ISIS in Iraq: Storm or Pawn?

ISIS fighters in Syria.

Last week, much media coverage focused on ISIS’s capture of Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, writes Abdullah al Andalusi.

ISIS, which stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” declare themselves not just a Jihad army, but an actual “Islamic State,” which talks of establishing a Caliphate!

Many questions were raised – How could a force of roughly 800 defeat an army of 30,000 in Mosul? Did this victory signify an existential threat to Iraq, the region, and ultimately the United States of America? And has the long-awaited Caliphate returned?

Like most media coverage, a lot of details have been, somewhat deliberately, obscured or under-reported. Before we can discuss what the future holds, let us understand the situation and history of the very shadowy ISIS.

Iraq and the Origins of ISIS

The proto-ISIS group, Tawhid al-Jihad (TJ) arose during the Iraq war, as a group amongst a coalition of resistance fighters against Iraqi occupation. It changed its name a few times: under Ayad Zawahiri, becoming the “The organisation of the base of Jihad in the land of the two rivers”; then the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) in 2006 from a coalition of multiple resistance movements; and in 2013 it branched into Syria, and appended the title “The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS).

TJ, being mainly a home-grown Iraqi group, then strategically allied itself with the international Al-Qaeda franchise to attract funding, resources and Muslim volunteers from outside Iraq to bolster its ranks. However, it made a number of strategic mistakes, as well as adopting an un-Islamic methodology of deeming civilians to be acceptable targets in war.

The first strategic mistake was declaring war on Iraq’s Shia Muslims in response to Iraqi collaborators helping the US forces attack and kill Iraqi civilians (who happened to be mainly Sunni). Despite such a war declaration being completely against Islam, it was also militarily and politically counter-productive and detrimental to the resistance.

The resistance fighters of Iraq included Shia groups as well as Sunni groups, however TJ managed to ultimately incite Shia groups against Sunni groups, causing untold horror and misery upon Muslim civilians of both persuasions. This helped the US’s occupation of Iraq, as they could now portray themselves as the “lesser of two evils” and “neutral’ to both sides.

This sectarian war in Iraq got so bad that even Ayman Zawahiri had to plead with them to stop attacking Shia forces and populations, and focus on the US occupation force. Some people even believed that the US government deliberately gave enough leeway to TJ in order to ensure this exact result.

ISI’s relationship with Sunni resistance groups also fell apart due to their second strategic blunder, namely their inability to understand the nuances of Islamic laws of warfare, governance and a superficial and unsubtle understanding of Islamic law that made their application of it little different to vigilantes.

Their zero-tolerance policy to any dissent caused the Iraqi Muslims who had been working with it to become deeply disaffected. ISI unilaterally (and without consultation of pledges of allegiance from other groups) declared themselves to be an “Islamic State”, and viewed their work and political authority over all Muslims as Islamically mandatory.

Mosul is Iraq's second largest city
Mosul is Iraq’s second largest city

This led them to reason that any and all those who thereafter disagree with them, must be rebels and apostates to cause of Islam, and therefore deserved severe punishment. This led to summary executions, bombing attacks against Iraqi Muslim tribal chiefs, bombing of Sunni civilians and assassinations of fellow resistance fighter commanders.

US policy-makers simply watched the besieged Sunni Iraq population, being squeezed between ISI, the Shia sectarian “death squad” militias and the American military forces, until the right moment, where they then offered money and weapons to the Iraqi tribal chiefs and resistance fighters to stop fighting the US and create their own “Awakening Councils” to fight ISI and secure their own lands from marauding Shia militias (who had been brutalising and killing Sunni Iraqi civilians during the peak of the sectarian conflict).

Thus the ISI lost their allies en masse and were kicked out of many territories – forcing them to go underground.

However, after the elections, the political system of Iraq caused much oppression by the majority backed political parties against the minorities within Iraq. ISI’s come back would be helped by the most divisive and socially destructive force known in politics – Democracy.
Iraqi Democracy, and the return of ISIS

The Nouri al Maliki’s political party, Hizb ul Dawah, attained power in Iraq using the U.S-framed political system. It ignored the warning against using the system of democracy in the works of its highly respected, deceased founder Mohammed Baqir ul Sadr (killed by Saddam), an intellectual and scholar who advocated Caliphate in his works on Wilayet al Ummah.

