A review and interview with Raphael Israeli, author of The Internationalization of ISIS
by Jerry Gordon (November 2016)
The Internationalization of ISIS: The Muslim State in Iraq and Syria
by Raphael Israeli
Transaction Publishers, April 2016
The US–led coalition launched a major campaign to reclaim Mosul on October 17, 2016 with 30,000 Iraqi national troops, Shi’ite militias and Kurdish Peshmerga forces, assisted by 5,000 US and foreign advisers with air and heavy artillery support. Mosul was conquered by rampaging fighters of the Islamic State in June 2014, when Iraqi national army forces fled, abandoning weapons, vehicles and equipment. The Islamic State enriched itself with hundreds of millions of dollars in plundered gold, foreign currency and property abandoned by nearly a million Sunni, Christian and Kurdish residents of this second largest and predominately Sunni city with a previous population of over 2 million. On June 29, 2014, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the charismatic self-styled leader ascended the rostrum of the central mosque in Mosul to declare an Islamic State or Caliphate under Shari’a Islamic Holy Law and himself as Caliph. The announcement was conveyed around the globe via social media websites and YouTube video encouraging the faithful to join in the Jihad extolled as a virtue of the Prophet Mohammed and his companions. Baghdadi implored the Muslim faithful to recognize the imperative “to rescue the caliphate from oblivion.” Through the various media both al-Baghdadi and his spokespersons extolled this message:
Hold your heads straight! Now you have a state and a caliphate which return to you, your dignity, your power, your rights and your sovereignty. The Islamic State created a link of fraternity between Arabs and non-Arabs, black and white. It unites the Caucasian, the Indian and Chinese, the Syrian, the Iraqi, the Yemenite, the Egyptian, the North African, the American, the French, the German and the Australian. They are all in the same trench, defending each other, watching others and sacrificing for each other. Their blood mixes under the same banner, for the same goal and within one same camp.
The ability to come to territory ruled under the example of the “Ancients,” the Salafi, Mohammed and his companions, in accordance with Shari’a attracted tens of thousands of young Muslim men and women to leave homes in the West and across the Muslim Ummah to join in fighting, dying and practicing pure Islam. The West and Sunni Muslim countries were stunned. They were enmeshed in the upheavals in the Middle East caused by the Arab Spring. Uprisings triggered in Tunisia in December 2010, the Syrian civil war in March 2011, the brief Muslim Brotherhood elected regime in Egypt (2012-2013) and overthrown by “reformist” President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. The pure Islam of the Islamic State devolved into the butchery of Christians, non-Muslim minorities like the Kurdish speaking Yazidis, beheading American and British captives, mass shootings and burnings of Iraqi Shi’ite prisoners, the burning alive of a Jordanian Muslim pilot, deemed an apostate, under the takfirism doctrine of the Islamic State. The threat posed by the Islamic State was a convenience for the nominally Shi’ite Alawite regime of Syrian Ba’athist President Assad in the more than five-year civil war that has produced nearly 500,000 dead. It enabled him to release radical Sunni prisoners to join the newly declared caliphate that facilitated the entry of Shi’ite Iran, proxy Hezbollah and ally Russia to turn their guns, bombs and attention on defeating the rebel opposition and Al -Qa’ida affiliate, the Jabhat Al-Nusra front. It also allowed Assad to use international prohibited chemical weapons against civilians and hold off Western involvement overturning his regime. Instead, led by President Obama, the US coalition chose to hit back at the Islamic State with the only boots available on the ground, the Syrian Kurdish PYD/YPG forces. That is until Islamist Turkish President unleashed an incursion in mid August 2016 following a staged coup aimed at purging both secularists and tens of thousands of adherents of the Hizmat cult of former Islamist ally, Sheik Fethullah Gulen. Erdogan has been rebuffed by Iraqi Shi’ite Premier Haider al-Abadi on his request to have contingents trained at a base in northern Iraq enter the fray in Mosul.
The question given the US-led coalition joint Iraqi and Kurdish Peshmerga force engaged in a grueling battle with Islamikazes of the Islamic State in Mosul is will the self-declared caliphate be destroyed or will it self destruct? The disturbing answers can be found in a new book by Dr. Raphael Israeli, former Professor of Islamic and East Asian studies and author of over 46 scholarly works, The Internationalization of ISIS: The Muslim State in Iraq and Syria. Noteworthy is his 2003 book entitled, Islamikaze: Manifestations of Islamic Martyrology. He presciently forecast the rise of a caliphate driven by suicidal Islamic fanatics, Islamikaze.
