Dr. Marcin Styszynski
Assistant Professor, Faculty of Arabic and Islamic Studies,
Adam Mickiewicz University in Pozn (Poland).
The violent offensive of Ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq wa ash-Sham (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria/ISIS), transformed then into the Islamic State (IS), raises concerns among authorities, media and public opinions. Different sources and analyses often focus on military, logistic and terror capacities of the Islamic State. However, the successful policy and activities of the organization rely on four factors such as social and political atmosphere, ambitions and ideological conflicts among jihadists, financial aspects and propaganda campaign.
The collapse of Saddam Hussein regime in 2003 perturbed social and political situation in Iraq. Disproportion of social and religious representatives in the new government privileged Shia opposition and caused Sunni uprisings in 2006 and in 2013 in Ramadi, Fallujah or Anbar provinces. Besides, regime's officers and soldiers removed from the apparatus also joined the rebellion and shared their organizational and military experiences with the Sunni opposition.1 The central government in Bagdad often demonstrated its ignorance of the current problems in Sunni provinces. For instance, it disbanded local militias called Sahwa (Renaissance) that fought with jihadists, because they expressed their autonomy and political separation from the central authorities.
The complicated situation created favorable motivations for jihadist groups like Tanzim al-Qaida fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Organization of Jihad's Base in Mesopotamia) - also known as Al-Qaida fi al-Iraq (Al-Qaeda in Iraq/AQI) - and Shurat al-Mujahidin (Mujahideen Council) or Ad-Dawla al-Islamiyya fi al-Iraq (The Islamic State of Iraq) that operated in Iraq, although the death of key figures of the organization such as Abu Musab al-Zarqawi (killed in 2006) or Abu Ayyub al-Masri and Abu Hamza al-Baghdadi (both killed in 2010). They assimilated among Sunni communities and cooperated with different political and tribal forces against domination of Shia government considered as a heretic and apostate authority. Besides, brutal anti-Shia terror campaign was a significant activity of the two leaders.2
After the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011, and other Al-Qaida's leaders like Anwar Awlaqi or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the new commander Ayman al-Zawahiri tried to consolidate all insurgents and he sympathized with the Arab Spring that defined new challenges for the jihadist movement. Al-Qaeda published enthusiastic manifestos and statements glorifying revolutionaries in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen or Syria and encouraging them to restore Islamic values. In fact, the idea of dictators' removal always played a crucial role in Al-Qaeda ideology and propaganda. However, failures of the transition process in post-revolutionary countries and overthrew of Islamist representatives by secular and military forces deepened the crisis among jihadists who expected other results and goals of the Arab Spring.
The spokesman of ISIS, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani, issued an important manifesto Ma kana hada manhajuna wa lan yakuna ("It was not our way and it won't be"), which criticized Al-Qaida Central and defined final separation between old jihadists and ISIS fighters. Al-Adnani states that the leader betrayed insurgents, who fight every day in battlefields of Iraq or Syria. Furthermore, Al-Zawahiri distorted basic ideas of jihad, which gathered different militants in the world. The message also glorifies jihad heroes like Osama bin Laden or Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and condemns the current leader of cooperation with infidels and secularists. Al-Adnani also declares that Al-Zawahiri resigned from jihad and implementation of sharia law. He tries to involve the organization in current political and social processes in the Arab and Muslim world by creation of wide Umma based on different religious and social trends, including secular forces. ISIS encourages its supporters to continue the fight and return to the roots of jihad.
Some traditional leaders like Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud ,from Maghreb, or Naser al-Wuhayshi, from Yemen, still sustain allegiance to Al-Zawahiri, but most of rank-and-file commanders started to express their disobedience and fascination of ISIS successful military and ideological campaign. In autumn 2014, the main jihadist website Al-Manbar al-jihadi al-ilami (Jihadist Media Platform) published a long list of audio oath to Al-Baghdadi declared by Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (Supporters of Jerusalem) from Egypt, Jund al-Khilafa (Soldiers of the Caliphate) from Algeria or Al-Qa'ida fi Jazirat al-Arab (Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula- AQAP).3
The Islamic State responds to insurgents' hopes and offers new concept of jihad and implementation of extremist ideas as well as establishment of the historic caliphate. Another reason is that the Islamic State refers to Al-Qaeda heyday when Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri coordinated local branches and inspired different terrorist attacks against regional and Western targets.
