Understanding the Islamic State, ISIS, Al Qaeda in Iraq
The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Al Qaeda in Iraq, Islamic State in Iraq, ISIS or ISIL, the Islamic State) has gone through numerous incarnations. In the past, it was known as “Al Qaeda in Iraq.” And today, its leader, previously known as “Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi,” calls himself “Caliph Ibrahim,” the supreme leader of a new, landlocked Sunni caliphate that spans the Sunni areas of northern Iraq and northern Syria. He has declared that it is the duty of all Muslims to support and follow him and his Islamic State. To understand the nature of the ISIS, it is important to understand its methods, its history, its social base, its role in the class struggle.
It was under the previous leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi that Al Qaeda in Iraq, later ISIS, developed its highly sectarian strategy. The main targets of ISIS’ sectarianism are the Shia, other non-Sunni populations, and oppressed nationalities such as the Kurds. When ISIS was known as “Al Qaeda in Iraq,” they pursued a strategy of seeking to cause a civil war between the Sunni and Shia in Iraq, a strategy that continues to this day. The 2006 attack on the Al ‘Askarī Shrine, one of the holiest sites in all of Shia Islam, was attributed to Al Qaeda in Iraq. Although they denied responsibility after a backlash of public opinion against them, the attack on the shrine fits with a pattern of attacks on Shia mosques, shrines, and other non-Sunni holy sites that continues to this day. ISIS’ approach prioritizes sectarian attacks and immediate imposition of sharia, Islamic law, over any other conflicts. In 2005, even the emir of Al Qaeda central, Ayman al Zawahiri, questioned the prioritization of sectarianism Al Qaeda in Iraq.
“We must repeat what we mentioned previously, that the majority of Muslims don’t comprehend this and possibly could not even imagine it. For that reason, many of your Muslim admirers amongst the common folk are wondering about your attacks on the Shia. The sharpness of this questioning increases when the attacks are on one of their mosques, and it increases more when the attacks are on the mausoleum of Imam Ali Bin Abi Talib, may God honor him. My opinion is that this matter won’t be acceptable to the Muslim populace however much you have tried to explain it, and aversion to this will continue.
Indeed, questions will circulate among Mujahideen circles and their opinion makers about the correctness of this conflict with the Shia at this time. Is it something that is unavoidable? Or, is it something can be put off until the force of the Mujahideen movement in Iraq gets stronger? And if some of the operations were necessary for self-defense, were all of the operations necessary? Or, were there some operations that weren’t called for?” (1)
At the time, ISIS’s strategy hoped to create chaos in order to cause a US withdrawal from Iraq. Despite their rhetoric and actions, their opposition to imperialism was not principled. They were not opposed to imperialism per se, rather they are opposed to their and the Iraqi Sunni population’s relatively weak position within the imperial system. Their armed struggle was not to throw off the yoke of imperialism, but it was ultimately about elevating themselves and those they represent within the empire. Their armed struggle would become a kind of armed reformism, an armed negotiation, with empire. Even if this was not clear at the beginnings of their movement, it is certainly clear with hindsight.
ISIS’ terror is not just directed at the Shia. ISIS has carried out genocidal policies against non-Sunnis along with a terror imposed on its own Sunni constituency. Eventually, the tide turned against “Al Qaeda in Iraq” when their own Sunni constituency revolted against them around 2007. This is referred to as the “Sunni Awakening” in the imperial media. This resulted from imperial bribes offered to Sunni tribes and it resulted from a backlash against ISIS’ sectarianism and harsh imposition of sharia: banning many traditional practices, censorship, beatings, executions, notorious beheadings, bombing of civilians. This sectarian strategy continued as ISIS intervened in the Syrian civil war. During the Syrian civil war, ISIS quickly marginalized other rebel factions, including other jihadi groups, who were fighting the Assad regime. As the most effective sect, they carved out a semi-state governed by sharia that spanned the Sunni areas of northern Syria and Iraq. Similar to their actions in Iraq, their genocidal, sectarian strategy in Syria targeted Alawi, Shia, Christian, and Kurdish populations with terror and violence. The sectarianism of the Syrian rebel groups was often met with sectarian violence on the part of the Assad regime against Sunni populations in places like Aleppo, where the regime indiscriminately bombed and shelled the population.