As an historian of Islamic movements, Israeli addresses the grand sweep of the Islamic State rise in the vacuum created in both Syria and Iraq. It is based on the fatal attraction of the pure Salafism practiced under Shari’a by Islam’s founder and successors. Israeli delves into the strategic difference with al-Qa’ida from whence it originally emerged in Iraq. He separately treats the metastasizing terror affiliates in Egypt’s Sinai and Libya, as well as former Al Qa’ida affiliates in Africa, the AQIM and Boko Haram, who have sworn fealty to the self-declared Islamic State. Unlike al-Qa’ida that sprang from the success of Afghan rout of the Russians in 1989 backed by Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, Deobandi Pakistan with US CIA aid, the Islamic State holds land in which pure Islam can be practiced. Moreover, unlike al-Qa’ida it has wealth, admittedly stolen, to bolster its attraction across the globe. Israeli notes:
Despite all this and the odds against which ISIS is operating, it continues to attract Mujahedeen, defy the Americans and their coalition, and inspire other areas to follow their model. Establishing an Islamic World Government has been encrusted in the DNA of Muslim radicals since its beginnings. [That is reinforced in the case of the Islamic State by the prominence of former Iraqi Ba’athist Sunni officers and officials creating its oppressive structure under the control of the Shura governing all aspects of life in the Islamic State.]
Even when there is no caliphate, the tradition of authoritarian rule has been rooted in both Arab and Muslim lore which facilitated its revival.
The authoritarian rule in Islam naturally followed the footsteps of the Prophet, who was, and still is, considered infallible and the most perfect of men. Therefore he can commit no fault in government or in anything else. Through his campaigns in Arabia he ensured the title of Amir al – Mu’minim Commander of the Faithful, a title favored by caliphs and Sultans throughout the generations.
Salafis, like the Taliban, or ISIS, profess the creation of a caliphate first in order to impose Shari’a on all Muslims. The Brothers in Egypt embraced a more cautious approach to adoption of Shari’a that might frighten hesitant Muslims exposed to what he calls “westoxication.” The new wave of ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra in Iraq and Syria, emphasized Islamization by force and terror as their agenda.
Thus, the Islamic State opposes democracy as a man made system that can’t compete with the divinely inspired Shari’a. Despite its problems and anachronisms, and a caliphate after a millennium and a half, it still looks to Muslims believers as the most trusted, known and promising avenue. The only system that could still lend legitimacy to the rulers based on Islamic tradition.
The reaction by the West against the rise of the Islamic State has been fractious and in the view of some a failure to date. He quotes Israeli analyst Reuven Paz observing:
The struggle led by the US and its allies appears thus far to be something of a Sisyphean war: ineffective, limited to scratches on the surface of the jihadi pyramid, does not touch the roots of the phenomenon, unable to end civil wars in Syria and Iraq, and relegated to serve as another layer in the continuing chaos there. For Paz, the destruction and devastation plaguing the Middle East is accompanied by a frightening thought in the Western World of Islamic State alumni returning to their native countries to undertake terror attacks.
Israeli posits what he considers as the Islamic radical “blueprint”:
1. The West must be defeated and put on the defensive.
2. A first step is to cultivate the rift between pro-Arab and pro-Muslim Europe and “Zionist controlled America.”
3. Europe’s turn will come after America is driven out of its hegemonic status in the world and Israel is defeated.
4. The US, by military and economic power, dominated the West, battled Islam, until the Obama Administration.
5. Pending anticipated victory, Islamic radicals must push Muslim governments and individuals to fund new recruits to Islam in the West. They raise money to support families of martyred Islamikaze through bogus zakat, Muslim charities. They erect mosques, Islamic centers and madrassas in world capitals to promote recruitment of Islamikaze for martyrdom operations.
6. Al-Qa’ida, Hamas, Hezbollah and ISIS have vowed to eliminate Israel, Jews and Zionism.
In answer to the question of what to do about the Islamic State, Israeli offers two scenarios:
As things stand, the Islamic State will probably grow larger over the next few months – or years- and become more dangerous and influential in the Middle East and the World. ISIS can be made to disappear in one of two ways. First, a battle to the death that the world declares against it, putting “boots on the ground” to destroy or imprison the jihadists, down to the last man. The problem with that scenario is the high price for human life and resources the world will have to pay in order to bring it about. The second scenario is what has always happened in Islamic history: once a group begins to rule, internal feuds appear on ideology, religion, funds, personal differences, tribal and organizational animosities leading to eventual disintegration and its fall from power. The problem with this scenario is that it takes a long time and can span decades during which the organizations continue shedding blood and turning its subjects’ lives into hell.
