The Rise of ISIS: Its Power Explained Through the Political Dynamics in the Middle-East

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Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

Anticapitalistes/Google Images (CC BY-SA)

By Kari van der Ploeg –  

ISIS’ rapid rise of power was accompanied by a severe social media campaign. They confronted the world with gruesome videos of executions of not only westerners, but also Arabs and Muslims. Many people have started wondering why ISIS is killing its fellow Muslims. ISIS emerged as a result of a vacuum of desperation amongst Sunni Muslims. Since the US-led occupation of Iraq in 2003, Sunni Muslims have started to feel insecure, paranoid and under siege. After the Arab Spring, events have made these feelings escalate and lead to violent revolt. Sunnis have felt powerless after losing control in Iraq and are now suffering atrocities at the hands of the government in Syria. The rise of ISIS functions as a clear reaction to these events.

The capitalization of ISIS is directly linked to recent events in Iraq and Syria. The revolution in Syria has nurtured hope for a political comeback among Sunnis in Iraq. Hope was however crushed when, in December 2012, bodyguards of the moderate Sunni Minister of Finance Rafi al-Issawi were arrested by Nouri al-Maliki’s Shia-led government. Feeling excluded and persecuted, peaceful protests emerged in Baghdad and Sunni provinces in northern and central Iraq. Protesters demanded an end to political, civil and economic discrimination against the Sunni community, which had started after the invasion of Iraq by the United States. Soon, protesters realized that Maliki was only offering cosmetic changes, shunning direct negotiations and failing to provide safety measures in Sunni dominated areas. Distrust against the government empowered radical factions. When the Iraqi government attacked a Sunni peace camp at Hawijah, killing fifty people and injuring 110, relations escalated and factions polarized along sectarian lines.

Peaceful protest became violent insurgence. As the government consequently performed ill-planned counteroffensives, shelling Sunni areas and forcing half a million people out of the Anbar region where food became more and more scarce, they have made the Sunni population more susceptible for ISIS’ rule. Corruption and patronage based on party, family or community under Maliki’s government, only contributed more to the marginalization of Sunni Arabs.

The hostility of Sunnis against Maliki and his government has enabled ISIS to gain momentum among Iraq’s Sunni population. The power became divided between the formal political power and Sunni insurgents, refusing to be discriminated. ISIS used these divisions in Iraqi society to rise fiercely and with great speed. Taking over Sunni areas, they were careful not to alienate the local population. Fighters were warned to behave moderately towards the Sunni population. As ISIS spokesperson Abu Mohammed al-Adnani said:

“Accept repentance [to those who have fought alongside the government army] and recantations from those who are sincere, and do not bother those who do not bother you, and forgive your Sunni folk and be gentle with your tribes”

Notwithstanding ISIS brutalities, the Iraqi population currently favors ISIS over its own government. Feeling belittled, demonized and increasingly subject to a central government crackdown, many Sunni Arabs have concluded that their only realistic option is to fight the Shia hegemony, according to the International Crisis Group.

Knowing how things escalated in Iraq explains a tendency among Sunnis to turn to extreme measures. However, it does not explain why Sunni Muslims are so afraid of Shiites and why fighting Shia Muslims specifically is the only way to win back their rights. To find an answer to this question, we have to look at the power dynamics in the region which are inextricably linked to the apocalyptic prophecies of both Shia and Sunni Islam.

According to the prophecies as mentioned in the hadith, Judgement Day will come when the final battle has taken place in Dabiq between the Muslims and the Roman Empire  (i.e. the West). The members of the Islamic State believes they are fulfilling this prophecy. According to the, ‘the Mahdi’ will return when the battle in Dabiq has taken place. Sunni and Shia prophecies differ in their perception of ‘the Mahdi’. Sunnis believe him to be the prophet Muhammed’s successor, who is yet to come into existence. For Shia Muslims, the Mahdi has been born as Muhammed al-Mahdi, also known as the Twelfth Imam or the Hidden Imam, but disappeared. At the end of days he will come out of hiding and bring justice and victory over those who oppose the sharia. Iran uses the prophecy of al-Mahdi as a legitimization for their expansionist behavior. Iran’s rulers are still communicating a dream of reinstating the old Persian Kingdom, also known as the Achaemenid Empire, which stretched from the Balkan in the west to the Indus Valley in the east. By claiming that they have to control this area in order for al-Mahdi to return, they legitimize their actions.

The conflict about dominance over the area between Sunni and Shia groups is used by ISIS to motivate their fighters. The backing of Alawi President Bashar al-Assad in Syria by Iran and Hezbollah confirm ISIS’ anti-Shia conspiracy. ISIS claims that Shia Muslims want to control the whole area and want to convert everyone to Shia Islam. Close relations between Syria and Iran have led to a spur of Shiism in Syria, which makes Syrian Sunnis believe that the government is promoting conversion of Syrians to Shi’ism and shift the country’s demographic balance. This believe is fueled by a growing number of Shia Hawzas and Husseiniyats, which are seminaries where Shia clerics are trained. The establishment of a lot of Shia oriented cultural and financial institutions confirm Sunni fears of the take-over of Shi’ism. The true extent of these allegations is still unclear, but what is certain is that Al Assad’s government is continuously endorsing both the Lebanese and Iranian Shia parties.