In 2014, ISIS was ascending rapidly. They declared themselves the new Sunni caliphate and their leader declared himself Caliph of the “Islamic State.” After stabilizing their hold on parts of northern Syria, they played a major part in overrunning significant parts of Iraq, including Mosul and Tikrit. The rapid rise of the Islamic State was aided by many factors. The Arab Spring has inspired populations to rise up across the region. It was the weakness of the central states of Iraq and Syria that also allowed ISIS to quickly gain power. ISIS was able to fill the power vacuum and able to exploit longstanding anger amongst Sunnis. The sectarian nature of the conflicts in Syria and Iraq played a major role. The Assad regime in Syria has its support disproportionately amongst the non-Sunni populations; the Assad regime’s support is greater amongst the Alawi, Shia, Christian, Kurds, and others. Assad’s military, for example, is dominated by his Alawi sect. Unofficial pro-regime paramilitaries and mafias known as “Shabab” or “ghosts” carry out sectarian attacks on behalf of the regime. They too are dominated by the Alawi. Even more so, the Maliki regime in Iraq is based disproportionately on Shia support in the south of the country. The policies of the Maliki regime have driven both the Sunnis and the Kurds into rebellion against it. In 2011, even before the ascendency of the Islamic State, the Maliki regime declared its own Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi a criminal and enemy. The Maliki regime was so sectarian and weak that it could not even get its Kurdish population to hand over their countryman after Tariq al-Hashimi went into hiding in the Kurdish areas. The Kurdish Peshmerga, which is ostensibly setup to defend Kurish borders in Iraq, have established a presence in disputed lands. For a long time, they have set up bases here and there in the disputed areas to match the presence of the security forces from the central state. Iraqi’s central state also had limited reach into the Sunni areas, areas that began to see the sectarian Maliki regime as an occupying force. It is because of the sectarian policies of the Maliki regime that the Islamic State was able to again gain the support of those same Sunni tribal leaders who had turned against ISIS years before during the “Sunni Awakening” around 2007. In their recent surprise offensive, the Islamic State was able to briefly gain the support of Baathist elements in Iraq, remnants of the Saddam Hussein regime that continue to suffer persecution, whose base of support is the Sunni population. The Special Republican Guards were never fully committed to battle at the time of the US invasion. And Saddam Hussein’s body-guard network and special operations are thought to have remained intact. Many of the Baathist specialists that had fled to neighboring countries at the time of the US invasion have now returned. (2) Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, who occupied the Vice-Presidency and Deputy Chairmanship of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council under Saddam Hussein, is now heading Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshbandi, or the Army of the Men of the Naqshband. This group, which has its roots in Baathist networks and Sufi Islamic orders, was a key player, along with ISIS, in overrunning Maliki’s state security forces recently. (3) There was much speculation that the disintegration of Maliki’s security forces was part of a conspiracy amongst some of its officers, possibly officers with connections to the old Baathist regime. However, these victories over the Maliki regime are now being undermined. Once again ISIS is imposing its harsh, unpopular Islamic order on the Sunni population and ISIS is also trying to eliminate its rival groups amongst the Sunni population of Iraq. Now the Iraqi Sunni groups have begun fighting amongst each other again. It is highly doubtful the Islamic State will be able to conquer the Kurdish areas or push deep into Alawi and Shia territory in Syria or Iraq. In both Syria and Iraq respectively, the Assad regime and Maliki regimes, along with Shia militias, are slowly pushing back, retaking territory.
