Opinions abound on the sudden rise of the Islamic State movement, or ISIS, the barbarous extremist militia which has swept aside hapless Iraqi and Syrian armies and succeeded in controlling a vast swath of territory in northern and western Iraq and eastern Syria.
The group has announced the establishment of an Islamic caliphate based on Salafism, a puritanical form of Sunni Islam with close theological links to Saudi Arabian Wahhabism. Salafism seeks to idealize and emulate the piety and practices that characterized the formative years of the foundation of Islam. The Islamic State also seeks to expand its control to neighboring Arab States and eventually all Muslim lands.
If unchecked, the Islamic State poses a security threat not only to Iraq and the Middle East countries but also to the West because of its ability to recruit hundreds of foreign jihadists who may pose threats on their return. Media narratives suggest that the conquests are about religion, militancy and territory. But the goal is mainly to advance political goals with religion co-opted.
The genesis of ISIS has its roots in the Al Qaeda–inspired Sunni insurgency called the Islamic State in Iraq, or ISI, that rose to fight the American occupation of Iraq and disempowerment of Iraqi Sunnis under the leadership of Jordanian jihadi abu Musab al-Zarqawi who was killed in a US-targeted attack in 2006. ISI was an umbrella network of several jihadi groups waging a terrorist-guerrilla campaign against the United States, coalition allies and Iraqi Shias.
In 2006 the group had around 20,000, mostly Iraqi insurgents with about 2000 non-Iraqi. The foreign jihadis were the main arsenal of suicide bombers in Iraq.
ISI was weakened towards the end of the US occupation, due to the 2007 surge in US forces with the co-option of the Sunni tribes of Anbar Province known as the Sunni Awakening Movement, mobilized and funded by the US military army to fight insurgents . By 2011, the Sunni tribal fighters numbered close to 100,000. Weakened ISI then found the Syrian civil war a fertile ground and moved its main operations to eastern Syria.
The creation of the Sunni Awakening movement was instrumental in reducing violence in Iraq, paving the way for the American administration to embark on political reconciliation among the Sunnis, Kurds and Shiites in Iraq and withdrawal of US forces.
The reconciliation agreement included equitable distribution of oil revenues, absorption of fighters from the Sunni Awakening Movement into the Iraq army and reversing the purge of Baathists from government. Iraqi Prime Minster Nuri Al-Maliki’s authoritarian and Shiite-dominated government then reneged on provisions of the reconciliation agreement.
Sunnis were denied government resources, subjected to arbitrary arrest and torture on the grounds that the government was fighting terrorists. Shiite militias terrorized the Sunnis. Massive alienation of Iraqi Sunnis, the failure of ethnic reconciliation, paved the way for the rise of ISIS.
ISIS is one of the several Sunni insurgents groups fighting the Iraqi state. It succeeds in areas like Mosul, Tikrit and Fallujah not because of its extremism and brutality but despite it. The Sunni majority fears their government more than ISIS. Now that Iranians are involved in a big way that would further strengthen their resolve.
After being subjected to years of political and economic marginalization, state-sanctioned repression, lawlessness and corruption in the hands of Iraq’s Shiite-led government, Sunni Iraqis rebelled by joining militant groups that pledged allegiance to ISIS. Many ISIS fighters are from the Sunni Awakening Movement which helped the United States to counter the insurgency of 2008 to 2011. Official US reports suggest the Islamic State ranks number no more than 30,000.
The Iraqi government promised to absorb the Sunni fighters into the security forces but later reneged, claiming they were supporters of Al Qaeda. US President Barack Obama observed at a February conference on countering violent extremism, “When governments oppress their people, deny human rights, stifle dissent or marginalize ethnic and religious groups, or favor certain religious groups over other, it sows the seeds of extremism and violence.”
Iraqi Sunnis are angry and disillusioned. And similar alienation and marginalization may explain the appeal of ISIS among the foreign jihadis flocking by the hundreds to Iraq and Syria. Large segments of Muslim minorities in Europe and elsewhere endure discrimination, joblessness and poverty.
Prison statistics are dire: 3 percent of the British population is Muslim but 11 percent of prisoners are Muslim. In the Netherlands, 6 percent of the population is Muslim, but 20 percent of adults and 26 percent of juvenile prisoners are Muslim. Around 9 percent of the French population is Muslim but at least half of its prisoners are Muslims.
Most French prisons contain a majority of Muslims who continue to feel victimized by prison officials who confuse religious observance to extremism. Radical preaching in prison catches on, offering young Muslims prisoners an excuse for their predicaments and a fantasy of omnipotence by declaring death to their oppressors. Many suggest the radicalization of Charlie Hebdo killers Cherif and Said Kouachi began in prison. The largest contingent of Islamic State foreign fighters is from France.
According to French sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar, a typical trajectory for Islamist terrorists includes alienation from the dominant culture due to discrimination and joblessness followed by petty crimes leading to prison, more crime and prison, religious awakening and radicalization, followed by journeys to Yemen, Syria, Pakistan or Afghanistan to train for jihad.
Other pathways for radicalization and recruitment for jihadi missions are social media and radical Muslim Internet websites. A few, including the more educated who feel alienated from their parents’ culture, seek a life of thrill and the opportunity to fight oppression in Muslim countries.
The most pressing task for governments is to devise public policies for successful integration of marginalized Muslim minorities into mainstream society. The unemployment rates of Muslim minorities in most Western countries tend to be three to four times higher compared to the majority population. If appropriate steps are not taken, a large segment of Muslim minorities could become a permanent underclass seriously fracturing social cohesion.
Some politicians in western countries exaggerate extremist tendencies among Muslim minorities to feed prejudices and bolster their own political fortunes. In Australia, for example, some 150 mostly unemployed Muslims have either traveled to Syria to join ISIS or are accused of supporting the cause — a small fraction of the nation’s half million Muslims. Australia has broad counterterrorism laws, and yet the government is introducing more. One can never draft enough laws to prevent the 100 or 200 drawn to extremism, not without crossing human rights. And such laws can become counterproductive.
Western countries must recognize that, unlike Al Qaeda, whose animosity was directed against a distant enemy, the Islamic State war is against the near enemy — a war within Islam with Sunni extremists pitted against Shiites, moderate Muslims and non-Muslim minorities. The war is between those who accept hybridity and pluralism in the Muslim world and those who envision a Muslim world dominated by a single strand of Wahabbism and its extremist offshoots. The United States and its allies must pursue a new strategy by forging stronger military and political alliance between all neighboring countries to counter and defeat the scourge of ISIS.
Riaz Hassan is director of the International Center for Muslim and Non-Muslim Understanding at the University of South Australia, and visiting research professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of “Inside Muslim Minds” and “Life as a Weapon: The Global Rise of Suicide Bombings” and co-author of “Afghanistan: The Next Phase,” which will be launched at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC, on March 25.