Deconstructing ISIS: Full of Symbols, Less on Substance by Dr Namrata Goswami, Independent Senior Analyst, Author and one of the foremost Indian thinkers on long-term global trends, emerging security challenges, and scenario building.
Sartaj, the father of self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Sham (ISIS) Indian recruit, Saifullah, who was killed in Lucknow, India, refused to take the body of his son stating “A traitor cannot be my son, straight and simple”. One can feel the pain, agony and despair in a father whose son tried to kill innocent people on a train in Madhya Pradesh, India, by setting off a bomb. Similar cases of despair have been voiced by parents of ISIS recruits across the world, be it in the U.K., France, and the U.S.
This lack of support, for ISIS ideology and propaganda, is generational, with older Muslim generations rejecting ISIS and calling it out for what it is; a terrorist group. Even amongst the age group, 15 to 20, viewed as susceptible and specifically targeted by ISIS recruiters, only a few thousands have been attracted to ISIS, out of millions, who reject it. This is despite ISIS repeated claims that all true Muslims have an obligation to join or give allegiance (baya) to its self-proclaimed Caliph (Khalifa), Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. From a population of 1.6 billion Muslims worldwide, around 25, 000 to 37, 000 have traveled to the ISIS Caliphate. That appears like a huge number, but if one puts it in perspective, nearly 10, 000 to 20, 000 Afghans, are fighting against ISIS in the liwa’ fatimiyun (Fatimiyun Brigade)in Syria. Then, we have Hezbollah and other Shiite foreign fighters, backed by Iran, fighting in Syria against Sunni ISIS. Most of these foreign fighters are drawn by monetary incentives, which includes USD 500 as monthly income.
ISIS wants us to believe that its foreign fighters are drawn to it by its ideology and religious Caliphate it has unilaterally established. ISIS may not want us to know that it pays nearly double to its Syrian fighters, compared to the other Syrian rebel groups. Added to this is the rampant unemployment in the midst of civil strife, boosting ISIS recruitment. While the motivations to join ISIS amongst those in Syria and Iraq, and those outside the region may differ, monetary incentives play a decisive role, besides ideology.
Significantly, ISIS claims that Muslims are flocking to the Caliphate, is contradicted by data. For instance, out of a population of 4.7 million French Muslims (as of May 2015), 1,700 French nationals joined ISIS. Out of 4.7 million German Muslims, 760 joined ISIS (as of May 2015).In the UK, with a population of 3 million Muslims, 760 have joined ISIS by that same date. The countries with the highest ISIS recruits includes Tunisia with 6000, out of a population of 10.89 million, followed by Saudi Arabia with 2, 500 out of a population of 28.83 million, Russia with 2, 400, out of its Muslim population of 20 million, Turkey with 2, 100, out of a population of 74.93 million, and Jordan with 2000, out of a population of 6 million. This contradicts ISIS online propaganda, where it portrays images of thousands of ISIS recruits from across the world, deliberately concealing the millions of Muslims, who scorn them. It is important to locate the ISIS recruitment data vis-à-vis the total Muslim population, to undercut ISIS propaganda that every Muslim is flocking to their so-called Caliphate.
Nevertheless, what is ISIS ideology? In 2014, ISIS led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, swept into Iraq from Syria, and successfully occupied Mosul in Iraq’s Nineveh province. It had already captured cities like Aleppo and Raqqa in Syria. In June 2014, Baghdadi unilaterally declared the Caliphate, followed by ISIS official pronouncement that:
“The legality of all emirates, groups, states and organisations becomes null by the expansion of the caliph’s authority and the arrival of its troops to their areas…Listen to your caliph and obey him. Support your state, which grows every day…The Shura [council] of the Islamic State met and discussed this issue [of the caliphate] … the Islamic State decided to establish an Islamic caliphate and to designate a caliph for the state of the Muslims.”
In a map published in July 2014, ISIS declared that it is not simply an organization like Al Qaeda but a state, with all the attributes that come with it, like government, people, territory and sovereignty. By declaring an Islamic State (al Dawla, al Islamiya), ISIS sent the message that this state is not limited to Iraq and Syria but will spread its presence to other parts of the world including North Africa (the Maghreb), Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Andalusia (Spain), Cameron, Somalia, Ethiopia, Azerbaijan, Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Xinjiang province in China, as well as Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and other gulf states. ISIS declared its intentions to spread to South, Central, and Southeast Asia. To justify the Caliphate and legitimize its brutal tactics, ISIS deliberately quotes from the Koran, especially to create religious sanction, for activities like kidnappings, beheading, slavery, and population coercion.