From his analysis, Israeli drew these conclusions:
1. The advance of Islamic radicals like al-Qa’ida, the Islamic State and affiliates announces to the world the resurrection of Islam, despite centuries of defeat, humiliation and weakness.
2. The ease of the Islamic State and al-Qa’ida affiliates to vault unenforceable borders by Muslim regimes bodes ill for the future of Islamic territorial states.
3. The retreat of the West from the Islamic world, despite domestic civil wars, is likely to result in rapid Islamization and takeover of Muslim countries by radicals.
4. The Islamization of Muslim countries will encourage Islamic radical demands in the West for recognition of Shari’a, anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist opinions publicly voiced and in foreign affairs.
5. Rapid succession of successful Islamic radical movements may likely spillover into adjacent Muslim states.
6. Extreme cruelty towards non-Muslim minorities under the tyranny of Islamic radicals enforces Shari’a law on all subjugated through demands for conversion, payment of Jizya taxes and the threat of extra-judicial death.
7. The Iranian Revolution and changes in Sunni Muslim countries under autocratic regimes signify that radical Islam can be exported anywhere it penetrates.
8. Successes of Muslim radicals, while temporary and fleeting, may encourage Islamization in non-radical Islamic states. [One compelling example is NATO member Turkey undergoing a purge of secular republican traditions replaced by Shari’a under Sunni Islamist President Erdogan.]
9. Given the abdication of an active role in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf under the waning Obama Administration, the dangers of a nuclear and missile equipped Iran might produce an ad hoc coalition among the Monarchies and Emirates of the Gulf Cooperation Council and Israel.
10. The hostility and enmity between Sunni Monarchies, Emirates and States versus countries of the hegemonic Shi’ite Crescent sought by Iran will escalate pitting Russia against US interests in the Middle East.
11. If the Radical Islamic movements are unchecked they will export their their struggle abroad. [The thousands of returning ISIS foreign fighters can and have wreaked terrorist havoc in home countries as exemplified by Islamikaze attacks in Paris, Brussels, Nice and Rouen. American sympathizers pledging fealty to the Islamic State have committed Jihad attacks in Chattanooga, San Bernardino, Ottawa and Orlando.
12. Muslim and Western leaders who distance themselves from Islamic terror attacks as “un-Islamic” or “anti-Islamic” deflect and deceive public attention from the Jihad imperative of doctrinal Islam.
As Israeli’s book ended in late 2015, we interviewed him regarding whether the conclusions he reached in The Internationalization of ISIS still held given recent developments. The following are his responses to our questions.
Jerry Gordon: Hassan al Banna, the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood movement and ideologues like Egyptian Sayyid Qtub provided the ideological underpinnings of Sunni global terrorism that give rise to Al Qa’ida. Has that been eclipsed by the Salafism of the Islamic State?
Raphael Israeli: No, on the contrary, the many international Islamic movements that emanated from the Muslim Brotherhood only proved over the years its validity and attractiveness to generations of young Muslims, both in Islam and the West.
Gordon: What are the Qur’anic and Islamic doctrinal origins behind the Jihadist goals of the Islamic State?
Israeli: The Qur’an is replete with references to the Infidels and the need to eliminate them in order to bring about the world Caliphate which should subjugate all the Infidels. ISIS does that efficiently by eliminating its enemies domestically in Syria and Iraq, and terrorizing the non-Muslims on their own turf.
Gordon: Why is Abu Musab al- Zarqawi, killed by the US in Iraq in 2006, considered the “Godfather of ISIS?”
Israeli: Because he started the idea, contrary to al-Qa’ida which was spread worldwide but had no territory, that in order to succeed the movement must be based somewhere. He started with the Sunni Anbar district in Iraq, but when he was killed, Baghdadi picked up the idea and enlarged it to Syria and Iraq, hence ISIS.
Gordon: What created the sectarian ferment in 2011 that fostered the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq?
