Friday, September 5, 2014

The idea of ISIS: The history and future of the Islamic State.

   The first thing we're going to have to realize in any discussion on ISIS is that, despite the media hysteria, they are not a cyborg army of super muslims spewing forth from Sodom about to gobble up the Middle East in their speedy Toyota trucks. Yes, these guys are well funded, well equipped and Internet savvy but the thing nobody seems to want to mention is that ISIS are in no way a formidable force. ISIS gains its power from its enemies lack of will to confront them because, let's face it, confrontation is pricey and nobody wants to pony up the blood and cash it would take to defeat them. [Update 10/3: The West has ponied up the cash and the air campaign is ongoing]

    ISIS, in the simplest terms, are a bunch of assholes on a roll in a consequence free environment.

    ISIS are also an 'idea' and in a social media world, ideas can be louder than bombs (more on that later). The main ISIS goal right now is cash and territory. Land for the caliphate. Later, they might get more ambitious and hit the soft underbelly of our infidel supply lines and detonate a dirty bomb someplace inconvenient but for the moment ISIS sights are firmly fixed on the easy pickings of post US Iraq and also on the real winners of the Iraq war, the Shia, who've grown fat and comfortable from fortified Baghdad all the way south to Basra. If we're going to talk about ISIS as a Sunni resistance movement, we're not going to be able to resist a little history here so let's go back to Jordan in 2003.

   Musab Al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian Jihadist is an Al-Qaeda commander and leader of a militant group called "JTJ", who is watching news footage of the first American 'Operation Iraqi Freedom' bombs landing in Baghdad. Iraqi triple A fire searches the night sky to no effect. Stealth bombers and JDAMS have Saddam clearly outmatched. We've all seen the footage. The US news anchor is orgasming on the fireworks but on the crappy satellite feed al-Zarqawi's 'tech guy' has managed to jack into via the dish on the roof, it's different. For a thug like al-Zarqawi, in a ramshackle apartment block on the edge of Damascus and schooled in the ways energy markets work, he comes to a very easy and fast realization. This is the war of his life. The methodology of his war and that of his followers will be via targeted atrocity against US forces and later, against Shia holy sites. Whatever it takes to make headlines. If the West thinks their high tech toys can take the Sunni homeland then he will show them warfare from another age (with the added bonus of advertising his prowess via the West's newfangled communication device, the Internet). He and his followers will show that fanatical muslims can learn HTML too. 

   Zarqawi quickly pencils down a wish list that will later become the ISIS manifesto.

   a) Kick the Americans out of Iraq.

   b) Establish a caliphate.

   c) Spread the conflict worldwide. 

   d) At some point in the future, nail the Israelis.

  Al-Zarqawi's ideas prove more durable then the man himself. He became too trigger happy with the LiveLeak vids and got 'freedomed' by the US via a 500 pounder from an F-16. He was holed up at what was, in hindsight, 'not a very safe house' in rural Iraq. Some stories state that a group of US soldiers stumbled upon the rubble, found him alive and finished him off via pistol. The fun part is, Al-Zarqawi's dead face was all over the Internet within hours and while the clueless Bush Administration were busy celebrating another 'mission accomplished' moment, Zarqawi's death mask went viral and recruited another few thousand disaffected Muslim youths from neighboring countries to the cause.

  And that right there is the problem when you're fighting ISIS. War mixed with some quasi religious message is always harder to win because when the fanatics lose they can handily resort to magical thinking and transmute a battlefield defeat into some kind of message from a god and weave that into a victory speech so long as there are fresh recruits around to buy into the bullshit.

   The pesky thing about the Middle East is that a manifesto written by a dead guy spawns a martyr and spreads like Ebola. Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) became the new nomenclature for the "JTJ" and other Sunni resistance groups because, let's face it, Al-Qaeda had by 2006 become a global 'terrorist' franchise with worldwide media recognition and everyone knows that these days, in our corporate consumertopia, if you're going to run a business it helps to have a recognizable brand splayed in bright lights over the drive thru window. Zarqawi's group got with the program and allowed themselves to be subsumed into the wider struggle. For the purposes of Sunni nationalism, the strategy from 2003-07 for a lot of militant groups operating in Iraq and later Syria was to sit back, bomb US patrols and Shia holy sites and allow the Al-Qaeda brand and western journalists to do their public relations and recruitment drives for them. In many ways, it was helter skelter and race war robbed from the sick dreams of Charlie Manson

   And it worked.

