Islamic State: who are they and where do they come from?

The emergence of the group Islamic state is a product of Western intervention and imperialist power games in the Middle East, writes James Supple

Six months after it marched into Mosul, a city of two million people, the Islamic State remains entrenched across huge swathes of Iraq and Syria. Almost every day the media is full of new horror stories of it massacring religious minorities and opponents.

Politicians like Tony Abbott have denounced the group as “pure evil” and a “death cult”, painting it as the product of an incomprehensible ideology. But this obscures the role of both Western imperialism and local powers, both in creating the conditions for it to grow and encouraging it as a useful tool to serve their own interests.

The group first emerged as a product of the US occupation of Iraq. Before the US invasion Al Qaeda had no influence in the country whatsoever. Al Qaeda in Iraq was established when Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian jihadist displaced by the US invasion of Afghanistan, arrived to exploit the chaotic post-war situation.

After the Americans removed Saddam Hussein, Iraq descended into chaos, with widespread looting, kidnapping and violent crime.

The economy had already been shattered through a decade of sanctions and bombing, and the US provided little reconstruction. Then the US disbanded the entire Iraqi army, sending hundreds of thousands of unemployed men back to their homes with their weapons.

The decision to ban anyone associated with Saddam’s Baath Party from a role in government led to fears among Iraq’s Sunni of their exclusion from power.

The result was that Sunni communities were the first to take up arms against the US occupation. But, as journalist Loretta Napoleoni has written, Zarqawi, “waited until August 2003 to enter the fighting…when the Sunni insurgency was already in full swing and the population had turned against the occupation.”

In December 2004, Osama bin Laden endorsed him as the official leader of al Qaeda in Iraq. Zarqawi’s group initially gained some support in Sunni communities through solving security problems with a ruthless crackdown imposing an extreme version of Islamic law.

But from the beginning the group was just as focused on sectarian attacks on Shias as on fighting the Americans. It carried out a series of suicide attacks and bombings of Shia shrines and mosques that helped ignite retaliatory attacks by Shia militias.

Its hardline tactics also alienated support amongst Sunnis, to the point where Sunni resistance groups were prepared to ally with the US against it, in what is known as the Sunni Awakening movement.

As a result Al Qaeda along with other Salafist groups were marginalised inside Iraq by late 2007 and many of their fighters killed. Zarqawi himself was killed in a US airstrike in 2006, allowing the group’s current leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to take over in 2010.

A Syrian proxy

The conflict in Syria from 2011 allowed the group to revive. From the beginning the popular movement against Assad tried to appeal for unity across the sectarian divide.

But the militarisation of the struggle strengthened sectarianism on both sides. Assad’s regime, based amongst the Alawite Shia population, stoked sectarianism. The armed opposition became more Islamist and sectarian itself.

Once the rebellion got going, local sub-imperialist powers including the Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar, as well as Turkey, began to encourage and fund the armed opposition in the hope of weakening the Assad regime. These powers were encouraged to act on their own by the US’s refusal to back the armed rebellion against Assad.

Both the Gulf States and Turkey hoped to win influence in determining what kind of regime would replace Assad.

Backing the extreme Islamist groups had the added advantage of weakening the secular and democratic elements of the revolution against Assad.

This suited the aims of the Gulf States in particular, who were paranoid about the spread of popular revolution to their own backyards.

Turkey has aided rebel groups fighting Assad on a fairly undiscriminating basis, allowing anti-Assad fighters of all stripes to cross the border into Syria. It is only recently that Turkey has begun to make any effort to stop militant groups including IS from selling oil into Turkey on the black market.

Turkey also views IS as a less serious enemy than the Kurdish fighters inside Syria’s autonomous areas of Rojava, as shown by its efforts to block fighters crossing the border to aid the Kurds against IS.

The Kurdish fighters inside Syria are linked to the PKK, which has waged a campaign for Kurdish independence inside Turkey for decades. This explains Turkey’s lukewarm support for the US war against IS.