Counterbalancing and deterring Shia domination is used as a justification by ISIS for its brutal violence. Its recruits, which are not seldom highly educated, join for this reason. They see it as the only group that is effectively fighting anti-Sunni groups and governments. Frustrations and insecurities have led to the scapegoating and blaming of other groups for their hardship.  Nouri al-Maliki’s system of patronage refusal for compromise has showed that an autocratic, sectarian government only fuels a jihadi problem, rather than diminishing it by repression. Should the Assad regime continue to behave in a similar manner, and should credible Sunni alternatives fail to establish themselves, ISIS will have an opening to maintain their stronghold and become more difficult to defeat.

‘Media Mujahideen’ – The Islamic State and its online warfare

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Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Image: Sean MacEntee/Flickr (CC BY)

By Koen Kluessien -

Israfil Yilmaz is an avid user of many different social media platforms: he posts photos of kittens on his Tumblr page, discusses a wide range of topics on Twitter, answers questions from people around the world on his account, and he shares photos with a ‘vintage’ filter on Instagram. He seems to be an average internet user, apart from the fact that he is a jihadist. Yilmaz was a professional soldier of the Dutch army and is currently training jihadists in Syria. Indeed, there are many kittens on the jihadist’s Tumblr page, but they are accompanied by the hash tag ‘#mujahideenkittens’ and quotes like, ‘we live, and die by the sword’. The questions he answers on are not always as innocent as they are with normal users, they will for example be about the weapons he uses in battle. Yilmaz shares photos with a funny Instagram filter, but it will depict himself smiling at the camera with an automatic rifle in his hand. Even his internet alias – normally a quirky online pseudonym – ‘@chechclear’ has an air of violence surrounding it as it refers to a both notorious and gruesome internet video showing the beheading of a Russian soldier by Chechens. Although the manner in which he is sharing his information is the same as the average social media user, the content is rather different.

Yilmaz is no stranger to the media as he is neither too shy to discuss jihad in a live Channel 4 debate, nor afraid of being interviewed by a Dutch news program. The Turkish Dutchman recently also showed up in a number of headlines in which he was accused of marrying a 19-year-old Dutch girl, abusing her, divorcing her already after a few months and eventually selling her to a Tunisian friend. The Dutch girl had changed her name to Aïcha and started wearing a niqab after she had converted to Islam. Aïcha had never met Yilmaz, but was impressed by the Robin Hood-like attitude he presented himself with online. It is unclear if the allegations of abuse and modern slavery are correct, but this case shows how sensitive young people can be to a sly social media user. Although Yilmaz has denied to be a member of any jihadist organization, he has posted words of praise for the Islamic State (IS). Moreover, his sectarian denunciations of Sufi and Shiite Muslims do not seem to underline this claim either. Yilmaz neatly fits into the modern jihadi propaganda machine of ‘media mujahideen: jihadists who use social media to propagate the coming of a caliphate and to recruit new followers.

Islamist militant websites and internet fora had always been hidden in the dark corners of the Internet, most of the time only visible for the intelligence agencies who did their best to find them. Now, the Islamic State is using the same online platforms as any business owner would to promote his company, often in (the more accessible) English instead of Arabic. The Islamic State’s social media tactics range from the cunning tricks of internet savvy youngsters who have grown up in a society surrounded by technology, to the programming of applications that require highly specialized skills – skills that baffle even social media experts. For example, last year the Islamic State created an application called The Dawn of Glad Tidings which could dodge Twitter’s spam filters and send up to 40,000 tweets per day. At the same time the online jihadists are using simpler techniques such as ‘hitchhiking’ along popular, already existing Twitter hash tags. Major events like the football World Cup are often given hash tags such as #Worldcup2014, allowing Twitter users to easily access and post content related to the World Cup. IS used this popularity of the hash tag to spread their message, flooding the news feeds of many football fans.

The Islamic State is not the first jihadist organization using social media, but it does stand out when looking at the quality of their strategy and content. The videos of attacks and training missions often have a quality that seems reminiscent of certain Hollywood movies. For example, the propaganda video Although the Disbelievers Despise It is a 16-minute video showing the beheading of 22 Syrian soldiers which took six hours to make and, according to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC) and counter extremism think tank ‘Quilliam’, cost approximately 0,000 to produce as the video required multiple HD cameras and expensive editing equipment, making Al-Qaeda’s blurry propaganda videos seem like child’s play. Moreover, the ‘media mujahideen’, or people claiming to be one, cunningly use references to modern culture that are already present in society, and will appeal to some adolescents. Much of the Islamic State online propaganda uses very clear references to videogames, movies, or certain phrases that are popular among young people. For example, one video depicts a random killing spree of Islamic State jihadists shooting from a car, largely resembling a drive-by from the Grand Theft Auto videogame series. The Islamic State is conveying its often gruesome messages with a corporate-like sophistication combined with pop culture references, resulting in a remarkable modern propaganda cocktail. This makes for a shocking contrast of on the one hand seemingly innocent references, and on the other the propagation of very gruesome material.

The way in which these perpetrators glorify their crimes is almost unique in modern history. The fact that you can contact these same perpetrators with a few clicks of a button is remarkable, and the tactics of the jihadists to use seemingly innocent references to propagate material that is often very gruesome is paradoxal.  Moreover, the use of social media for jihadist propaganda is only one of many Islamic State online tactics: online media are also used for moral support to the battlefield and even real-time warfare. What is currently happening online is almost unprecedented, often difficult to grasp and will raise many questions. However, it is important to try to understand the strategies behind this online warfare. Most of Yilmaz’ social media accounts are blocked, but he will pop-up soon enough. I will keep track of him and his fellow jihadists, trying to find answers to these questions.