ISIS' dream of becoming a country

A manual written by ISIS or the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was leaked recently and is now online.

The 24-page document outlines the principles according to which a state governed by ISIS would be administered. Dated from 1435 hijri of the Islamic calendar (2013-14 AD), the document is two years old and illustrates how ISIS' leadership was concerned with governance almost right from the beginning.

Indeed, many of the initial reports out of ISIS-controlled territory highlighted the amount of effort that was being put into running schools, setting up medical facilities and providing other civic amenities.

A brief reading of the manual highlights how ISIS' violence is a mask for a ruthlessly methodical long-term plan which includes the outline of a bureaucratic structure, a treasury, an education (really an indoctrination) department and many other such sectors that together form a functional state.

Assuming that ISIS' long-term goal is indeed to govern and have an autonomous state, then the violence practised by the militants, abhorrent as it is, must be seen as a means, not an end. Thus, although it would be easy to dismiss ISIS as a cult of death, the fact is that ever since its inception, it has wanted to wield the "deep power" of a state and not just the "immediate power" of a militia or a guerilla group.

It is, of course, another matter that such a state would also be in the interests of the various monarchies of the Arabian Peninsula as they could patronise, and yet keep at arm's length, a country that would not only divert attention away from their own domestic problems but also, more importantly, would keep Shi'ite Iran on its toes.


Members of far-right organisations protesting against refugees in Lodz, Poland, in September. The writer says that suspicion of refugees and the alienation of Muslims will help ISIS in perpetuating the myth that the "West" is unsafe for Muslims. - PHOTO: REUTERS

At the outset, it is important to underscore that any nation state, no matter how rogue, needs economic oxygen to survive. In other words, it needs to trade in the international market. Today, it is practically impossible for any nation state to be self-sufficient. Even a rogue country like North Korea relies on its Chinese ally for weapons and monetary aid. Therefore, questions must be asked about which countries or organisations are sustaining and trading with ISIS.

During the course of the last few years, one suggestion at many of the conferences I attended was that the Turkish border must be more rigorously scrutinised. Indeed, early maps of ISIS-controlled territory very clearly showed that ISIS' lifeline to the rest of the world was through Turkey.

To the north, the militants were bounded by the Kurds - by no means friends of the Turks, to the east by Iran, to the south by Iraqi Shi'ite tribes and to the west by Syria and Jordan. Indeed, many of the European, Australian and other recruits and volunteers used the Turkish border to cross into ISIS territory.

The recent revelations by the Russian defence minister about Turkey's alleged role in buying oil from ISIS are just one instance of the way in which ISIS is being given the economic oxygen to survive.

When I met Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi in Baghdad last year, he repeatedly asserted that even Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had been buying oil from ISIS. Apart from the export of oil, ISIS relies on the import of weapons and ammunition, as well as on financial aid. Again Turkey's name crops up not only in the funders' list but also in the list of facilitators. Apart from this, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been repeatedly blamed for directly and indirectly providing weapons to extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, as a report by the Conflict Armament Research Centre in London recently stated.

In December 2013, the Brookings Institute published a report underscoring the worrying fallout of private financing by Gulf citizens of extremists in Syria.

Apart from this, many European countries continue to flood the region with arms. The British have just sold billions of dollars of weapons to the Saudis for the assault in Yemen, a war that no one seems to be concerned about.

The French sealed a deal with the Saudis for US$12 billion (S$17 billion) earlier this year and Russia has begun shipments of the S-300 air defence system to Iran. ISIS cannot be dealt with in isolation and it is high time that the various Middle Eastern allies of America and Europe were held to account.

The last four years have made it increasingly clear that in order to fight the menace of ISIS, bombing will simply not work. Indeed, the bombings, be they American, British, French or Russian, will only create further instability, which is exactly what ISIS wants.

It is ironic that the steps being taken by Western countries are bolstering ISIS' position rather than weakening it.

In order to fulfil its aspirations of a fully functional state, ISIS is banking on alienation as a tool of propaganda. Early on, ISIS derived benefit from the fact that the majority Shi'ite government of Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq had deliberately alienated a large percentage of the Sunni population.

Today, having gained control of a large amount of territory, ISIS now aims to become a magnate for disaffected young Muslims from all over the world. Perversely, its goals converge very neatly with those of many of Europe's right-wing parties and some of America's presidential hopefuls because the suspicion of refugees and the alienation of Muslims will help ISIS in perpetuating the myth that the "West" is unsafe for Muslims.

As American Vice-President Joe Biden wisely said in a recent statement, "to turn them (refugees) away and say there is no way you can ever get here would play right into the terrorists' hands".


•The writer previously studied in Syria and the United States, and has just completed a PhD from the University of Cambridge . He writes for a number of Indian newspapers and is a columnist for Urdu-language daily Inqilab in India.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 11, 2015, with the headline 'ISIS' dream of becoming a country'. Print Edition | Subscribe