Saudi Arabia has long been a source of funding for Salafist groups, such as the mujahideen who fought the Russian invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. It is a key regional power as a result of its immense oil wealth, and an important backer of overarching US imperialist control in the Middle East.

The Saudis great rival for regional dominance is Iran, which turned against the US following the Iranian revolution of 1979. Due to its alignment with Iran, Syria’s Assad regime is likewise hostile to the Saudis. But neither the Iranian nor the Syrian regimes are consistent anti-imperialists—both have been prepared to cut deals with the US and work alongside them where it suits their interests.

Weapons and funding from the Gulf states ensured the extreme Islamist groups in Syria have consistently been better armed than groups aligned with the Free Syrian Army or moderate Islamists.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar in particular have been accused of funding the jihadist groups in Syria like Jabhat al Nusra, from which IS split in early 2013.

Some have questioned why the Saudi and Qatari governments would fund Al Qaeda-aligned groups like Jabhat al Nusra and IS, given the danger the jihadists pose to their own regimes as well.

And it is true that since 9/11 the Saudis have launched periodic crackdowns on funding and support for jihadist groups—in particular against Al Qaeda, following its campaign of attacks inside Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004.

But the flow of funds has never stopped completely. A 2009 WikiLeaks diplomatic cable released by WikiLeaks said that despite “important progress” in cutting off funds to Al Qaeda, “donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”.

The Saudi regime has been under constant US pressure to stop the flow of funds. Since it values its alliance with the US, it has had to make a show of cracking down.

Publicly, the Saudis have funded and backed moderate Islamists and even the secular Free Syrian Army. But they have also allowed funding to the extreme Islamist groups to continue covertly.

Whether the Saudi government has funded them directly, or simply allowed Saudi citizens and religious charities to do so, remains unclear. But the fact that the money has flowed their way shows that at the very least the government has turned a blind eye.

If the Saudi state wanted to stem the funds going into Syria, which have been estimated at hundreds of millions of dollars, it could undoubtedly do so. This is a government that, thanks to its oil wealth, has almost limitless resources.

Recent outbursts by senior US government officials—who would have access to detailed intelligence on the issue—show that they believe the Gulf regimes are responsible.

US Vice President Joe Biden said in October “Our allies in the region were our largest problem” in stopping the rise of Al Qaeda in Syria, saying the Saudis and United Arab Emirates had “poured hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of tons of weapons” into them. General Martin Dempsey, the US’s top military official, speaking about IS at the Senate Armed Services Committee in September quipped, “I know major Arab allies who fund them.”


Following its takeover of the Iraqi town of Fallujah in January, and then its spectacular capture of Mosul in June, it has become clear that IS has snowballed out of control, pursuing an independent agenda of its own.

With its control of a huge swathe of Syria and Iraq, the group now threatens to destabilise states all across the region.

IS is now a formidable force that is able to self-fund its activities through looting and even a form of tax collection. David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, has estimated they bring in $1 million a day from oil smuggling alone. Hisham AlHashimi, an adviser to the Iraqi government, estimates that they take another $10 million a month from kidnapping.

Classified US Defence Department intelligence on the group gathered during the US occupation of Iraq shows that these techniques were in place years before its move into Syria. Patrick B. Johnston, who is analysing the documents, told the US-based McClatchy media company, “They continued to raise more and more money over time, even amid the US troop surge and the Sunni Awakening revolt of Iraqi Sunni tribes”.

Computer files found on 160 flash drives, captured from a high level ISIS leader in Mosul two days before it fell to IS, show its total cash and assets were already $875 million.

This is far from the first time an imperialist proxy force has spun out of the control of its initial backer. Islamist fighters in Afghanistan in the 1980s, who included Osama bin Laden, helped US and Saudi Arabian strategic interests by defeating the Russians.

But because they saw themselves as fighting for Islam, they were horrified on returning home to Saudi Arabia to realise the extent of their own government’s collaboration with the US.

This led famously to “blowback” when Al Qaeda began targeting both the US and the Saudi governments.

