Middle East Politics, Politics

Who is really behind ISIS

ISIS Militants
ISIS Militants

As the conflicts in Iraq and Syria grind on, the consequences are evident and far reaching. The fighting and instability has forced people to flee the region, and consequently putting surrounding contries and regions, including Europe under immense pressure to deal with the unprecedented migration.

The group ISIS has been at the heart of this exodus given their brutal and ruthless methods applied against their military opponenents as well as civilian populations.

The ongoing war of attrition in both countries involving Assad in Syria and Iraqi forces in Iraq have largely contained ISIS, slowing down and in some reversing the group’s momentum. However, ISIS  remains a potent force for instability and terror in the region, and in some cases have extended their reach by inspiring or engineering attrocities against Western targets around the world.

So who is really behind ISIS and the strategic impact of the group? Ibrahim Awad Ibrahim al-Badri who is known by his nom de guerre Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been described by the group as their so-called caliph and leader. But is he really? Most likely not.

Although Baghdadi and his acolytes were involved in attacks on Coalition forces in Iraq and were later to become the successors of al-Qaida in Iraq, the organization, rapid growth and effectiveness ISIS has not been down to Baghdadi. Baghdadi did not have the charisma or connections and influence to bring about the comming together of jihadist groups that happened in Iraq around the middle of 2014.

These groups with links to influential Sunni tribes – tribal leaders who have played a duplicituous role so far in the Iraq conflict – morphed into a disciplined and effect group rising out of the Sunni heartlands of Iraq. This was key to the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi army in Mosul and the taking of the city by ISIS. The tactical competence demonstrated by ISIS in that operation demonstrated that this was more than just a ragtag group of jihadis, but a capable fighting force with some degree of military capabilities.

Crucially, the group’s leadership in Iraq at the time was headed by a former Lieutenant Colonel in Saddam Hussein’s intelligence, Fadel Ahmed Abdullah al-Hiyali better known as Abu Muslim al-Turkmani and an ethnic Turkmen and native of Tal Afar in northern Iraq  – he was killed in a US drone strike in August.

Sources present when Mosul fell to ISIS insist that there were no ISIS forces beseiging the city, instead that there were about 300 fighters who were mostly from the Abu Nimr and Al Dujgafi tribes, and a handful of ISIS fighters. It was the presence of these trbes and pressure from influential tribal members that convinced most of the Iraqi Army garrison in Mosul to abandon their positions, demonstrating the significance of the Sunni tribes in the conflict. Although ISIS  has a large foreign contingent – including Westerners – the bulk of their fighters come from Iraq and Syria.

It is the links between the leadership of ISIS and these Sunni tribes of not just in Iraq but also Syria have proved critical to what ISIS has so far been able to do. The group would not have gained this much ground and influence without the tacit or overt support from the tribes. Prising the tribes away from ISIS would fundamentally weaken the group.

In addition to the support from the tribes, ISIS has used religion – Islam – as a tool to of influence as well as coercion. The structure and set-up with a so-called caliph at the helm is part of that strategy to create the impression of religious and political legitimacy. However, the reality about who’s really in charge is somewhat different.

The fact that al-Baghdadi did not have the requisite organizational capabilities and connections to bring other jihadist and ionsurgent groups under his umbrella until the Ba’athists from Saddam Hussein’s defunct regime became involved is significant. Furthermore, the overall leadership structure of ISIS has several former Ba’athists in key positions. There is no doubt that the former Ba’athists with their connections and military know-how are critical to the strategic direction of ISIS.

It seems Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the so-calle caliph is just a figurehead and not the real power behind the ‘throne.’ is not. Even though religion appears to be fundamental to the groups philosophy, the reality is that the religious zealotry is a cover. Ba’athists are secular nationalists, and during Saddam Hussein’s regime had no qualms about using religion whenever it suited them in order to further their nationalist objectives.

Those objectives now are evident to observers and commentators on the region; de-Ba’athification of Iraq after the US-led invasion, the decline in Sunni influence and the rising role of the mainly Shia neighbor Iran in Iraq’s internal affairs has rankled not just the Sunnis in Iraq but also other Arab countries in the region, especially the Gulf States.

With a significant part of their funding coming from Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait, ISIS is now proving to the ‘nuclear option’ and doomsday plan all rolled in one that the Ba’athists unleashed after the fall of their regime in 2003. The primary objective is Sunni-Arab nationalism and these people want a new order in the region.

What a Pan-Arab State might look like
What a Pan-Arab State might look like

What is their vision? Maybe a unified dominant Arab nation across the region capable of dominating or even crushing their loathed rivals the Persians – Iran. The pendulum currently has swung in favour of the Iranians with proxies in Yemen, Lebanon, Iraq and Bashar al-|Assad in Syria. However, their rivals for leadership in the region, Saudi Arabia, is determined to undermine Iran’s influence; and that includes funding the likes of ISIS and other jihadist groups regardless of the misery and destruction wrecked on the region.

Finally, we should not forget the significant role played by Recep Tayyip Erdogan, president of Turkey. Although Turkey is a NATO member and key ally of the US, the role of Erdogan in the Iraq-Syria conflict has at best been questioinable or duplicituous. Erdogan is keen to see the fall of the Assad regime in Syria and consequently has tacitly if not actively provided support to ISIS and other jihadist groups fighting in Syria.

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