Amongst the theological traditions that influence ISIS are Salafism and the Sahwa movement in Saudi Arabia. Salafism, by itself, is non-political, though it advocates the ‘purification of the creed’, as ISIS upholds. Salafism emulates the Prophet Muhammad and his first followers, al-salaf al-salih, or the ‘pious forefathers”, who usually had facial hair, and believed that Sharia law should be imposed. Another ideological influence on ISIS is the Sahwa movement, or the al-Sahwa al-Islamiyya (Islamic Awakening), that mixes Saudi Wahhabism with Muslim Brotherhood politics. ISIS is most influenced by the idea of Takfirism-the idea of one Muslim declaring another an infidel or apostate, which results in ex-communication. Foremost in this is ISIS’s deliberate targeting of fellow Muslims, especially those that deviate from its puritanical interpretation of Islam.
Propaganda and Recruitment
Most of those who join ISIS from far regions were radicalized by online discussions and ISIS propaganda, rendered vulnerable by their inherent need to belong to something far more radical than their own Muslim communities. ISIS recruitment is propped up on several incentives; namely; ideological and religious; a shared linear sense of anger at some of the conditions affecting Muslims worldwide; the impact of 9/11; the 2003 Iraq invasion; the atrocities of Abu Ghraib; lack of purpose and meaning in potential recruits’ current lives; and a sense of siege when poor intelligence in host societies leads to overt generalizations about Muslim communities. This can lend itself to recruitment, especially from the pool of Muslim youths living in the West. Most of the recruits from Europe and North America fall within the age group of 15 to 25; an age that renders young men and/or women looking for meaning, become easily manipulated by someone older. And ISIS online recruiters are clever enough to scan for those vulnerabilities.
ISIS props its messaging on three factors; first, that Baghdadi draws his legitimacy as Caliph (Khalifa) from his ancestry of Quraysh, the tribe to which Prophet Muhammad belonged. ISIS locates this aspect within the Koran, “Indeed, I will make upon the earth a khalīfah”} [Al-Baqarah: 30]. Second, ISIS legitimizes its state by stating that it is sanctioned by its Shura Council. Third, ISIS aims to demonstrate its state building capacity by advertising its mechanisms on governance, including setting up a tax and education system, law enforcement, and medical care.
The Limits of ISIS Appeal
ISIS’s appeal lay in two factors; material gain and religion based political legitimacy. As stated earlier, ISIS is a well-resourced terrorist groups, with an annual budget of USD 2 billion. Its soldiers draw a salary and are compensated with housing and other benefits. For example, engineers working in the oil fields earn anywhere between USD 250 to USD 1, 200 a day depending on their skills. ISIS mostly draws its resources from smuggling crude-oil from the captured oil fields in Iraq and Syria. ISIS recruits receive housing, with electricity and water supply, with no rent charged. The second form of legitimacy is religion based in which ISIS utilizes ancestry, Koranic verses, and the Hadith to legitimize itself. By dint of territory capture, around 10 million people came under ISIS control in 2014, rendering them susceptible to ISIS influence. However, since 2014, about four million have escaped.
Significantly, Baghdadi is not the only Qurayshi left. There are several others. So, what makes him so special? There are assertions that he has a Ph.D. in Islamic theology from the Saddam University for Islamic Studies in Baghdad, Iraq; surely, that Ph.D. degree cannot be valid for ISIS, as it rejects all education that preceded its Sharia based education. It is rather convenient now for ISIS to laud that degree, while at the same time, condemning all former forms of education. And such hypocrisies and selective application of discourse, are not lost on the audiences ISIS aims to influence, thereby failing to draw millions deeply rooted in their culture and traditions. For instance, countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world have seen very few join ISIS. Azerbaijan with a population of 9.417 million has seen about 200 join ISIS; Kazakhstan with a population of 17.4 million has seen 300 join ISIS; Kyrgyzstan with a population of 5.72 million have seen 500 join ISIS; Tajikistan with a population of 8.208 million have seen 386 join ISIS; Uzbekistan with a population of 30.24 million have seen 500 join ISIS. While the recruitment to ISIS appears to be high from Central Asia, it is useful to comprehend that millions have rejected ISIS, or even though sympathetic to Wahhabi Islam, do not view the Caliphate as legitimate.