The evolution of IS is a similar story. It initially gained support from some of the Gulf regimes, who thought it could serve their aims in Syria. But it has now gone spiraling out of control.

However unlike Al Qaeda, the Islamic State’s immediate aims are not anti-imperialist. While Al Qaeda concentrated on attacks on the US, whether military targets like the USS Cole or American civilians, IS has focused on seizing territory to build its own state.

Its focus is primarily on establishing a “pure” Islamic caliphate within the Muslim world, first of all by cleansing it of the Shia regimes. As yet it has made no effort to target the existing Sunni Islamic states like Saudi Arabia and Turkey, nor does it see the US as its main target. The dominant effect of its operations has been to serve imperialist and sub-imperialist interests.

IS support in Iraq

IS’s rapid success in Iraq can only be explained by the support it has drawn from Sunni communities, who were alienated by the actions of the Shia sectarian government of Nouri al-Maliki.

Sectarianism in Iraq was encouraged by the US occupiers in an effort to maintain control of the country. The government they left behind was a Shia sectarian regime.

Journalist Hamza Hendawi has explained that, “Sunnis are locked out of key jobs at universities and in government, their leaders banned from Cabinet meetings or even marked as fugitives.”

But Maliki’s repression of Iraq’s Sunnis reached new heights in the face of the “Iraq Spring” movement of 2013. Mostly Sunni protesters were gunned down, and thousands arrested. This produced a revival in armed struggle against the government among Sunnis that allowed IS to win support, so that many Sunnis saw it as no worse than the Shia-dominated government.

There were even reports that hundreds of Iraqis in Mosul took to the streets to celebrate after IS drove out the Iraqi army. In the wake of the group’s takeover, Ali Hatem al-Suleiman, head of the Dulaimi tribe from Iraq’s Anbar province, told the media in August that, “we consider Maliki to be more dangerous than ISIS”.

This may not last. Some Sunni tribes in the centre of Iraq have decided to resist IS—hundreds of members of one tribe were even slaughtered for this decision.

Islamic State is clearly a brutal and violent force. It has slaughtered Shia Muslims as well as other religious minorities like the Yazidis, as well as kidnapping and executing Western journalists.

In areas it controls it has imposed strict dress codes for women and executed those it deems a threat, including doctors, parliamentarians and political activists. The group has even publicly boasted about selling women into slavery.

But Western bombing in Iraq and Syria is no solution. This will only drive more and more people into the arms of the group. It will helping cement an image of IS as an opponent of imperialism.

Even James Comey, head of the FBI, told the US Congress that its support had “intensified” since the beginning of US airstrikes.

The inevitable civilian casualties will also drive more Sunnis in Iraq into seeing IS as the lesser evil compared to the US and the Shia government. There have already been numerous reports of civilian deaths, following several separate strikes in Fallajah and one attack on Hit where 22 were reported killed.

The US and Australia are working with a sectarian government which is relying increasingly on Shia militias and death squads to retake Sunni areas.

Without a government in Iraq committed to unity across sectarian divides there is little hope of winning the support of civilians in Sunni areas.

Both within Shia and Sunni areas of Iraq, the only solution is the revival of a non-sectarian opposition. Bridging this divide is possible—during the Iraqi Spring the emergence of a mostly Sunni movement prepared to fight Iraq’s corrupt government won the support of Shia leader Muqtada al-Sadr.

The failure of the Iraqi government to provide basic services or reconstruction, due to crippling levels of governmental corruption, provide a basis for mobilising working class discontent that could cut across the sectarian divide.

Socialist politics has shown an ability to unite Iraq’s Sunni, Shias and Kurds on the basis of class politics in the past. In the 1950s and 1960s Iraq was home to the largest Communist Party in the Middle East.

The resurgence of such a movement in Iraq would be aided by a clear anti-imperialist opposition to US intervention and the revival of the wave of Arab revolutions elsewhere in the region, as it was by the movement after 2011 in Egypt and elsewhere.

It is the Arab masses the hold the key to a better future in Iraq, not Western missiles and bombers.


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