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An expert on terrorism, Bruce Hoffman '76 sat down with CC Magazine to set the record straight on ISIS.
By Edward Weinman
Edward Weinman: How did ISIS get started?
Bruce Hoffman: In response to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, a Jordanian-born criminal named Abu Musab al Zarqawi founded a terrorist group that he called Tawhid wal Jihad (Monotheism and Holy War). Within the year, al Zarqawi would adopt the al Qaeda moniker and rebrand the group, but his relations with Osama bin Laden were always fraught. However, in the face of the American military’s continued presence in Iraq, al Zarqawi in 2004 formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda and renamed his group al Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI.
After a U.S. airstrike killed al Zarqawi on June 7, 2006, AQI appointed Abu Ayyub al Masri his successor. Al Masri renamed AQI the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI).
The American military’s “Surge” of 2007 and the accompanying “Sunni Awakening” among tribes in Anbar Province and other parts of western Iraq led to the arrest of increasingly large numbers of hard-core Sunni insurgents, who would turn their prisons into “terrorist universities” and thus plot the next stage in the evolution of Iraqi terrorism—leading to the establishment of ISIS.
It was at the U.S. detention center at Camp Bucca in Iraq that Abu Bakr al Baghdadi conceptualized and coordinated the creation of ISIS. Al Baghdadi, described by a U.S. Defense Department official as a “street thug,” is nonetheless reputed to have obtained a doctorate in Islamic Studies from a Baghdad university and previously worked as a preacher in his hometown of Samarra. He was arrested in 2004 and reportedly spent the following five years in detention, during which he became a key player in laying the foundation for the Sunni jihadi revival that would eventually crystallize into ISIS. Meanwhile, as ISI-affiliated prisoners were released—or escaped as the result of several ISI-orchestrated mass jailbreaks—the remnants of AQI coalesced into a new terrorist organization that resumed operations against the Iraqi government. It also worrisomely began to seize and hold territory.
With the organization still bearing the name ISI, al Baghdadi expanded the group’s operations in Syria. Then, in April 2013, al Baghdadi asserted command over Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s Syrian arm, and decreed that he was therefore changing the name of the newly amalgamated organization from ISI to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS. The renegade leader brazenly continued to expand and consolidate ISIS’s dominant position in Syria. Then, on June 30, 2014, al Baghdadi formally declared the establishment of the new caliphate—henceforth known as IS.
EW: What are ISIS’s goals?
BH: ISIS seeks the return of an Islamic caliphate or empire where fundamentalist Sunni Islam is the only accepted religion and where Sharia … is the only law. In creating this caliphate they aim to redraw the map of the Middle East, erasing the artificial states and borders created by the Western powers following World War I and resurrecting the Islamic empire that once stretched from Spain across North Africa, through the Middle East and the Caucuses, into South and Southeast Asia. … ISIS claims that it is currently fighting to protect the oppressed Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria.
EW: How is ISIS structured?
BH: In contrast to its rigid ideology and extreme interpretation of Islamic law, ISIS’s organizational structure is remarkably flexible and fluid. Modern terrorist groups have generally found it beneficial to adopt a flatter, more linear and looser structure as opposed to the top-down hierarchical, pyramidal, command-and-control organizational entities that once predominated. The core around which this flexible structure extends in ISIS’s case is al Baghdadi, ISIS’s self-proclaimed Caliph, and the leadership council comprising of al Baghdadi’s most trusted advisers. Al Baghdadi also relies on a personal cabinet that includes specialists in the areas of finance, recruitment and media relations. Beneath al Baghdadi are two deputies: one for Syria and the other for Iraq. Under each of these deputies are roughly a dozen local leaders. According to IS documents acquired by American intelligence, many of these local leaders were former officers from Saddam Hussein’s army. The Amniya al Khalifia is the movement’s external operations arm and was directly responsible for the November 2015 Paris and March 2016 Brussels attacks.
