World News

07.29.14

The ISIS Caliphate’s Frightening First Month

A month after the founding of the so-called Caliphate in Iraq and Syria, it’s richer, better armed, more durable—and dangerous—than ever before.

LONDON — One month ago, Abu Muhammad al ‘Adnani, chief spokesman for the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), announced a name change. The “Iraq and al Sham” was to be dropped and it was to be rebranded simply as the “Islamic State” (IS), the restored “Caliphate” led by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, a man who also went for a name change, and now goes by the moniker “Caliph Ibrahim.”

A lot has happened in the month since then, and not just in Iraq and Syria. As a result, many important developments have not received the attention they are due. So it is high time we draw everything “IS” back into focus.

While its advances have begun to slow in Iraq, they have accelerated in Syria and, at the same time, its brutal mode of politicking has become widely entrenched in the territories it has conquered. Certainly, compared to June, things have slowed down. A status quo of sorts seems to be emerging. What, though, does it look like?

Militarily, IS is more formidable than ever. This is for two principal reasons: First, with every victory against the Iraq Security Forces, it accumulates new high-tech weaponry, the likes of which no jihadist group has ever before enjoyed. These include, among other things, some 1,500 Humvees and 52 Howitzer artillery guns, which have a range of up to 20 miles.

Second, the proclamation of the “Caliphate” made the group more appealing to would-be jihadists. While it is impossible to quantify how greatly Baghdadi’s self-appointment as “Caliph” has affected IS recruitment, there is no doubt that it heightened the already substantial millenarian appeal of the group. It meant that some extremists were now interested not only in fighting jihad against perceived injustice, but in becoming the founding fathers of what they perceive to be an “Islamic” utopia as well, a theme that runs throughout IS propaganda.

On the back of these developments, there has been a notable shift in IS focus. Having consolidated control in northwestern Iraq and spurned all Iraqi government counter-attacks to date, Baghdadi’s shock-troopers have crossed into Syria, where they have been making impressive gains. Indeed, last week, IS propagandists circulated grisly videos of the decapitated occupants of Assad’s largest military base in northeast Syria.

In terms of its economic clout, IS also has made considerable gains largely owing to its accumulation of massive amounts of oil and water, the dual foundations of the political economy of the Middle East.

Currently, it controls many of Iraq’s northern oilfields and is in a strong position to take its largest refinery at Baiji. On top of this, three weeks ago, IS took over Syria’s largest oilfield in al-Omar. Once a field is secured, IS has been quick to make a profit, reportedly earning millions of dollars selling oil to the Assad regime and, allegedly, to Iraqi businessmen.

There’s even an “emir of electricity.”

In terms of water, IS has long controlled the Tabqa Dam and, hence, Lake Assad, in Syria, as well as the Fallujah and Mosul dams in Iraq. It thus falls to IS to provide drinking water and irrigation to massive areas of farmland. In a sense, IS has become a de facto state provider that enjoys a complex economic and infrastructural interdependence with the populations that live within its territories, something that further insulates it from outside attack.

Weapons and money aside, though, the aspect that’s attracting most analysis right now is the nature of the IS state and the question of whether it can, having won many hearts and minds in the last couple of months, continue to keep its subjects content enough to avoid rebellion.

Anecdotal evidence seems to suggest that, while it is brutal, the IS mode of governance still enjoys a significant amount of support in Syria and Iraq. That said, claims like this are often inflated and, while IS social and infrastructural programs—which have included the building of hospitals and bread factories—are impressive, they are not unprecedented.

Nor are the mechanisms by which it rules. Indeed, the legal intricacies of Baghdadi’s “Caliphate” are not hugely different from other extremist conceptions of the “Islamic” state, such as those found under the Taliban in 1990s Afghanistan.

What is different is the efficiency with which it has become a source of social and judicial authority and, in a sense, stability. In Syria’s Raqqa, for example, a jihadist bureaucracy has flourished: an “Islamic Services Commission” now occupies what was once the town hall and sharia police operate in tandem with their criminal and traffic counterparts. There’s even an emir of electricity. Furthermore, for those who are loyal, fuel prices have dropped by as much as 68 percent, while cheap water and bread are readily on offer.

Perhaps that is why IS’s savage interpretation of sharia law—under which smoking is punishable by lashing, thievery by amputation and “treason” by crucifixion—has not alienated local populations as quickly as many predicted it would.

This impressive record of political consolidation, however, does not leave it invulnerable. It has become clear, of late, that much of what has happened in Iraq and Syria over the last year has come at the bidding of certain Sunni tribes, which have allowed al Baghdadi to become the poster boy for their rebellion. Indeed, the complex system of alliances upon which IS hegemony balances is key to the group’s survival. If it falls apart, then the “Caliphate” will almost certainly fragment, too.

The possibility of this happening is, depending on who you listen to, very real. According to some, it is a marriage of convenience doomed to failure, with Iraqi tribal leaders like the Islamic Army of Iraq’s Sheikh Ahmed al-Dabash claiming that they will turn against IS as soon as Nouri al-Maliki’s government has fallen. Already, there have been reports of internecine campaigns of assassination being waged among the anti-Maliki coalition. It remains to be seen how these alleged feuds will unravel.

So, if nothing else, the last month has proven that it is unwise to deal in hypotheticals in any analysis of IS. Many widely held expectations have proven to be misplaced—Maliki still has not gone, nearly all Iraqi government counter-attacks have failed miserably, IS civil rule seems to be consolidating well, and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, there has been a stony silence from al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahri (remember him?) regarding the Caliphate’s legitimacy. What is certain, though, is that it is Iraq’s Sunni tribes who hold the greatest hopes for ousting the jihadist state