Monthly Archives: August 2014

Who is IS? – Part 2

From my previous post (Here), I got a bunch of questions emailed to me.  I’ll do my best to answer some of the more common ones, though I admit that I’m not a Middle East or Islamic expert.  My answers comes from research on my own, my own interest in the area and people, my 13 year study of the Arabic language and from Arab and Muslim friends.  In my previous post, I tried to stick to facts only, not offering my opinion on things.  I’ll try to do the same here, though maybe I’ll throw in some opinion in a future blog entry.

Question: What is the difference between Sunni and Shia?

For the answer to this question, you have to go back to the foundation of Islam.  When Mohammed died in 632A.D., he had conquered and converted most of the Arabian peninsula and had established the first Islamic Caliphate (theocratic empire).  Upon his death, there arose a bit of a power struggle over who would take control of the empire.  One side (those who would become the Sunni sect), wanted Mohammed’s disciples and those close to him to take control.  The other side (those who would become the Shia sect) felt only those who in Mohammed’s family had the authority to lead Muslims (In Arabic, it is  البيت‎ أهل or ahl al-bayt, literally “The Family House” or “the People of the House”).  The root of the split lies in who is considered worthy to lead all Muslims.  Essentially, the Sunni’s believe that leaders can be elected, the Shi’ites believe they are appointed by Allah from within the family lineage of Mohammed.  There are more difference between the two, but line of succession is the fundamental root of the difference,  This of course then leads to differences of whose teachings (hadiths) are considered worthy of inclusion as having come from Allah and must be followed.  Which over the past 1400 years has led to some substantial differences in viewpoints.

It’s important to note that while there is a very vocal Shia population, the Shia sect accounts for only about 10-12% of all Muslims.  Sunni’s are the overwhelming majority throughout the Middle East, though many leaders have effectively used the split to their advantage in different ways.  Saddam Hussein, himself a Sunni, often “played up” Iraq’s Sunni minority as being the rightful majority in Iraq, to stir up the Sunni population against the Shia (particularly against Shia dominated Iran).

Question: Which side (Sunni or Shia) are the “violent” group? / So, which side are the terrorists?

Neither and both.  There are groups within both sects that are violent and/or terrorist groups and factions within both that are not.  It’s like asking whether Republics or Democrats are the extremists…there are certainly extremist elements within the Republican party that have bombed abortion clinics and violent extremists on the Democratic side of things (e.g., extremist environmentalists attacking fishing boats). Like most things, it comes down to individuals.

That being said, most of what we call “terrorist groups” are Sunni, but the breakdown is pretty similar to the ~90% – ~10% split between Sunni and Shia anyway.  But to say one side is good, and the other side is bad is a gross generalization.

Does IS stand a real chance of accomplishing it’s goal of a caliphate?

Yes and no.  Will they be able to accomplish their goal of taking all Muslim lands and people under their leadership?  No.  Their stated goal is to conquer all of the Middle East (including a nuclear equipped Israel), all of Arabia, all of North Africa, northwest into Turkey (and they have even claimed as far as Rome), east all the way China (including a Iran and and a nuclear powered Pakistan and India) and then into the Pacific islands of Indonesia and the Philipines.  That pretty much can’t happen.

But can they carve out a piece of land that they control indefinitely from Iraq and Syria?  Probably.  There is very little to stop them actually.  The Iraqi government doesn’t have the cohesion to put up a serious fight.  The EU doesn’t have the stomach for a fight, and the US is so war weary that putting boots on the ground to fight them doesn’t seem likely.  If no one takes the fight seriously to them, when they have shown that they are willing and capable to fight, then they will not go away on their own.

The general consensus is that the Kurdish Peshmerga will probably stop them, with the help of US airstrikes, from taking over the Kurdish lands in northern Iraq, but with the momentum from Iraq, it could lead to a more serious attack on the Syrian government’s power in Damascus.  Whether they take Syria or not, they will probably still have a sizable chunk of Iand (they currently hold about roughly 30% of Iraq).  They are well funded by looting, but also by oil sales and from wealthy benefactors in other Sunni countries (Saudi Arabia, Qatar, U.A.E).  They could easily setup a “safe zone” for training and recruiting.  They will get bombed occasionally by Iraqi and US forces, but that happened in Afghanistan when bin Laden was there and they learned to live with it.


Introduction to IS/ISIS/ISIL

There’s been a lot of talk about what is going on with “The Islamic State” in Iraq.  If you’re not sure what this group is, here’s a little primer about them, their history, their goals and their tactics.

What is “The Islamic State?”

The Islamic State (IS) is a militant Sunni Muslim army that formed out of the remnants of Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI).  They have grown to the point of being an organized, disciplined and well funded army of an estimated 20,000 soldiers.

What is the difference between IS, ISIL and ISIS? 

