A Brutal Bunch

ISIS is by all accounts is so utterly brutal that its arrival in a location probably does feel like Allah's wrath is descending like a ton of bricks on the heads of those who haven't fled in time. 

Al Qaeda, which terrorism experts refer to as a 'brand that has great weight' in radical fundamentalist circles, has officially disassociated itself from the group, fearing it might damage Al Qaeda's image due to its unvarnished brutality.  The background to this is reportedly a long-running dispute between the late Osama Bin Laden and the equally late (or even later, if you will) Abu Musab al Zarquawi, the Jordanian street thug who founded al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, which eventually became known as 'Al Qaeda in Iraq', the group that has in the meantime mutated into ISIS or ISIL (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, resp. the Levant).

Rumor has it (letters exchanged between OBL and Zarqawi have apparently been found) that OBL disapproved of Zarqawi's harsh tactics, rightly fearing they would alienate Sunnis in Iraq. AQI was indeed almost defeated when Iraq's Sunni tribes turned against it.

The movement regrouped in Syria, evidently got its hands on a great many weapons and was joined by jihadists from around the world. However, it continued with its brutal ways, imposing harsh sharia laws wherever it took over. Videos of beheadings and other gruesome executions perpetrated by ISIS fighters have flooded the internet. Undoubtedly ISIS' reputation was a great help in getting Iraqi soldiers to flee their posts when the group recently swept across Northern Iraq.

Al Qaeda, under its new leader Ayman al-Zawahiri finally completely disowned the group, with the disavowal being made official in early February of this year. As one observer remarked, Al-Qaeda seemed to have concluded that “not all press is good press”.

Ironically though, ISIS is farthest along the goal of actually establishing an Islamic Caliphate, a long term plan of Al Qaeda. And the break seems not to have  slowed its momentum one bit. It also appears it has changed its approach in Iraq, so as not to repeat Zarqawi's strategic mistakes.

Iraq's Shi'ite prime minister Maliki has made a grave mistake as well – he has failed to promote unity among Iraq's religious sects. The Sunni tribes in the North are disaffected and are therefore giving ISIS a chance – their help was probably a crucial element in the group's successful conquest of cities in the area.


ISIS Propaganda

Still, one wonders how a group with such a medieval throwback outlook is able to attract so many dedicated followers. We happen to believe that radical Islamist fundamentalism is a kind of reaction to modernity that is ultimately doomed. And yet, it appears to attract not only the Arabian equivalent to white trash. The conflict between Sunnis and Shi'ites is actually faintly reminiscent of the 30 year war between Catholic and Protestants – with the main difference that the latter was fought nearly 400 years ago (it was comparably brutal).

ISIS has just released its fourth propaganda movie, Saleel al-Sawarim 4 (the Clanging of the Swords) a fairly slickly produced movie made by what is apparently its own film production subsidiary al-Furqan Media. The movie is even available with English sub-titles, presumably so as to be intelligible to potential recruits abroad, of which the group has reportedly attracted 3,000 so far.

The video contains a lot of gruesome footage, including a scene that shows three men being forced to dig their own graves, many IED attacks on armored vehicles, various sniper shots and executions by gun-shot, but is surprisingly short of beheading scenes (there is only one in the whole movie, and that scene is edited in such a way that the act itself is not shown, only its result – which is stomach-turning enough). Clearly it is not something very enjoyable to watch. After a while all the killings, bombings and executions actually get kind of boring – it is a bit like the Islamist version of torture porn. Now that you have been given fair warning, the video can be seen here (it keeps getting taken down at you-tube for violation of you-tube etiquette).

Much of the video is obviously not really worth watching, however, it does have a few interesting parts. For instance, it shows several scenes of high ranking Iraqi counter-terrorism officials being picked up in their homes in the middle of the night for the purpose of executing them. The kidnappings involve jihadists masquerading as soldiers of the Iraqi army so as not to alarm their victims. They also man check-points clad in official army outfits, duping unsuspecting political officials and bureaucrats of all stripes into revealing their identity, only to be killed. One of the conclusions from this must be that ISIS has infiltrated the Iraqi state at many levels. It has to have access to sensitive intelligence (e.g., one presumes that the home address of a high-ranking counter-terrorism official is not exactly common knowledge).

