A glorified gang: How extortion, sex slaves, drugs, and fear mongering gave birth to the un-Islamic State
"We must burn out this radical cancer in the Muslim world," says Burleigh. (AFP/File)
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It is a force the like of which the world has never seen before: a medieval death cult with a territory roughly the size of England.
Its tentacles of power stretch out across Iraq and Syria, whose border it has erased. Syrian Raqqa is the de facto capital, Iraqi Mosul its most populous centre. Within its brutal control lies a huge population of eight million – and it has assets estimated at $2 trillion.
This is the Islamic State [Daesh], sometimes called ISIS, a terrorist movement with the destructive power of an army possessed by a terrifying vision of the world to come.
THE BIRTH OF A MONSTER
IS started as a version of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which resisted American occupation after 2003 and then benefited from the mainly Shia government’s exclusion of the country’s large Sunni minority. The early versions of the group experimented establishing a rigorous Sharia state.
The Syrian civil war was its next big chance, when after 2011 a popular uprising became an insurgency involving many armed groups. By then IS had broken with Al Qaeda. In 2012 it organised eight mass prison breaks in Iraq, swelling its numbers to 10,000. That force launched rapid conquests in 2014, taking the Iraqi cities of Fallujah, Ramadi and Mosul in quick succession. No one saw it coming. It has since attracted thousands of foreign volunteers, swelling to 33,000 fighters, according to the CIA.
From the start, IS combined religious zealots with cynical, whisky-drinking former servants of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party. They grew to know one another in American holding centres and kept in contact with phone numbers written on the elastic of their underwear.
The overall leader is 40-year-old ‘Caliph Ibrahim’ a former theology student called Awwad Ibrahim al-Badri, better known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Numerous former Ba’athist military commanders and security police experts have lurked in the IS shadows, many now killed by drones.
Its organisational structures were drawn up by a former Syrian air force colonel, Haji Bakr, who rigged Badri’s election as Caliph in 2010. His intelligence background means he knows how to keep an iron grip on conquered populations.
The current commanders are Abu Suleiman al-Naser and, in the field, a Georgian Chechen jihadist (a former army sergeant partly trained in Georgia by the Americans) called Abu Omar al-Shistani. How they exist alongside religious zealots is a mystery.
A DEADLY STRIKE FORCE
No wonder IS displays such know-how on the battlefields of the region. Its initial rampage in the summer of 2014 culminated in the seizure of Mosul, the second city of Iraq. Its territory now resembles long tentacles of towns and villages rather than a continuous country.
It has since used feints and thrusts designed to divide counter-attacking forces. IS sent its cadres into towns before any fighters arrived, and they practised extortion by night on local businessmen.
They identified any vulnerabilities in an unpopular and predominantly Shia occupying army. Then, using Iraq’s modern road network, fast moving columns of jihadists in Toyota trucks showed up, using suicide bombers in cars and lorries to destroy enemy command and control centres. Only when they struck in semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan did they meet resistance.
FIGHTING ON DRUGS – AND FEAR
IS has three categories of fighters: ansar (jihadis from Iraq or Syria) muhajirin (foreigners whether Arab or other) and munasir (local ‘supporters’) who get salaries and act as guards, but who are never privy to IS command structures.
There is method in the vicious IS madness. Who would not flee monsters who crucify, shoot or behead their captives, rape young women or, as we learned last week at Sinjar, shoot women over 40 then leave them in a ditch? The Iraqi National Army, on which the US had spent $25 billion, outnumbered IS ten to one. But they ran for their lives. It did not help that most officers in that 300,000 strong Iraqi army had bought their posts, or were Shia placemen.
The IS leaders are ‘takfiri’ which means they decide who is or is not a proper Muslim. They are free to kill those who are not, including lax Sunnis as well as ‘deviant’ Shias.
At Mosul and elsewhere they captured $2 billion of Iraqi army equipment supplied by the US, including 26 tanks, armoured Humvees, field guns and heavy machine guns to supplement their AK47s.
