STRATFOR SECURITY WEEKLY ARTICLE

Monitoring the Islamic State’s ‘Flood’

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The Islamic State recently released the second edition of its English-language Dabiq magazine to coincide with the Eid al-Fitr holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan’s month of fasting. The first edition of Dabiq, released near the beginning of Ramadan, was titled “The Return of Khilafah” to celebrate the Islamic State’s declaration of a caliphate by its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

The second edition of the magazine was titled “The Flood” and had a twofold purpose. The first was to document the successes that the Islamic State had enjoyed on the battlefield during the month of Ramadan in both Iraq and Syria. The second was to use those successes to bolster the group’s claim to be the true leader not only of the jihadist world but of all Muslims. Using the example of the prophet Noah to support its strictly dualistic ideology, the group argues that Muslims have the choice of either supporting the Islamic State or perishing as the group overwhelms the earth like Noah’s flood.

A significant portion of the magazine is devoted to tying these two concepts together through a process known as mubahalah, a traditional Islamic process for resolving an intractable religious dispute in which the two parties ask Allah to bless the side telling the truth and curse the errant party. In a seven-part article titled “The Flood of the Mubahalah,” the magazine outlines how the Islamic State’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, invoked mubahalah in the dispute between his organization and its detractors, which include Jabhat al-Nusra and al Qaeda’s current leadership under Ayman al-Zawahiri. The article claims mubahalah was invoked on two occasions: on Islamic dates corresponding to dates in March and April 2014. The article further claimed that Osama bin Laden and the rest of the former al Qaeda leadership had praised the Islamic state it established before the new leadership criticized it.

The editors of Dabiq argue that the Islamic State’s gains on the battlefield since mubahalah was declared — and specifically the “flood” it had unleashed on parts of Iraq and Syria during the month of Ramadan — serve as proof that Allah blessed the Islamic State. The successes therefore prove that the Islamic State was on the right side of its conflict with al Qaeda and the other groups. Because of this, all Muslims are supposed to support the group. Obviously, such claims are sure to offend Muslims who do not support the Islamic State, but the group has shown repeatedly that it is not afraid to offend other Muslims.


Differences with al Qaeda
Even in the midst of claiming that events have proved that Allah has blessed the Islamic State, this edition of Dabiq also served to underscore some of the fundamental tactical differences between the group and al Qaeda.

In the foreword section to the second edition, the leadership of the Islamic State urged Muslims to perform hijra, or immigrate to the Islamic state from wherever they are currently living, whether in Muslim lands or lands controlled by infidels. The editors urged readers to “Rush to the shade of the Islamic State with your parents, siblings, spouses, and children. There are homes here for you and your families. You can be a major contributor towards the liberation of Makkah, Madinah, and al-Quds. Would you not like to reach Judgment Day with these grand deeds in your scales. (sic)”

This highlights that the Islamic State in all its iterations leading up to its current form has always been a mass movement with ties to a specific section of geography. While al Qaeda was founded by a wealthy Saudi and designed to be a global, elite vanguard organization, Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (the Islamic State’s original name) was founded by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian street thug, and the organization reflected its founder’s more regional focus along with his brutality and vicious hatred of Shia. The differences between the two organizations were clearly reflected in al-Zawahiri’s letter to al-Zarqawi, a document the US government released in October 2005.

In that letter, al-Zawahiri urged al-Zarqawi to refrain from high-profile hostage execution videos. “Among the things which the feelings of the Muslim populace who love and support you will never find palatable… are the scenes of slaughtering the hostages,” al-Zawahiri wrote. “You shouldn’t be deceived by the praise of some of the zealous young men and their description of you as the sheikh of the slaughterers, etc. They do not express the general view of the admirer and the supporter of the resistance in Iraq, and of you in particular.”

Al-Zawahiri also emphasized taking a pragmatic approach, rather than stubborn adherence to ideology, to achieve al Qaeda’s goals. According to al-Zawahiri, if al Qaeda in Iraq was going to become a sustained force in the region that was capable of eventually creating an Islamic polity, it needed to gain popular support, tolerate the Shia, use the ideology card judiciously and understand that the bulk of Muslims (especially the ulema) do not share the jihadist ideology.

Over the past month, the Islamic State has published numerous videos of its fighters executing captured Iraqi soldiers and destroying Shiite mosques and shrines. The organization clearly has not changed its approach over the past decade despite the entreaties of figures such as al-Zawahiri. This intransigence has also been a significant contributor to the group’s many disputes with other rebel groups in Syria.

By urging Muslims to immigrate to the territories it controls in Iraq and Syria, the Islamic State demonstrated another difference from al Qaeda. For several years now, the al Qaeda core and its most effective regional franchise, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have been telling jihadists in the West to stay home and conduct attacks where they live rather than risk traveling to places such as Pakistan or Yemen to receive training at militant camps. These calls for grassroots operatives to conduct attacks in the West reflect not only the pressure these groups have been under in Pakistan and Yemen but also al Qaeda’s fixation on attempting to strike Western countries that support the rulers of Muslim countries.

While the Islamic State conducted a multitude of terrorist and insurgent attacks on US forces in Iraq, it has not attempted to strike outside of its home region. Even its terrorist attacks outside of Iraq and Syria have been in places such as Jordan, al-Zarqawi’s home country, or Lebanon. When US forces pulled out of Iraq, the Islamic State continued attacking the Iraqi government and eventually became involved in the civil war in Syria. It has remained focused on fighting its enemies inside the region—including the Syrian and Iraqi regimes and other rebel groups—but has not attempted attacks in the United States or Europe.

Terrorism, insurgency and beyond
In the “Gauging the Jihadist Movement” series published in December 2013, Stratfor noted that jihadists are militants and that they use various types of military operations, including terrorism and insurgent tactics. The al Qaeda core was always heavily focused on terrorism, but as a small vanguard organization, it was never large enough to become a meaningful insurgent force or to establish an Islamic polity itself.

Many of the regional jihadist groups that joined al Qaeda’s global constellation, such as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, have progressed beyond terrorism into insurgency. But most of these attempts have not fared well and have been put down by the host country with outside assistance. Even al Qaeda in Iraq, a predecessor of the Islamic State that was aligned with al Qaeda until February, was heavily damaged and nearly destroyed after it moved from terrorism to insurgency in Iraq and declared an Islamic state in Iraq in 2006. It was only after the US drawdown and withdrawal from Iraq and the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011 that the group managed to regain its strength and again assert its claim to rule an Islamic state. It has become a formidable military force, capable not only of conducting terrorist operations and hit-and-run insurgent attacks but also of taking and holding territory, something the al Qaeda core group has never been able to do.

So far, the Islamic State has been able to claim its battlefield successes as proof of Allah’s blessing. However, it has not yet received the global recognition and acceptance it hoped its declaration of a caliphate would produce. The number of jihadist groups swearing allegiance to the Islamic State has remained quite limited to date, and the publishing of the second edition of Dabiq does not seem to have changed that reality.

Political changes appear to be happening in Iraq that could very well result in increasing cooperation between the Iraqi government, the Sunni tribal sheikhs and the Iraqi Kurds. Once this happens, it will be important to watch and see if the Islamic State is able to defend the territorial gains it has made in Iraq over the past few months—much less continue its efforts to overwhelm the world like a flood.

© 2014 STRATFOR, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

Publishing by The Manila Times of this Stratfor Security Weekly article for its clients is with the express permission of Stratfor.

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