The rise of the Islamic State can partly be explained by the fertile ground they have found for alliances with Sunnis feeling discriminated against by the Shia-dominated power that has ruled Iraq in recent years. That is the conclusion of Patrick Cockburn, the author of a newly-published book titled The Jihadis Return: ISIS and the New Sunni Uprising (OR Books). Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent, writes that while they may not embrace fully the IS project of an ideal Islamic State, a significant number of Sunnis have been willing to give it tacit support, at least for a time. The harshness of the IS will probably cause resentment over time, but it is not easy to break with a group willing to kill its opponents.
Cockburn describes a high level of day-to-day violence in Iraq: some 10,000 Iraqi civilians lost their lives due to violence last year, and the number reached 1,000 per month during the first five months of 2014. The survival of a unitary State in Iraq and Syria is getting increasingly unlikely; the scenario of a break-up along sectarian lines is becoming a serious possibility, which would mean millions more refugees. Cockburn as well as several other authors, such as Alastair Crooke (Huffington Post, Aug. 26-27), stress that the IS does not come out of nowhere and that its emergence is also an outcome of decade-long Saudi efforts to propagate their Wahhabite understanding of Islam. While the IS cannot be described as Wahhabite and Saudi leaders denounce it, especially after noticing a level of support for IS among Saudi citizens, the worldviews spread through Saudi efforts, including anti-Shiite propaganda, have paved the way for the ideology now promoted by IS.
While it is difficult to assess to what extent its leaders are strong believers in such ideas, it is also clear that many rank-and-file IS fighters are motivated by apocalyptic beliefs, writes Jean-Pierre Filiu, a French expert on Muslim apocalyptic movements, in Rue 89 (Aug. 29). Areas in which IS is active include those crucial to Islamic end-times scenario. In such a perspective, even the building of a coalition against jihadist fighters can be interpreted as a fulfillment of prophecies that lead to the final victory of Islam. The apocalyptic dimension does not mean that the IS is an irrational actor. It has a strategy—that it has been implementing step by step, and it is serious in its attempts to build a State implementing its principles. Although, it remains to be seen if the air strikes will disrupt that project and deprive it of some of its power of attraction.
An article by Graeme Wood in The New Republic (Sept. 15) reports that even the IS’ revival of the caliphate has apocalyptic dimensions. Wood writes that a saying attributed to Muhammad predicts a total of 12 caliphs before the end of the world. The IS’ Abu Bakr al Baghdati is considered the eighth caliph in history by his followers, and Muslim prophecy teaches that the battles preceding the Day of Judgment will take place in modern Syria, with a final showdown in the year 2076. Wood concludes that if “IS scholars are right, we could be as few as four air strikes away from forcing the caliphate to find and appoint” the 12th and final caliph.
Meanwhile, the Islamic State’s influence seems to be growing in the Muslim world, according to the Terrorism Monitor (Sept. 5), the newsletter of the Jamestown Foundation. IS’s effort to recruit worldwide can be seen in India where they have established a “cultural niche” through social media and chat rooms. Even though the number of Indians fighting for IS is small—approximately 100—a “virtual cottage industry” of pro-Islamic State propoganda has emerged, which seeks to “induce an artificial identity crisis among the young and impressionable.” In Kashmir, the IS presence is more overt, with the IS’s black flag being displayed by Kashmiri youth protestors, as well as during protests against the airstrikes in Gaza. Kashmiri separatist leaders fear the introduction of Islamic State-style sectarianism into Kashmiri society.
Reuters (Sept. 26) reports that the Islamic State “brand” is gaining ground among Asian Muslim militants in the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. Throughout Asia, including India, there have been approximately 1,000 IS recruits. In this region, “thousands have sworn oaths of loyalty to the IS as local militia groups capitalize on a brand that has been fueled by violent online videos and calls for jihad through social media, security analysts say.” There is also considerable trepidation about what will happen when battle-hardened IS soldiers return home from the Middle East.