Sadr rejected democracy strongly when he said “democracy is a system destined for definite collapse and failure” in his book, Our Philosophy. He predicted that democracy would lead to oppression of the minority by the majority (2), and creating a system of people in constant conflict with each other (3). Unfortunately, what he predicted came true – ironically, caused by the very organisation he founded.

Under the democratic system, Iraq’s already entrenched divisions (mostly created by a successful US divide and rule strategy) became even more exacerbated and led to a land sharply divided between the categories of “Sunni Muslims”, “Shia Muslims” and “Kurds” (despite Kurds being mostly Sunni Muslims).

It should be mentioned that before the invasion of Iraq, the concept of one’s school of thought as defining a distinct community in Muslim society was mostly alien to Iraqis. However, the seeds of division were planted after the first Gulf War, and compounded with the deliberate and differential treatment US occupation forces gave to Iraqis based upon the categories as part of their divide and rule strategy.

The Iraqi regime, being predominantly composed of Shia Muslim politicians, then did what every democratic government does when consisting of a majority, it sidelined its minorities, and ultimately treated them as second-class citizens, leading ultimately to a campaign of torture, killing, and severe persecution.

Sunni Muslim party politicians were harassed, threatened with prosecution who voicing dissent, imprisoned, assassinated or had to flee Iraq. The Vice-president Tariq al Hashemi, was accused of supporting terrorism, and he had to flee to Turkey. He was sentenced to death in absentia.

Nouri al Maliki was a president as tyrannical as any of Iraq’s previous leaders – with one exception, the Iraqi army he commanded, mostly armed and trained by US Army, was undisciplined and unprofessional – and very unreliable. They had mostly depended on US military support to conduct their operations (and still do).

Under Iraq’s new democratic regime, the Muslims of the north became more and more aggrieved, and this offered the perfect opportunity for the return of ISI to prominence. ISI had never left Iraq, and had instead waged an underground terror campaign against mainly Shia Muslim population areas. The more civilians they killed, the more the Iraqi government clamped down on Sunnis, the more the Sunni population would be sympathetic to ISIS.

ISIS – a minority faction of the uprising against the Iraqi Regime

ISIS are not the only armed northern group, nor even the majority amongst the groups.

There are thousands of armed former resistance fighters from a number of groups, like former Baathist military, armed Iraqi Sunni tribes (a single tribe can command 10,000 men), The Supreme Command for Jihad and Liberation (a coalition of 23 groups, led by the lead group The Army of Men of the Order of Naqshaband), Ansar ul Sunnah and many others.

Many of these different groups have been resisting the Iraqi central government, and attempting to defend Iraqis in the north and west from government persecution. In fact, pro-Sunni TV channels in Iraq like Al-Rafidain refer to the Sunni armed forces as the General Military Council of Iraqi Revolutionaries, and NOT ISIS.

This begs the question, why does virtually all Western media channels, and Western/Iraqi government politicians refer exclusively to the fighters as ISIS?

ISIS have been reported to have learnt lessons from their past about how to work with others. They seem to have making an attempts to try and win hearts and minds of the Sunni populations by focusing on administering their territories, providing resources and facilities for the public. In their invasion of Mosul, we hear from a variety of sources, that they have to some extent been welcomed as liberators.

However, the disproportionate media attention on ISIS, as opposed to the majority of other groups fighting against oppression by the Iraqi central government, is notable and significant. The cause of the oppressed northern and western Iraqi Muslims has been played down, deliberately leaving the only issue of notice to be the “roving terrorists of ISIS.”

This conveniently plays into the hands of both the Iraqi regime and the US. Of course, Bashar al Assad also deployed the “terror card” to great success in the media to demonise the Syrian opposition.

ISIS are now carefully wooing Sunni tribes and other armed groups to ally with them to push back the generally perceived oppressive Iraqi regime. But despite this, ISIS still retains some of its un-Islamic policies.

Its depiction of the fight as a general one against all Shia Muslims will end up going against them – uniting the Muslims in the south under a banner of defence against sectarian opponents perceived as coming to kill them. Iran has used this perception to attempt to increase its influence in Iraq (being its neighbour, and having the ability to easily deploy troops there).