   One of the more interesting media tropes from the worldwide ISIS media hysteria (especially after the capture of Mosul in June) is the idea that ISIS were "kicked out of Al-Qaeda because they were too extreme". The fun part is, it's true. Zarqawi's policy of chaos in Iraq at all costs meant that attacking the Shia was profitable for two reasons,

  1) it destabilized the US sanctioned government in Baghdad (the idea of democracy being one of the touch stones of  US involvement and part of the cover story the elites fed to the plebs back home) and

  2) because, for Zarqawi, there was no such thing as bad publicity (except maybe the location of his safe house).

  This 'kill everything' policy might have worked until suddenly, Zarqawi's group got impatient at the pace of change, went 'all in' and detonated a massive car bomb at the al-Askari Mosque, and took out the famed 'Golden Dome', an artistic treasure and the holiest mosque for Shia Islam in Iraq. Unsatisfied with the destruction, the crazy bastard went and did it again a few months later and took down both minarets seriously pissing off not just the Shia, but everyone. The problem was, from Al-Qaeda's point of view, with a nominal interest in global jihad, was that bombing fellow Muslim sites, even the 'filthy Shia kind', was not a sound business strategy liable to impress Muslims worldwide. Al-Qaeda wanted 'the struggle' to focus on Western interests in Iraq,  fun stuff like IEDing Hum Vees and putting bullets in the heads of Iraqi civilians supporting the US occupation. This difference of opinion on targeting led to tension within the organization because invariably in jihad and war, once the blood starts to flow the message gets harder to control.

   Zarqawi had made himself a liability.

   Once he got taken out, his tenuous hybrid organization, still operating under the Al-Qaeda brand, went through a variety of leaders (most of whom got nailed by the US) and eventually found itself in schism. This schism was embodied by current ISIS leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi whose strategy of killing anyone anywhere so long as it advanced goals a) through d) of the above agenda meant that Al-Qaeda wanted to cut his group loose. ISIS, the newly rebranded wing formed by elements of Zarqawi's group and others battling Assad in Syria and already operating off reservation, were happy to go their own way.

   Let's talk Iraq 2007.

  The situation on the ground is a mess. With IEDs everywhere and even mainstream US news revealing how much American corporations had been charging US taxpayers every time a marine takes a dump in their branded porta-potty or electrocuted in their badly wired shower, the US public is realizing that corporate interests have played them for a mark like a Beijing businessman at a Vegas blackjack booth.

    The Administration decides upon a 'new' strategy called 'The Surge'.

   The American public, needy for a narrative involving victory but also retreat buys into the bullshit. The Surge involves a slight increase in US troops and patrols but mainly involves handing out millions of dollars in freshly printed cash to every Sunni Sheikh with a beef against the invasion willing to swap outrage for a new up armored Escalade. The Surge is war via pay off. And it works because money is honorable in the desert. The Sunni tribes banded together and formed 'The Sons of Iraq', amassed 30,000 fighters and ditched Al-Qaeda and it only cost the US half a billion dollars. That was chump change compared to what had been spent before. A 'Sunni Awakening' occurred where Sunni tribal elders were promised not only money but weapons to fight the extremists and most of all, Sunni representation in the government down south in Baghdad.

    In the meantime, the US needs someone it can dump the reigns of power on to. An exit strategy. Enter, not a powerbroker but a nobody, plucked from obscurity by the low tech genius of the Bush Administration. With every Sunni and Shia mover and shaker squabbling for a piece of the action, the Americans drop a harmless school teacher type named Nouriel Al-Maliki into the mix. Here's a guy with solid anti Saddam credentials and a humanities degree that should be easy to control. But there's a plot twist.

   Maliki turns out to be full on proof that the Milgram Experiment was not a fluke. 

   Handed power, Maliki goes from mild mannered asthete to Stalin in the space of a few months and engages in a brutal suppression of all things Sunni. He purges the army officer corps and local governments of Sunnis, removing anyone still left after Bremer's Baathist purge (the biggest mistake the US made in Iraq) and eliminates from the Iraqi Army any Sunni officer still left who might reasonably command a rifle squad. Some of the victims of this purge, though they did not know it yet, were to become the steel in the ISIS command structure when they swept south and nabbed Mosul. 

   Next up, the Obama Administration arrives in 2008.

   In many ways, the weakness of democracy, is that a new leader always comes along at regular intervals. That's if you believe the US Presidency actually runs shit and it's not all just theater designed to give the plebs something to argue about come voting time. Either way, with a mandate from a war weary public, democracy puts a neophyte in power, a community organizer so removed from conditions on the ground in a foreign desert and shoe horned by a campaign promise to drag US forces out of Iraq by an arbitrary date, that suddenly the Jihadis are partying like it's 1172. 