The Islamic State’s victories, though dramatic, should not be overstated. Its victories are not based on popular support. The Islamic State demands obedience and the immediate transformation of society. ISIS is a commandist organization with little mass line. This is reflected in their terrorist attacks on civilians. Cities occupied by the Islamic State are sometimes depopulated or underpopulated when ISIS arrives. ISIS has created a stream of refugees from many areas it has conquered. It is not just Shia, Christians, and non-Sunnis fleeing, but also Sunnis fleeing the Islamic State’s sharia. Even their declaration of the caliphate and demand that all jihadis pledge loyalty to them has been criticized as a case of extreme overreaching. Other salafists worry that ISIS will end up discrediting the effort at bringing a viable caliphate into being. They are skeptical that a small, landlocked caliphate without oil spanning northern Iraq and Syria is viable. The population also wonders how such a state would create prosperity for its citizens, especially with such powerful neighbors like Iran. The Islamic State does not like questions. Those groups that oppose the Islamic State are muscled into submission. For example, ISIS declared a merger, that the Syrian Nusra Front be absorbed into its ranks. When the Nusra Front refused, the Islamic State responded militarily, even assassinating high ranking jihadi leaders. Al Qaeda central sought to mediate. They sided with Nusra Front. They declared the merger null and void. The Islamic State ignored attempts at mediation by Al Qaeda central. Instead, they declared the merger would go through. ISIS began to militarily enforce its dominance over Nusra Front. ISIS split from Al Qaeda central. This is why the Islamic State is often described as “too extreme for Al Qaeda” in the Western press. Even the Taliban in Afghanistan have warned the Islamic State to “avoid extremism.” (4) The Islamic State is not patient with the its rivals or the population. Salafists in many countries have criticized the Islamic State’s pretenses and its attacks on Sunni imams and scholars who disagree with them. Such conflict is not new. There is a long tradition of conflict between autocratic caliphs versus Islamic scholars, a conflict going back at least to the Umayyad dynasty. (5) Even if the Islamic State advances the cause, many scholars feel they are being cut out by a transfer of authority from themselves to the new Caliph. Such errors reflect the Islamic State’s non-proletarian origin.
The rise of the Islamic State is also connected to geopolitical conflicts favorable to it. ISIS has benefited from the regional struggle for hegemony between Iran, Hezbollah, the Assad regime, and, to an extent, the Maliki regime versus the Gulf states, Israel, and, to a lesser extent, Turkey, Jordan, and others. The Islamic State established itself early on as the most viable opposition to the Assad regime and it has established itself as a strong opponent of the Maliki regime. The high profile nature of the conflicts drew people to its ranks from all over the world. The Islamic State has the ideological credentials and military capacity so that jihadis from all over the world to swell its ranks. Their internationalism not only brought them foot soldiers, cannon fodder for the struggle, but also brought them expertise and sophistication. For example, the Islamic State’s agitprop, internet and media production is some of the most sophisticated of any insurgent force. The ISIS brand fires the imaginations of armchair jihadis everywhere, especially in the Gulf States, who provide ISIS with an endless supply of private funds. Also, the Gulf State regimes have channeled massive military and monetary aid to Sunni rebels in Syria and Iraq. Turkey, Israel, Jordan, European countries, and the United States have channeled aid to Syrian Sunni factions as well. The United States and Jordan even established a camp to train the Syrian rebels in advanced tactics and weaponry, possibly including chemical weapons. (6) Even if this aid is not always directly sent to ISIS, it often ends up in their hands since other groups are too weak to hold onto the materials, or are mafia organizations that resell the aid, or fronts for ISIS. And in some cases, states send aid directly to the Islamic State, which is why ISIS is accused of being a proxy for Qatar or Saudi Arabia. Like other Islamist forces, the Islamic State is partially a product of geopolitical conflicts. Western imperialists and their allies have a history of channeling training and resources to Islamist movements in order to undermine Soviet-backed movements and leftist movements. The most well-known example is the effort by the United States and Pakistan to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan against the pro-Soviet forces. Some of these mujahideen evolved into Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Later, the United States came into conflict with these forces, even deposing the Taliban’s state and occupying Afghanistan. Today, the United States is still fighting the Taliban and claims to be fighting Al Qaeda. Also, the Pakistani state sometimes comes into conflict with its own Islamists, including the Pakistani Taliban, which have connections to their deposed neighbors in Afghanistan. There is an opportunist relationship between the First World imperialists, their regional hegemonic allies, and certain Islamists. The Islamists are propped up by these regimes as a way for the regimes advance their First Worldist or hegemonic interests. The Islamists welcome any support as a way to advance themselves. The extreme sectarian nature of the jihadi ideology allows such movements to engage in opportunism that justifies any alliance with any force, which often leads them into alliances with imperialists and Zionists. Big imperialists and Israel channeled support to Sunni Islamists as a way to undermine pan-Arabism, leftist resistance movements, and Shia movements that come into conflict with their interests. The Egyptian Islamic Brotherhood and also the Saudi regime conspired to assassinate Gamal Abdel Nasser multiple times. Even though the main face of Palestinian resistance today is Islamist, Islamists received support as part of Israel’s effort to weaken the Palestinian movement, which was then dominated by nationalists and leftists. (7) Some speculate that the new Caliph Ibrahim of the Islamic State, the supreme leader of ISIS, received training by the United States, Britain, and the Israeli Mossad. (8) At one point, the United States had him in custody in Camp Bucca, but he was released around 2010. (9) Many speculate that he was released because he had been a US, British, or Mossad asset. It is also possible that his detention was part of a long-term effort to give him a credible back story as an imperial deep agent who could also use his incarceration to network with jailed jihadis.