Israeli: It was more a geo-political opportunity than a sectarian ferment. The idea was there, and the civil war and chaos in Syria provided the opportunity to seize territory. They started with remote northern Syria and expanded into the lawless areas of Northern Iraq, especially Mosul.
Gordon: How were former Iraqi Ba’athist regime officers instrumental in creating the terrorist structure of the Islamic State?
Israeli: Very much so. Contrary to conventional wisdom which regards their joining ISIS as a sort of vengeance for their dismissal from the military during the American de-Ba’athization process and the loss of their livelihoods and careers, the main factor here is that they are part of the Sunni minority which ruled Iraq under Saddam Hussein. They lost their clout after his removal. ISIS retook the Sunni hegemony over the hated Shi’ites and their American rescuers.
Gordon: What are global terrorist strategies of the Islamic State and how do they differ from those of Al Qa’ida from whence it was spawned?
Israeli: al-Qa’ida spread the idea of fighting American arrogance and Jewish influence in the world everywhere they could, despite the fact that paradoxically they were the Qa’ida (Base). But that base was more metaphorical than physical and went nowhere. ISIS, by creating a real base showed that it can start from a certain territory and expand. From Syria and Iraq they indeed received the allegiance of the Sinai Peninsula, Libya and northern Nigeria (Boko Haram).
Gordon: Why have tens of thousands of young Muslim men and women from the West, Russia, China and the Muslim Ummah been attracted to the Islamic State declared by self- styled Caliph, al-Baghdadi?
Israeli: Because the idea looked to them much more practical than previous ones, which floated an ideology (like the Muslim Brotherhood and al-Qa’ida) but had no means of implementing it. They are impressed by the purity, determination and readiness of ISIS; therefore they flock to its ranks. They saw a real Islamic state in the making and were captivated by the seriousness of its endeavor.
Gordon: In your book, The Internationalization of ISIS, you discuss the expansion of the Islamic State with pledges of fealty by former Al Qa’ida affiliates across the Muslim Ummah. Who are among the more problematic groups who have switched allegiances?
Israeli: The Sinai Peninsula where Egyptian rule is very shaky; the Libyan coast around Sirte, the native town of Qaddafi; and Northern Nigeria where the Boko Haram launched its ravages. Other territories, like Somalia, Yemen, were next in line. However, if ISIS loses in Iraq due to the unexpected Great Powers’ intervention, those expectations were somewhat dimmed.
Gordon: How did the rise of the Islamic State assist the Islamic Republic of Iran in its goal of establishing a “Shia crescent” from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean?
Israeli: Iran, which has repeatedly stated that Muslims should not fight other Muslims, is precisely acting in the reverse, realizing the rise of Sunni radical Islam like ISIS and al-Qa’ida is gnawing at its own ability to promote Shi’ite hegemony. Hence its support to the Shi’ites of Iraq and Yemen in their fight against the Sunnis, and their active support in Syria for Assad and the Hezbollah.
Gordon: Why has the US-led coalition fighting the Islamic State failed to identify the ideological threat espoused by the self-styled Caliphate?
Israeli: Due to Obama’s determination to “engage” Islamic countries rather than fight them. Remember the Cairo speech when he took over. This has caused America to abandon the Middle East, to let down its most solid allies there and the Russians to rush in to fill the vacuum. This was a real political blunder. It was crowned by the deal with Iran and the support of the Shi’ite government in Iraq. America had engineered that deal in the first place, to the detriment of its Sunni allies and Israel, which as Romney had predicted “was thrown under the bus” by Obama.
Gordon: Why did you conclude in your book, The Internationalization of ISIS, that the Islamic State’s Caliphate objective may persist for decades to come?
Israeli: Because the idea of it is so strong and captivating among Muslim youth worldwide. Therefore, even if due to world powers’ intervention ISIS loses Iraq, and perhaps Syria thereafter, the idea, the aspiration, the ambition, will linger on for years, perhaps generations.
Gordon: Given developments since the publication of The Internationalization of ISIS would you change any of the principal conclusions?
Israeli: The book was based on the assumption, which still holds true, that if left to themselves, ISIS versus Iraq and Syria, nothing could stop the progress of the former. But when both great powers gang up against them, contrary to Obama’s reluctance to put boots on the ground, no one can resist them. This thinking was sound and remains sound. International intervention was a pragmatic and unexpected added factor.
Also see Jerry Gordon’s collection of interviews, The West Speaks.
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