December 21, 2014
What it would be like to live under ISIL: ‘Repent or die’
In a matter of days, ISIL’s bold and effective fighting in the heartland of the Arab world may have made it the pre-eminent force in the Sunni Jihadist movement. It has now arguably eclipsed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and his Pakistan-based terrorist core in the eyes of potential recruits and funders. Indeed, unlike al-Qaeda, ISIL is on its way to controlling a quasi-state, exercising de facto sovereignty over a territory, even if unrecognized by the international community. The territory already under its control is larger than Israel, and it is not some barren desert: It includes oilfields, electrical grids, prisons, small manufacturing centres and the weapon depots abandoned by the Iraqi military, including arms provided by the United States. When ISIS fighters conquered Mosul, they seized the central bank — and its reported US$425 million. By comparison, al-Qaeda’s budget before 9/11 was about US$30 million — and we called it rich.
Everyone agrees an ISIL-controlled state could be deadly — but in what ways? We typically think of terrorist outfits like al-Qaeda and ISIL as nonstate actors. But what does it mean when a nonstate actor carves itself a state?
The disaster is worst for those unlucky enough to find themselves living under ISIL rule. The Jihadist group’s extreme ideology calls for killing or subjugating not only Christians and Jews, but also many Muslims. Shiite Muslims, who make up a majority in Iraq, are particularly hated for their supposed apostasy, as are the Alawites who rule in Syria. ISIL also targets Sunni Muslims, if the group believes that they are insufficiently zealous or have collaborated with the United States or its allies, including the current Iraqi government.
In Syria, ISIL members shot and then crucified the bodies of their Muslim enemies, leaving their corpses to hang as warnings. Beheading is common. “Repent or die” is its motto. ISIL is so violent, al-Qaeda leader Zawahiri disavowed the group in February, excoriating it for its brutality and attacks against other Jihadist fighters. Half a million Iraqis fled Mosul as ISIL forces entered the city, and hundreds of thousands more will surely flee wherever ISIL goes.
If it consolidates power in the territory it now controls, ISIL can exploit the rewards other governments enjoy. It will sell oil from the fields under its control, smuggling out what can’t be sold legally. Millions will pour into its coffers. ISIL can also tax the businesses and residents that remain under its power. They will not offer rich pickings, given the war’s devastation, but they will still give ISIL wealth far beyond that of a typical terrorist group.
It’s hard to speak of an ISIL “foreign policy”. Its central goal is the creation of an Islamic state — a goal it has sought to realize through brutality rather than diplomacy.
ISIL doesn’t respect state boundaries, believing they are artificial creations of colonial powers designed to divide the Muslim world, so moving the front from Iraq to Syria and back to Iraq is logical from its point of view.
Indeed, ISIL sees the struggles in both countries as parts of a larger grand struggle against apostate-dominated regimes (Shiite in Iraq, Alawite in Syria) backed by Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah. As sectarianism has grown, this conspiratorial view has become mainstream, with Shiites and Sunnis throughout the region seeing the conflict as existential.
ISIL’s control of territory gives it a base to recruit, train and plan attacks on neighbouring lands. For now, because of its sectarian focus, ISIL sees the fight against those groups and governments it considers apostate as a higher priority than the fight against the United States, but the US is also on ISIL’s list of enemies.