Written in April of 2015

          الدولة الإسلامية في العر   اق والشام


The topic of this paper is is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or sometimes called The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). For the sake of picking one out of the air, lets just call it ISIS.

So far 95% of all press reports are about either their battlefield successes or their depravity and cruelty. I have come to the conclusion the press loves the word beheading, it seems as if that’s all they talk about.


Well there is a lot more to the story then that.

We will examine the history; look at the Koran a bit from which they believe all their directions, beliefs and societal norms come from. We will examine what they do and why they do it. We will attempt to explain the draw for young people here and in Europe.

I will also suggest what I believe are our (the collective our) best options to defeat them. Hopefully unlike the news broadcasts we will all know a bit more about this 21-century enemy then we did before.

A quick comment or two- Americans and I suspect, our European Allies, have for years viewed the world as not all that complicated in terms of who our friends and foes were. WW 1 and 2 were quite easy in determining friend and foe as was the Korean and Viet Nam conflicts. The cold war with the Soviets was also easy to understand-we knew who the enemy was. Todays conflicts, in my mind are much more complicated. As the countries of the Middle East unwind from the creations made by European powers under colonialism, old hatreds tied in large part to religion continuously erupt. The traditional battle lines of Sunni, Shite, Kurd and to a lesser extent Christians and Jews create complexity. To compound the issue, each group has a number of sub groups and the dramatic rise of one such subgroup is what we are now facing in ISIS.

First a little history

Lets familiarize our selves with a few words we hear every now and then when ISIS is being discussed. The first is Caliph or Caliphate. In Arabic the word Caliph means successor. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 the area captured by his predecessors eventually became known as the first Caliphate. A Caliphate is a nation state combined tightly with the Muslim religion or as the encyclopedia Britannica says it’s a Political /Religious state. The Levant is a historical name given to an area running from Egypt through Turkey.

The prophet Muhammad was born in Mica in about 571AD. At 40 yrs. of age, according to the Quran the Angel Gabriel came to Muhammad and urged him to urge his people to give up their idolatrous beliefs and practices and worship a single universal god. As was the case with all the religions I have ever studied the early years were not good and full of dissention and disagreement especially those in power who were opposed to the new prophet, and a struggle began. Muhammad moved his followers down the road about 270 miles to a new town called Medina and after some struggles returned and conquered Mecca. Although not mentioned in the books I’ve used it seems to me all of this growth in a new religion came about in large part because the Roman Empire had fallen apart and did not have the control it once had over the area, leaving a vacuum. Once Muhammad died his mission was deemed complete and according to Muslim beliefs he was the last prophet. The spiritual task complete, the religion began and defended what is considered to be their Divine Law. Bringing it to the rest of the world became a primary function.

The person chosen to follow Muhammad after his death was Abu Bakr-his title was Khalifa in Arabic this can mean successor and deputy. Under Bakr’s leadership as well as the next 3 successors the area they controlled grew dramatically and then became the first Caliphate. By the end of the 7th century the new Muslim empire stretched from what is now Spain to India, and through parts of Africa. It was a religion and also an empire. The law of the land was based upon the religion.

One reason they grew so rapidly was in part due to their tolerance of other religions. Early on Christians in the conquered areas as well as the Jews had little to fear. Taxes were low and as long as other groups also practiced monotheistic religions they were generally tolerated. Without going into pages of detail, suffice to say over the longer term of centuries the Muslim rulers became less tolerant.

Another word that will come in to play lot is apostate. Radical Muslims use the term in a very derogatory fashion toward moderate Muslims meaning those who have lost or given up the true faith. In the radical’s eyes, they are the ones who are truly criminal. When radical Muslims attack a Muslim mosque they are attacking apostates who they believe do not understand the true faith or have lost it. To them, they are the worst kind, in most cases worse then Western non-believers. One needs to understand that is what conservative Sunnis think about Shiites and generally vice versa.

Lets back up for a minute and talk about an internal feud between Muhammad’s successors. Abu Bakr was the Prophet’s friend and many felt he was the rightful successor. Other factions felt Ali bin Abu Talib, the prophet’s son in law and cousin was the rightful successor. These disagreements split the Muslin community into Sunni’s who followed Bakr and Shiites who followed the son –in –law. In today’s world this matters because Iraq became Shia as did most of Iran, a majority of the rest of the Muslim world is Sunni.