This perception has also allowed Nouri al Maliki to rouse sectarian concerns to desperately recruit volunteers to his cause (and replace the defunct soldiers of the Iraqi army). Grand Ayatollah Sistani has rallied volunteers to fight ISIS, believing, like most southern Iraqis do, that this is a war against sectarian terrorists. This means that ISIS have caused their opponents to rally a large amount of people against them and their allies.

The allies of ISIS, northern and western Sunni Iraqis, who only wanted liberation from a tyrannical democratic government, will now have to bare the brunt of enemies they really had no interest in fighting, the majority population of Shias in the South – who are innocent of the actions of the Iraqi government.

The claimed ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani allegedly said:

“March towards Baghdad. The Shia are a disgraced people. God forbid that they become victorious over you. How can they when they are polytheists. Don’t stop until you reach Baghdad and Kerbala. Be prepared! Iraq will transform into a living hell for the Shia and other heretic.”

If this is true, than this represents the same gross misjudgment that led to ISIS’s previous failures and trouble-making for rebels and resistance fighters in Syria as well as Iraq.

Unwitting pawns of oppressive regimes

In 1991, an election in Algeria yielded a landslide victory to the FIS Islamic party in fair elections. Before the next round could take place, the Algerian government, backed by the US and Europe, annulled the elections “to protect democracy” and banned the FIS. This led to a popular uprising lasting 10 years and leading to thousands of deaths.

An armed resistance formed, and many of the Algerian people supported it. How did the Algerian government deal with a popular rebellion? Simple, they infiltrated and promoted the most extreme fringe group amongst them, namely a group within the loosely organised GIA (Armed Islamic Group). The government then set a faction within the GIA to fight each other. This fringe group within the GIA then started “apparently” killing their own supporters from amongst the civilian population, and fighting rival factions, like the pro-FIS AIS (Islamic Salvation Army).

The fringe faction from the GIA committed so many massacres (with secret Algerian army help, and even instigation), that the non-fringe faction of GIA had to publicly separate from it and created their own group called GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat). This tactic was a success for the Algerian government, who portrayed themselves as the “lesser of two evils” and won over the Algerian population to their cause.

In Syria, Bashar al Assad is claimed to have released ISI members in Syrian jails during the outset of the rebellion, in order to purposely divide the rebels. Assad also skillfully turned the conflict from being one of opposition to secular oppression, to one of sectarian warfare – allowing Iran, southern Iraqi volunteers, and Hezbollah the pretext to intervene to come to his aid.

Al Qaeda’s Zawahiri pleaded with the now rebranded ISIS to stop sectarian attacks, and their zero-tolerance of dissent with other rebel groups – all to no avail.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki

Of course, the problem of ISIS may be due to the Syrian government’s clever policies to divide and rule. The Syrian government had previously supported the Iraqi resistance against US occupation, including ISI. Witnesses and reports coming from within Syria detail ISIS selling oil to the Syrian regime for money, as well as the fact that the Syrian regime do not bomb ISIS positions to the degree that they attack the other rebels (some reports even say, no bombing at all).

Furthermore, ISIS’s operations in Syria seem more focused on other rebels, then they do on the Syria regime itself. While this has deeply benefitted the Syrian regime, allowing it to claim it is the lesser of two evils, and sapping global support for the Syrian resistance – the benefits ISIS have gained from their power base in Syria has allowed it increased sources of funding to permit it to take a leading role in the Iraqi rebellion against the central government.

Now, Nouri al Maliki can use ISIS to collectively demonise the entire northern uprising against his regime.

In conclusion, ISIS still retain their unIslamic, and strategically counter-productive policies that effectively and strategically undermine the Islamic resistance movements in both Syria and Iraq.

ISIS’s gains in Iraq, also allows the US to increase its influence in the region, as a weak Iraqi government must come back groveling for US military support. The US withdrew all their forces in 2011, as they were unhappy with the Iraqi government’s terms to cease exempting US forces from Iraqi judicial prosecution.

ISIS has provided the perfect pretext (again) for the US, who have been reticent to help the Iraqi government with airstrikes months before, and may have given ISIS and the “Sunni insurgency” the leeway it needed to become a problem for the Iraqi government, in order for the US to have a renewed bargaining chip. This would fit the US plan to perpetuate its access to Iraqi military facilities and compete to increase their influence in Iraq and decrease Iran’s influence.

