Part of the ISIS Explained series.
The so-called Islamic State (ISIS) controls large areas in Iraq and Syria. They have also taken responsibility for many terrorist attacks across the globe. Just how did they become so powerful?
We’ve gone super simple, and decided to treat being powerful as being able to get what you want. If you want the full definition philosopher Max Weber defined power as “the ability of an individual or group to achieve their own goals or aims when others are trying to prevent them from realising them”. In the case of ISIS, this would be attempting to create a caliphate. This is a state ruled by Islamic Sharia law – Islam’s legal system. Read more; what does ISIS want?
Here are some of the reasons ISIS seems so powerful;
When your aim is to take control of a country you’ll probably need assistance to get what you want. Not only that – you need soldiers. ISIS fighters join for a variety of reasons. During the Iraq war many Iraqis joined rebel groups fighting against Western invaders. Some groups in this Iraqi insurgency would later become ISIS. Before the war a minority of Sunni Muslims ruled over the majority of Shia Muslims. After the war a Shia government was voted in and many Sunni Muslims joined rebel groups to fight against it. Find out more in “How to combat ISIS”
ISIS has also managed to recruit many people from Western countries. Journalist Massarah Mikati writes that though “there is no set profile of an Islamic State recruit, experts have identified common psychological traits among Western adolescents that Islamic State and other radical groups tap into: the search for an identity and community, stemming from alienation.”
Mikati references Professor Fathali Moghaddam from Georgetown University. He believes that the need for identity leads to young people becoming radicalised.
“A number of [young people] have problems in the West because they don’t feel they belong to important groups. No identities are satisfying for them.”
Many young British Muslims are confused about where they fit in the world. That’s according to extremism expert Shiraz Maher speaking at a Guardian Live event. He added that “Isis offers an identity that transcends culture. It says: ‘Here’s an intellectual identity – you’re Muslim.’” Perhaps this is how ISIS has tempted around 600 Brits to Syria. There’s also the classic reason of peer pressure as this CNN article explains.
Many argue that Islamic State isn’t actually anything to do with Islam, the religion. Muslim leaders throughout the world condemn ISIS as “un-Islamic”. A leaked MI5 briefing document said that large numbers of terrorists “do not practise their faith regularly.”
We shouldn’t underestimate the power of religion though. “Jihad” means struggle or effort. It’s a peaceful Muslim concept divided into three different types. Firstly the struggle to live the Muslim faith. The struggle to build a Muslim society. Finally, the struggle to defend Islam. Extremist preachers twist the concept to argue that violence and war is needed to protect the religion. Radical preacher Abu Hamza was found guilty of hate crimes in 2006. He told followers it was their religious duty to kill non-Muslims.
This doesn’t just affect men. Around 100 British women have travelled to Syria to live with ISIS fighters. A recent panel of experts say there is no simple answer why these women travel though certain trends are clear. As seen above the need for identity ranks highly on the list. Faith was also a major factor. According to Shiraz Maher women joining ISIS are extremely ideological. They have an activist mentality and want a cause.
“A lot of the guys are idiots – they’re attracted to the macho side of it – whereas women tend to have given it much more sober thought and made a very conscious choice.”
A variety of factors lead to people being radicalised. One of Islamic State’s major strength is attracting these potential recruits by offering identity, community and faith. Part of this success is thanks to another aspect of Islamic State’s power – a slick social media campaign.
Islamic State understands one thing that other extremist groups haven’t fully mastered: social media. US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, told Congress (the US version of Parliament) that Islamic State “is a social-media-fuelled terrorism group”. He said individuals “who are very distant from any battlefield, from any experience of radicalism, are suddenly becoming enticed through social media.”
Vice reports how ISIS videos are high quality, and are often in English. They seem specifically designed for a Western audience. Some videos have even been compared to the trailers of Hollywood action films. “There is no life without Jihad”, the first ISIS video shows Western fighters describing their reasons for fighting.
ISIS is writing its own version of history. Propaganda combines two elements: a need for identity and sense of religious duty. Positive images of ISIS fighters contradict what we hear about the group’s brutality. Social media reports the group’s “victories”. ISIS fighters post updates boasting about their adventures abroad. The group even released an app, so that followers can keep updated with the latest news. Twitter eventually had to clamp down on accounts thought to linked to Islamic extremists. Gaining publicity is all part of the ISIS strategy to legitimize the group. Speaking at the Guardian live event an anonymous female former radical explained;
“The media are going on about ISIS all the time, but they don’t know what’s going on. That feeds the curiosity: so people look on social media and Isis is waiting, fishing for curious girls.”
The group needs soldiers in order to retain power. Propaganda helps keep soldiers motivated – as does a£350 per month salary. How does ISIS pay them?
Caliphates cost money. Large areas of land need soldiers to control them, so ISIS ends up paying out on its fighters’ salaries. Luckily for ISIS, it’s described as “the richest terrorist organisation ever seen”. Its value is estimated at $2 billion which is more than some small countries.
In 2012 Islamic State fighters took control of oil fields in eastern Syria. Oil is an expensive resource; selling it brings in big bucks for ISIS. According to the Guardian the oil is sold illegally to traders in Turkey and Iran. ISIS collects taxes in the regions of Syria and Iraq that it controls. As well as from oil the group gains funds by holding hostages to ransom and by raiding banks.
The UK and USA have a policy of never paying ransom demands. Other countries, including France, Germany and Italy do pay up. This has led to tension between countries, as paying up is effectively funding ISIS.
Reports say ISIS gained millions by ransacking banks when they took over the city of Mosul. It also relies on donations from supporters. US officials say “investors” from around the world continue to fund the group. It’s hard to pin down exactly who these investors are. Countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been accused of supporting Islamic State; however this is very unlikely to be true, as ISIS has named Saudi Arabia as one of its targets. It’s possible that wealthy Saudi individuals are supplying money, but again we don’t know for sure.
ISIS is estimated to have around 30,000 fighters. Some estimates say even higher. Compared to the armies of countries like Iraq, Syria and even the UK, this is a small force. Yet Islamic State is smart. Vox describes them as “a calculating, strategic organization”. ISIS used chaos created in the 2013 Syrian civil war as an opportunity. The group attacked the Syrian government AND also set itself against other rebel groups within Syria. Brutal tactics like beheadings and attacking other groups like Al Qaeda differentiated them from the pack. Members of other groups soon defected to ISIS.
The downside to this strategy is it made a LOT of enemies. The US government says ISIS has lost around 25% of its occupied territory in Iraq since August 2014. The BBC reports that the group only has full dominance over a small number of “control zones.” Fighters are killed on a daily basis. ISIS’ strategy is to retreat from locations it cannot defend. Then fighters “commute” in and hit the area with attacks.
Some suggest that as ISIS loses ground it will continue to hit back with terror attacks abroad. Others question if ISIS is even directly organising attacks in the West. Are they merely inspiring “followers” to follow their lead?
ISIS is rich, and attracts a wide range of people via social media. It offers identity for those looking for a cause. Yet although the group looks strong, it is not invincible.