In the Christian world we could look at it as being Protestant against Catholic. You might say, yes but we all get along, in which case I would refer you to history, where we can find that has not always been the case.

Over the 1,000 or so years Caliphates came and went under the control of various factions with the Muslim community. The last Caliphate was what we member as the Ottoman Empire which was over throne by Mustafa Ataturk in 1923.This event created the modern Turkey we know today.

Most of us have a general understanding of the history of the Western world but little understanding of the thousands of years of history of the near East. Once researching this paper I was taken aback at how little history of the region I knew.

The key to understanding ISIS is to understand one central theme. They want to go back to the way it was in the 7th century as they perceive it from reading the Koran.

We will return to early Muslim beliefs later but for now lets move forward over a thousand years to the early 1990’s at which time a small group of radicals lead by the Jordanian Abu Musab al-Zarqawi came into being. Basically, Zarqawi founded the Al-Qaeda cell in Iraq, which eventually metastasized into ISIS. Because the group was a radical Sunni group most of there attacks were toward Shi’ite Muslims. Zarqawi was killed by an American smart bomb in 2006, as were his next two successors. With the Americans pulling out in Iraq and civil war exploding next door in Syria the rise of very fundamentalist Muslim groups was almost inevitable given the historical background of the area.

I think very few in position of authority during the second gulf war understood the grave implications of the US bringing down Saddam Hussein and the mess it would create in terms of the rise of various radical groups within Iraq. I do believe the first president Bush understood enough history of the region to be concerned about major disruption caused by us. As you recall Bush 1 stopped once Kuwait was liberated. A number of so-called experts chided him for not going all the way and toppling Saddam. I think he understood the implications of taking down Saddam and the power vacuum that would create. His understanding of history was much better then his son who was caught up in the neocon rhetoric which believed we could create western like democracies in the Middle East which would lead to peace and stability. All we needed to do was replace a few despots.

Throughout our early occupation of Iraq it became apparent that radical factions of one branch or another began to form or better stated-re-form. With the surge occurring under General Petrous we thought we had taken back control of the country of Iraq when in actuality, the radical groups only disappeared into the weeds to reemerge later. As General Daniel Bolger states in his book ”Why We lost”. There are huge differences between fighting traditional wars and the wars of insurgency, which we tend not to fight very well.

We think of al-Qaeda as our major enemy since 911 and it has driven most US foreign policy decisions since then.

Osama Ben laden, the founder of al-Qaeda, is revered by the ISIS leadership, but if you drill down you will find there are major differences that are crucial to our discussion. Ben Laden was a Saudi from an upper class family.

Bin Laden did not believe he was creating another caliphate, but rather a terrorist organization aimed primarily at the West for all the wrongs, perceived and real, done to Middle East countries and their peoples. He and his group began as Salafis or Wasabi Jihadists, which are quite conservative Sunnis with a terrorist bent.

Although al-Qaeda had it roots fighting the Soviets in the 80s in Afghanistan and does commit atrocities against liberal and moderate Muslim communities it holds a special hatred for the West because of the perceived wrongs committed. Bin Laden believed the next caliphate would be coming long after his death. AL-Qaeda has no interest in creating a nation state and all of the complexities that surround it. In addition Bi Laden’s current successor, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, an Egyptian medical doctor is not at all well thought of within the leadership of ISIS.

Lets now talk specifically about ISIS and their philosophy.

The most recent extensive and well-done review of ISIS, and one I would highly recommend for additional reading is in the March,2015 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The article notes that most Western leaders have a difficult time believing that ISIS is truly basing it’s belief structure on it’s reading of the Koran. Even such leaders as Jordan’s King Abdullah 11 and our own President Obama has proclaimed ISIS as not true Muslims, but people who have perverted the faith. As the article stated “it is reassuring to know that the vast majority of Muslims have zero interest in replacing Hollywood movies with public executions as evening entertainment”.