Attempts to retake towns occupied by IS met organised, ferocious defence – by inexhaustible fighters willing to die. This was due to doses of the amphetamine drug Captogen and sheer fanaticism.
THE THOUSANDS SUCKED IN
Volunteer men and women have flooded in, not just from Europe or the US, but from the former Soviet Union and the Muslim far west of China to join the Arab and Turkish core. Some, like the Russian Chechens or Georgians, had decades of fighting experience. Some Europeans were told to remain at home, awaiting orders.
IS’s stunning victories were good for recruitment. In other parts of the world, local terror groups pledged allegiance. Volunteers, from former gang members to Grade A students, are mobilised through the internet. IS issues 10,000 tweets per day, and communicates on channels like Telegram or WhatsApp.
Recruits were funnelled through Turkey, where IS had bought its way into a few decayed industrial towns like Gaziantep and Kilis. The Islamist government in Ankara turned a blind eye. The majority of recruits are actually from the Middle East, notably Tunisia and Saudi Arabia. But there are 5,000 Europeans including around 700 British citizens and residents. Belgium has supplied the most recruits per head of population.
A TWISTED ‘PARADISE’
When IS proclaimed a Caliphate last June, it promised a state with fine public services in which rubbish would be collected, roads would be repaired and the black banner would flutter over old people’s homes. Many Sunni Iraqis and Syrians welcomed IS as liberators from Alawite or Shia oppression in Syria and Iraq.
After two months in IS training camps, jihadists have extraordinary power. They can hand down judgments, rape and kill, as the inner psychopath is unleashed. A mere Saudi law student can become a sharia judge, handing out floggings and amputations. Serving as a fighter, a humble Kurdish bricklayer receives $60 more a month than he would on a construction site, plus $1,500 for each marriage and $400 per child. These men are told that if they are killed they get 72 virgins too, with ‘skin so light you can see through it’. Fighters get around $400 a month and technical experts like doctors and engineers much more to ensure basic services.
IS attracts young women, too, with the liberating prospect of a choice of male partner beyond arranged marriages. They produce fresh sons and daughters of IS through polygamous marriages. They are veiled breeding cows.
HELL FOR CAPTIVES AND SLAVES
In reality, the cost of living has shot up. Bread prices have increased five-fold in a year. Electricity and water are intermittent because Baghdad has cut Mosul off the national grid. Prices for electricity and for telephones are extortionate. Power only works for four hours a day. Mobile phone are banned lest they be used for American drone targeting.
Taxes and fines are crippling. Shops are fined more for displaying goods on the pavements. The failure to remove household rubbish costs 25,000 Iraqi dinar or $21.30.
A network of IS spies known as the Amniyat watches everyone, but especially tribal heads who might foment dissent. There is a roving Saudi-style morality police, called the Hisbah.
The regime is based on extreme sharia law, and the constant issue of punitive edicts. People living under this tyranny find it impossible to avoid places where people are having hands or heads cut off – events that are supposed to be accompanied by cries of ‘Allahu Akbar’.
Smokers or those wearing T-shirts with printed faces are publicly flogged. All music is banned.
The ‘judges’ are bearded thugs in ankle-length gelabayas. The enforcers wear black combat gear. IS purges any Muslims regarded as deviant or lapsed, and it offers Christians the bleak options of conversion or second-class status with a special punitive tax. ‘Pagan’ Yezidi are enslaved or killed on a scale that has been labelled genocide. Captured young women are traded in public slave markets in Mosul and Raqqa by IS fighters. Some girls are sold for a packet of the cigarettes IS claims to forbid.
Rich Saudi dealers pay well for pale skinned, blue-eyed Yezidi girls. They are raped before and after sale.
A PSYCHOTIC DEATH CULT
IS has an online magazine called Dabiq, named after a small village near Aleppo in northern Syria. It takes us into the apocalyptic dark heart of the death cult. IS imagines a long narrative of struggle culminating in an End Of Days much like the apocalypse in the Bible. They have picked Dabiq as the site of their coming showdown with the forces of ‘Crusader Rome’ – meaning the West and Russia. They truly feel this storm is coming.
