The ongoing civil war in Syria and the breakdown of the Iraqi state are two issues that are not really being tackled seriously, whether by the United Nations or regional bodies, according to Malik Al-Abdeh, a consultant for the Center on Humanitarian Dialogue.
Mr. Al-Abdeh, who established Syria’s first opposition television news channel in 2009, said that the response from the West toward the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) has been narrowly focused on foreign fighters and the threat back home, noting that the majority of the victims of ISIS are in Syria and Iraq.
“I don’t think there’s necessarily the will right now to take them on, especially in the US,” he said. “The issue of ISIS will rumble on for quite some time, and even if they are defeated in places like Tikrit or Mosul, they will continue to exist as a very dangerous terrorist organization.”
“A group like ISIS doesn’t seek to portray itself or to operate as a criminal organization. It sees itself as a state,” Mr. Al-Abdeh said. However, leaders within ISIS often engage in criminal activity, such as kidnapping or extortion, for income, he noted.
He said ISIS portrays itself as a group out to protect Sunnis and they’ve created that identity by going back 1,400 years to a narrow period of Islamic history. “The way they’ve used propaganda is to destroy any form of history except that period and portray this as being if you’re Sunni then this is your flag, this is the group that you swear allegiance to, and of course they’ve used social media in a way that no other insurgent or terrorist group has used it before.”
This interview was conducted by Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Senior Policy Analyst at the International Peace Institute, as part of a series of interviews conducted on the margins of the third retreat of the International Commission on Multilateralism, which focused on terrorism and was held on April 10-11.
Listen to the interview:
In the current context, the Islamic State is at the center of discussion. How can external actors best understand the emergence of ISIS?
There are a lot of local factors at the micro level to explain why people join a group like ISIS, but I think in the big picture, the most useful way to understand this group is through the regional lens—to look at ISIS as a result of the fall of Iraq into the hands of Shia Iran, the marginalization of the Sunni community in Iraq, but also the policies of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and his attacks on mainly Sunni civilians.
This has given fertile recruitment for a group like ISIS. It has also made certain regional countries somewhat sympathetic to ISIS, or at the very least, reluctant to take it on if it means further expansion of Shia and Iranian interests in the region. This has given ISIS some powerful friends internally, but also willing accomplices in the region itself.
How has organized crime played a role in the rise of ISIS and in the conflict in Syria more broadly?
A group like ISIS doesn’t seek to portray itself or to operate as a criminal organization. It sees itself as a state. However, emirs, or leaders, within ISIS often engage in criminal activity, so things like kidnapping, for instance, is a valuable source of income, in addition to the existing revenue streams. ISIS controls almost all of the oil resources in Syria, but actually most of these are refined locally and sold locally. A fraction is exported illegally to places like the KRG, Iraqi-Kurdistan, from which they find their way to international markets, so these have to be tackled.
There are many illegal [archaeological] digs that are happening right now in Syria under ISIS control, and these are being done not necessarily centrally, but through opportunistic ISIS leaders who see this as a way of either taxing the antiquities dealers or actually selling these antiquities themselves.
Earlier today you said that we could compare ISIS to the Tamil Tigers or the Mexican drug cartels. Can you explain this?
The Tamil Tigers in the sense that they portray themselves, and they are in some ways, as protectors of communities against a rival group. With regards to the Mexican drug cartels, if you look at many of the tactics that ISIS employs, like beheadings and extreme violence, the intimidation, these things are not new. In fact, the Mexican drug cartels have been engaging in beheadings often more brutally than ISIS. ISIS use swords, these Mexicans use chainsaws, so extreme use of violence to induce fear among civilian populations is nothing new. What the Mexican drug cartels have been doing in places like Tijuana, for example, ISIS has been doing in Mosul even before they took over Mosul last year. They’ve been a climate of fear within Mosul. The businessmen in Mosul have been paying tributes to ISIS, or extortion money, which has been probably one of the largest revenue streams for ISIS, so in that case they’re more like the Mexican drug cartels.
You’ve emphasized the identity of ISIS as one of the most important factors to understanding it. How has ISIS used media outreach to build and express this identity?
ISIS portrays itself as a Sunni-only group, out to protect Sunnis and fight against the enemies of Sunnis whether they are Shias, Alawites, Westerners, but the problem is how do you package Sunni identity? There is no Sunni identity out there, off-the-shelf ready to be used, so they’ve had to actually create that Sunni identity and they’ve done so by going back 1,400 years to the earliest days of Islam—their flag is the seal of the prophet Mohammed. They’ve destroyed any form of history apart from that very narrow period—sort of the mid-to-late 7th century. The way they’ve used propaganda is to destroy any form of history except that period and portray this as being if you’re Sunni then this is your flag, this is the group that you swear allegiance to, and of course they’ve used social media in a way that no other insurgent or terrorist group has used it before.
In your opinion, has the multilateral response to ISIS to date taken all of these complexities into account?
The short answer is no. The response from the West at least has been to focus on foreign fighters and the threat back home, which is only quite a narrow focus. The majority of the victims of ISIS are in Syria and Iraq, and of course the wider context is the ongoing civil war in Syria and the breakdown of the Iraqi state. Those two issues are not really being tackled in seriousness, whether by the UN or regional bodies. Those issues have to be tackled if ISIS is to be defeated. I don’t think there’s necessarily the will right now to take them on, especially in the US The issue of ISIS will rumble on for quite some time, and even if they are defeated in places like Tikrit or Mosul, they will continue to exist as a very dangerous terrorist organization.