This may be similar to how when the Pakistani government were forced, due to popular outrage, to request the US to cease drone strikes in Pakistan last year – until the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) attack against Karachi airport allowed the Pakistani government the public support to allow U.S. to resume the drone strikes.

Saudi Arabia and ISIS

Pro-Bashar al Assad’s media platforms, and some in the Western media have speculated that ISIS may be indirectly funded by US and their proxies (e.g. corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia) in order to fight a proxy war against “shiites” and Iran.

However this narrative is part of exacerbating the Sunni/Shia conflict, rather than explaining it. This can be seen when the story is put to further scrutiny, it is simply not born out by actions or policy of the Saudi government, nor their interests.

ISIS’s ideology considers Saudi Arabia an illegitimate regime based upon non-Islamic law, that must be toppled. Of course, this is shared by most Muslims – but where ISIS differs, is that it believes the Saudi rulers to be apostates from Islam. Consequently, Saudi Arabia has declared ISIS along with Jabhat al Nusra and Muslim Brotherhood as terrorist groups .

Saudi has also banned preaching, financing and exhorting Saudis to fight abroad or travel to these conflict zones to fight. Furthermore, ISIS affiliated cells in Saudi, have been caught planning to renewal a terror campaign against the regime.

While Saudi and the US does indeed fund groups like the Free Syrian Army and various Syrian rebel groups, Saudi Arabia would not support movements that openly promote its own downfall, and could blowback against it or be uncontrollable once they became successful.

This does not mean that Saudi hasn’t been funding the other Sunni groups in Iraq who are fighting alongside ISIS, but if so, it would only be those goals are more in line with Saudi policy (e.g. a secular nationalist Arab state against Iran). However, this doesn’t mean that ISIS aren’t receiving funds from anywhere. According to analysts and US officials, many private citizens within the Persian Gulf countries may be illegally and quietly funding such groups.

ISIS and the Phantom Caliphate

ISIS’s call to Caliphate, while a common Muslim sentiment, permits the Western media and the US to demonise and depict the concept of a Caliphate as a sectarian and deeply ignorant and brutal regime. For example, just two days ago, a Channel 4 program (UK television) depicted the recent gain of Mosul by ISIS under the banner “Sunni vs Shia – A new Caliphate.”

And a large number of media sites have arisen discussing the ISIS + the “Caliphate”. This may be the media’s attempts to create a “phantom caliphate,” an observation first proposed by professor Noman Hanif, which is essentially to damage the high esteem the concept held in the Muslim collective memory, and ultimately turn Muslims against it (and towards a secular system).

ISIS are not a Caliphate, as they are not even a state, nor are they able to effectively rule and secure the lands and boundaries supposedly under their control.

While many Muslims engage in political work to re-establish the Caliphate, and many more eagerly await its return – it would be unwise to pin hopes on an irregular militia that not only lack the resources to establish a state, but are strategically vulnerable too.

The Stakeholders

The US policy in the region has been consistent, and should be borne in mind: it seeks to prevent the return of the Caliphate, promote and spread the Western political system, and further US influence and strengthen its foothold for it in the Middle East in order to control the region against other competitors.

Furthermore, the US and other Western powers have an interest to keep Muslim states weak and divided from each other. Not only does this prevent the re-unification of the Muslim world, but also allows each state to be contained and dealt with individually and easily.

Therefore it is in US, Israel and other Western powers’ interests to keep the Muslim world divided as much as possible using the useful pretext of sectarian and ethnic lines. During the Iran-Iraq war, the US successfully helped to reduce the military strength of two power nations, and it became known that it even supplied arms to both nations simultaneously to affect that goal. It is for that reason that politicians, pundits and the media all echo with the chorus of sectarian war, and sunni vs shia.

Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on Iraqis to fight ISIS
Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani has called on Iraqis to fight ISIS

Indeed, they would make the audience think that the Sunni vs Shia conflict had been an actively military one for 1,400 years, with no end in sight – except embracing secularism (which is ironic, considering it was secular identity politics borne out of the democratic system which put Iraqis in this position in the first place).

The Iraqi government, set up and propped up by the US seeks to retain control of Iraq, and have proven an abysmal failure to control a slowly growing insurgency against it. ISIS would now provide the perfect excuse to both undermine and obscure the legitimate grievances of the rebellion, and garner domestic support from concerned southern Iraqis (who have been made to believe that the northern rebellion is an existential threat to them), and obtain US military support to finish off the dissenters on the ground.