Indonesia has the largest Muslim population with 209.120 million followed by India and Pakistan, with176.200 million and 167.410 million. Bangladesh has 134.430 million Muslims. Malaysia has a population of 19.3 million Muslims. Yet recruitment to ISIS has been low according to official accounts. For instance, Indonesia has seen 700 join ISIS, whereas India has seen only 23. Malaysia has seen 100. While Bangladesh has suffered from extremist violence in recent months, the official count of ISIS recruits is low.
ISIS occupied areas in Iraq and Syria, which were already reeling under conflict with weak state presence, post so-called Arab spring. After the 2003 US invasion, Iraq has been a hotbed of sectarian violence, especially due to the divisive policies of former Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri-al-Maliki. In 2014, in a vacuum left behind by US withdrawal and growing sectarian strife, it was not difficult for ISIS to roll into Sunni dominated areas across the Syrian-Iraqi borders. Syria, undergoing civil strife against President Bashar al-Assad, left its border areas ungoverned enabling extremist groups to regroup and rearm. Unlike these ungoverned spaces, countries like Indonesia, India, Bangladesh and Malaysia have a functioning representative governance structure with legitimate state presence where groups like ISIS do not stand much of chance, except perhaps target civilians in terror bombings, akin to back stabbing. There is no honor in that, unlike what ISIS would want its recruits to believe.
Indonesia offers the best answer of resistance to ISIS. Civil society groups have played a dynamic role in questioning ISIS religious ideology. For instance, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a Sunni Muslim organization with nearly 50 million members preaches an Islam of compassion, kindness, tolerance of other faiths and inclusivity; a direct challenge to the Salafi inspired fundamentalist theology of ISIS. Another organization called the Brotherhood Forum of the Indonesian Council of Religious Scholars have rejected ISIS. Indonesia based terrorist group, the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), has given its allegiance to al Qaeda and is anti-ISIS. Moreover, the JI has been in existence since 1993, and it is rather improbable that it will suddenly give up all agency to ISIS and its leader Baghdadi simply because he self-styled himself the Caliph. Moreover, Muslims in Indonesia are well represented in a functioning state and hence do not feel the need to express themselves through the folds of ISIS.
The lead in questioning ISIS theology has been taken up by Indian Muslim clerics as well. In December 2015, 70, 000 Indian Muslim clerics of the Sunni based Barelvi movement issued a fatwa (religious communication) against ISIS during the famous festival of Urs-e-Razvi of Dargah Aala Hazrat. Such public denouncements have far-reaching impact.
This brings me to the country most in the news for violent attacks on its secular bloggers in recent years: Bangladesh. In a Dabiq article titled “The Revival of Jihad in Bengal”, ISIS identified Bangladesh as its next base for operations. Extremist groups within Bangladesh like Jamaat ul-Mujahideen (JuM) Bangladesh and Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) are suspected to be behind the attacks on bloggers. While ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, the Bangladesh government denies ISIS presence arguing that attacks are by home grown groups, who like to demonstrate links to ISIS for global visibility. Significantly, the year the attacks started in 2013 was the same year when extremist party Jamaat-e-Islami (JeI)’s Vice President Delwar Hossain Sayeedi was sentenced to death for war crimes that included attacks on intellectuals in 1971. So, the Bangladesh government accuses the Islami Chattra Shibir, the student wing of the JeI for the attacks and not ISIS.
While ISIS has announced its goal to spread to these areas, their hold is limited at best. ISIS grandly announcing regional heads for Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, etc., are mostly symbolic and lacks substance. ISIS presence, its propaganda, coupled with the multiple terror attacks orchestrated by ‘lone wolves’ with pledge of allegiance or directed by ISIS, gives the impression that they are spreading fast. However, if one locates the recruitment pattern in perspective, millions of Muslims continue with their lives in lands described as kafir by ISIS. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that groups like ISIS’s main goal is to create disorder, fear and chaos; this it executes by engaging in indirect attacks on civilians, which hurts the states, that fails to deter these attacks. Moreover, ISIS main aims are to spread fear and paranoia in democratic states and societies, so that those states use disproportionate means (surveillance, security) against their populations, especially Muslims. This is a clever provocation strategy, because ISIS can then create the conditions and prey on populations that feel targeted by the state, rendering them vulnerable and fearful.
