“15 months after the declaration of the Caliphate, the US-led campaign against it is more diffused than ever, and there are many now in the West who are conceding that the Islamic State is a country that is here to stay.” On 31st March, issue 8 of Dābiq magazine published an article I wrote called “Paradigm Shift,” in which I examined the depiction of the Islamic State in Western media and politics progressing from a mere “organization” to a real, functioning entity. A country, I called it. I know nothing about nation building. I’m so foolish I never even made it to university. But after dismissing some of the things I’ve written in the past as “ISIS propaganda,” many journalists and scholars in the West are now agreeing with this sentiment. The Islamic State, they say, is a genuine state. This reality of the Caliphate is confirmed by many things, the people living under its governance, for one. For the first time in years, Muslims are living in security and their businesses are doing a roaring trade. The zakāh system has been up and running, taking a percentage of peoples’ wealth and dispersing it to the poor.
The gold dinar coins first mentioned a year ago are now being minted, in preparation for their circulation. Sharī’ah courts are established in every city and are judging by the laws of Islam. Corruption, before an unavoidable fact of life in both Iraq and Syria, has been cut to virtually nil while crime rates have considerably tumbled. Meanwhile the Gulf states all around are in turmoil. They are broken by religious differences and fractured by ancient tribal feuds. The “Middle East … is broken, angry and so dysfunctional that it’s in a class all by itself, giving new meaning to the word ‘hopeless,’” wrote scholar Aaron David Miller in Foreign Policy on 11th September. “It is so torn apart and riven with sectarian, political, and religious hatreds and confrontations that it seems beyond the capacity of any external party to remedy.” It’s precisely for reasons like this that the Islamic State has arisen so fast and in such a short space of time. There is only one sect here, Sunni Islam, and the Caliph can only be from one tribe, Quraysh. Here in the Caliphate, there is no room for pluralism.
In an article published in The Telegraph on 8th June, Ruth Sherlock wrote, “The jihadists have become fastidious bureaucrats: imposing taxes [she refers to the zakāh], paying fixed salaries and imposing trading standards laws [she refers to the banning of harām transactions] in a bid to create a healthy economy … many Syrian businessmen see ISIL as the only option when compared to the anarchy that prevails in areas controlled by other rebels, including Western-backed groups.” That’s a far cry from the barbarism generally used to paint the Islamic State in order to perpetuate the image of an evil entity, an image so convenient for government propaganda. What else, Ruth? “Doctors and engineers, particularly those managing the ISIS-controlled oilfields, are paid handsomely – at least double, and often several-fold the salaries offered in other parts of the country,” she continued. “Businesses are now choosing to move their industry into ISIS areas.” That’s not me talking but a writer for one of the “better” newspapers in the UK. And this sentiment – that the Islamic State is a real, growing state – is increasing in volume in the West.
After one year of airstrikes all the evidence suggests there has been no “rolling back” of the mujāhidīn, any “degradation” of their fighting ability has been quickly re-supplied by fresh battlefield booty and new recruits, and estimates for the Islamic State’s army remain, according to the CIA, at 32,000 soldiers but with some figures suggesting up to 70 or even 100,000 to be called upon if required. An unnamed US official told the Associated Press that US intelligence has “seen no meaningful degradation in their numbers.” One year into their war and nothing has changed. This poses a problem for the coalition.
The Iraqi army, according to MIT University’s Barry Posen, no longer exists as a meaningful fighting force. In Iraq they have been largely superseded by the Popular Mobilization Units (al-Hashd ash-Sha’bī), a Shia militia of up to 100,000 men with weapons supplied by Iran. They led the assault on Tikrit in April and have been largely responsible for many of the atrocities subsequently reported in Sunni regions. But since Tikrit, there have been no notable victories for the coalition, and the fighting in Iraq is not going well, to the extent that Lieutenant General Robert Neller of the USMC, when asked by senator John McCain on how he considered the campaign to be progressing, replied, “I think we’re doing what we need to do right now … I believe they are in a stalemate right now.”
Far from “rolling back” the mujāhidīn, the Islamic State is holding ground or even advancing, as can be evidenced by the recent taking of new regions in Iraq and Syria. It is the requirement of the American government and its allies to verbally belittle the Islamic State in public comments by referring to it as just a terrorist “organization.” True, it is a functioning state that uses terror as a tool. But if it’s just an “organization” and the soldiers who fight for it just terrorists, this gives the public a hook on which to hang their hat.