   To further complicate matters, the Arab Spring happens.

   Populations rise up some dictators get deposed peaceably but, noticeably, in countries that export even a smidgen of oil, shit gets complicated. Libya becomes a mess with Gaddafi putting up a decent fight until the French and British swoop in to take care of domestic business in the Mediterranean and take out his armor leaving him screwed and Gadaffi gets added to that list of dictators you might not like but, considering the alternatives, were the strongmen needed to hold desert together. Add to this the fact that the average Libyan is far worse off today then under Gadaffi, and it sure is a head scratcher trying to figure out who the winner is here. Here's a list of oil exporting Middle East countries that came out of the 'Arab Spring' better off then they were before.

    a) Libya… nope

    b) Syria… nope

    c) Egypt (no oil but canal owners)… all kinds of nope.

   The ultimate culmination of everything Arab Spring is Syria. The bloodbath of our times. 200,000 people dead, millions displaced and lets face it, a very complicated war fighting environment. In so many ways it was the adventure the Sunnis and ISIS were looking for. Assad, an Alawite and Russian ally, presiding over a country that was not a country outside of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and lines drawn on the desert according to 19th century logic, was fertile ground for newly born ISIS. The rich Sunnis in Riyadh and Qatar wanted Assad gone and so did the US and Euros. And so the money and weapons flowed into Sunni groups. But who's going to collect? Not the idiot on the corner with an AK calling himself a freedom fighter. Inexorably, the real fighters, trained veterans from Iraq, experts from abroad with explosive know-how, ex- officer corps from places like Fallujah, slowly the heavies began to seep into the fray and consolidate the disparate Sunni groups into something larger. The kids with AKs yielded to the serious guys in the know. Fighting Assad's forces to a stalemate was nice but Damascus could come later. Why fight a hard war when to the south and east lay the easy pickings of Iraq?

   ISIS moved the Syrian Civil War south and east and made conquest look natural.

   Worse, they made it look easy.

   Western media interpreted ISIS gains as battlefield invincibility but their advance would not have been possible if they were not already rolling into 'friendly' Sunni territory the Americans had abandoned. Power vacuums never last long in energy rich regions and the Sunni tribes that had once 'awakened' against al-Qaeda were no longer on the payroll and so enmity for AQI/ISIS wasn't generating gold and the Shia government in the south was turning increasingly hostile to Sunni interests. This made ISIS a functioning spearhead for a much larger Sunni nationalistic force. The opposing Iraqi Army, operating off 18 months of training and a meagre but steady paycheck stared down the full weight of ISIS and veteran Sunni tribal militias and that left the Iraqi Army with only one real course of action.

    Run like fuck.

    So fast forward to today and ISIS have their swathe of territory, they have Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, they're the richest militia in history, they're swimming in captured weapons and they're on Twitter. That's the fun thing about war in the 21st century. You can load up on tanks and fancy combat gear but if you're not savvy with social media then you're losing the fight. This is where you have to admire the assholes. The ISIS media wing is top notch and they make their vids in 1080p with surprisingly high production values. They've come a long way from the grainy 'generic terrorists training on the monkey bars' vids that were pumped out post 9/11 and have expanded their range to everything from your standard beheadings, pistol executions, mass execution of guys on their knees and on, mercilessly. to vids of ISIS fighters chasing down cars on the highway, riddling them with bullets while laughing and warbling the obligatory profusion of 'Allah Akbars' as they shock the shit out of you as you try to digest your pizza. Did I mention they also do kitten pics? Seems like they have achieved the ultimate level of Internet awareness...

   Master troll.

   The Syrian Civil War was the proving war where ISIS gained its traction. Well equipped, bolstered by expert fighters, hardened by scrapes with the Americans in towns like Fallujah, tempered, as it were, by fire, they could bring the fight to Assad and show the newbies how war is done without air power or tank support. Experts in avoidance, maneuver warfare and blending into civilian populations, ISIS under al-Baghdadi showed how, in the Internet age, you cannot be killed without consequence, without a way your death cannot be showcased via broadband and molded into some kind of martyrdom to fit the cause.

    Right now, ISIS have become experts in showing how serious they are, grabbing headlines every week with their beheading videos. ISIS, for all its love of the caliphate and worship of medieval theology, knows that though technology might be the unholy language of the infidels they are not so married to Sharia that they can't spot a winner. Putting themselves in your living room every night and making it hard to digest your dinner is a new kind of 21st century warfare aimed squarely at you via your monitor.