The foremost expert on the Islamic State is Bernard Hykel of Princeton University. He believes that ISIS followers are deeply infused with religious vigor. He notes that the foot solders “of the movement” spout this stuff (meaning quotes directly from the Koran) continuously”.

The article further quotes Hykel as stating” the fighters of the Islamic State are authentic throwbacks to early Islam and are faithfully reproducing its norms of war. This behavior includes a number of practices that modern Muslims tend to prefer not to acknowledge as integral to their sacred texts. {Slavery, crucifixion and beheadings are not something that jihadists are cherry picking from medieval tradition} Islamic State fighters are smack in the middle of the medieval tradition and are bringing it wholesale into the present day.” Additionally Dr. Hykel is quoted as saying” What is striking about them is not just the literalism but also the seriousness with which they read these texts.-there is an assiduous obsessive seriousness that Muslims don’t normally have.”

ISIS spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnai was quoted recently as saying “We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women”, “if we do not reach that time, then our children will reach it and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market”

By the way understand all things said by representatives of ISIS need to be taken in an historical context “Rome” in this instance means the West.

Understand-as hard as it seems-they really really believe this.

The true founder of ISIS is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. After we killed Abu Musab al Zarqawi (again the founder of Al-Qaeda Iraq) and his next 3 predecessors Al-Baghdadi came to power and turned Al-Qaeda of Iraq into ISIS. Interestingly his pronouncement on the birth of the Islamic State occurred at the Great Mosque in Mosul on June 28, 2014. That also happens to be my birthday. A few days before his announcement, ISIS had conquered Mosel, the second largest city in Iraq. He stated all nations of the Fertile Crescent no longer exist. They are taken over by the Caliphate. For those of you a bit far from your ancient history course in college you may remember the Fertile Crescent as a fertile farming area, which ran from the Nile across the Tigris Euphrates river valleys, which we discussed earlier. In ancient history the Fertile Crescent stretches from Palestine into Mesopotamia, Babylonia and into Persia. ISIS followers do not think in terms of the countries founded by colonial powers but in these ancient terms.

Baghdadi is a Muslim Cleric with a PHD in Islamic studies from the University of Baghdad. Not a lot was known about him and he became known as the invisible Sheikh. With his tremendous knowledge of historic Islam and his ability to inspire others along with America’s pull out and the MaIiki Shiite government sticking a stick in the eye of the Iraq Sunni’s a receipt for disaster was in the making and created the Islamic state.

The creation of the Caliphate as announced by al- Baghdadi is deemed critical for the success of ISIS. Remember that the Caliphate is a nation state woven together with a radical or rather medieval version of the Muslim faith. At its core it must then control territory. It cannot under any circumstances slink back into the shadows but must continuously expand its territory and then institute Sunni or more specifically conservative Sharia law. To some, either those who already are very conservative Sunni’s or to those who see this expansion as a grand and glorious quest it becomes the ultimate attraction.

ISIS followers believe that there are only 12 legitimate caliphs and that Baghdadi is number 8.

They believe sometime in the future the armies of Rome will meet the armies of Islam in a final war in northern Syria. I mentioned earlier that “Rome’ may mean the West but in part it depends upon who you talk to-it may mean the Eastern Roman empire i.e Eastern Orthodox church headquartered in Istanbul, Turkey or it may mean the Americans because we are the greatest military power at the moment.

Although we have only spoken about the atrocities of ISIS, it is much more complicated then that. The Caliphate is a nation state in which strict rules apply. Women must be covered at all times. Free schooling housing and medical care are demanded by the culture, however any breaking of Sharia law will be enforced with heavy-handed violence.

Even though its religious beliefs are founded in ancient history it’s methods for marketing and expanding are very 21st century. It’s use of the Internet and specifically social media is much further advanced as a marketing tool then our promotion of democratic principles.

What I have not been able to determine for this paper is where all of this technology expertise comes from. I can only surmise that part of the growth in ISIS converts came from disaffected and educated Iraqi Sunnis as well as computer literate conservative Muslims from other countries.

Compounding the problem is that Europe has had a sizable migration from former colonial power areas in the Middle East to their European countries. Most recent studies have put Muslim populations in various European countries at between 5 and 8% depending upon the country.