People understand the words “terrorists” or “jihadists” and will largely support any military action against them. But it loses its urgency when you’re fighting soldiers from a state. It just doesn’t conjure up the same images of extremely imminent danger for a politician’s speechwriter. Fighting mere terrorists is one thing, fighting a country, even if that country takes pride in its terrorist tactics, is quite another. But to concede that the Islamic State is indeed a state in any spoken comment would be an admission of their victory that no political leader is currently prepared to make. So they deliberately continue to call them the “so called” Islamic State, ISIL, IS, ISIS, Daesh and whatever the next nom de jour is in a move to show: “Pah. Fiddlesticks! We don’t even know what their name is. We’ve got this in hand.” That’s what they say in public. But what they say behind closed doors with their defence secretaries and intelligence chiefs will, I’m sure, be very different by now.
According to Western reports, approximately 7 million people live in the Caliphate in an area larger than Britain and more populous than Denmark, and many of them are saying that life now is better than it was under the Assad and Shia-led regimes in Syria and Iraq and miles better than the corruption and chaos that followed the Free Syrian Army. That throws a spanner into the works. It’s not what one would expect from a bunch of supposedly “wild-haired barbarian” terrorists, surely? In the New York Times on 21st July, Tim Arango wrote, “[The Islamic State] has outdone the corrupt Syrian and Iraqi governments it routed, residents and experts say. ‘You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul, and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $1 million,’ said Bilal, who lives in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria. ‘No one would dare to take even one dollar.’”
Arango continued, saying the Islamic State is putting in place more governing measures including ID cards for residents, promulgating fishing guidelines to preserve stocks, requiring that cars carry tool kits for emergencies and, of course, following the Sharī’ah to the letter. “[A shop owner in Raqqa] said … ‘Here they are implementing God’s regulations. The killer is killed. The adulterer is stoned. The thief’s hands are cut.’” Stephen M. Walt, a professor of international affairs at Harvard, who was quoted in the same article, said, “I think there is no question that the way to look at it is as a revolutionary state-building organization.” A revolutionary state-building organization? That doesn’t sound like just a terrorist “group” at all.
It’s important to remember, as Walt explains elsewhere, that as new countries have been formed throughout history, it often took years before they were recognized by other states. He mentions, for example, that Europe refused to formally recognize the Soviet Union for years after the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the US not doing so until 1933. Likewise, America did not establish diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China until 1979, some 30 years after it was founded. “If the Islamic State manages to cling to power, consolidate its position, and create a genuine de facto state in what was previously part of Iraq and Syria,” concludes Stephen Walt, “then other states will need to work together to teach it the facts of life in the international system.”
Well, not quite. The Islamic State holds the “international system” to be a tāghūt, something evil enforcing manmade laws upon people. It will never “learn” to “work” with it. But a truce with Western nations is always an option in Sharī’ah law. And here’s the thing. Assad is pretty much finished, with the crumbling ruins of his despotic government now only controlling one-quarter of Syria. Iraq is a disjointed jumble of regions and tribes that never recovered from the American invasion and cannot return to what it once was. The Islamic State, straddling both countries as it does, is a Muslim empire, a country in which there are no tribal or religious clashes. There is only one sect and only one creed. It is a place run, governed, and protected by Sunni mujāhidīn, and as such is now completely unique in the splintering, infighting mess that is collectively referred to as the Middle East. By way of its singularism, it is a better model for future stability in the region than any of the Gulf states supported or shaped by Western intervention that have subsequently declared war upon it. Again, this isn’t just me saying this. That would make it “ISIS propaganda,” and we can’t have that now, can we?
Brigadier General Ronald Magnum made some interesting comments in a paper published by the Georgia Caucasus Strategic Studies Institute on 29th May. “The Islamic State meets all requirements … to be recognized as a state,” he said. “It has a governing structure, it controls territory, a large population, is economically viable, has a large and effective military and provides governmental services such as health care to its population. Dealing with it as if it were a terrorist movement is a non-starter. It is a State and if the West wants to defeat it, it must accept either: 1) The Islamic State is enough of a threat to world or regional peace that the West is willing to go to war with it, or 2) The costs of a war are too great and the West must plan to contain the Islamic State and ultimately negotiate with it as a sovereign State.”
Failed attempts by the coalition to “contain” the Caliphate are already old news. But the N-word, negotiate? That’s a bombshell. Just recently, Obama said there still “would be no negotiating” with the Islamic State, a fact not lost on my former cellmates. But then he changed his policy regarding that, so maybe he or the next president will have to change their policy on this. In a piece published in Foreign Policy on 10th June under the title “What Should We Do if the Islamic State Wins?,” Professor Stephen Walt suggested that victory for the mujāhidīn could be considered not as them planting their black flag on top of the Empire State building, but as them retaining the territory they now control and not being “degraded or destroyed” in any way. So far, they have achieved this. “It eventually moves from pariah to partner, especially when its interests start to coincide with those of other states,” he wrote. “It may still be a troublesome presence in world politics, but it is no longer ostracized. If the Islamic State survives, that is what I’d expect to happen.”
