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al baghdadi
Abu Bakr al Baghdadi

The ISIS, Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, is definitely a rising force in the Middle Eastern landscape or, rather, in the political and social chaos presently prevailing in the region. It has reached its highest peak in terms of popularity thanks to the well-publicized brutality of its executions of foreigners and enemies, its ruthless use of the media and its military gains on the ground.

If, until now, everything has gone relatively smooth for Abu Bakr al Baghdadi's militias, the scaling up of the military interventions of the United States and its allies in Iraq and Syria will have long term negative effects on the extremists. A quick note on this: aerial strikes, missiles from warships and drones will definitely diminish the military threat, but unless someone regains the territories currently held by the ISIS, the war will never be completely won.

Until todat we have no idea of who will step up to this task: the Iraqi army or the Kurdish Peshmerga, an international or pan-arabic coalition, or the secular rebel groups waging their fight against Bashar al Assad? And the US forces? This is unlikely to happen during the presidency of Barak Obama, both because his Administration has been actively involved in putting an end to George W. Bush's military adventures, and because the deployment of the American army involves lengthy and costly preparations and is at high risk of human casualties.

If we look at the military side of the equation, there are serious doubts over whether Al Baghdadi's movement will be capable of maintaining, consolidating or expanding the territories under its control. The saying “the more enemies, the more honor” is certainly fascinating, but definitely constitutes an obstacle to the aspirations of the movement. There are too many fronts open for a militia that, according to a recent CIA assessment, can count on between 20 to 32 thousand fighters, in addition to the mass of sympathizers whose reliability is directly proportional to the military successes of the ISIS.

The start of the allied bombings has forced the terrorist groups to shift its strategies and military tactics. No more big deployments of combatants to conquer a target, difficulties in the command and control system to dispatch orders, issues with logistical supplies. All of these aspects will influence the operations of the Islamist militias in the medium and long term, but not in the short one.

But besides from the impact of the international military intervention against the ISIS, there are also a number of other weaknesses undermining the terrorist group's tenure.

A strange alliance

The ISIS aims to create a State and in particular, because of its religious background, a caliphate. To do so, they need to shift from the military control over a territory, to its management through the creation of adequate 'institutions'. But the latter cannot be constituted overnight: there is a lack of qualified personnel in the various sectors that form a 'public' administration, and there is the need for such institutions to be accepted by the local population, that is traditionally not inclined to accept theocratic experiments.

As a matter of fact, there is a strange alliance behind the rise of the ISIS, an unholy partnership between Al Baghdadi's radical Sunni Islamists and Saddam Hussein's former pretorians, whose Baathist Arab background has traditionally lead them to crush all Islamic upheavals. What brings them together is a common enemy, identified in the Shiite government in Baghdad. The ISIS's military might is such only if compared to similar Shia paramilitary forces: Moqtada al Sadr's “Peace Battalions” or pre-existing voluntary militias (Jaish al Mahdi, The Al Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq).

The former Saddamists form the professional military backbone of the ISIS. And they are certainly not supportive of the new set of rules the ISIS has imposed over the territories under its control. The day will come when the aims of these two groups will diverge. And this will only happen when and if the Sunnis regain an adequate political and social role in Iraq.

There is a slight hope when it comes to the new Iraqi government. Now that Nouri al Maliki has been replaced by Haider al Abadi, it is to be hoped that the new executive will enact a far more accommodating policy towards the Sunnis, just like Ayad Allawi did a decade ago. If this were to happen, automatically the Sunnis would revert from supporting the stances of the ISIS. One of the psychological weapons the Islamic State is currently employing is the sectarianism of the Shia government in Baghdad.

The Kouachi brothers

A rift between fundamentalists

Another potentially weak element is the existing rift between Sunni extremist groups operating in the region. The decision by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi to proclaim a caliphate was taken without priorly consulting or obtaining the green light from Al Qaeda and Ayman al Zawahiri. Despite the group's waning strength, 'The Base' is still a source of inspiration for several extremist formations.

The relationship between the ISIS and Al Qaeda has evolved. Osama bin Laden's former organization initially supported the foundation by al Baghdadi of the Jabhat al Nusra in Syria. But when the ISIS decided to annex al Nusra in April 2013, the two groups and their respective leaders clashed. The Syrians, lead by Abu Mohammed al Julani, refused being absorbed and reaffirmed their allegiance to Al Qaeda. An infighting broke out that lead to Jabhat al Nusra being expelled from the Syrian provinces controlled by the ISIS.