In addition, assimilation has been hard and slow. Enclaves within these countries made up of Muslim transplants provided great fodder for social media. I do not want to leave the impression that all the converts to ISIS from the Muslim communities in Europe are uneducated, in fact many are quite well educated, rather they are not fully assimilated to the traditional European culture. In part most writers would agree that this was caused by European culture itself. Although the media would lead one to believe most new recruits come from Europe in fact most come from other Muslim countries in the Middle East or East Asia. The recruits have flocked to the new Caliphate by the thousands.

Only about 100 have come from the US. A dozen or so of those have come from the Sudanese community in Minneapolis. If we watch the news we think it’s a lot because each one tends to be newsworthy. These are recent migrations and therefore the population has not had time to assimilate and aquire traditional American values. Recently a major effort is underway to reach into the Sudanese community and stem the number of growing converts. Much has been made of a few cases here and there of American servicemen or American teenagers being caught up in the ISIS rhetoric and attempting to travel to Syria. Although it makes for good press those converts are far and few between.

What we need to remember is that the very philosophy that allowed ISIS to storm into Eastern Iraq and conquer cities including Iraq’s second largest city Mosel is likely to be their undoing. Their religious belief do not allow them to act as an insurgency and drift back into the desert and return when the enemy leaves. The very foundation of the Caliphate prohibits it. They must fight on. If they loose now they believe they will return and win in the end. Further they tend to be successful in battle because a large majority are not 18 year old kids who are looking for adventure but devoted well trained converts who will readily die in battle for the Caliphate. That’s not true of the average Iraqi solder.

Graeme Wood, in his article in the Atlantic monthly noted that ISIS is hamstrung by their beliefs into acting in certain specific ways which can make them easier to defeat. However we must work to understand their reading of the Koran and get in their heads to thoroughly understand them so they can be defeated.

The US Gov. has made some monumental mistakes in the Middle East in the past 50 years. That statement is not partisan but very non-partisan, as Presidents from both parties have made grave mistakes. We are still paying the price of overthrowing the government in Iran and replacing it with the Shah when we felt it was necessary to having a friend run the country during the cold war. After militants overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979, a Shiite cleric came to power and we are still paying that price, because the Iranians remember the event well and hate us for it to this day.

We need more then anything to understand the history of the region and to speak the language of the region. Fourteen years ago an article in the American Standard noted there were only 6 to 7 individuals fluent in Arabic and only one fluent in Farsi, which is spoken by the Iranians, within the CIA. I hope it is a 1,000 times better now because we cannot truly understand the culture unless we are fluent in the language. Many times that mean fluent in the language of the street, not what an agent would learn in a college course in Arabic. Recent pronouncements by US government officials would lead one to believe the problem still exists. One historical example often sighted is prior to 911 a communication in Arabic was intercepted, in the message, wording was interpreted to mean a ”Christmas Gift” but a more nuanced interpretation would have meant “unpleasant exploding device.”

If we do not fully understand the region and its history and speak its language we will certainly stay embroiled in wars that are costly in terms of money and lives and be no further ahead.

It seems to me both Bush 11 and Obama have caused major foreign policy blunders, Bush by going into Iraq and opening up the country in the first place and Obama by pulling out too soon, once we were there and allowing ISIS to obtain a strong hold in the failed state of Syria and Iraq under al-Maliki. We all still remember that Obama, about a year ago, called ISIS a jayvee team and a few months later that Jayvee team had control over about 20% of Syria and Iraq.

So what should we do now? I think the Obama administration is now generally currently on the right track with a more nuanced approach, however much more effort should be forth coming in very specific ways. If we were to go in with guns blazing we would, in my opinion add fuel to the fire in terms of ISIS being perceived by many in the Muslim world as having to fight the great Satan and recruits would only grow.

On balance however, Graeme Wood thinks that there is a chance we could send in overwhelming force and do away with ISIS because they will not go back in the weeds to fight another day but stand their ground and call for thousands more converts to come and fight. Personally I do not see that as an option, because the American people have no stomach for another trillion dollars and a few hundred or possibly thousand dead Americans.