After an epic victory, they will go on to take Istanbul and Turkey, the former the historic Constantinople, which acted as the late Eastern Roman Empire’s capital.
But then comes the truly climactic battle, perhaps in a century or so, after ISIS has suffered a setback at the hands of a treacherous ruler from what is now Iran. They view Persian Shia as evil personified.
Five thousand IS fighters will battle for Jerusalem. They will win after the Mahdi and Jesus (an Islamic prophet, too) reappears. This victory leads to the reign of Islam on earth.
FOLLOW THE TRILLIONS
IS does not depend on rich donors from the Gulf, unlike Al Qaeda, though it solicits cash there. In 2014, IS was estimated to control $2 trillion of assets and had an annual income of $2 billion. Revenues come in three main ways. First, there is the daily extortion practised on businesses and individuals.
For example, there is an $800 per truck levy on cross-border traffic from Jordan to Syria, a road tax of $200 in northern Iraq, a 50 per cent levy for the right to loot Raqqa’s archaeological sites and 20 per cent for similar activities at Aleppo and Palmyra. Fines and taxes bring in maybe $30 million a month in total.
Then there are the huge cash windfalls they found in the banks of Mosul (maybe $400 million).
And crucially there is the crudely refined diesel fuel from eastern Syrian wells, mostly sold into rebel controlled Syria, Iraq and Turkey.
This brings in about $40 million per month alone.
THEY CAN BE DEFEATED
There is no point in the West retaking largely empty desert. It is as meaningless as bombing the empty buildings from which IS has decamped. With Raqqa now a target, its leaders are relocating to Mosul, a city of two million people, while its fighters prepare to defend Raqqa itself with clouds of black smoke and flooded ditches.
Yet IS can be stopped. One way is to prevent the Caliphate’s expansion. IS constantly needs new populations to extort from. Like a shark, it swims or dies.
Precision strikes on the leadership are vital, though since Baghdadi himself was reputedly injured, day- to-day command has passed to a former physics teacher Abu Alaa Afri, his deputy. Killing more IS fighters than they can recruit also raises the odds in the West’s favour, with Turkey acting to stem the flow across its borders.
Oil revenues are a major strength, but also a vulnerability, as we saw last week when American jets gave hundreds of tanker drivers an hour to vanish before destroying 160 tankers in one go. Each can carry $10,000 worth of fuel. This was called Operation Tidal Wave Two after the US attacks on Hitler’s Romanian oil fields in the war.
Forces allied against IS, including Russia, have started attacking oil wells in recent days. The Kurdish peshmerga, the Syrian YPG and Iranian-backed Shia militias who do most of the fighting against IS need arms, munitions, and tactical advice from special forces. They need encouraging to work together and to avoid taking vengeance on Sunni ‘collaborators’.
Israel, Turkey and Saudi Arabia need to focus on IS not respectively on Hamas, the Kurds or Shia in Yemen.
Apocalyptic cults also make mistakes, choosing in particular to fight unnecessary battles. IS lost 1,500 men this summer in Kobani on the Syrian border with Turkey. And they squander men on operations that fit their insane view of the world.
So perverted are their beliefs and actions, they can and must be denounced by the religious authorities, particularly by state-financed Saudi clergy as ‘devilish apostates’. Millions of leaflets should be dropped to make that message clear. They are not true Muslims
ACT DECISIVELY HERE TOO
As it declines on the battlefield, so IS will step up its terrorist operations. There are endless potential killers capable of pointless murder without even the need for a terror cell structure.
Disrupting youth gangs in general (often the entry feeders for IS as we saw in Belgium and France) will be a good start. We must identify and repeatedly vet every returning fighter. We must tackle the loudmouthed radicals who have done so much to poison young people – but along with that we must face the fact that so many jihadists are raised in poverty in what amount to self-isolating urban ghettos. We have them here too.
Finally, remember this: IS grew overnight from no more than a ten per cent remnant of Al Qaeda in Iraq. In taking on the jihadi death cult, we must destroy it completely, or it will rise again, and again and again. We must burn out this radical cancer in the Muslim world.
By Michael Burleigh
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