeda leaders who subsequently cut all ties with ISIL by February 2014. You know you are unpopular when al-Qaeda cuts you off but then again ISIL has found a new friend in Boko Haram which has actually killed more people than ISIL in 2014. It’s rather mind boggling that we don’t pay as much attention to the latter organization.
So how do we defeat ISIL bearing in mind that it’s not as easy as launching airstrikes at military objectives or Raqqa which has been a target of recent anti ISIL bombings. The approach has to be a combination of psychological, physical and economic warfare. ISIL’s strategy is to divide and conquer; to turn non-Muslims against Muslims hoping to set off a global religious war. Its goal is to leave Sunni Muslims in Europe, America and the Middle East no choice but to seek refuge in the terrorist group’s own self-declared caliphate. The lack of knowledge that the West’s population has of the meanings of the words Islam and Islamist, and jihad and jihadism only contributes to spreading of fear and misunderstanding. Also, the fact that most Muslim countries are refusing to call ISIL, ”the Islamic State” and opting instead to call it Daesh, because they claim that there is nothing Islamic about it, is creating more confusion which leads to fear which manifests itself in the rise of islamophobia everywhere.
Maajid Nawaz writes in his article for the Wall Street Journal: “It is as disingenuous to argue that Islamic State is entirely divorced from Islam as it is to assert that it is synonymous with Islam. Islamism is not Islam, but it is an offshoot of Islam. Islamism is the desire to impose a single version of Islam on an entire society. It is Muslim theocracy. Jihad is a traditional Muslim idea connoting struggle (not war in the name of Islam), sometimes a personal spiritual struggle, sometimes a struggle against an external enemy. Jihadism on the other hand is the doctrine of using force to spread Islamism.” Having said that, it is absolutely crucial that Muslim leaders, and heads of Muslim countries condemn the acts of ISIL which claims to carry out those act in the name of Islam, but it’s also necessary that ordinary Muslim civilians participate in an ongoing and at the moment very misguided conversation about the difference between Islam and radical Islamism. It’s true that ISIL doesn’t represent the views of most Muslims but the foreign fighters who are coming to join ISIL are Muslims whose faith is being exploited for a totalitarian political project and must be reclaimed from the theocrats. Walking on egg shells when speaking about radical Islamism is not the best strategy to undertake at the moment but a lot of people are afraid to admit that they don’t really know much about the complexities of Islam itself. Lack of awareness is bad, but the spread of misinformation is much more dangerous.
The alternative view is that ISIL won’t be a long lasting phenomenon because it is self-imploding and therefore will gradually destroy itself due to its reliance on Arab and foreign fighters who have different objectives as well as money from oil sales, the brutality with which ISIL treats those who resist being recruited or those who live on ISIL controlled territory, the lack of support for its project from the Muslim world, inadequate logistical support as well as mismanagement that regimes before suffered from. Many people say that the best kind of military intervention should come from a coalition of Muslim countries and not a Western one, which would only serve to incentivize more people to join ISIL because of the propaganda that the West is at war with Islam.