EW: How does ISIS fund its organization?
BH: Unlike most terrorist groups, ISIS actually possesses its own means of income generation and financing—which has fortunately been systematically degraded by American and coalition air strikes over the past years. ISIS, though, still controls oil fields in the regions it governs that at their height yielded an estimated revenue of up to $2 million per day at least. ISIS sells its oil on the black and grey markets using a complex network to smuggle oil to surrounding states, including Turkey and the Assad regime in Syria. To maximize the group’s income, ISIS also imposes economic and agricultural regulations on the populations in territory it controls.
One of ISIS’s largest sources of revenue is war spoils, including millions of dollars’ worth of captured U.S. equipment abandoned by the Iraqi military. ISIS has also collected at least $20 million in ransoms paid for the return of European hostages it seized and held captive. ISIS extortion rackets, targeting persons living in or visiting the region, reportedly bring in an additional several million dollars per month. Finally, ISIS profits from numerous other criminal activities, including smuggling, human trafficking and robbery. One widely circulated report claimed that ISIS also imposes an annual tax on non-Muslims living in ISIS-held lands. ISIS’s control of electrical plants and other essential services allows it to levy additional taxes on any companies or municipalities and outlying areas that want to enjoy uninterrupted service. Local activist groups have even claimed that ISIS has made a secret deal to provide electricity and natural gas supplies to Syria. Another important source of ISIS income is outright confiscations and theft. Donations from foreign sponsors and wealthy members provide a comparatively small portion of the income.
EW: How does ISIS recruit new followers?
BH: ISIS deliberately takes a diversified approach in its recruiting efforts. ISIS attracts and accepts devout Muslims but it also actively recruits recent converts, opportunists, profiteers, sadists and thrill-seekers—essentially anyone who can contribute to the cause.
One of the most common and consequential trends in ISIS recruiting is its deliberate appeal to individuals who are looking for meaning or adventure. ISIS arguably attracts some of its recruits much in the same way cult leaders like Reverend Moon or Charles Manson. This helps explain why ISIS was able to pique the interest of such diverse adherents as the two Austrian teenagers, 17-year-old Samra Kesinovic and 15-year-old Sabina Selimovic, who ran away from home to join ISIS’s jihad in Syria.
EW: How does the organization communicate with its followers?
BH: ISIS uses the internet and social media to speak directly to its international audience, thereby preventing the foreign press from misinterpreting or otherwise distorting its core message. A common ISIS propaganda mantra is, “Don’t hear about us, hear from us.” Their grisly propaganda videos of brutal executions attract many more viewers than Osama bin Laden’s comparatively staid videos recanting complex theological treatises or imparting didactic philosophical and historical lectures. ISIS also uses the WhatsApp, Telegram and Zello apps, which allow users to share audio messages over encrypted channels. By using this feature to broadcast recordings of speeches and rhetoric to a large audience, ISIS has succeeded in continually attracting new recruits.
ISIS also uses more traditional methods of recruiting. It appeals to Muslim fundamentalists by citing historical references; claiming to be the descendants of pious families of ancient, respected lineage and stature or the messengers and executors of apocalyptic prophecies. All of these themes have a very powerful effect on Muslim communities familiar with these stories and traditions. ISIS justifies many of its controversial practices such as sexual slavery by quoting obscure and ambiguous verses from Islamic texts.
EW: How does ISIS’s particular “brand” of terrorism compare with those of other terrorist groups?
BH: First of all, unlike most terrorist groups, it displays characteristics of a true conventional military force. ISIS launched a battalion-sized assault and defeated 30,000 American-trained Iraqi soldiers. As the defenders fled, they left behind approximately three divisions worth of equipment,including American-made Humvees and M1 Abrams tanks totaling tens of millions of dollars. ISIS captured this equipment and has since learned to employ it on the battlefield. ISIS also seized large stockpiles of weapons, equipment and cash while fighting in Syria. The size, weapons and tactics of the ISIS forces, combined with their ability to seize and hold terrain, is arguably unique among terrorist groups.
