Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his empire of fear

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – his official name is ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ – is believed to command no fewer than 50,000 fighters, many of them radicalised Westerners

ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, is not going to disappear any time soon. According to Andrew Hoskin in his 2015 book, ‘Empire of Fear – Inside the Islamic State’, “the group (ISIS) has always taken the world by surprise and few people can say with any confidence what will happen next. However, most governments and experts think IS will not disappear any day soon and that its virulent and intolerant form of Islam will prove extremely difficult to eradicate.”

ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – his official name is ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ – is believed to command no fewer than 50,000 fighters, many of them radicalised Westerners. Al-Baghdadi has ruled ISIS since May 2010, keeping a very low profile. In the summer of 2014, he stepped into the pulpit of the Great Mosque of al-Nusri in Mosul, upgrading his position from a guerrilla to a ‘Caliph’. The ‘Caliph’ rejects peace and hungers for death. His ‘soldiers’ have often declared that they love death. Under his leadership, jihadism has evolved from the Osama Bin Laden days. 

Bin Laden operated from discreet places – at one time the Tora Bora Mountains in Afghanistan. Al-Baghdadi commands significant territories in the Middle East. According to media reports, ISIS controls a territory as large as Great Britain with a population of six million people. His terrorist organisation wreaked havoc in Europe and the Middle East in 2015, killing hundreds of innocent civilians – mostly Shi’a Muslims. 

Despite Western political rhetoric of destroying ISIS, the war on ISIS has so far failed. Recently, US President Barack Obama accused US Presidential candidate Donald Trump of being the ‘best recruiter for ISIS’, following Trump’s suggestion that the US should ban Muslims from travelling to the US. Obama’s suggestion is partially true, but it is his predecessor, George Bush who is mostly to blame for the rise of the ISIS phenomenon. Obama’s administration is partly to blame, too for ISIS’s growing influence. 

True, Middle Eastern powers have facilitated ISIS’s rise to power in many ways, however Bush’s war in Iraq and its aftermath provided Al Qaeda in Iraq, and its splinter group ISIS, with fertile ground to flourish. Following the arrest and execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, the US and its allies had no plan B. The failure of the Baath Party in Iraq, sidelining thousands of civil servants who formed part of the Iraqi government under Saddam Hussein, joblessness and lack of social mobility made Iraq a fertile ground for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his terrorist organisation. 

Obama’s war on the Syrian regime and its drone attacks on Afghanistan resulted in further chaos and the death of innocent civilians. 

‘Caliph Ibrahim’, who claims to be the successor to the Prophet Muhammad, leads a terrorist organisation which commands a police force, an army, a government cabinet of ministers, a slick propaganda machine – with a monthly online publication, Dabiq and articulate spokespersons, an intelligence service, and educational system, a national flag and is considered to be the richest terrorist organisation.

It is estimated, according to a June 2014 Financial Times report, that before taking hold of Mosul in the summer of 2014, ISIS’s assets stood at US$875m. A report in the Guardian, June 2014, put its worth at US$2 billion. ISIS commands some of the richest oil fields in Syria. In his book, ‘Under The Black Flag’, Sami Moubayed, quotes a source saying that “ISIS controls eleven oilfields in Syria and Iraq, including al-Omar, with a production capacity of 75,000 barrels per day. The illicit oil production by ISIS stands at approximately 90,000 barrels per day.”

 ISIS has turned itself into an ideology, which makes the war on terror a more complex task. Al-Baghdadi inspires radicalisation and his organisation attracts thousands of disaffected young men and women from Middle Eastern countries and beyond. The war on terror cannot be won by drone missiles and Western military powers alone. Weakening Baghdadi’s terrorist organisation financially is imperative. 

The need for a strong leadership in post Arab Spring countries too is of utmost importance in the fight against ISIS. Following the Arab spring, there was a lack of strong leadership in many Arab countries whose people had managed to topple long time dictators. It is widely believed that had countries, such as Libya, produced strong leaders after their leaders were toppled, the likelihood of an ISIS takeover would have been highly unlikely. Libya is today governed by chaos. According to a report in the Guardian Weekly, (11.12.15) “Sirte’s airbase, the biggest in Libya, is being readied by ISIS to take suicide planes, while 85 of the town’s children have been paraded as “suicide cubs” ready to detonate themselves to the cause”. 

The re-establishing of borders between Syria and Iraq is crucial to stop jihadis from moving freely between the two countries. So is the tracking and monitoring of radicalised Westerners who travel to Syria to join the Islamic terrorist group. Sami Moubayed, in ‘Under the Black Flag’ quotes the Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe who, in October 2014 said: “We still have an average of five people joining them [ISIS] a week. Five a week doesn’t sound much but when you realise there are 50 weeks in a year, 250 more would be 50 per cent more than we think have gone already. Those are the ones that we believe have gone. There may be many more that set out to travel to another country and meandered over to Syria and Iraq in a way that is not always possible to spot when you have failed states and leaky borders.” 

Lone wolves – often radicalised Westerners who would have returned from Syria – or self-radicalised young men and women have been blamed for the 2015 massacres in the Bardo Museum, Tunis and the Paris attacks later this year. I visited both the Bardo, and the Paris massacre sites, a few days after the ISIS attacks. Many civil society leaders I spoke to in Tunis expressed their concern on the large number of young Tunisians who left for Syria and their fear that these young Tunisians re-enter the country radicalised and determined to implement ISIS’s ‘mission’ in their home country.

 The re-integration of Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria is of utmost importance if ISIS is to be destroyed. According to Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger in their book, ’ISIS – The State of Terror’, “after the collapse of Saddam’s regime, due to their majority, Shi’a groups had the upper hand. Sunnis felt abandoned and resentful, and were able to mount a fierce insurgency. The elements that led to the violence had not been rectified when US troops left”.  The authors quoted King Abdullah of Jordan who referred to the war on ISIS as a “generational fight” and that “as threatening as ISIS is to the West, more than anything else it is an existential threat to Sunni Muslim”.  According to King Abdullah, “This is a Muslim problem. We need to take ownership of this. We need to stand up and say what is right and what is wrong.” Unfortunately, not all of leaders in the Arab world are on board in the war on ISIS. 

Hosken quotes counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen, on the future of ISIS and its threat to world order. Kilcullen’s outlook is notably grim, “How we’ve dealt with Islamic State has been a failure of the collective imagination, the failure to predict what might happen if too little was done to bring security, justice, human dignity and peace to a deeply troubled region. ISIS may eventually be destroyed, but don’t imagine something worse cannot come along to take its place.”

 As long as there are disaffected young Muslims; as long as joblessness, weak leadership, inequality, corruption and embezzlement of public funds in Middle Eastern countries persists. As long as the likes of Donald Trump – with his xenophobic political statements and the George Bush’s of this world continue to call the shots, the likes of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi shall continue to thrive making the world a more dangerous place. This does not augur well for 2016 and the prospect of world peace.