Some Islamists are straight-up agents of imperialism. However, it is important to note that although numerous Islamic groups have received imperialist support and have sometimes aligned with the imperialists, it is simplistic to believe they are all simply agents of imperialism. Although some Islamists often act as mercenaries for imperialists, they are often conflicted about it. It is also important to understand that not all Islamist movements are the same. Not only are there differences between Shia and Sunni groups, there are also important differences between Sunni groups. Movements like Hezbollah are very different from ISIS. Movements like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, for example, are very different than movements like the Islamic State. The former, for example, are playing a more progressive role in the region as they resist imperialism. The latter, the Islamic State, may spout anti-imperialist rhetoric, may come into some conflict with imperialism, but ends up serving imperialism in the big picture.
The Islamic State is a complex movement. It voices some of the injustice suffered by the Sunni populations in Syria and Iraq. No doubt, it expresses some legitimate grievances. However, ultimately, this is not the principal aspect of the Islamic State. And its rule has proven very unpopular even with the Sunni population. The Sunnis are its victims too. Although it has come into limited conflict with imperialism in Iraq, the Islamic State is not mainly an agent of the Sunni national bourgeoisie coming into conflict with imperialism as some might suppose. If anything, ISIS has come into conflict with the Sunni bourgeoisie represented by the old Iraqi Baathists on numerous occasions. On the whole, the Islamic State represents very backward segments of the Sunni populations of Syria and Iraq, comprador segments propped up by the Gulf States and other imperialists, along with segments of the petty bourgeoisie and intelligencia, along with very backward jihadis — some ideological, some mercenary — from around the globe. ISIS is willing to align with an imperialism that tolerates its fascist and semi-feudal social program. They are a comprador force, agents of empire, even though they spout an anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist rhetoric. They are an extension of imperial capital aligned with local reactionary classes and globe-trotting mercenaries and ideologues from various strata. They are a response and contributor to a crisis situation in the region. Their rule is openly terrorist and barbaric. However, their Islamist ideological commitments make it such that, although they serve imperialism overall, they are unpredictable and fall into limited conflict with the imperialists at times. The proxy war of which the Islamic State is playing a big role is part of the imperialist strategy to divide and conquer the region. Sectarian war is a way to divide masses. It is a way to create regional chaos. Syria and Iraq may be split into smaller states organized around sectarian lines, making it harder to resist imperialism. The end result will be that the entire region will be weaker. And Israel will be able to rest easily knowing that its main opponents, Iran and Iran’s allies, are occupied fighting the Sunni groups and their backers, especially ISIS and the Gulf states. Israel is so confident in its position that it is currently involved in an invasion of Gaza involving tens of thousands of troops, possibly an effort at full reoccupation. Hundreds of Palestinians have been killed and thousands wounded in the past few days while ISIS attacks Shia and other Sunni groups in Iraq and Syria. One online site claiming to represent ISIS stated it is not interested in attacking Israel anytime soon:
“We haven’t given orders to kill the Israelis and the Jews. The war against the nearer enemy, those who rebel against the faith, is more important. Allah commands us in the Koran to fight the hypocrites, because they are much more dangerous than those who are fundamentally heretics.” (10)