However, the critical insight on how to ensure that ISIS fails in this strategy, is required. The key lay in effective intelligence. Good sound intelligence, that ensures that while civilians are protected from terror attacks, ISIS’s ability to spread its ideas and presence, however limited, within borders, is deterred. While it is one thing to depend on communities to detect signs of radicalization amidst them, it is often emotionally damaging to tell on your neighbor. What if it turns out to be a false alarm! The better path to intelligence is to recruit police, or other law enforcement officials, from communities where youths are susceptible to ISIS propaganda, whose task it is to get that job done; detect and deter. And often, they have the best interest of their own communities in mind and are trusted. Such methods have worked in other places, and could be replicated. In this, countries like Indonesia, India, Malaysia, have a lot to offer. The other is a ‘smear campaign’ where ISIS brutalities, hypocrisies, and lies, are exposed on a daily basis, by local sources.
 Subhomoy Sikdar, “Father Calls Saifullah Killed in Lucknow Encounter a Traitor, Refuses to Accept Body”, The Hindu, March 8, 2017 at http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/lucnow-encounter-father-calls-saifullah-traitor-refuses-to-accept-body/article17428430.ece?homepage=true (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 Olivier Roy, “France’s Oedipal Islamist Complex”, Foreign Policy, January 7, 2016 at http://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/07/frances-oedipal-islamist-complex-charlie-hebdo-islamic-state-isis/ (Accessed on March 9, 2017).
 ISIS official document, “This is the Promise of Allah”, Al Hayat Media Center, and available at https://ia902505.us.archive.org/28/items/poa_25984/EN.pdf (Accessed on February 9, 2017).
 Phillip Smyth, “Iran’s Afghan Shiite Fighters in Syria”, The Washington Institute, PolicyWatch, 2262, June 3, 2014 at http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/irans-afghan-shiite-fighters-in-syria (Accessed on March 17, 2017).
 Rim Turkmani, “ISIL, JAN and the War Economy in Syria”, LSE, July 30, 2015 at http://www.securityintransition.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/08/ISIL-JAN-and-the-war-economy-in-Syria1.pdf (Accessed on March 17, 2017).
 “Foreign Fighters An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq”, The Soufan Group, December 2015 at http://soufangroup.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/TSG_ForeignFightersUpdate3.pdf (Accessed on March 8, 2017), p.8.
 Ibid, p.8.
 Ibid, p.10.
 “Sunni Rebels Declare New “Islamic Caliphate”, Al Jazeera, June 30, 2014 at http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/06/isil-declares-new-islamic-caliphate-201462917326669749.html (Accessed on February 9, 2017).
 Robert Spencer, “Islamic State Releases Map of 5 year plan to spread from Spain to China”, Jihad Watch, September 14, 2014 at https://www.jihadwatch.org/2014/09/islamic-state-releases-map-of-5-year-plan-to-spread-from-spain-to-china (Accessed on February 7, 2017).
 Jacob Olidort, “What is Salafism? How a Non-Political Ideology Became a Political Force”, Foreign Affairs, November 24, 2015 at https://www.foreignaffairs.com/tags/paris-attack (Accessed on February 27, 2017).
 Hasan Hasan, “ISIS has reached new depths of depravity. But there is a brutal logic to it”, The Guardian, February 7, 2015 at https://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/feb/08/isis-islamic-state-ideology-sharia-syria-iraq-jordan-pilot (Accessed on February 27, 2017).
 Jethro Mullen, “What is ISIS’ Appeal for Young People?”, CNN, February 25, 2015 at http://www.cnn.com/2015/02/25/middleeast/isis-kids-propaganda/ (Accessed on March 20, 2017).
 ISIS Official Document, n. 3.