   So the question for ISIS is if this brand of crazy buys them any kind of longevity.

   Can shock therapy build an Islamic State?

   Surely the answer is no. They are the most hated people on Earth right now and rightly so. The problem is their gains are based on light infantry, maneuver warfare combined with a heavy dose of terror. Their gains are based on expanding into territory where they are seen, for now, as the lesser of many evils. Their enemies fear them much like Genghis Khan's cavalry. You cannot win but you can do business. ISIS exploits fear and punch above their weight but none of this is going to be enough to capture Baghdad. Baghdad is Shia country these days and Iran has been sending in troops and tanks to make sure it stays that way. If ISIS thinks their caliphate will ever boast Baghdad as their capital then we already know they're operating under a faulty strategy.

   The thing that's most interesting about ISIS is that they're smart but their goals are stupid.

    ISIS have already pissed off too many people to enjoy longevity.

   To the north, Turkey and the Kurd's want them gone. The Turks, interestingly, seem to be sitting this one out. Interestingly, ISIS have done a lot to make an independent Kurdistan a foregone conclusion and ended Turkish hostility to this idea. Kind of.  The Turks and Kurds have been fighting for so long that they've suddenly realized, via an external enemy, that they are in fact unlikely brothers with a mutually beneficial interest in seeing Kirkuk's vast oil reserves piped north into Turkey and exported from terminals on the Mediterranean in a game where every old Ottoman foe gets a fat chunk of the action. Sure the Turks are split on feeding support to the Kurds but Euros seem to like it. Maybe they'll even let the Turks join the club. Hence, the Euros have been flooding the Peschmerga with fancy new toys on the assurance that they only point them at the designated bad guys and not at the friendly and former genocidal Turks.

   Even the Saudis are running scared. ISIS are showing them what happens when you open Pandora's Box and hand out weapons with impunity. The Saudi Royals wanted Assad gone so bad it hurt so they dished out AT weaponry like the brown acid at Woodstock and soon everyone was swimming in blast technology. Trouble for the Saudis is, some of those weapons can get pointed back at you. The Saudis are good at buying off their population with oil revenue but they fear that even their own population are buying into the ISIS hype. ISIS are nothing if not an enigmatic idea, the kind of idea that young men are attracted too. There hasn't been something this attractive to disaffected Muslim youth across the world since '60s Pan Arabism.

   ISIS offers an insidious but beguiling idea to angry youth from Bradford to Marseilles....

   The idea that you could come home.

   They might hate you in the suburbs of Europe, but here in the desert, there's a chance for you to strike back. It's like the allure of '70s Punk Rock. Nobody likes you around here but if you're willing to make an idealogical journey there's a party in the desert and the possibility of making a new home so long as you're willing to do a little axe murdering on the side.

   Can ISIS survive?

   Not at the rate they've racked up enemies. Though they've amassed a healthy war chest and have de facto control of a large swathe of territory which they can milk for cash (they've been exporting oil for 25c on the dollar and running the usual extortion rackets in Mosul and other cities) it's just a matter of time before the hardcore Shia from the South, Peshmerga and Turkish forces from the north manage a concerted crush. Throw in some US airpower and ISIS will be forced to pretend they don't exist until the heat dies down.

   Interestingly, this is where things could get dangerous for the West.

   So much rested on Obama's withdrawal of forces from Iraq that's it's hard to see US ground troops being reinserted into the fray. ISIS would love this because bleeding an empire is their speciality. Their command structure may be solid but their ability to resist US air power is negligible. They were beaten back from the Mosul dam because control of the Euphrates matters.

   The old logic of the 'cornered rat going for the throat' is interesting considering Europe's high population of disaffected Muslim youth. You never know what kind of dirty material (chemical, bio or nuke) you can buy in an Albanian/Georgian dive bar these days. Of course, I'm not talking the dreaded suitcase nuke, I'm talking a transit van, some Semtex and canisters full of gunk from some Soviet era reactor that, blown up at the right time in the right city could set the world on fire and spark all kinds of economic and over reaction scenarios that would certainly be popcorn time.

   ISIS presents that 'clear and present danger'.

   Let's state what we know.

   2014 has been a really shitty year if you're the type of person who believes 'world peace' could 'be a thing'. Libya is on fire, Syria is on fire, Ukraine is on fire and Iraq is on fire. Tensions are rising in the South China Sea. The world economic system depends on stability and with the number of flash points growing, it's getting increasingly hard to see a future without large forest fires.

   It's like trying to predict when, where and how the popcorn will pop.