If we look closely at the attacks attributed to ISIS outside the Middle East, they were almost exclusively lone wolf attacks by individuals frustrated that they could not get to “the promised land of the Caliphate”. Those few that have returned have been viewed as dropouts by ISIS, not sent back by ISIS leadership to do us harm.

What we in the West typically do is lump all terrorists in one bag. That is inherently dangerous. The Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris was an Al-Qaida operation not ISIS. Again, different dynamics, different methodologies which require different responses.

At the end of the day the war against ISIS is a war between moderate and even conservative Muslims of both the Sunni and Shiite communities. Militarily we should provide air and logistic support but in addition put on a full court diplomatic press to get Muslim dominated countries to come front and center in taking the fight to ISIS both from a military and this is key –a religious point of view as well.

The one thing most leaders of Muslim countries understand is that ISIS views them as apostates. They, their regimes, and their way of life, both those in democratic countries, or kingdoms are, at the end of the day, threatened with extinction by another Caliphate.

I think most Arab nations are on our side when its fits with their national goals and but even then are ready and willing to allow our military to act as proxy to obtain their goals. We must reverse that tendency to “leave it to us”. When the Saudis bomb Yemen they are bombing both ISIS and their Shiite enemies supported by Iran with both fighting one another. It really gets complicated and much of it we cannot control as much as our tendency is to control. However, when the Jordanians bomb ISIS because ISIS attacked Jordon that is a good thing. It shows that slowly the countries of the Middle East are standing up to a threat that is currently bigger to them then to us. Not that the ultimate goal of ISIS, after they subjugate the middle east and gain control of their Arab and Persian neighbors, is to come after us. Of course it is, remember we are “Rome”. However that is a long way off and again, our best bet is to help and urge Arab states to take them on for their own security.

As I think about ISIS, a truly radical religious based group, I think about certain historical periods in the history of Christianity. I would bet 90% or more of the folks in this room are either Christians or Jews. I would also bet there is probably an even distribution of the Christians between Catholic and Protestant. If you know a bit of history, and most of you know more then a bit, you know that Christianity has gone through terrible periods when we were fighting others and fighting among ourselves. The fight against ISIS is in fact the worst kind of war, because it is a religious war. We may not perceive it so but they certainly do.

As of last Friday my paper was concluded. However there was an excellent piece in yesterday’s Sunday times, that made some points worth referencing here. The piece was entitled Her Majesty’s Jihadists and dealt with why so many British citizens are joining the fight with ISIS. As with most issues we have dealt with it is complicated. I will extract two points not mentioned before, that I got from the article.

The first reinforces the fact that ISIS is not just a terrorist organization, but a new country, a new state with the formation of the Caliphate. This gives it legitimacy in the eyes of many. Because the leaders are forming a new country all kinds of talent are needed. The traditional terrorist group might have overlooked a young fat kid who couldn’t carry a gun or a young girl, not so by ISIS. It was noted in this case all are welcomed because all talents are needed in the new country. The second take away for me was the fact that many of the ISIS leaders were trained by American CIA and military personal from as far back as when the Afghans were fighting the Russians.

Finally, an eye-opening paragraph in the article talked about the Jordanian pilot burned to death on television. It explained that the Koran allows for “qisas”-the principal of equal retaliation under Islamic Law. The pilot was burned at one of the sites recently bombed by coalition forces. Think about bombing as fire dropped from the air. Again, I am certainly not justifying his murder but it is very important to get inside the heads of ISIS leadership and understand why they do what they do if we are ever expect to defeat them..

Finally, this is a war we can win but to do so requires one to take the advice of Ambassador Ryan Crocker,one of the most decorated Ambassadors to ever serve in the Foreign Service. Ambassador Crocker stresses the importance of “empathy”. Empathy is not agreeing or even necessarily sympathizing with your opponent rather it acquiring a deep understanding of where your opponent is coming from i.e. , what drives them to act in such away. Only by understanding them can we defeat them.


References -By order of Importance to the Paper

The Atlantic Monthly, March 2015
What ISIS Really Wants

The Middle East
A Brief History Of The Last 2,000 year
Bernard Lewis

Inside The Army Of Terror
Michael Weiss, Hassan Hassan

Why We Lost
A General’s Account Of The Iraq And Afghanistan Wars
Daniel P. Bolger