There are other interesting scenes in the video. Once it takes over a town, ISIS  holds town hall meetings for the purpose of bestowing 'forgiveness' on Sunni officials (civil servants, policemen and the like) who swear they will henceforth no longer serve the Iraqi government. While they obviously lose their livelihood, they get to keep their lives, and generally look rather relieved. There is also one scene showing an ISIS-affiliated preacher berating a group of villagers regarding the perceived injustices of the Maliki government. So evidently the movement is trying to project the image of 'savior from evil Maliki' to the Sunni population.

The by far most interesting part can however be found starting at approximately 21:30. A young man – apparently a well-to-do and quite articulate one –  from Bahrain is shown giving a speech (the title to this post “The cheerful, yet lethal prophet” was taken from this speech. It is the young man's description of the prophet Muhammad). The speech outlines the ideology and political goals of ISIS and ends with him ripping up and burning his Bahraini passport, while telling the leaders of Bahrain where they can stick their threats (apparently, the political leadership of Bahrain threatens citizens who join ISIS with the revocation of their passports and citizenship).

Reminding the government of Bahrain (“the tyrants of the Khalifa family”) that they are subordinates of the Saudis and hence lapdogs of the US, the man explains that the “Sykes-Picot borders mean nothing to ISIS”. Don't the Khalifas know that the Islamic Caliphate is one land? Don't they realize that their citizenship, their threats, their constitutions and their laws mean nothing?

He then announces that ISIS is planning to expand and expand until it “sweeps your thrones away” and adds “we won't rest until we've hammered the last nail into your coffins”. We take it that “thrones” refers to more than just one throne, which makes it very ironic that there the Saudis are allegedly benefactors of the group, because they (for now) hate Assad and Maliki even more than they fear ISIS.

We conclude however that they have every reason to fear the organization. We have no idea if its recent conquest of Northern Iraq will stick or if it will be beaten back one more time with the help of US air power. It seems to us that it will actually be quite difficult to get rid of these guys from the air. They often dress as Iraqi soldiers or blend into the population of the cities they control. How can they be bombed into submission? The obvious risk for Maliki is that he will end up alienating Iraq's Sunnis even more.

At the BBC we can see Shi'ites voluntarily joining the army and/or Shi'ite militias in order to mount a counter-offensive. They seem to be in a reasonably good mood, but somehow they strike us not as motivated as the stern jihadists, who are battle-hardened and utterly ruthless as well. 

So this is what has ultimately come of destabilizing the region –  it could well be that Al Qaeda's major political goal is about to be realized by an organization that is even worse than Al Qaeda. The secular bulwarks against religious extremism have been removed or weakened to the point where they no longer pose a challenge. Perhaps they would eventually have fallen anyway – we cannot go back in time and see what would have happened had Saddam and Assad been left alone. We can however see what has happened.


Addendum: Al-Baghdadi

It has come to our attention that the photographs of Al-Baghdadi (the ISIS leader) we showed last week are not authenticated ones. Apparently the only photos of the man which are considered definitely authentic are two old out-of-focus mugshots:


abu bakr al baghdadi-1Abu-Bakr a-Baghdadi mugshot in b/w

(Photo source unknown)


abu bakr al baghdadi-2

And here the only authenticated color mugshot of the man. A reward of up to $10 m. has been put on his head.

(Photo source unknown)




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2 Responses to “The Cheerful, Yet Lethal Prophet”

  • Floyd:

    I wonder, too, whether Saddam and Assad would be in about the same situation give or take had the US not invaded Iraq.
    The mess in Egypt, Libya and Tunis suggest that Saddam and Assad were vulnerable nonetheless.
    That being said, the power vacuum and destabilization due to the Iraq war of 2003 must not be underestimated. It did provide an incubation for at least some of the forces challenging Assad and al-Maliki.

  • jimmyjames:

    Perhaps they would eventually have fallen anyway – we cannot go back in time and see what would have happened had Saddam and Assad been left alone. We can however see what has happened.

    Now we’re getting reports that Iran and the US and maybe even Sierra will buddy up and be on same side fighting the “axis of evil”
    We’re gonna run out of enemies pretty soon if these sorts of embarrassing little paradoxes keep popping up ..

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