Iran sees both the ISIS-labelled rebellion as an opportunity to increase its influence and control over Iraq, and constrain US influence. It will attempt to mobilise to get some kind of military presence in Iraq under the pretext of “fighting the terrorists,” then ensure the Iraqi government dances more to its tune.

It was already successful in rousing Iraqi public opinion against US forces continued presence, leading to their withdrawal in 2011. Iran will also conveniently play the sectarian card, albeit depicting the conflict as a “Muslim vs extremism (takfiri)” conflict. This allows it to rally Shias round its causes, without declaring war on Sunnis. While Iran doesn’t seek a “sunni/shia” conflict, it will certainly take advantage of the Shias believing they are under attack, in order for them to ally themselves with Iran.

The Northern and Western Iraqi rebels, due to the inevitable flaws of democracy, have bracketed themselves as an oppressed minority defined loosely by their school of thought against an unjust and sectarian Iraqi government. While most rebel groups distrust ISIS, many see them as either a “necessary evil,” or the “lesser of two evils” (both being un-Islamic concepts).

The rebels contain a mixture of secular nationalists, and pro-Islamic movements. Their most likeliest objective is either to force the Iraqi government to cease sectarian policies, or create a succession of the Sunni areas away from southern control – much like the Kurdish semi-autonomous enclave. The Kurdish north have also voiced strong concerns about the unjust central Iraqi government, and have pursued a Kurdish nationalist agenda, recently taking the long-coveted Kirkuk and occupying it with Kurdish fighters.

The Kurdish authorities will not be intending to relinquish Kirkuk anytime soon (if ever). The Kurdish authorities would prefer a weak central government, and may tolerate the new gains by the Sunni Arabs neighbours. However, they may be incited to attack ISIS if they are promised recognition of their control of Kirkuk.


The quick (and suspicious) retreat by 30,000 Iraqi troops from Mosul last week, may be just a weak and incompetent army, or it may be because the Iraqi army units and their commanders were recruited from the oppressed Sunni minority in the North (who didn’t want to fight their own people, or there may be something more sinister.

However, the retreat of the Iraqi troops has certainly created the image of the perceived success of extremists which now will conveniently whip up the domestic and international political will for further intervention by foreign powers aimed at further subjugating and weakening the oppressed Muslims of Iraq and the cause of Islam.

As Muslims, we should not be fooled into sectarian feuding and fighting – this is just a distraction away from our Islamic obligations for unity. Indeed, the achievement of unity can only be attained via the (re)establishment of Caliphate.

Iraq was ruled for centuries, peacefully under Ottoman rule, where Shias and Sunnis were considered to be under one millet, distinct from Christians, Jews and others. For most of the last 1,000 years, there had been no violence due to differing schools of thought, as the Caliphate state only cared about political allegiance, not points of theological doctrine. This neutral position on theological points of contention within Islam, allowed the Sunni Ottoman government to take responsibility for designated holy sites to the point where the Shia Iraqi shrines had been maintained for hundreds of years by Ottoman funding.

“And hold fast to the rope of Allah, and do not be divided amongst yourselves.”

(Quran 3:103)

The incitement to sectarian mindsets, and the constantly blind faith in secular democracy to deliver success and unity, has been the root cause of the problems of the Iraqi people.

It was narrated that the Prophet Muhammed (saaw) said: “If the leaders do not govern according to the Book of Allah, you should realise that this has never happened without Allah making them into groups and making them fight one another” [Hadith collection of Ibn Majah].

The Muslim world must not be fooled into thinking that the Islamic Caliphate resembles anything like the vigilante understanding exhibited by ISIS. The historical Caliphates were enlightened, merciful and principled – unfortunately the current Muslim world suffers from a post-colonial amnesia and illiteracy when it comes to Islamic political thought (and jurisprudence).

The Muslims of Iraq, and indeed the Muslim world must rid themselves of puppet, nationalistic and parochial governments, and establish for themselves just and accountable government that rules with Islamic laws, and liberates Muslims to be independent from foreign control.

Until such time, the Muslims fighting against oppressive government regimes in Iraq and Syria will have difficult times ahead, as yet again, their cause is discredited and deliberately obscured by politicians and the media’s disproportionate and exclusive attention on a fringe group amongst their ranks.

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