It is now a fact that the ISIS and Al Qaeda are in competition over the leadership of the Islamic terrorist galaxy. Al Qaeda has an international approach, they long for a clash of religions and civilizations. The ISIS, instead, is more pragmatic and focused on the territories under its rule and on regional affairs. Both organizations fuel hatred, exceed in their brutality and ask of sympathizers to emulate them. It is emblematic that during the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the Kouachi brothers professed their allegiance to the Yemeni brach of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, while Amedy Coulibaly claimed he was a member of the ISIS.

The regional game

The survival of the movement is also deeply tied to what happens in the region and how the different actors will behave: Iran in its defense of the Shia, the Kurds wherever they are and even Saudi Arabia, under the threat of a Sunni revolutionary contagion. The first symptom struck Ryad at the border with Iraq on January 5, 2015 in the area of Arar, where Saudi General Odeh al Balawi, commander of the northern border, was killed in an ambush. And this is the paradox of the ISIS. Although they share a radical view of Islam with the Saudi Wahabis, Al Baghdadi's men represent a threat to the stability of several monarchies in the Gulf. In fact, the ISIS is currently more engaged in fighting the apostates – term including not only the Shia, but also those Sunnis not sharing their radical ideology – and not the infidels, a favorite target of Al Qaeda.

The point is, the ISIS, despite being a Sunni armed group, is often being opposed by those same Sunni regimes that were supposed to support it. Those who do provide support to the ISIS, although not officially, like Qatar, do so for personal political gains. Doha is Saudi Arabia's staunchest competitor in the region, waging a proxy war against the house of Saud via the ISIS, the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, the Islamic government in Misrata and Tripoli, the Houthis in Yemen.

Under this respect, the ISIS could be drawn into a conflict very different from the one it is fighting in. If this were to happen, the group would stop being a leader, but become a mere follower. And the support it presently benefits from could wane if found not to be convenient anymore. Just like the former Saddamists fighting alongside its terrorists, Qatar and the other groups that support the ISIS will continue to do so until they think they can pursue their agenda.

The reign of terror

The brutality of the ISIS is another one of its weaknesses. Beastly behaviors are useful to terrorize the population, occupy the mass media and depopulate the areas under their rule, thus facilitating their control. But, at the same time, they undermine the potential support base of those people who would be glad to favor a Sunni resurgence in Iraq and see the fall of the oppressive monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula with favor, but who don't share the methods proposed by the ISIS.

Al Baghdadi's extremists forbid the use of the internet, mobile phones, have imposed obligatory conscription, the latter a sign that volunteers longing to join the ranks of the militias are presently lacking. The punishment for those contravening these rules is usually death. The ruthlessness against the enemies is a sign of weakness, that scares ordinary people away. The quality of life in Mosul and surroundings has also recently gone down following allied aerial raids that have impacted the supply of basic foodstuffs.

The ISIS security and intelligence apparatus is currently more dedicated to eliminating internal opposition and to controlling the population, rather than contrasting the enemy, as usually happens during a war.

isis map
Map of the territories controlled by ISIS

A struggle within the Sunnis

The ISIS today is waging its war not only against the West or the Shia, but also against a portion of Sunni Islam. The success of Al Baghdadi's project depends on the outcome of this struggle.

Ruling over new territories has negatively affected the survival of the ISIS. All of the lands under their control were majority Sunni inhabited. There are a number of questions on whether the ISIS could ever think of stretching its control over Kurdish or Shia areas. And the same goes for the Sunni territories it now rules: there is a growing clash with the tribal groups that don't answer to Al Baghdadi's directives. Entire tribes have been exterminated in the zones conquered by the ISIS. But the tribal ties are at the basis of several Arab communities in the region. Its in their blood, it implies a close connection to the territories, it postulates that any offense will have to be compensated eye for an eye. The Jordanian reaction to the killing of its pilot set on fire by the ISIS is emblematic of this specif way of looking at things.

From the financial point of view, it has been widely reported how the ISIS has been capable of profiting from the sale of oil. This form of financing is now reducing. The allied bombings have hit several oil fields, there is no one capable of repairing them and even the tanker trucks have become a target. This has lead the ISIS to concentrate its revenues on taxes, extortions against traders or truck drivers, kidnappings. In the long term, such a behavior could undermine the support of the people to their cause.

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