Again, Walt is making gross assumptions, as the mujāhidīn would never accept partnership with the West. But if Western nations want a truce, they really should think thrice before throwing away the chance. The West will need to continue doggedly dropping bombs and cajoling different groups of Shia into the killing zones on the ground for at least another year or two before any true consideration for a truce is reached. But it’s an interesting prospect, the West negotiating with the Islamic State. Is it really ever likely to happen?
Jonathan Powell was chief negotiator on Northern Ireland for the Tony Blair government, and on 12th August, he spoke to the BBC about this very subject. “If you want to destroy the Islamic State, you’re not going to be able to do it from the air. And no one in the West seems prepared to put boots on the ground. So there is no military strategy for destroying ISIS. There needs to be a political strategy. In my view, that would involve talking to them,” he said. “We talked to the IRA, not because they had guns but because they had a third of the Catholic vote. If you’re dealing with a group with no political support, such as Baader-Meinhof, you’re not going to negotiate because there isn’t a political question at the heart of the matter. And it seems to me likely there is a political question at the heart here in Syria and Iraq. If the conflicts I’ve looked at over the last 30 years are anything to go by, and if ISIS have political support, then we will end up speaking to them. Maybe they’ll fade like snow in the spring, but there is very little historical precedent for that happening in this sort of circumstance. It’s my hypothesis that there is such political support. And the idea of extreme Islamists … seems to have enough robustness in it that there is a problem we’re going to have to address politically at some stage, not simply by force of arms.” Powell concluded by saying the West has to pave the way for future “talks” by “establishing a basic conversation.”
More than one year on from the start of the air campaign against the Islamic State and Martin Dempsey, the 4-star General in charge of the US-led campaign, must be wondering what’s next. People in the West are impatient and demand results, and they’re not coming. Like Vietnam, the war against the Islamic State looks like it’s turning into a grinding war of attrition to try and reduce the enemy’s numbers without any clear goals set along the way. The bombs have certainly killed many mujāhidīn but more arrive to take their place every day, each one just as eager as the last to die a shahīd for the sake of Allah. The bombs have certainly destroyed many tanks and armoured vehicles of the Islamic State taken as booty from the Iraqi army (there’s only one gear in Iraqi army tanks: reverse) but the mujāhidīn have merely acquired more from the next fleeing unit. The soldiers of the Caliphate have proved to be a force surprisingly resilient to the shatter and blast of a Paveway bomb or Hellfire missile. And all the while, the Caliphate country they fight and die to support has continued to grow and mature. The mujāhidīn enjoy fighting the most, but they have proved to be remarkably good at adapting to the needs of social requirements and government, too.
Having established their country and set a new order in place within the Middle East, what happens over the next few years is more up to the Islamic State than any exterior force. The first option is that they continue to expand the borders of the Caliphate throughout the region until economic or military limitations stop them and they afterwards consolidate their positions. Too bad for the West, it doesn’t look like such limitations exist for the Caliphate. The second option is that they goad the West into launching an all-out ground attack, thereby setting the scene for the final battle between Muslims and the crusaders prophesized to be held at Dābiq in Syria, by conducting an operation overseas that is so destructive that America and its allies will have no alternative but to send in an army. This would have to be something on the same scale, if not bigger, than 9/11. Then again, I’m just guessing. American “hawks” may very well come to Dābiq on their own without the Islamic State needing to blow up any dirty bombs in Manhattan.
In a piece published in The Independent on 21st June titled “We cannot destroy ISIS, so we will have to learn to live with it,” former counter-terrorism chief for MI6 Richard Barrett wrote, “Iraq and Syria will not return to how they were, and whatever it ends up calling itself, a new entity has emerged that will remain in some form. Currently that entity is aggressive, intolerant and uncompromising, but it is a truth that for all its dystopian features, ISIS offers those living under its rule better governance in some respects than they received from the state before it took over. Corruption is far less prevalent, and justice, albeit brutal, is swift and more evenly applied.” The Islamic State’s rapid consolidation and shrewd governance of its territories has no doubt caught world leaders by as much surprise as its sudden blitz and capture of Mosul. If you’d told a politician in New York in June 2014 that by October 2015 the Islamic State would have achieved what they have, he’d have laughed in your face. It’s fair to say that the same politician isn’t laughing today.
(The article above was first published in Dabiq, no 12, by journalist John Cantlie currently within the Islamic State)
Carol Anne Grayson is an independent writer/researcher on global health/human rights/WOT and is Executive Producer of the Oscar nominated, Incident in New Baghdad. She is a Registered Mental Nurse with a Masters in Gender Culture and Development. Carol was awarded the ESRC, Michael Young Prize for Research 2009, and the COTT ‘Action = Life’ Human Rights Award’ for “upholding truth and justice”. She is also a survivor of US “collateral damage”.