After the bomb on the Russian plane in Egypt and the gruesome attacks that hit Paris on what was to be a regular Friday night in the capital, it is time to stop and try to understand for real how al-Baghdadi’s group could emerge so successfully and how it can be so dangerously resilient
Of all the dramas of which the Middle East is now theatre, few of them can compete with ISIS: not only has the group been able to maintain most of the conquered territories but it is now also proving able to expand its ambitions and the terror that fuels them.
It has been a year and a half since the Caliphate emerged on the regional and global scene, and though we are still trying to understand what exactly we are confronting (a state, a group, an ideology?) and how to stop the wave of violence spreading from Raqqa in all directions: towards Sinai, the Arabia peninsula, Afghanistan, South Asia – and now even Paris. The cradle of Enlightenment latest victim of a barbaric force.
The days immediately after an attack are always the worse ones. The days in which you have to stop, elaborate the tragedy and think of how best to react.
With Europe still under shock for one of the continent’s most brutal attacks that took the life of innocent civilians with whom we can too easily identify, it is simply too early to say what will happen to us, to our security measures, to our foreign policies and to the millions of innocent refugees for whom our borders could now become impenetrable. Instead of looking at consequences that are still to reveal themselves, then, I will here focus on what comes before the consequences and before the attack: the terrorist group itself. I will thus try to explain how could ISIS build its Caliphate and, above all, how can ISIS be so resilient today – and I will do that by focusing on the characteristics inherent to the group.
Firstly, we should look at the objectives of the group and the strategy employed in order to reach them.
While Al Qaeda had always been characterized by a universalistic ideology from which it drew abstract objectives such as the global jihad against the infidels, ISIS adopted since the beginning a pragmatic lecture of the reality – and this is proved by the masterly way in which al-Baghdadi exploited after 2010 the evolutions of the regional scenario: the civil war broken off in Syria and the power vacuum it created in many provinces, as well as the dissatisfaction of Iraqi Sunnis with Nuri al-Maliki’s sectarian policy. Coherently with this pragmatism, ISIS gave itself a single, concrete and localized objective: the creation of an Islamic State across Syria and Iraq, a new entity in the heart of the Islamic world.
From such a localized project it couldn’t but follow a localized strategy. At the opposite pole with respect to Al Qaeda who was hitting the American “far enemy” wherever possible, ISIS decided to focus on the “near enemy” in Syria and Iraq. It began its expansion by penetrating cities and villages (often through terror and slaughters) until coming to proclaim its Caliphate and change the map of the Middle East.
Now, after the attack in Paris that looked too much like a dejavu of the attacks of Madrid and London, it seems ISIS is enlarging its strategy and going beyond its borders. Why? Probably because now the group feels stronger than ever before and wants to reflect this strength on the world stage, attack in their own territory those enemies who went to war against the Caliphate, and definitely assert itself as the new pillar of jihadism.
But ISIS’s strength and resistance are due to three other reasons.
For a terrorist group, centralization in its internal structure is everything: the more a group is centralized, the higher the level of coordination and control is, and the more effective are the attacks.
In this, ISIS has been magisterial even before calling itself Caliphate. Since the beginning in fact al-Baghdadi gave ISIS a centralized structure, with a clear division of roles and tasks that revealed crucial in that process that led to the establishment of the Islamic State. Without such a high level of internal cohesion ISIS’s action could not have been as well coordinated as it was.
Such cohesion has become even more sophisticated when the group became “State”. With the proclamation of the Caliphate in fact, al Baghdadi implemented a perfectly pyramidal structure that had been designed by Haji Bakr as early as 2012. At the top of the pyramid there is al-Baghdadi himself, below him there are his two deputies, one for Iraq and one for Syria. Below them, there are a series of councils, each of whom deals with a specific matter in the management of the State. The bottom pf the pyramid, then, is made of the mujahideens.
If to this we add the fact that also the territory conquered is rationally organized in regions, provinces and districts we will see how challenging ISIS’s organization is for the group’s enemies. All the orders smoothly go top-down, passing through more levels for a more efficient implementation; and this applies to the daily management of the State and to the activities the group carries out (both against the provinces it wants to conquer and against the enemies it wants to send a message to – as we have just seen in Egypt and Paris). For counter-terrorism intercepting this well-planned flow of orders and information is one of the biggest challenges ISIS puts.
As much challenging then, is the way in which ISIS gets its finances.
Far from following Al Qaeda’s examples and relying on donations coming from abroad, ISIS has been able to reach financial independence to the extent that it generates within the borders of its Caliphate the resources it needs to keep the State functioning and to conduct its terroristic acts. Thanks to the conquest of territories that no previous jihadist group had been able to achieve, ISIS can rely on natural resources such as oil, water, grain, it can expropriate the population, impose taxes, loot museums, churches and mosques, kidnap locals and foreigners for ransoms. A wide range of financial sources that makes it almost impossible for counter-terrorism to block the flow of money that reaches ISIS’s cashes, because it is internally-generated. Not relying on donations, then, ISIS doesn’t even have to deal with the problem of international money transfer, and when it needs to transfer money outside the Caliphate borders to conduct attacks it can always rely on the traditional hawala system (based on middlemen who transfer money from A to B) or on individuals affiliated to the group who already are in the target place. A system difficult to detect for intelligence agencies.
Though, the strength of al-Baghadi’s group that the attack in Paris highlighted the most (and the one that looks most scaring for those who are outside the Caliphate) is its attraction and recruitment capability.
Through a magisterial use of modern technology, ISIS has been using Internet in the most effective way possible: not to spread religious sermons as bin Laden used to, but rather to post violent and brutal videos that serves the double aim of attracting recruits and scaring enemies. A strategy that has indeed proved extremely effective, as ISIS – by showing to the world the success of which it is capable – has managed to reach wannabe jihadists both in Islamic countries but also in non-Islamic ones. It has also managed to attract individuals who were already close to radical ideologies, but also regular citizens whom the group itself radicalized online, through the rhetoric of a humiliated Islam that rises to fight. Not only. It has managed to attract to its project of radical Islamic life and state men as well women (an element surprisingly new) who aspire to marry mujahideens met online and are disposed to leave everything behind to be part of a project of whose justness they are convinced online.
An unprecedented capacity of attraction that shows how the threat posed by ISIS can potentially be borderless, and how fighting ISIS is something that doesn’t end in Syria and Iraq, but has to be done here as well, in our societies whose freedom is now under attack and whose freedom we have to defend, despite all the attempts of making us forget who we are.
Until we reckon how many strengths has ISIS on its side, and until we reckon it’s time to adopt a coherent and comprehensive anti-ISIS strategy in which all ISIS’s enemies get together against the Caliphate – instead of diverting forces against other enemies (pro-Assad forces, anti-Assad rebels, Kurds, Houthis) – we won’t be able to face effectively the reality of the Caliphate, the threat that it represents, and the new face it has been giving to Salafist-jihadist terrorism.