Nothing.  The group has gone through a name change to become IS after the initial ISIL / ISIS (which is just a translation difference).  Initially, they were “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” or “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant.” The problem comes from the Arabic word الشام (transliterated as al-Sham).  Al-Sham was originally a general word for the area around Damascus, Syria.  But it has come to mean a large stretch of land from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, including Syria, much of Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and parts of Jordan.  Basically what Western geography refers to as “The Levant” (from French colonial times)  Regardless of the translation, IS dropped the geographical specificity and changed their name to just “The Islamic State” when they declared themselves a caliphate (see below).

Where did IS come from?

After the US military “surge” of 2006, Al Qaeda in Iraq was more or less defeated as fighting force and resorted to terrorist / guerrilla tactics.  Their tactics were so brutal and indiscriminate that the main Al Qaeda organization started to distance themselves from AQI.  AQI leaders, along with the leaders of the Al Qaeda affiliated group Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, publicly refused to follow orders from AQ leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. In February 2014, AQ officially “kicked out” AQI from AQ and AQI became ISIS/ISIL.  After storming several prisons in Iraq and freeing senior leaders, they have grown in both numbers and power.  Numerous times, the Iraqi army has retreated from a head to head fight, leaving behind vehicles and heavy weapons, which has bolstered the fighting strength of IS. At the same time as IS was starting in western Iraq, the various Syrian opposition groups were coming together under one banner.  These groups merged with IS in the border regions and they became one fighting force.

What is the goal of IS?

The initial goal of IS was to implement a Sunni dominated government in both Iraq and Syria.  With their successes in taking land in Iraq, their aspirations have grown and they have declared themselves a caliphate.  They have claimed all of the Middle East, the northern half of Africa, and a wide stretch from Spain to Pakistan as part of their caliphate.

What is a caliphate? What is the significance of declaring a caliphate?

A caliphate, in simple terms, as a Muslim theocracy, led by a caliph who is both religious and political leader.  However, declaring a caliphate brings with it historical significance in that it brings all Muslims under the rule of one leader.  The first caliphate was establish by the disciples of Mohammed and went on to control all the Middle East, the northern half of Africa and modern day Spain and Portugal.  The leader of IS, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has declared himself caliph, thereby saying he is both the political and religious leader of all Muslims and all Muslims must swear an oath of loyalty to him and to the caliphate, or face execution as an apostate.

How are they gaining power so quickly?

IS taking ground in Iraq very quickly mainly because there isn’t much opposition.  The Iraqi government is weak to begin with and the soldiers on the front lines don’t have much of a desire to fight.  Some are Sunni sympathizers, with some even switching sides, some are Shia who oppose IS but they just don’t have the desire to fight.  The central government in Iraq is comprised of 40+ political parties, coming from many different ethnic groups, religions or religious sects (such as Sunni and Shia), etc., and they rarely can agree on courses of actions to take.  IS has taken advantage of this weak central government to gain ground quickly.  As they have taken over cities, they have looted banks, stores and civilians to continue to fund their army. Additionally, they have captured many military bases and taken control of artillery, tanks, armored personnel carries, etc.  They have grown from being a small terrorist group to being an army.

What are their tactics?

While IS has grown from a terrorist group into an army, they have not forgotten their roots and the power that terror has over a population.  When they have conquered villages and towns, they have systematically marked houses of non-Sunni residents and forced them to either convert to their brand of Islam, pay a tax (everything they own) or die.  In many cases, they have collected the tax, then killed the people anyway to instill fear in the populations.  In Mosul, they methodically killed Christians, beheading several dozen Christian children and mounting their heads on spikes in public parks and marketplaces. Because of the brutal reputation that they have and the lack of response by the Iraqi military, hundreds of thousands of civilians have fled their path.  Most have gone to northern Iraq to the area controlled by the Kurdish population, which is creating a refuge crisis there.

Because of their brutal tactics and willingness to kill even other Sunni Muslims as collateral damage, there is great concern over the fact that IS holds several key dams along the Tigris River as well as chemical weapons factories that once produced Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons (some with non-weaponized chemical weapons stored at them when IS took control). IS blew up two small dams along the Euphrates River to flood towns already, and a failure of the Mosul Dam has the potential to wipe Mosul off the map and send a wall of water 12-15 feet deep 200 miles to Baghdad, killing tens of thousands of civilians.

Who is fighting against IS? 

The Kurdish defense force, the Peshmerga, is currently engaging IS on a limited scale, but as IS moves north Kurdish lands, the fight will expand.  The Peshmerga is larger than IS, but is not as well equipped, thanks in large part to IS taking over Iraqi military bases and their armored vehicles.  As of August 7, 2014, the US has begun limited air strikes on IS to assist in taking out some of the IS heavy weapons with the hopes of tipping the scales in favor of the Peshmerga.  However, IS is a very disciplined army that is growing rapidly, and their ideology is supported by large numbers of Muslims (even if their tactics are not).

Iran has been largely silent, but they see IS as an enemy of the Shia theocracy there.  They have their top special forces (the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard) in Iraq working with the Iraqi army, but their total involvement is probably less than a few hundred soldiers.  Currently, IS is keeping their attention to the northwest of Iraq and Syria, but if they turn east, Iran would not hesitate to attack.