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THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND AL-SHAM

THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND AL-SHAM

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Published by GLORIA Center
This article examines the rise of the al-Qa’ida-aligned group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) since its announcement in April 2013 until September 2013. It focuses in particular on its military operations and its relations with other rebel groups. The article concludes by examining what the future holds for ISIS on the whole.
This article examines the rise of the al-Qa’ida-aligned group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) since its announcement in April 2013 until September 2013. It focuses in particular on its military operations and its relations with other rebel groups. The article concludes by examining what the future holds for ISIS on the whole.

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Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2013) 19
THE ISLAMIC STATE OF IRAQ AND AL-SHAM
By Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi*
This article examines the rise of the al-
Qa’ida
-aligned group known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) since its announcement in April 2013 until September 2013. It focuses in particular on its military operations and its relations with other rebel groups. The article concludes by examining what the future holds for ISIS on the whole.
INTRODUCTION: THE IDEOLOGY
The group under consideration in this  paper--like al-
Qa’ida cen
tral under Usama bin Ladin and subsequently Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Tehrik-e-Taliban of Waziristan, and others--is part of what one might term the
“global jihad” movement. This movement is
not a coherent whole organized by a strict central hierarchy, but rather one defined by a shared ideology. This ideology aims firstly to reestablish a system of governance known as the Caliphate--an Islamic form of government that first came into being after Muhammad
’s
death under Abu Bakr and saw its last manifestation in the Ottoman Empire--across the entire Muslim world. From there, the intention is to spread the Caliphate across the entire world.
1
 This worldview is one of many answers formulated to answer a question posed in the wider Muslim world: Namely, what has been the cause of decline of the Muslim world--and the Arab world in particular--in contrast to the apparent success of the West since the nineteenth century? The answer formulated by ideologues of the global jihad movement is that the cause of this decline is rooted in the
Muslim world’s deviation from the path of
Islam by not applying Islamic law to governance in its totality. This is to be contrasted with the
Islamic Golden Age
 in
Islam’s first five centuries or so
--idealized in different ways by others not of this orientation--when the Muslim world was supposedly uncontaminated by foreign
influences. Of course, given that era’s
exploitation of the classical Greek heritage through the translation movement under the Abbasids-
the global jihad movement’s
 portrayal of this era is blatantly unhistorical.  Nonetheless, the perception is what matters. In light of the
ISIS’ ambitious goals, it is imperative to consider the group’s fortunes in
Syria, which in turn will allow policymakers to assess what threat, if any, the group poses to the wider international order in the long-term.
BACKGROUND: QUARRELS AT THE LEADERSHIP LEVEL
Prior to the announcement of ISIS by the
leader of Iraq’s al
-
Qa’ida affiliate
, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the main al-
Qa’ida
-aligned group operating in Syria was Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) under the leadership of Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. JN, which had initially been established in January 2012 with financial and manpower support from the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI),
2
 had enjoyed a fair degree of success throughout Syria in conducting operations and establishing a foothold in areas freed from regime control. The success was partly rooted in the manner in which JN has portrayed its efforts in Syria--namely, as a defensive jihad to  protect the Muslim population in the face of oppression.
3
 Thus, outreach to locals became and still remains an
important part of JN’s
strategy. For example, media reports widely
noted JN’s running of bakery services for
locals in places such as Aleppo,
4
 and one
 
Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi
 
20 Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2013)  jihadi news outlet--the Himam News Agency--
regularly puts out videos of JN’s provision of
 public services in towns such as Binnish in Idlib, where JN fighters run garbage collection and disposal.
5
 
In terms of JN’s overall position in Syria,
while it was clear that the group had a  presence in operations throughout the country from Dar 
’a
 in the far southwest to Hasakah in the far northeast, the evidence suggested that the group was best established in the Aleppo and Deir al-Zor governorates. However, it by no means follows from this assessment that JN somehow controlled a substantial amount of territory in either of these provinces. Moreover, JN had faced a degree of resentment and backlash from locals, as occurred in the town of Mayadin in the Deir al-Zor governorate--though such demonstrations of opposition could easily be met with counter-rallies by JN supporters.
6
 In March 2013, JN along with the Salafi battalion Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya played a key role in the takeover of the provincial capital of the Raqqa Governorate in the north. April 2013 then saw the unexpected development of the announcement by ISI leader Baghdadi of a merger between ISI and JN to form ISIS. In the speech released on April 8, 2013,
 by ISI’s official outlet
al-Furqan Media, Baghdadi described Jawlani as
“one of our soldiers” and
stated that Jawlani had
established his organization “from our sons.”
7
 Baghdadi went on to explain that while there had been no explicit statement of the links between ISI and JN, the time had now come to declare that JN was simply an
“extension” of ISI “and a part of it.”
8
 Thus,
Baghdadi announced the “
cancellation of the name Islamic State of Iraq and the cancellation of the name Jabhat al-Nusra, and the joining of the two under one name:
the “
Islamic State of Iraq and al-
Sham.”
9
 
Baghdadi’s words
, therefore, confirmed long-standing suspicions among Western intelligence officials that JN had been established as the Syrian arm of the ISI, something that was also corroborated in a
 prompt response released by JN’s official
 media wing al-Manara al-Bayda
 