In addition to its conventional military capabilities, ISIS has the capability to serve as a legitimate governing body. In several cities ISIS has assumed the role of the local government, mediating disputes, regulating and overseeing the produce sold at local markets, guarding against price gouging, and organizing various community events. In Minjib, ISIS’s play for exclusive control led to war with the Kurdish faction. ISIS prevailed and installed an even more robust government, providing everything from medical services to courts and bakeries. ISIS’s strict laws and swift, impartial justice quickly imposed peace and order. ISIS has attracted many followers by providing a better alternative to the lawlessness and corruption typical in Free Syrian Army (FSA)-controlled areas or elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq under the reigns, respectively, of Bashar al Assad and Nuri al Maliki and Haider al Abadi. The most common praise for ISIS is that, right or wrong, they are more honest and efficient than either the Syrian or Iraqi Ba’athists or the subsequent democratically elected Iraqi governments have been. ISIS has also made a point of punishing its own members if they commit crimes against the population. It also tries to empower existing local leaders and avoid micromanagement, if possible.
EW: What does it mean when ISIS “claims” the actions of those abroad?
BH: The call to violence from ISIS’s chief spokesperson, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, has proven much more effective in inciting random acts of violence worldwide than had over a decade’s worth of similar entreaties from al Qaeda to achieve the same end. Absolutely seminal in this respect was al Adnani’s clarion call on Sept. 22, 2014, to would-be and actual ISIS supporters to carry out independent, self-directed acts of violence against ISIS’s enemies in their own countries and homelands. “Do not let this battle pass you by wherever you may be,” al Adnani declared in this statement, titled “Indeed, Your Lord Is Ever Watchful.”
EW: As the air campaign against ISIS continues and the group loses territory, how will that reshape ISIS?
BH: ISIS’s once seemingly unimpeded rising star is now clearly falling. The losses of key strongholds in both western Iraq and Libya are mortal blows to the group’s pretensions of a caliphate that it once trumpeted would stretch from Sirte in Libya to Mosul in Iraq. Once Mosul falls, the group will fall back on Raqqa in Syria as its encirclement continues. But ISIS has come too far and wrought too many changes to disappear completely. The group’s external operations arm, Amniyat al-Khalifa, functions in Europe and elsewhere completely independently of the battlefields in the Levant, Iraq and North Africa. It will thus remain a serious threat capable of prosecuting ISIS’s cause in terms of terrorist strikes along last year’s attacks in Paris and this spring’s incidents in Brussels. … The continuing violence, upheaval and instability that the civil war in Syria has created ensures that ISIS will survive in some form despite its recent heavy losses of both territory and fighters.
EW: Is it possible for a group like ISIS to be defeated, and if so, what does that look like?
BH: Yes, ISIS can be defeated. It will require a concerted onslaught using both military force and non-kinetic tools specifically to choke off its sources of money and effectively counter its message and narrative. This has hitherto existed in a piecemeal, ad hoc fashion but has not been endowed with the decisive, directed, multinational and interagency effort required to defeat ISIS. The problem is that ISIS has taken root, and over the past two years established itself as a highly consequential threat locally, regionally and internationally. It is therefore now virtually impossible to eliminate it or eviscerate the threat it poses completely. But by recapturing the territory it once had, negating the sovereignty it once exercised over the people who lived there and crushing its military might (which was uniquely conventional for a terrorist organization), we will have dealt a significant blow to its prestige, narrative and standing and hopefully diminished decisively its appeal to new recruits and foreign fighters as well as sympathizers and supporters.
Cover Photo: A woman sits in front of city hall in the Normandy city of Saint-Etienne du Rouvray on June 26, 2016. She’s paying tribute to a priest killed in the city’s church in an attack blamed on the Islamic State jihadist group.