 Joseph Thorndike, “How ISIS is Using Taxes to Build a Terrorist State”, Forbes, August 18, 2014 at
https://www.forbes.com/sites/taxanalysts/2014/08/18/how-isis-is-using-taxes-to-build-a-terrorist-state/#1b7b404f3ac0 (Accessed on March 1, 2017).
 Damien Sharkov, “ISIS ‘Releases 2015 Budget Projections’ of $2 Bn with $ 250 Mn Surplus”, Newsweek, May 1, 2015 at http://www.newsweek.com/isis-release-2015-budget-projections-2bn-250m-surplus-296577 (Accessed on March 3, 2017).
 Mullen, n. 16.
 “Islamic State and the Crisis in Iraq and Syria in Maps”, BBC, January 20, 2017 at http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-27838034 (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 “10 Countries with the Largest Muslim Populations, 2010 to 2050”, PEW Research Center, April 2, 2015 at http://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/muslims/pf_15-04-02_projectionstables74/ (Accessed on March 10, 2017).
 Soufan group, pp. 7-10.
 Paritosh Bansal and Serajul Quadir, “Evidence Shows Deep ISIS Role in Bangladesh Attack”, Al Arabiya, December 1, 2016 at http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/asia/2016/12/01/Evidence-shows-deep-ISIS-role-in-Bangladesh-massacre.html (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 Edward Delman, “ISIS in the World’s Largest Muslim Country”, The Atlantic, January 3, 2016 at https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2016/01/isis-indonesia-foreign-fighters/422403/ (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 Molly Jackson, “70, 000 Indian Clerics Issue Fatwa Against Terrorists”, Christian Science Monitor, December 10, 2015 at http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Global-News/2015/1210/70-000-Indian-clerics-issue-fatwa-against-terrorists (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 Haroon Habib, “ISIS Calls Bangladesh New Battleground”, The Hindu, November 21, 2015 at http://english.alarabiya.net/en/News/asia/2016/12/01/Evidence-shows-deep-ISIS-role-in-Bangladesh-massacre.html (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 “Alam: ISIS “Falsely Claiming” Bangladesh Attacks”, The Times of India, May 25, 2016 at http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/Alam-IS-falsely-claiming-attacks/articleshow/52429894.cms (Accessed on March 16, 2017).
 Rukmini Callimachi, “Not ‘Lone Wolves’ After All: How ISIS Guides World Terror Plots From Afar”, The New York Times, February 4, 2017 at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/04/world/asia/isis-messaging-app-terror-plot.html (Accessed on March 10, 2017).
Dr. Namrata Goswami is one of the foremost Indian thinkers on long-term global trends, emerging security challenges, and scenario building. Dr. Goswami is currently an Independent Senior Analyst. She was formerly Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), New Delhi where she specialized on ethnic conflicts, insurgency, counter-insurgency and conflict resolution. She also has an interest in international relations theory and Great Power behavior. She has been a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the Congressionally Funded United States Institute of Peace (USIP) in Washington DC, where she explored long-term India-China-US scenarios in order to craft sustainable security frameworks to enable unimpeded human development and security. She was co-lead and editor of two IDSA sponsored works on long-term trends, Imagining Asia in 2030, and Asia 2030 The Unfolding Future.
Her latest book published by Pentagon Press, New Delhi is on India’s Approach to Asia, Strategy, Geopolitics and Responsibility, 2016. In 2015, she published with Routledge, London and New York, her book on Indian National Security and Counterinsurgency: The Use of Force Vs. Non Violent Response in which she explored the contrasting influence of Kautilya, India’s classical realist thinker vis-a-vis Gandhi’s prohibition on a violent response. In 2012-2013, Dr, Goswami received the Fulbright-Nehru Senior Fellowship supporting her work on China-India border. She also received the “Executive Leadership Certificate” sponsored by the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, the National Defense University, Washington DC, and the Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies, Hawaii in 2013. She has been a Visiting Fellow at the Peace Research Institute, Oslo, Norway, the La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia and the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Dr. Goswami is part of a renowned group of international experts exploring emerging security challenges such as 3-D printing, human self-modification and longevity, trans-national insurgencies, combating violent extremism, hybrid war and asteroid threats in the NATO sponsored “Partnership for Peace Consortium”. Her philosophy for life is one of the immortal quotes of Mahatma Gandhi: “Be the change that you wish to see in the world”.
© Dr Namrata Goswami