The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the terrorist army many thousand strong now rampaging through the Levant, embraces such an extreme, violent ideology that it makes even al Qaeda squeamish, argue many Western experts. On this reading, al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri was forced to distance himself from ISIS’s bloody practices. In reality, the notion that ISIS’s gory campaign turns the stomach even of an arch-terrorist, America’s public enemy number one, is colorful but inaccurate.
To be sure, ISIS—or the Islamic State, as it now calls itself—is an extremist movement, attracting militants from all over the world eager to help build the new caliphate. Given the thousands of foreigners—including Chechen snipers, Saudi car bombers, and Western misfits like American Douglas McAuthur McCain—who have signed on to fight alongside ISIS, security officials are right to fear that the United States will become an ISIS target. The group kidnaps and murders American journalists. It threatened the existence of the Yazidi community in Iraq, and it slaughtered at least 700 members of the Sheitat, a tribe in Syria, last month. It regularly employs the vicious hudud punishments to enforce sharia law in the areas it controls in Syria and Iraq.
None of this, however, is outside the norms of a region where governments regularly incite hatred of America and Israel, wage wars against their own populations, and kidnap, imprison, and kill foreign nationals. Cutting off the hands of criminals, as prescribed by sharia, is hardly out of the ordinary; the Islamic Republic of Iran hangs gay teenagers from construction cranes, and the legal authorities of Saudi Arabia—an American ally—regularly separate accused criminals from their heads in public executions in what is popularly known as Chop-Chop Square.
What’s extraordinary about ISIS is not the violence. Indeed, the reason Zawahiri denounced the group was not its cruelty but its refusal to follow his orders and merge with another extremist organization. In other words, the dispute between ISIS and al Qaeda was not about the conduct of the former but about who was in charge, a regular feature of regional power dynamics.
Nor are ISIS’s money-raising schemes especially novel in the Middle East. As the Wall Street Journal reported last week, the organization’s key source of income is oil, especially in the Syrian provinces of Deir al-Zour and Raqqa and the Iraqi province of Nineveh. “They sell it to opposition groups, to the tribes, back to the Syrian regime, or on the Iraqi black market,” says Faysal Itani, an ISIS expert at the Atlantic Council. The other main source of revenue is taxation, or rather, extortion. As one source in the city of Raqqa, ISIS’s so-called capital, explained to us, merchants pay 3,000 Syrian pounds (close to $20) every two months. The kidnapping of foreigners or wealthy Syrians for ransom also brings in millions.
And yet it’s true that ISIS is not exactly what we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the Middle East of late. “This is not a classic insurgency,” says Itani, “or a non-state actor. Rather, it’s a state-building organization.” ISIS’s effort right now is to secure borders and lines of communication. Comparing ISIS’s project with al Qaeda’s, Itani notes that bin Laden’s logic was to draw the United States into conflict with the Muslim world in the hope of making the people so disgusted with their regimes that al Qaeda could take over. ISIS is different: It aims to take territory, hold it, and build a state. That is, at a moment when much of the rest of the Middle East is moving toward chaos, the Islamic State is consolidating.
ISIS’s leader, Ibrahim Awwad al-Badri, is the self-proclaimed caliph, also known as Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi, a 43-year-old jihadist from the Iraqi city of Samarra. During the American occupation, he was arrested on unclear charges, but deemed a low security threat and released after six months. Once out of jail, he joined Al Qaeda in Iraq, then under the leadership of the Jordanian Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Long before he proclaimed his caliphate, Baghdadi came to understand something that was lost on Zarqawi. As a member of the Banu Badr clan, Baghdadi saw that he needed to court the tribesmen on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border.
His strategy was greatly facilitated by the Obama administration’s December 2011 withdrawal from Iraq and the anti-Sunni policies pursued by the Shiite-dominated government in Baghdad. ISIS’s project was further aided by the Syrian uprising, which began in March 2011. Over the last three and half years, it has evolved into a civil war in which Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has slaughtered Sunnis. The White House and the rest of the international community have done nothing to stop him.