That says something about the Islamic State’s priorities. The Islamic State has also attacked the Kurdish populations aligned with the Kurdish Workers’ Party, thus serving Turkey, which is part of NATO. Even though their overall actions serve the United States, Europe, and the First World generally, the Islamic State has come into conflict with the United States in Iraq. Even though the Gulf States are part of the same First World bloc with the United States, even though they share the same regional interests, they have different policies toward the Maliki regime in Iraq. Thus different parts of the imperial allies are supporting different forces in the Iraqi civil war. Thus both sides of the conflict are being played by the Western-Gulf State imperialists. In a sense, ISIS represents a “Plan B” comprador force in Iraq. The United States would prefer to deal with a comprador regime with more liberal, modern flavor, some degree of women’s rights, an outward appearance of multi-national and religious tolerance. However, the Maliki regime is not delivering, which is why Hillary Clinton recently conveyed the US desire to see Maliki resign as a step to forming a new “national unity government.” Plus, Iran’s involvement in Iraq makes it even more difficult to follow through with neocon nation-building fantasies there. If the imperialists can’t get a liberal comprador regime out of the Maliki, there is always the alternative, a comprador Sunni-fascist ISIS waiting in the wings. If imperialism with a liberal face fails, there is always imperialism with a fascist, feudalist face. “Plan A” doesn’t work, go with “Plan B.” Or, the imperialists will just try to split the country in order to divide and conquer. In other words, their outlook is to support all sides through multiple channels so that no matter who wins, the imperialists win.
It is important to look beneath the surface. Just because an organization spouts anti-imperialist rhetoric and brandishes automatic weapons does not make them anti-imperialist nor progressive. Imperialism orchestrates and supports many non-state actors around the world in order to further its purposes. The Islamic State is a movement that commits genocide against non-Sunnis and non-Arabs in the region. Alawi, Shia, Christians, Kurds, and others are hunted down and butchered. Areas are depopulated. Their art, culture, holy sites, their places of worship, destroyed. Not unlike other fascist movements, the property of the persecuted is appropriated by ISIS to distribute to its fighters and supporters. Where they have power, they inflict terror on the very Sunni population they claim to represent. Sunni refugees also flee the Islamic State just as others do. Sharia is implemented. Those who do not follow every aspect of Islamic law can be beaten, tortured, or killed. Those who forget to pray are made examples of. Those who have extra-martial affairs are beaten or killed. Censorship is the order of the day. Books and cigarettes are banned and burned in huge bonfires. Young girls and women are kidnapped, forced into marriage, and raped as spoils of war. Women are silenced, their motions restricted, their rights are stripped of them. Women are turned into mere property. ISIS fighters hold themselves to another standard than the populations they control. They see themselves as better and above ordinary people. The fighters act with arbitrary terror against the populations. They do what they wish and take what they wish. They kill who they wish. Beheadings and crusifictions are commonplace. Anything and everything is permitted in the name of advancing Islam. Hypocrisy and corruption are rampant. At the same time, the Islamic State serves the interests of those regimes most closely allied to the United States. They serve and are propped up by the Gulf States, Israel, Turkey, and, indirectly, the United States and European countries. The Islamic State is a hypocritic, corrupt, destructive, oppressive force serving imperialism.
There are many false paths. There are many false leaders. There are many masks that the system hides behind. We must dare to remove the masks. The masses will see through the lies. Islam is not the answer. Fantasies about restoring a feudal, Islamic golden age are lies. Filling the heads of the population with superstition only makes the population more vulnerable. If we are going to defeat imperialism, we need an educated population. If we are going to end oppression, we need masses who think scientifically. If we are going to build a society where the people have decent lives, we need fighters and thinkers. If we are really to defeat capitalism, we need to liberate the masses, not terrorize them into submission as the capitalists, feudalists, and fake caliphs do. If we are to really win, we need the masses at our side. We need women fighting along side us. Fighting without women is like fighting with one hand tied behind your back. Women hold up half the sky. Men and women unite. We need to unite the oppressed people of all religious backgrounds, all nationalities, all ethnicities, all languages. Islam is not a weapon that can take us to liberation. We need the best weapon possible, the most advanced revolutionary science, in the hands of the masses. There is one people, one Earth ,one future, one path, one organization, one leadership, one weapon, one answer: Leading Light Communism.