What is the Islamic State group anyway?

What is the Islamic State group anyway?
Comment: Is IS a homogenous group with a unified leadership, or merely a label invoked by violent criminal gangs? Laith Saud asks world leaders to consider their next moves carefully.
6 min read
01 Dec, 2015
The current response to IS terror attacks perpetuates a vicious cycle [Getty]

The Islamic State group has captivated the world. 

Since the Paris attacks a few weeks ago, governments have turned their attention to "fighting" IS. But with attention also comes scrutiny, and the more we scrutinise "the IS phenomenon", the more we see that government policies, both Western and Middle Eastern, have contributed to the group's growth. 

If we truly wish to defeat IS, it is time to have a more honest conversation about how governments use the threat of militant groups to advance other policies. 

The 'War on IS' myth

It is now becoming more clear that no government, be it Russia, the US, Iraq, Turkey, Iran, or beyond is actually fighting IS in order to defeat the group. 

Olivier Roy recently argued in the New York Times "no other state has treated ISIS as the greatest strategic threat to the world today".

But atypically and as testament to his intellect, Roy does not aimlessly lament the fact, he simply explains why not: There is nothing to strategically gain on the part of the Kurds, central government of Baghdad, Iran, Turkey, Saudis and all the rest to retake IS-controlled territory.

IS terror is real, dramatic and theatrical. They seem determined to capture the world's attention with professional PR videos that look more like Hollywood horror productions than documents of strategic gain or ideological pronouncement. 

Though the world is understandably concerned about the IS threat, statistically the destruction wrought by IS pales in comparison to that of Bashar al-Assad. 

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights IS is responsible for 0.8 percent of civilians killed in Syria, while Assad is responsible for a whopping 96.3 percent. 

     It is difficult for any reasonable person to reconcile our horror at IS acts... and our silence over Assad's culpability in creating the circumstances for IS

It is difficult for any reasonable person to reconcile our horror at IS acts, our insistence that lives matter - and our silence over Assad's culpability in creating the circumstances for IS - not to mention the quantity and scale of his crimes. 

Similarly, little is said of Iranian-backed militias in Iraq that look and act much like IS. It is difficult to deny that Baghdad and Damascus are responsible for creating conditions for the persistence of IS. 

As Roy also explains: "Bashar al-Assad's main adversary is the Syrian opposition - now also the main target of Russia, which supports him."

Meanwhile, the Iraqi government has no intention of reclaiming land lost to IS because it is "in no hurry to bring the Sunni minority back into Iraq's political mainstream; if they did, they would have to share power with it".

These types of formulations can be replicated and applied to all actors claiming to fight IS. The gap between what these governments say and what they actually do is so stark it has lead Ali Anouzla to confidently claim "the list of IS beneficiaries is long, even if they claim to be at war with the organisation. They are countries and regimes that oppose IS in public but greatly enjoy the numerous political benefits afforded to them due to the existence of IS," an observation with which I agree.

What does this layout reveal?

It is difficult to conclude, however, that so many countries with conflicting interests could all benefit from IS and maintain the idea that IS is one simple, traditional organisation. 

For example, it is often proffered that IS is made up of former officers of the Iraqi Baath party; which is no doubt plausible, considering political malpractice in Baghdad and the disbandment of the Saddam-era Iraqi military. 

But it is also argued that Bashar al-Assad created IS to undermine the secular Syrian opposition; while many more argue IS is a Gulf creation, as its manners and patterns reflect those of Wahhabi Islam. 

I will not bother to venture into more difficult theories to prove, such as the US or Israel created IS, theories which are popular in Iran and Iraq, to mention just two. 

It is legitimate to ask whether these theories are compatible or exclusive.

If former Baathist officers of Iraq make up IS, how can one explain their cooperation with Bashar al-Assad? Assad, though ostensibly a Baathist himself, has little to do with Arab nationalism; the Baath party in Syria has historically aligned itself with non-Arab Iran [the Iraqi Baath's "great enemy"]. 

The current governments in Baghdad and Damascus have the same sponsor - Iran, thus it makes sense for an IS of this progeny to fight them, but it does not. 

The secular Free Syrian Army (FSA) would be a more natural ally to an IS made up of former Iraqi officers, but evidence indicates the FSA is busy fighting both IS and Assad on multiple fronts.

     If IS were merely a militarised version of Wahhabi Islam, it would pose more of a threat to the Gulf states than anyone else

If IS were merely a militarised version of Wahhabi Islam, it would pose more of a threat to the Gulf states than anyone else. And again, we would see a more concerted effort from IS to fight Assad, but that does not happen either. 

Moreover, I have pointed out that Iran and Russia, though claiming to fight IS, have focused their energies on suppressing revolts in Iraq and Syria particularly, furthering the idea that IS is not a "Wahhabi threat". 

But again, one cannot deny that in certain parts of northern Iraq it seems IS is more welcomed than the central government of Baghdad - lending some credit to the IS as former Iraqi officers theory.

Looking at the larger picture, the more likely reality is this: IS is a label, invoked by disparate groups, with vastly separated interests, agendas and even lineages. 

Terrorists, officers, militants and even common criminals have employed the IS label to take territory, shake down local neighbourhoods and sell oil on the black market to regional states, including Israel

If this is the more likely case, what can it possibly mean that something like a dozen countries - some in conflict with one another - have formed an anti-IS coalition? It means since everyone is using IS - as argued by Roy and Anouzla - all those using IS must also be at the table in determining its fate. 

The Paris attack, a threat to the Schengen agreement, has pushed forward a whole new wrinkle on the global stage - but the response means more of the same.

Laith Saud is a writer and scholar. He is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University and co-author of An Introduction to Islam for the 21st Century (Wiley-Blackwell). Follow him on Twitter: @laithsaud

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.