(“The White Minaret”
) on 10 April.
10
 In his response, Jawlani denied that either he or anyone in JN had been consulted on or had sought the
announcement of Baghdadi’
s merger, while admitting that the beginnings of JN lay in ISI,
as indicated by the following remark: “We
accompanied the jihad in Iraq as military escorts from its beginning until our return [to Syria] after the Syrian revolution
.”
11
 Jawlani further stated,
“W
e learnt lessons from our experience there [in Iraq] concerning what is the secret of the hearts of the believers in the land of al-Sham under the banner of Jabhat al-Nusra
 I did not want to leave Iraq  before seeing the banners of Islam flying on high over the land of the two rivers but the speed of events in ash-Sham interfered
 between us and what we wanted.”
12
 Jawlani
also spoke of “our brothers in jihad in Iraq”
and respectfully addressed
ISI’s leader as “Sheikh Baghdadi, may God protect him.”
 He then concluded
 by reaffirming JN’s pledge of
allegiance to al-Qa
’ida’s central leader
Ayman al-Z
awahiri, affirming that the “banner of
Jabhat al-
 Nusra will remain.”
13
 The controversy over whether ISI and JN should be merged remained unaddressed until June 2013
. During that time, both JN and ISI’s
media arms stopped releasing official content. In addition, tracking the activities of JN and those going by the name of ISIS required reliance on unofficial media, most notably YouTube videos.
14
Zawahiri then issued a letter in early June 2013 urging for the separation of ISI and JN, while stressing that the two organizations should cooperate.
15
 Yet Baghdadi rejected the ruling of separation in a
speech entitled “Remaining [Steadfast] in Iraq
and al-Sham,
” wherein he insisted
 that Z
awahiri’s letter had problems of legitimacy
and methodology, hinting at a cast of doubt of authenticity on the letter.
16
 Then another audio recording was released  by al-Furqan Media, featuring a speech by Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani al-Shami, a Syrian jihadi believed to be from Idlib
17
and identified by al-Furqan Media as the official spokesman for ISIS.
18
 Adnani reaffirmed
Baghdadi’s rejection of
Z
awahiri’s ruling in more forceful terms, insisting on “one front,
 
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 17, No. 3 (Fall 2013) 21
one leadership,” and that “the borders will not
separate between the two [i.e., the jihad fronts
in Iraq and Syria].” Adnani also
vowed that
ISIS would target the “Rafidites”
(
Shi’a
) with
 bombs “from Diyala to Beirut.”
19
 On multiple
occasions, Adnani references the “defection”
(
inshiqaq
) that has hurt the ranks of the mujahidin in Syria--a not-so-subtle attack on Jawlani
’s refusal to accept
a merger with ISI to form ISIS. As of the writing of this article, no further directives have been issued from Zawahiri in an attempt to resolve the dispute. Indeed,
Baghdadi’s rejection of his ruling essentially
amounts to a humiliation of Zawahiri. In Iraq itself, written statements are no longer put out in the name of ISI, but ISIS. Further, while officially approved jihadi forums such as Shamukh Islam were initially deleting posts
 put out in ISIS’ name after
Zawa
hiri’s ruling,
this is no longer the case. Nonetheless, al-Furqan Media, which now puts out videos on ISIS activities in both Iraq and Syria,
20
 still explicitly avoids describing itself as the media arm of ISIS, but instead keeps a silence on the naming controversy in its videos. Besides al-Furqan Media, some unofficial  pro-ISIS outlets have come to the forefront, such as al-Sham media (which put out a string of purported ISIS videos in May 2013, and is  based in Raqqa) and Baqiyya Media (named after Baghdad
i’s speech that rejected
Z
awahiri’s ruling).
 In any event, Baghdadi has successfully challenged Zawahiri in that in  practice ISIS is now accepted as a reality on the ground alongside JN. As a final prefatory note, the Baghdadi-Jawlani fitna aside, it should be emphasized that as al-
Qa’ida affiliates, both ISIS and JN
are ultimately committed ideologically to a transnational project for a caliphate that should first span the Muslim world and then dominate the entire world. However, it is undoubtedly true that ISIS in Syria is much more open about these goals than JN.
21
 The
question now arises of how ISIS’ relationship
with other groups plays out on the ground.
ISIS AND OTHER REBELS: RELATIONS AND OPERATIONS
JN AND ISIS
In light of the quarrels at the leadership level between Baghdad and Jawlani, the
immediate issue that comes to mind is ISIS’
relationship with JN on the ground. A common paradigm of analysis in this case is to  posit a polarized dichotomy whereby ISIS is an entity composed of foreign fighters as opposed to a native Syrian JN. This view is  primarily based on some media reports that estimate that 80 percent of
muhajirin
 (foreign fighters) in Syria have joined the ranks of ISIS.
22
 In
this author’s
 view, the estimate is likely to bear a good degree of resemblance to the reality on the ground, but it would be erroneous to conclude from it that ISIS is  primarily a group of foreign fighters. To be sure, from
the current author’s
 own documentation of claimed martyrs for ISIS up to the beginning of July 2013,
23
 as well as examination of subsequent records on this issue,
24
 it can be shown that at the minimum, foreign fighters are disproportionately represented in its ranks and constitute the most experienced and effective fighting force within ISIS, while perhaps playing a key role in leadership in various localities. Yet in Raqqa  province, one anti-ISIS activist identified as Ahmed al-Asmeh told the news site
Syria  Deeply
that only “30 percent of their [ISIS’]
members are muhajiroun [foreigners]
.”
25
 Likewise, a reporter who visited the northern ISIS stronghold of Jarabulus in the Aleppo governorate along the border with Turkey
found that most of ISIS’ members in the
town are native Syrians.
26
 In short, therefore, the strict dichotomy of ISIS as a group of foreign fighters versus a native Syrian JN is not accurate. As far as relations on the ground go, the relationship defies a simple polarity reflecting the tensions at the leadership level. The current author has already documented the ISIS-JN relationship in a number of governorates: notably Aleppo, Raqqa, Deir al-Zor, and
Dar’a
.
27
 Details of the relationship by governorate need not be repeated at length, but to summarize: In

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