Economic and financial goals became an important factor for ISIS as well. The groups has stolen 429 million USD from the Iraqi central bank and seized Baiji oil refinery in the north of Baghdad as well as strategic dam near Mosul. Insurgents also took control of Shaar gas field near Palmyra, one of Syria's largest hydrocarbons reservoirs.4 Oil production of the Islamic State is estimated at 50.000 to 80.000 barrels a day according to UN rapports.5 Besides, 2 millions USD dollars a day is an outcome of smuggling business of crude into neighboring countries. Due to the last airstrikes, at least 22 refineries have been destroyed and economic capacities of jihadists decreased radically. However, the control of oil and gas fields is one of the main goals of the IS's activities in the region. It should be pointed out that ISIS does not pursuit its offensive to the Iraqi capital and concentrated on financial profits in order to weaken the central Shia government and strengthen its own political power in the region.
Al-Baghdadi's policy also relies on appropriate communication and propaganda methods that strengthen ideological and operational capacities of the organization and weaken the rival jihadist groups. The communication strategy reflects application of liturgical sermons (ar. khutba) and Arabic rhetoric (ar. balagha) in media presentations and ideological manifestos.
Domination of ISIS in the region was finally determined after the announcement of the caliphate by Al-Baghdadi, who delivered a symbolic sermon in the main mosque in Mosul, Iraq, during the Ramadan 2014.6
Al-Baghdadi respects all conventions and etiquettes regarding non-verbal and narration concepts of khutba.7 Contrary to previous jihadist leaders, the sermon is presented in the mosque in liturgical podium above the auditorium. The orator wears sacral clothes and stands up at the first step of speech and then sits down during other parts of the discourse. He also avoids loud voices, chaotic gestures or reactions and he uses sometimes index fingers to precise or underlines some questions. Moreover, the audience is composed of inhabitants living in the region.
Apart from personal skills, Al-Baghdadi follows strict narration and stylistic devices of the sermon. He starts his speech with religious invocations and citations and after a short break, he refers to main subjects. The orator preserves liturgical style of the sermon and reigns from direct, impudent political slogans and statements. For example, he focuses on Ramadan ceremonies and spiritual values of the holy month, which absolves from all sins and rehabilitates human souls. His opinions are followed by application of appropriate argumentations from the Quran or hadiths. Furthermore, Ramadan is confronted with specific concept of jihad described by Al-Baghdadi as scarified efforts facilitating defeat of enemies and implementation of Islam values. The narration of the speech and the rhetorical devices justify ISIS policy in the region, authorize and glorify the new Islamic state. The liturgical style also enables to cover political messages, violent implementation of Sharia laws or terrorist campaign conducted in controlled regions.
Al-Baghdadi's followers also started massive media campaign that targets a young Western audience and encourages foreign volunteers to join the Islamic State or to carry out terrorist attacks in their own countries. For example, ISIS publishes an English version of magazine called Dabiq.1 The name refers to the historic Battle of Marj Dabiq, near Aleppo, in Syria. In 1516 the Ottoman army conquered most of the Middle East, which encompassed the entire region of Syria and built the new Empire.
Dabiq became an important communication and motivational platform for Islamist extremists around the world8. Instead of long theological and political discussions, the magazine contains short messages based on suggestive graphics and provocative pictures similar to the tabloid press or comics.
The magazine usually includes photos illustrating ISIS successful offensives and campaigns in Syria and Iraq, images of wounded Iraqi soldiers among fires and explosions as well as victorious parades of militants in controlled cities or harvest campaign and distribution of food and water. Other pictures show brutal executions of Shia prisoners, representatives of Christian and Yazidi communities or some colorful and sophisticated graphics showing destroyed shrines. The pictures are followed by symbolic sentences such as: Khalifa declared, A new era has arrived or: It's either the Islamic state of the flood.
The research demonstrates that domination and influences of the Islamic State rely on four main factors such as particular social and political atmosphere in the region, ideological conflicts among jihadists, financial aspects and appropriate communication techniques.
In fact, Al-Baghdadi took advantages from the growing schism between Sunni and Shia communities fighting for economic and political privileges in the region. Cooperation with Sunni clans humiliated by Shia authorities in Iraq as well as anti-Shia rhetoric strengthened jihadist influences. Besides, the control of main oil fields and refineries reinforced ISIS military and operational capacities in Iraq and neighboring countries. Finally, the propaganda devices based on traditional, liturgical speeches or modern forms of communication such as Internet forums and sophisticated journals justify ISIS policy in the region, glorify the new Islamic state and emerge its influences and power in the region.